Wot I Think: Alwa’s Awakening

There are a lot of retro platformers about just now. And most of them are pretty rubbish, echoing games they remember without really understanding them, or fixating on some deluded belief that it was great in the 80s when they were near-impossible to play (Chuckie Egg 2, anyone?), and that pixel-perfect jumps and ludicrous insta-kills with no saves are a sepia-toned nostalgic cuddle we can only wish to embrace once again. No. They were terrible games, stop emulating them.

Meanwhile, 8-bit NES-a-like Alwa’s Awakening [official site] by Elden Pixels is bloody brilliant.

Stumbled upon as I scour the Steam new releases for hidden gems (I am NOT paid enough), it’s discoveries like Alwa that make the arduous process worthwhile. Games like this are murdered by Steam’s hateful store design and uncurated release madness, given fifteen seconds on the front page then vanished into the impossible pile. SteamSpy’s best guess is that this utterly superb Metroidy-platformer has sold fewer than 1,000 copies, which is criminally unfair. Let’s see what we can do about that.

Right, so at first glance I wasn’t so sure. Alwa reminisces about a period of platform games that never really did it for me – that NES 8-bit era where movement was slower paced, less about nipping about and more stoical. But whether I was simply wrong then, or this is done so much better now, Alwa tuned me to its own rhythm and it quickly made solid sense.

You play Zoe, a hero from another world, sought out by the peoples of Alwa. Once a bucolic land of plenty, corruption seeped in at the hands of meany evil, and the population is broken, bereft, and unable to save themselves. Or so says the story – in reality they’re just a scant few folks who exist to give you hints and prompts when encountered, the real populace made up of the likes of “pumpkin mans”, “green blobs”, “farmer crimmus” and “that lady” (enemies named by my fascinated two year old). Your goals are to defeat a bunch of bosses, reach a final zone once you’ve collected all the abilities to do so, and along the way solve the many, many puzzles across its 400 interconnected rooms.

So yes, so far, so Metroidvania. And that pretty much sums it up. You gather skills, are able to reach new previously blocked off areas, and ever-expand your map. The key thing is: it’s done really rather well.

Zoe has a magic staff, which at first is only good for whacking enemies about their chops. But in time it gains the ability to create a single green block – a tool used in many ways to better explore the area. Later she unlocks the blue staff skill (I’m deliberately not saying what further abilities are, because they’re surprises), then a yellow one, then improvements for all three. There’s also some mysterious gubbins about blue liquid and a flask, which provide bonus challenges to reach more difficult platforms and secret areas. Eventually you’re replete with talents, fathoming new ways to employ them together.

While I know I’m not describing anything particularly original (although it’s worth noting the staff powers are at least not the usual “higher jump”, “whip”, “morphball mode” etc) this is an original interpretation of a well-trodden formula. So yes, it’s familiar: there are save rooms, fast-travel warps, boss chambers, secrets to find, and platforms tantalisingly just out of reach to try to remember to return to later. Splendid.

There are places where I wish it would have deviated slightly. Save rooms might be a mainstay of Metroid-o-likes, but they’re really sodding annoying when you’re getting killed by an exceptionally tricky room seven rooms away from the last one, and you have to keep retreading the same spaces for each new failed attempt. Grrrrr. It rather brilliantly taunts you on death not by punishing you but by telling you how many times you’ve died so far, but it does essentially give you infinite lives. It would be reasonable to restart you at the beginning of a room, rather than needlessly however far back. I would also love to see a bit more detail on the maps, most significantly a colour-coded system to remind you what it was that meant you couldn’t proceed. At the moment it’s just incomplete edges and little to no marking of special objects you’ve seen but can’t get.

There are a couple of bugs. There’s a staggering issue… I mean an issue about staggering – it’s not that big of a deal. Every so often things will stutter slightly, meaning you can mess up a jump or fall in deadly water, etc. Not often, not a big deal, but I’ve seen others reporting it on Steam too.

