Wot I Think: Two-button metroidvania Necrosphere

I am completely and totally in love with platformer Necrosphere [official site]. I have also shouted at it so much that I now genuinely have a sore throat. I cannot remember a time when I’ve improved so, so much at a game in a relatively short space of time, to the point where completing certain sections has had me begin to imagine statues built in my honour. And then I come crashing down to Earth as I struggle with the very next moment. It’s a complete joy, a full 2D Metroidvania, and yet the whole game is controlled with only two buttons.

To look at the screenshots, you could be entirely forgiven for seeing yet another pixelly 2D platformer, and wondering why we’d even mention it. While I really like Necrosphere’s chunky pixels and minimalist palette, I also recognise it doesn’t surprise. However, that can’t be said for the rest of this utterly splendid game. A game that shows just two buttons is enough to offer an incredibly deep and complicated experience.

There’s a story to all this. You play a guy who has found himself in the Necrosphere, a sort of post-death underworld in which further death is impossible. However, there are also notes left about the place seemingly somehow transported in by people still alive, who also pushed through a bunch of particularly useful bouncy bubbles – especially fortunate as at the outset your character can’t even jump. Just move left and right. It’s with these two buttons (A and D, or the arrow keys) that you must attempt to explore and eventually escape back to life itself.

So indeed you begin only able to run to the left or the right. And at first, this feels – you’ll not be surprised to learn – astoundingly limiting. It is to the game’s credit that it’s bold enough to hold off for a surprisingly long time before it gives you your first new ability – a dash by double-tapping a direction button. It very smartly ensures you grow used to the limitations for long enough to start instinctively using the environment to propel yourself about in imaginative and effective ways.

In other words, it forces you to get good at the fundamentals before it embellishes with more abilities. Because this isn’t a game that gets easier as you are able to, say, dash across gaps – this is a game that is going to demand more and more and more of you as you’re able to reach later stages, until you are performing moves of such ridiculous complexity and deft perfect timing, and start to feel like you’re the bloody best there is.

I imagine words like “ridiculous complexity and deft perfect timing” are offputting to many. They’d be offputting to me, if I were reading this without having played. So let me implore you to believe that you – yes you – are capable of playing this. Because I am, and I’m a platforming klutz.

One of the big reasons for this is the immediacy of the checkpoints. Both in distance and time. Failure means respawning within the same half second usually a few steps away from where you failed. Getting past an obstacle becomes a trial you can take a million times in a row without feeling punished for failure. It becomes about learning and perfecting, and in the moment of successful execution there’s such elation.

I’d directly contrast that to other platform games’ approach to boss fights, where a lengthy and multi-staged sequence has to be restarted multiple times until finally, perhaps by luck as much as skill, you finally get past it, and the feeling of success can be drowned by resentment and tedium. Here each and every new challenge is so quick, and so instantly retried, that you’ll struggle to bear ill will even at its trickiest moments.

By the end portion of the game, and by God I’ve reached it, this gets a little more challenging. There are longer sequences that must be negotiated, using all the abilities you’ve gained for your two buttons, and I’d argue by this point they’re entirely fair, or it wouldn’t be demanding more of you than it had before. But my goodness, I roared in frustration, most usually at myself. Hence the sore throat. Getting past these, especially the BLOODY FLOATING GREY BLOCKS WITH THE FIREBALLS, was a moment of jubilation.

Then of course, I discover the video of the guy completing the entire game in 15 minutes without making a single mistake, and I realise that my 409 billion deaths over days to do the same are the pitiful attempts of an insect man. (I strongly suggest you not watch that video if you plan to play – it very quickly reveals all the game’s surprises.)

I have a couple of gripes. One is with a few sections where death is impossible to avoid. These are invariably falling sequences in which you can’t know what obstacles are coming before you hit them. Of course, this plays into the way the whole game is encountered – learning what you need to do by failing at it until you don’t – but when it’s all off screen before you’re dead it feels a little cheap. The other problem that’s a bit more significant is there’s no clear indication of which routes have yet to be explored, and it’s usually only after you’ve gone too far down one direction to return the quick way before you realise your mistake.

Of course, this does afford the opportunity to realise just how much better you are at this game than you were before, and you quickly negotiate your way through areas that previously had seemed close to impossible. And indeed to collect the bonus items that were beyond your reach with your abilities on previous trips.

The result of all this is just magnificent. A super-tricky game with a wonderfully smooth difficulty curve, and a masterclass in design when managing to offer real depth and challenge despite limiting itself to just two buttons from start to finish. You’ll feel amazing when you succeed. Right up until you watch this video of Alexander Zenko playing it, that is.

Necrosphere is out now for Windows and Mac, for £4/$4/5€, via Steam.

17 Comments

  1. BigEyeGuy says:

    Played it on ITCH.IO and I recommend everyone checking it out.
    Great level design and a very fair price.

  2. Drib says:

    If there weren’t so many sprites I’d almost think this was made in PICO-8.

    But hey, another pixelly platformer. Looks like it could be fun for a weekend sometime at least.

