What have we learned from indie games over the last several years? If you said that bloated budgets don’t always translate into the most enjoyable games, then you would be right, though that’s not the point I’m driving at. Rather, that most games outside of Demon’s/Dark Souls are quite easy and have made us soft. Nicalis’ 1001 Spikes is here to remind you how punishing games used to be and it’s not afraid to use a high life count to taunt you with that fact.
In 1001 Spikes, you play as Aban Hawkins, an archaeologist and explorer who takes on odd jobs to earn riches to prove to his father that he’s capable of doing so without being offered handouts. So, he’s kind of like a digitized Indiana Jones in a way. One day, his father goes missing and leaves behind a letter to Aban challenging him to go to Ukampa in search of legendary treasure. Not one to pass up a challenge, Aban makes his way there and it’s up to you to guide him towards his ultimate goal. That’s all there is to the tale that the game’s pixelated imagery conveys to you via Mega Man style intros. It’s just as well, since most won’t be able to surpass the obstacles to reach its conclusion.
Despite its insistence on ruining your day, 1001 Spikes is at least gracious enough to provide a tutorial describing the controls and the potential obstacles you’ll be facing. It’s all pretty straightforward at first, though you begin to learn the hard way how nuanced things really are. You see, there are actually two separate jump buttons. The B button performs a short hop, while X will launch you twice as high. I fell into the trap of thinking that I could just high jump all the time and not have to worry about the various heights, but doing so at the wrong time could spell death from above in the way of spike traps, enemies, and dart spitting statues. Fortunately, Aban isn’t completely defenseless. A tap of the Y button will cause him to throw darts of his own, though having to put down charging scorpions is the least of his worries.
True to its name, you have 1001 lives to complete the game. It seems like a lot until you notice yourself burning through them fast. It’s very telling when successful completion of a zone will net you an item that will grant you 50+ lives. The objective in each stage is to find a key and open its subsequent door. That’s it. You have the option of chasing after a golden skull that unlocks new characters and modes, though it’s not a requirement for progression. All of these things are either suspended in the air or hidden away protected by traps you likely won’t even notice until you’re already dead. And the game is very candid about telling you in very bold letters “You Are Dead.” Twitch reactions play a part in success, but a lot is owed to memorization of where various dangers lie, as most times my demise came from stepping on a platform that had a spike trap underneath it or getting too close to a statue that I didn’t know was going to riddle my face with darts.
If you get stuck on a stage, you have the option of pulling up the start menu and skipping it, seemingly without any penalty. I experimented with this a bit just to see what would happen if one tried to skip every stage to get to the end. If you attempt the sixth area without completing the rest of them first, you’ll be met with a Game Over screen. So while 1001 Spikes does allow you to try your hand at other stages if you happen to get stuck on one, don’t expect to just skip your way to the end credits.
Players who are crafty enough to not only complete stages, but obtain the golden skulls, will be rewarded with new multiplayer modes and characters to play through the story as. The unlocked characters are more than just cosmetic too, as sometimes they come with their own unique abilities that Aban doesn’t have on his own. The tradeoff is that each new character has to start the game over from the beginning, so you can’t cheese your way to the end with a better abled avatar. I haven’t seen all of them yet, but one of the first ones you unlock is the protagonist from the BIT.TRIP Runner games complete with the music and rainbow trail. There’s also a selection of “inspired” characters, including Mario, Simon Belmont, and Arthur from Ghosts ‘N Goblins, all with their signature abilities and similar sounding tunes in tow.
1001 Spikes has a selection of Arcade modes that can be played with up to four players. In The Golden Vase, players have to hang onto a vase that spews coins and try to collect as many as possible before time runs out. Tower of Nannar has you engaged in a platforming race to the top of a tower with only nine lives at your disposal in order to get you there. In a nod to the Mario titles, there’s also a mode called The Lost Levels that plays like an alternate version of the story mode but with more difficult stages and only 101 lives. All of these can be played alone if you so choose, though I imagine with friends it would emulate the chaos that comes with experiencing the New Super Mario Bros. titles. It’s unfortunate that the latter two games have to be unlocked, as if you purchased the game with the intent of simply playing with your friends (and aren’t any good at it), you’ll have to jump through a bunch of hoops first to obtain these modes.
Visually, the game looks like it belongs on the NES console and given the references it makes to other games of that era, I feel it’s appropriate. The pixel art looks great while simultaneously granting the kinds of advantages that come with 8-bit sprite work in terms of judging jumps and height distances. The chiptune soundtrack, while not incredibly varied, is also well done. Especially the covers for some of the more well known titles of the era it pays homage to. The tutorials are even delivered to you in broken English, complete with references to other games (such as Metal Gear‘s “I feel asleep…”)
I was disappointed that despite being able to play on the Wii U gamepad, there doesn’t appear to be any support for off-TV play. The screen is instead taken up by a map showing Aban’s position relative to the other zones in the game, but it isn’t necessary information that a player couldn’t live without to axe the no TV feature. I suppose it’s possible that this could be patched in down the road, but it’s a wonder it wasn’t included in the first place.
1001 Spikes can be picked up from the eShop as of this writing for $14.99 (or $10.01 if you own other Nicalis games. Clever). There’s a lot of content here for your money, but it’s a title that can only be thoroughly enjoyed by the type of player that is willing to suffer through a lot of failure before finding success. There’s a reason you’re given 1001 lives, you are going to die. A lot. If you’re okay with that, then you should get a kick out of the game’s level design. Especially if you have friends willing to suffer with you.
Short Attention Span Summary
If you’re the type of gamer that thrives from overcoming cheap deaths and surprise traps, then 1001 Spikes might be for you. This retro stylized platformer challenges you with completing it in 1001 lives and then chips that total away using cleverly disguised spike traps and dart spitting statues that you didn’t even know were there. Still, overcoming its many perils is rewarding, and the many arcade modes that can be unlocked allow support for up to four players. There’s also an entire roster of characters to be found, many inspired from famous video games from the NES era. This game is worth 1001 recommendations, but only if you’re up to the challenge.