Developed and Published by JoyMasher
Release Date: February 5th, 2014 (Steam version 2.0), June 21st, 2012 (Original Desura version)
CPU: Dual Core Processor
Memory: 1 GB RAM
HDD: 100 MB available space
Video: 64 MB VRAM Dedicated Graphics Card
Input: Keyboard and Gamepad
(Note: The newly released Steam version of Oniken is an updated version of the game that originally appeared on Desura, featuring updated graphics and sound, difficulty balance tweaks, a new Hardcore mode, and a new playable character and stage.)
Straight-up, if you’re looking to play a hella-NES game, get yourself to Steam right now and grab a copy of Oniken by JoyMasher, because it is a hella-NES game. The game even features a download for a box art and manual which are heavily reminiscent of the era to really drive the point home with what this game is all about. You won’t find dedication to recreating an era of games quite as enthusiastic as the effort put into creating everything about Oniken.
It’s easy to look at screenshots and think, “Oh jeez, another one of these.” Retro styled, pixel art-based games are a dime a dozen these days, and it’s easy to be jaded by another one of those games that “looks just like my Nintendo tapes,” but Oniken embraces the style in a way that feels much more sincere and genuine. It’s not unfathomable that you could sit an unknowing soul down in front of it and tell them it’s a game from that generation that simply got lost in the shuffle. It looks, sounds, and plays the part so convincingly that it’s not enough to consider Oniken a love letter to its developers favorite NES games, it’s a goddamn marriage proposal.
I mean, come on, look at it! Those nice and chunky pixel graphics, the NES’ internal font used in the HUD and cutscenes, those hard line gradients in the backgrounds. JoyMasher knew exactly what they were doing when creating Oniken’s 8-bit aesthetic, and it takes a real talent and attention to detail to work as closely within those restraints as they did. The visuals aren’t what you’d call 100% NES accurate however, since the game does sport a lot of moving layers, more on screen color than was capable on the NES during the fantastic looking cutscenes, and a few instances of diagonal scrolling, but that’s just the NES nerd in me nitpicking. Oniken boasts a great looking visual package that feels like a combination of Konami and Tecmo’s finest work on the ol’ gray box.
The game’s sound design is also a pretty good recreation of the NES’ sound capabilities, but with the sounds, number of channels and samples used, it sounds a little closer to something more likely heard coming from a TurboGrafx-16. Still not a bad thing, mind you. Not at all. Oniken’s soundtrack is full of that 8-bit chiptuney goodness you want from this kind of game. Drawing inspiration from titles like Shatterhand and Ninja Gaiden, the whole soundtrack manages to stand on its own very well without ever going overboard on nostalgia.
Gameplay however, is ALL nostalgia all the time. You like games about beefed-up swordy ninja dudes hackin’ up fools and huge bosses while firing off ironically self-serious lines about justice and revenge in cutscenes? Maybe you want to take a trip to a lair named “The Brain Palace?” Oniken’s got your ticket right here and there is no shortage of gusto with which it’s all delivered.
Satisfying platforming and simple, yet effective enemy design is the name of the game in Oniken (actually, if you wanna get technical, Polly, the game’s name is Oniken!) If you cut your teeth on the Ninja Gaiden series, then a lot of what this game offers will be immediately familiar, though a little less feature-rich and not quite as tight in the controls department.
You have your sword, which can be upgraded to include a projectile wave and a limited supply of grenades you can utilize against some of your more troublesome foes. There’s also the grossly overpowered Berzerk mode, which can be activated once you have a sword power-up. For a short amount of time, you’re invincible and do staggering amounts of damage damage, but once the meter has depleted, you’ll lose your sword upgrade. The only real kink here is that the controls can feel very stiff starting out. Getting used to jumping and timing your attacks will take a bit of getting used to, but these gripes never really weigh the game down in any significant way or make it unplayable.
Stage designs and enemy layouts, while not quite as maddening as those found in the original three Ninja Gaiden games, can prove tricky, with enemies who attack quickly and aggressively and plenty of daring jumps over bottomless pits with aerial enemies to deal with. Just like its inspirations, Oniken piles on the challenge as soon as you’re in control and isn’t going to give up that final credits roll easily. The difficulty curve is mostly consistent throughout the first five stages, however the final stage ramps things up considerably, throwing every possible mean trick in the book at you on top of an amazingly elaborate and multi-staged final boss battle. Running out of lives, of course, plops you back at the beginning of the stage to try again, and since extra lives are incredibly scarce, you may see yourself repeating certain areas of the game over and over until you can get it right. Again, that’s not really a complaint, that’s just how things worked back then and the system that Oniken chooses to embrace.
While the challenge Oniken presents may be brutal, no part of any of the game’s six stages ever outstays its welcome. Each area is over relatively quick once you’ve learned to react to and defeat each enemy and hazard configuration, so even if death may be commonplace, you’ll quickly learn to tackle trouble areas through a little repetition. The game manages to keep things interesting by having a fairly decent variety in its stage designs and bosses. From leaping and hanging on branches in a forested area while avoiding assaults from above and a deadly laser matrix, to being chased on a snowmobile by a gigantic polar bear as you huck grenades behind you to fend the damn thing off, Oniken’s taste for variety in its over-the-top action never lets up, nor does its clever referencing of setpieces from older games.
If you grew up with or have a strong love of 8 and 16-bit games from the era, you’ll easily pick up on quick nods to other action classics like Bad Dudes, Contra III, Power Blade, and of course, as this review has mentioned multiple times already, Ninja Gaiden. While Oniken can be heavily referential at times, it always manages to put its own little twist on things, never feeling like a direct copy or knock-off, which is something that a lot of games that copy this style fail to bring to the table.
Sticking so closely to old-school gameplay conventions isn’t a move that always pays off, however. When turning back the clock for these kinds of projects, it’s almost always better to take a look at what worked and what didn’t, and then try to smooth out the rough edges. Oniken makes a pretty good run at it, featuring the brutal difficulty some older 8-bit gems are known for, while at the same time offering infinite continues and the ability to resume the game from the last stage you reached. While it may prove to be quite the hefty challenge, even for vets of the genre, things rarely ever feel frustrating since it’s so easy to pick up and put down.
JoyMasher set out to do one thing and they’ve done it with immense success. Oniken is one of the truest and most sincere recreations of a bygone era that manages to rise above the stigma of “just another retro platformer” by simply being a pretty damn fun little action-fest as well.