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Narita Boy review – legend of the techno-sword

Narita Boy – retro graphics have never seemed so stylish (pic: Team17)

The latest indie game from Team17 is one of the best Metroidvanias of recent years and a thrilling homage to 8-bit gaming.

A consciously retro Metroidvania style game created by a tiny, debutant indie studio in Barcelona may not sound like the most essential of purchases, at least on paper. But Narita Boy is worthy of your attention. It has an indefinable, endearing spark which elevates it way above the indie-landfill that often characterises such games and manages to be both compellingly addictive and surprisingly thought-provoking.

Narita Boy may have been created by a tiny team, but that team knows the importance of attention to detail. Take its graphics, for example: they are a loving tribute to games from the 8-bit era, complete with rampant pixelation and flashes of lurid primary-colour palettes. But on top of that, developer Studio Koba has added a filter effect that slightly distorts the edges of the screen and adds fake vertical hold artefacts, creating the impression that you’re playing it on an old cathode ray television. It’s a simple ruse which could easily have been overdone but isn’t and will induce a warm glow in anyone who recalls the days before screens were universally flat.

Narita Boy takes place in an utterly distinct alternative universe which, in its short scene setting intro, seems somewhat baffling – but once you roll with its weird 1980s programming language jargon, working out how that applies to its unfolding game world proves to be an unexpected pleasure. You play a computer-obsessed boy who gets sucked into the Digital Kingdom, a game world designed by the initially mysterious Creator, which is now riven with strife due to the nefarious deeds of a renegade programme called HIM.

Once in the game world, you are the eponymous Narita Boy, essentially an 8-bit superhero (the game jokes about how he is composed of ‘less than 20 pixels’). Narita Boy is the only individual who can wield the legendary Techno-sword, which harnesses the power of the red, yellow, and blue Trichroma.

From the off, as Narita Boy, you feel like a superhero: the denizens of the Digital Kingdom have been waiting for you to show up to liberate them from the havoc caused by the Stallions, HIM’s agents who have been laying waste to their world.

Your first moments in the Digital Kingdom involve a certain amount of scene-setting, as the priest-like characters you encounter explain that you must find and liberate the (currently dormant) Creator’s lost memories so that you and he can finally defeat HIM. Gameplay initially involves a combination of platforming, symbol-matching puzzles, and exploration; in classic Metroidvania fashion this yields various keys to access new areas but you also soon acquire the satisfyingly powerful Techno-sword and can start taking on the Stallions, who come in a number of often boss-sized forms.

As you progress on your quest, you amass a large library of new moves, such as a charged laser style blast, a shield bash, a down stomp, and an uppercut slash that also lets you jump higher than normal. The Stallions are sometimes suffused with one of the Trichroma’s three colours, and if you also channel that colour, you inflict more damage on them – although they also damage you morey. In addition, each Trichroma colour has a superhero-like ‘Dude’, who will hover and send down powerful attacks against all enemies on screen and can only be summoned if certain conditions are met.

In place of health power-ups, you’re given four bars which fill up as you inflict damage on Stallions (each bar refills one chunk of your health meter). You quickly discover – especially when taking on the more heavily armoured bosses – that it’s often essential to take a predominantly defensive approach, avoiding incoming attacks and picking the right moments to unleash your own attacks. Blind button-bashing is never enough; you must work out the correct tactical approach, particularly when faced with a range of different enemies.

Narita Boy also varies its gameplay to great effect; at one point, you must transform into a digital stag to traverse a forest and at another you ride across a desert on a robotic horse, which you can merge with to morph into a boss-like form. And while Narita Boy can’t swim, he can surf across water on a giant 3.5-inch floppy disk.

Narita Boy – Metroidvania of the year (pic: Team17)

On top of that, when you find a cache of the Creator’s memories, you’re taken to slower, more contemplative spaces detailing the Creator’s rather harsh early life in Tokyo and describing how the Digital Kingdom came into being. That back story is delivered in a very minimal fashion, but turns out to be surprisingly affecting and brings a great sense of narrative ebb and flow to proceedings.

Narita Boy’s disparate elements combine beautifully to form a whole which is thoroughly original and has a weird but very beguiling sort of logic to it. The initial bafflement you might feel at the Digital Kingdom’s alien nature swiftly morphs into a desire to discover everything you can about it.

As a low budget indie game, Narita Boy is naturally not perfect. You will, for example, encounter pockets of erratic checkpointing that force you to think hard about modifying your approach. If you demand modern 3D graphics, it’s definitely not the game for you, although it does cleverly make a virtue of its blockiness. And it isn’t the longest game around, although it does contain hidden paths that provide a modicum of replayability.

For a first game from an indie studio, it is a stunning effort though, portraying a gloriously distinctive fantasy universe and decorating that world with a surfeit of compelling and surprisingly tactical gameplay. Gamers fed up with the interminable wait for a new Metroid game will especially lap it up. With Narita Boy, Studio Koba has entered the games industry with a bang, and we can’t wait to see what it comes up with next.

Narita Boy review summary

In Short: A thoroughly entertaining and highly playable Metroidvania, that goes beyond being a simple retro homage and offers some memorable gameplay twists and storytelling surprises.

Pros: Beautifully conceived game world and tactical gameplay, with great ebb and flow. Distinctive and original despite its retro style.

Cons: Not the longest game in the world and the checkpointing can be frustrating.

Score: 8/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Price: £19.99
Publisher: Team17
Developer: Studio Koba
Release Date: 30th March 2021
Age Rating: 16

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