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.