  3. LTK says:

    You seem to have forgotten to mention it has a demo on Steam!

  4. caff says:

    That Alexander Zenko video is amazing – and his channel is full of other great plays of other games.

  5. Seyda Neen says:

    Played a bit of the demo. Buying this. Thanks!

  6. Premium User Badge

    AutonomyLost says:

    So many seals of approval lately! I’ll check this one out. Thanks for the review, John.

  7. Werneck says:

    Played this until the end. I hadn’t been so invested and focused on a game in a long time. Simply wonderful. Recommend.

  8. caiolopez says:

    This is, hands down, the most flattering part of making this game. To see Necrosphere on RPS is really a dream come true. I’m super glad you like our little game, and that you gave it a try, even with all the other great games being launched on steam every day. Thank you all for playing, really.

  9. GeoX says:

    Not bad: I’ve played it for about an hour, and it kind of makes me think of a Metroidvania version of VVVVV: a bunch of small, discrete challenges that seem maddening or impossible at first but eventually give way to persistence.

  10. KDR_11k says:

    The super pixely look reminds me of Environmental Station Alpha which had trouble at times to show which parts of the screen were terrain and which ones decoration. Necrosphere looks cleaner in that regard though.

    The two button part sounds intriguing. Hard platforming not so much tho…

    My current Metroid-like is A Robot Named Fight which is excellent despite the terrible title that makes people overlook it.

    And only a few days until another official Metroid comes out…

  11. Nixitur says:

    A game like this needs 4 GB of RAM? What the heck?
    I know that required RAM and graphical style have very little to do with each other (Dwarf Fortress, I’m looking at you), but it’s still surprising for a 2D platformer. A shame, I was hoping to play it on my laptop. And this seems like a game that would be absurdly difficult with random slowdowns.

    • caiolopez says:

      Hey, Nixitur! I’m the developer. We’ve tested the game and dropped the requirements to 2GB now. In any case, we’re porting the game over to Unity, so in a couple months we’ll be able to run Necrosphere on a potato. Thank you a lot for your interest in my game!

      • Nixitur says:

        Ah, that’s certainly good to hear! Just downloaded the demo.
        I have another complaint with the system requirements, though. Because it lists the required OS as Windows 7 (which is running on my laptop), but Steam won’t install it because I don’t have a 64-bit version.
        I was lucky to catch that when I downloaded the demo, but I’m sure people would be fairly miffed if they bought the game and were unable to run it despite fulfilling the system requirements as listed. Unless the demo has different requirements than the game itself?
        Don’t ask why I’m still running a 32-bit OS, it’s a long story.

  12. April March says:

    When I first saw a trailer for this game, I thought: nope.
    So I downloaded the demo based on this review, and my final thoughts are: nope.
    I mean, don’t get me wrong. I can see that it’s a very well designed game for people who like punishing platformers. But unlike John I would never recommend it for people like me, who don’t.

    I mean…

    . So let me implore you to believe that you – yes you – are capable of playing this. Because I am, and I’m a platforming klutz.

    Well, yes, I’m sure I can play it. It is a game; no matter how challenging a game is, it’s specifically designed to be finished. The question is, why? The reason I don’t like games that are too hard isn’t that I don’t think I can finish them, it’s merely that my joy at finishing a difficult section is nowhere as strong as my frustration at failing. I didn’t feel good after finishing a difficult section in the demo; I just thought “well, I got past this boring part, let’s see what boring part is next”. Again, I could see how good it would be for someone who likes it, but recommending it for people who don’t seems like an error.

    At any rate, there’s a demo. I suggest at least giving it a whirl. I couldn’t make it to the end. Not because I’m unable to – I’m sure I could if I tried – it’s just that at some point I thought “why am I doing this?” and stopped.

    Also, the fact that left and right movement were mapped to the controller BUMPER KEYS, with no option to change, surely helped me reach this conclusion. And I’m not going to play a platformer with the keyboard; might as well use a steering wheel for how inadequate it is.

    • caiolopez says:

      Hello April! I’m the developer of Necrosphere. The directions are hard-mapped to shoulder buttons to prevent players from remapping it to normal directional buttons, as, later on in the game you will be required to push both buttons constantly. The game was developed with keyboards in mind, but is works pretty well on gamepads. Thank you for giving the demo a try, even if only to find that this genre is not you cup of tea.

  13. facd224 says:

    I really enjoyed the game up until the first power-up, after that the game became impossible to me for me to play. I managed to do the double tap correctly maybe one in ten times, did it at first with controller and tried later on with keyboard, which went a little bit better, but not by much.
    This game is made for nimbler hands than mine.

  14. mantori says:

    The simple commands fooled me when I first started playing. As others have commented, some might rage quit and dislike the game after failing to go through the obstacles, since they start to demand more and more of the player skills.

    As GeoX said in a previous comment, and I couldn’t agree more, this game looks like a version of VVVVVV. The metroid-like power-ups with minimal backtracking add an extra layer of fun. It could have a map, though.

    Definitely worth trying out for $5.

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