The result is a really splendid example of the form, with enough original ideas of its own within the standard to make it interesting. It’s a good, solid game, that’s occasionally extremely tough, but always fair. The pixel art is lovely, and although the backgrounds are a little bland, animations go a good way to make up for that. Lovers of chiptunes will delight in its soundtrack, authentic to the 8-bit era, and well composed. It’s the sort of game that deserves to stand out, not get lost in the mix.

Alwa’s Awakening is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam for £7/$10/€10.

29 Comments

  1. RuySan says:

    Seems pretty great, but I wish more developers did this kind of game with Amiga graphics instead. NES has such drab colours.

    Just imagine this game with Shadow of the Beast 2 or Lionheart kind of graphics.

    • ThePuzzler says:

      Ah, Lionheart. That takes me back.

      Remember how the hardest difficulty was called Lionhard?

      • RuySan says:

        I’d take master system graphics and colours over the nes any day. And what use I have by looking at the system palette if there aren’t other’s systems to compare?

        Besides, I know how NES games look.

      • Spacewalk says:

        The NES colour palette was never that bright, you had to use the colour and contrast knobs on your telly to fix it. Colour #2 is completely wrong, it should periodically have black lines appearing across it because the scanlines on your telly would play havoc with it.

        • ColonelFlanders says:

          Maybe I’m remembering it differently, but this looks right to me. Also that IS the color palette. For one, that’s how 8-bit Color Palettes look, and for two, every google image search reveals the same result.

          link to vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net

          I really don’t think you could argue that the above screenshot is drab. Ok, maybe there isn’t a great variety of colors, but they are plenty bright, and besides that limitation exists on any 8-bit console, not just the NESs

          EDIT : Never had the scanlines issue on games consoles, but then I lived in 50hz land ajd had TVs with interlacing so maybe that makes a difference.

          • Spacewalk says:

            Screenshots of old games that have been taken from an emulator are always going to look different colour wise on an LCD monitor than on a CRT from the eighties and nineties. So while that is the NES palette which I won’t dispute the only way you were getting games to look that bright was through changing the settings on your TV which you don’t really have to do with LCD monitors these days since games look pretty good anyway. I was purely in the SEGA camp but I played enough Nintendo games on in-store machines back when they did in-store demo-ing and I still remember Nintendo games looking less vibrant probably because they just set it up with a minimum of tinkering.

            I still have an old TV which I set up a few months ago just to see if it still worked and I can tell you those dark blues really got torn up.

    • thekelvingreen says:

      I think that’s a symptom of the ubiquity of the NES. I’d love to see more games inspired by the Speccy, C64, or Amiga.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      The NES doesn’t have drab colors, it just has a limited palette of four colors per 8 x 8 tile. Like the Commodore 64 or certain DOS graphics modes. The NES was at the cutting edge of color graphics when it came out in the U.S., and only behind the Amiga 1000 because the Amiga was ahead of it’s time.

      • RuySan says:

        The NES was released here at the same time as the Master System, which while not having a game library of the same quality (still quite good though), had much better graphics. Is there anything on the NES comparable to Phantasy Star?

        Besides, the Amiga was very much rooted by that time, so it was quite hard to be impressed by 8 bit graphics. Even Megadrive’s colours looked drab compared to the Amiga.

    • Marclev says:

      Probably a case of the art of the possible. Remember, those Amiga games were the AAA games of their day and they had serious budget behind them to make them look like they did.

      For a small indie outfit it’ll be enough work just to get a complete game out of the door with low-tech pixel graphics, I’d imagine full pallete high tech sprites just isn’t a realistic expectation.

  2. Herzog says:

    Keep on digging the pile John, much appreciated! Will skip this one, even though I really enjoy these games. But Ori, environmental station alpha and axiom verge are still in my backlog.

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      platypusfool says:

      Axiom Verge might be better than all the 2D metroids. I wasn’t expecting much more than a very competent, generic clone but it’s got heaps of surprises and twists on the formula. On top of that the sound design and feeling of powerlessness make it feel totally its own thing.

