So many of the 1980s most enduring stories center on youth, its loss and growing up. Stand By Me, E.T., The Goonies–with newer pop culture like It and Stranger Things leaning into the same themes as it mines the decade for nostalgia. Not to mention revisited IPs seeing new life after the ‘80s and early ’90s that feel inherently tied to childhood. The big budget blockbusters like Transformers or the Marvel Cinematic Universe are using Saturday morning heroes to put aging snake people in front of a screen to revisit memories from schooldays. Narita Boy runs headlong into what makes both those story beats and nostalgia in general work while reflecting on it through the lens of pop culture a little more than, say, Ready Player One.
Narita Boy mulls over youth’s impact on adulthood and the art passed from one generation to the next. It considers how stories and fantasy as a kid becomes an escape as grief piles on while we age. It also asks what happens when that escape becomes a crutch, and when a person’s escapism enables grief to control them.
Developed by Spain’s Studio Koba, Narita Boy is a “retro-futuristic 2D pixel game” with a narrative that feels like Neverending Story meets Tron, brought to you by Heavy Metal. Players find themselves as Narita Boy, a young video gamer sucked into a digital kingdom they must save from the corrupted HIM program and its army. Players explore and slash their way through the world with their techno-sword, simultaneously reawakening dormant memories of the world’s creator in hopes of saving everything.
You can beat the entire game on a lazy weekend. While it’s not massive in scope, goddamn is it a pleasure. The art centers everything, and makes the game stand out from the crowd. The game offers a variety of skills and unlockables that all feel a little under utilized. Even still, everything feels satisfying because of how fleshed out the world feels. Its Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP influence is worn on its sleeve with a same-vein art style that feels ratcheted up. Even the gameplay shares a similar, on-rails quality that can feel limiting, but again, takes it a step further with varied mechanics and enemy types.
Pulling heavily on aesthetics from almost 40 years ago, deriving off games almost 10 years ago, and released during an era drowning in “retro” titles, Narita Boy still oozes its own unique style. I constantly found myself just taking in the world. Not one artistic element of the game felt like corners were cut. From enemy designs to backgrounds, from CRT tracking effect to death animations, everything is a pixelated joy. It’s the video game ‘80’s box art promised.
Oddly the same creative beauty that makes the game stand out is really its biggest limiting factor. Every frame of the game is worth hanging on a wall. But that same visual complexity can make navigating the world tricky. So much is crammed into each level, orienting myself, especially in the early stages, sometimes boiled down to trial-and-error jumping around. The controls could also stand tightening, but never seemed so janky I felt my losses weren’t mine to own. Since the controls never felt heinously broken, and I was so caught up in the game’s looks, the combat and platforming always came second to enjoying the atmosphere anyway. I could easily see it being a barrier for people though if that’s what they came looking for.
Similarly, the game’s lore is delivered by the most world-specific, impenetrable jargon I’ve seen this side of Tolkien. It’s taxing work when all you want to do is play, typically a massive turnoff for me. But truthfully, in Narita Boy, I kind of loved it. It felt true to the game’s roots in genre fiction from that era. Deliberately obtuse sagas with heroes consumed by the sands long before the story being told even started. An age before it got watered down and became a tad more palatable for everyone. At times, the story is so dense it’s almost winking at players.
The music is also very much worth noting. The soundtrack is banger after banger, somewhere between Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy score and Random Access Memories, and I personally can’t wait for its vinyl release. Tracks like “Saving the World” and “Narita Boy Theme” feel right up at the tops of synth’s current revival. The “Memory” numbers are also the perfect backings for their in-game moments, while “Hex” is a spot-on face melter as you bust heads in a mid-boss arena fight.
Compared to other mediums, video games seem to place a uniquely high premium on substance over style. The letters have their Alphabetical Africas and their Suspirias, but even something as easy on the eyes as Superhot is more lauded for gameplay than style (which it has in spades). That’s not really unwarranted either. Games are an interactive medium, with play at their heart. You’re sitting down to fiddle and test yourself. To prod at a game’s innerworkings and find your inner mettle to best it.
Games like Gone Home or Howling Dogs are changing that, driving the point of games as art. But even still, their artistry comes from interaction. I’ve been trying to remember another game whose artistic value is solely in aesthetics rather than gameplay, and I can’t. There’s no shortage of jaw-dropping AAA titles like Breath of the Wild or Red Dead Redemption 2 with stunning visuals and scenes. But I doubt their dev teams built them intending for their core player bases to use as sunset simulators.
I wouldn’t recommend Narita Boy on gameplay alone. In fact, if that’s what attracted you to the game, I might advise steering clear. Puzzling lacks much lateral thinking, and the combat never puts to full use or asks creativity of the player’s arsenal. But the game is just so damn beautiful. Absurd as it sounds, I think more engaging combat on par with something like Dead Cells may have just kept me in the flow of playing, and distracted from gawking at the world. I’ve played great 2D action platformers before, and I look forward to playing them again. I don’t know when I’ll play through a gallery next though.
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