I am not very good at Iron Fisticle. I am having a lot of fun playing Iron Fisticle.
Arcade gaming has never been my speciality. As a kid, I spent countless hours playing the first three screens of any number of Speccy games, and seemingly felt okay with that. And, I suppose, I still am. I've never got past level four of Teleglitch, and yet it was one of my favourite games of last year. (And this year.)
I think a part of it is perhaps a childhood that never involved going to the arcades, never featured twin-stick shooters, never included Robotron or Smash T.V. While the cooler kids were shoving wagon wheel-sized ten pees into grimy arcade machines, I was playing text adventures or pretending I was Spider-Man. The genre never defined a period of my early gaming life. When Geometry Wars came out, I watched in astonishment as people lasted far beyond anything I could muster, and yet still had a great time struggling along. I approach the field with an amateurish envy, and an appreciation for the skill required.
Iron Fisticle feels like the twin-stick shooter made for me. It's incredibly tough, requires a lot of persistence to progress, but seems designed to want me to be able to. Its deliberately retro style, the look and feel rather than the execution, is evocative of games that were dominant features in my early years: Speedball 2, Bubble Bobble, Gauntlet. And its delivery of action is less frantic than perhaps might be the norm. Which is not to say it isn't blisteringly hard - it's just slower paced.
A lot of the pacing is certainly to do with its attempts at a late '80s theme. Despite encouraging players to use a gamepad instead of the keyboard controls, there's no analogue movement or firing. Eight directions only, which is perhaps surprising in 2014, and I haven't managed to decide on whether it's for the best. What I have managed to do is play over and over, getting better with each go.
The story is delightfully ambiguous - you and some other guy (if you're playing local co-op) are stood guarding a pile of fruit and hotdogs, which gets sucked into a vortex by some evil floating eye. The guards get sucked in too, and must dash around killing hundreds of incoming hordes of bads, while dashing around picking up the dropped food for points, and coins for spending in shops. Clear a room of its waves of enemies, and a key will drop, letting you wander through any available doors. Take too long to clear a stage and you'll be told to "HURRY!", and invincible baddies will start appearing in the room one by one. See, I told you it reminded me of Bubble Bobble. Levels get tougher as you go along finishing in a boss fight that is entirely reliant on your skill, rather than boring learned tricks, and then you start over in an even tougher, larger dungeon.
Betwixt these varying, randomly generated rooms (although let's be sensible - this is the random distribution of a couple of bits of wall) are some occasionally utterly disingenuous and poorly coded platform sequences. I've no idea what they're doing in the game, barely offering anything worthwhile as a reward for completing (usually just something that's regularly dropped in the main levels), with nasty, frustrating controls. Fortunately failure carries no penalty, but these either needed to be embellished into something worthwhile, or ditched entirely. The cruddy half-measure only serves to annoy, before getting back to the fun of the game proper.
There's the equivalent of Geometry Wars' bombs, here the titular Iron Fisticle itself, with your basic weapon - a slightly too slowly thrown axe - replaced by temporary upgrades. Upgrade dropped in levels, rather strangely, are made available by your levelling up, which is a permanent change in an impermanent world. The more you unlock, the more varied the drops available in chests become in future games. Adding to this are various purchasable bonuses in the game's shop (once per level, usually before the boss fight), which include temporary boosts, but also - for more coin - permanent upgrades to your character. These don't tend to make starting the game again significantly easier, but instead expand the availability of options as you play. For instance, buy an extra health slot, and you'll still start over with just three bars of health, but you'll have more room to fill with gathered hearts. In this way, repeated play does give you advantages, but they feel more earned as you go along, rather than only making you tougher next time out.
Defeat a boss, and the next time you start playing you can pick up from the next level, which is surprising. Of course there's the disadvantage of not having gathered previous loot along the way before the tougher challenges, so there's obviously some balance to be reached. Although, I think my preference is for a complete restart each time, like the RogueGods intended. It's entirely up to you how you approach it, and of course kicking off in a later level isn't going to help your positions on the high score table. Which brings us back to my opening statement: my best score so far is 167,815, which would be a lot in, say, ten pin bowling, but puts me 183rd on the current leaderboard, with scores around the one million mark making up the top 10. (And one obviously hacked score of 100,000,049 at the top, because every game has to have a jerkhole spoiling it.)
It's definitely a shame that the video options are pretty limited. In a window it won't go larger than a tiny 1024x600, despite looking great when played in fullscreen mode on a 2560x1440 monitor. Some larger windows would be much appreciated, even if it's just scaling to fit them. It's an ugly fullscreen, freezing things on other monitors, etc, and certainly doesn't need an entire monitor to itself.
The most important thing is, I've just had lots of fun with it. It's simple, but there's a depth to it, and while it's crude in places, there's still a lot of heart-racing thrill when the screen is almost entirely filled with enemies, and you're trying to carve a path to a chest for a much needed superior weapon. Whether I'll ever get any good at it, I'm not sure. But I'm certainly having a good time trying.
Iron Fisticle, by Confused Pelican Games, is out now on Steam for £5.40.