      • Nevard says:

        I’m glad it was a game for someone but I had the complete opposite experience. A large number of the collected weapons were completely useless and I found the plot largely to be meaningless navel-gazing.

      • Ejia says:

        My issue with Axiom Verge is that the artstyle is entirely too busy and tires the eyes.

        • Jekadu says:

          It reminds me of Ronin, the comic book by Frank Miller. Sort of bio punkish. I don’t mind it personally.

    • Telkir says:

      For a game made by just a single person Axiom Verge is tremendous and easily rivals any official Metroid title. Gameplay is buttery smooth and has an excellent soundtrack to accompany it. The glitch gun is a really nice mechanic! Yeah, story may not be for everyone, but I thought it was perfectly fine.

      Love ESA too. Very atmospheric, almost in a way that Nifflas’s games are if they had more combat in them. Lots of hidden depth and overarching secrets that I still haven’t fully figured out but will get around to some day…

      So yeah, you have fun awaiting you in that backlog. :)

    • Junkmail says:

      I wasn’t a huge fan of Axiom Verge. The combat is pretty dull, and the worldbuilding and plot never really feel like they go anywhere. On the other hand, ESA is an absolute delight. Highly recommended.

  3. ivanmussa says:

    Sounds a lot like Fullbore, the best metroidvania I’ve played in my life. And I,ve played a lot of them. It’s so good that it even breaks away from the genre conventions to be its own thing. Incredibly ignored though, which is a shame.

    Can’t wait to play this one and see how it compares.

    • arexsvn says:

      YES. Full Bore was awesome, excellent pixel art with a cool lighting engine, great dialog and puzzles. It resonated with me much more than most games I play these days, retro or otherwise.

  4. epeternally says:

    Why is it always Metroid? I keep hearing that there’s this glut of indie platformers and frankly I don’t think it’s true. There’s a glut of Metroidvanias, and of puzzle-platformers, but actual straight up jump and run platformers with no guns and no Metroidvania elements are painfully rare. I’d gladly pay $20 for a good Mario clone on Steam.

    • Herzog says:

      Shovel Knight might be for you!

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      Waltorious says:

      @epeternally, if you are looking for Mario-style games, you should take a look at the platformers by the indie developer known only as Bernie. Specifically, his A Game With a Kitty series. They are all free and do a great job at capturing the feel of the older 2D Mario games, and they also have (in my opinion) a great sense of humor. Wait, sorry, British site… I meant “humour”. Bernie has made other good platformers too, like Treasure Hunter Man and Stargirl and the Thief From the Exploded Moon.

      Oh man, I just took a look at his page and he’s released a bunch more games since the last time I checked! A Game With a Kitty is onto game SEVEN now (I’ve only played up to 3). And there’s a Treasure Hunter Man 2! Time to check some of these out…

      Link if you want it: link to origamihero.com

    • Ejia says:

      I’ve come to the realization that that is actually my least favorite platformer. I like puzzle platformers, and actiony ones, and metroidvanias, but speedy jumpy platformers like Mario, Sonic, and Rayman Oranges don’t interest me like they used to.

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      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Rayman Origins/Legends are both games you should play. (Although those are more Donkey Kong Country.)

  5. dethtoll says:

    I’m digging the Capcom-style art and palette choices.

  6. Jekadu says:

    Wow, awesome! This was made by some developers I kind of sort of not really know who are based in my old hometown. From what I gather at least one developer worked in their spare time to make this game, on account of working for Zoink! (Stick It To The Man, Zombie Vikings, Fe) at day.

  7. temujin33 says:

    This looks Awesome! Please share some more hidden Steam gems.

  8. Ejia says:

    Nooooo not another metroidvania retro pixel platformer! How will I find time to play this one?

    One of these days I’m going to figure out how to make one of my own and the cycle will begin anew