At some point, someone was bound to combine Strider, Fist of the North Star, Vice: Project Doom, and a bunch of other video game and old school anime into game. While it took a few years to get this point, a small group by the name of Joymasher created Oniken, the side-scrolling action platformer that certainly delivers in the head-exploding department.
Oniken is, like many retro-inspired indie games, an 8-bit adventure that attempts to emulate games released during the original Nintendo period. You take control of Zaku, a mercenary who was hired to stop the menace known as the Oniken. Zaku is not that much different from your classic NES character. He jumping movements, thankfully, are not stiff. However, Zaku does suffer from the “recoil” effect when you get hit, often leading to falling death. His power ups are limited, with items that will increase his sword range (and will stay extended as long as you don’t get hit) and grenades that he can chuck at enemies. You also have access to a berserk mode which will sacrifice your sword power ups to increase your damage make you invulnerable for a short period.
Keeping with the traditions of NES gaming and being stupidly hard, Oniken will test your abilities as you battle through the six stages. The game loves to place you back to checkpoints some 10 minutes ago, and it ultimately becomes the punishment that will either drive you to perfect your play or chuck the controller at the wall. Either way, dying is only but a time waster. On a good note, you are able to resume the game at the beginning of any mission that you have unlocked. Beating the entire game will unlock Boss Rush mode, a test to really see if you got your boss fights down.
Once you take a few deaths, you’ll come to realize that the enemy patterns and placements are almost all static, with very few enemies that are mobile. This makes Oniken’s challenges become manageable once you memorize enemy positions, which is easy considering the density of enemies is fairly low.
Speaking of being static, one random element is what is hidden inside the item boxes.. As mentioned earlier, the sword power ups can be used for berserk mode. Most boss fights have two boxes that appear before you enter their room, sometimes featuring a pair of sword power ups. If you end up being lucky (and this happens more often than not), you essentially get a free boss kill. This “Get Out of Jail Free”card is pretty cheap, and due to the fear of not wanting to go back to the checkpoint you were at 10 minutes ago, you’re going to feel more inclined to take this coward’s way out. Yes, you could be awesome and choose not to use it, rather would not have the option at all though.
Don’t let these details detract you from what ends up being a pretty good challenge to take over a course of a weekend. Oniken rewards your skills with some fine cutscene work, the likes that surpasses some of Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden cutscenes. The sprite art is amazing, and the story perfectly sets the tone of just how bad ass Zaku is. Sure, it’s not exactly the best script in the world, but who needs something more detailed than a pissed off Zaku who cuts the crap out of everyone?
That being said, Oniken does not seek out to be the most difficult game in the world, nor does it try to hinder your progress other than spacing out the checkpoints. In fact, the stage 4 boss (pictured right) was patched and updated to no longer have a bottomless pit that would lead to quick deaths.
The soundtrack seems to have an identity crisis. Some chiptuned tracks are amazing and gets you pumped up as you are beheading baddies. In other parts, it feels like a lot of what could have made a particular part of a stage or scene epic become largely underplayed due to the music used. This is very noticeable when you start a stage or segments where you have to escape from a self-destructing building.
There are some issues with setting up the controls, especially if you use a USB pad that is not conformed to the two controller settings provided within the game. The Xbox 360 controller will work with one of the settings, but you’re committed to using the analog stick to move. A typical HID-compatible controller (like a PlayStation to PC adapter) will work perfectly fine with the other. Anything else in between and you’ll have to rely on something like Xpadder or Joy2Key as Oniken does not allow you to change the buttons on a joypad.
Joymasher took a bunch of things that I love about retro gaming and meshed it into a game that feels like a gem from the past. Oniken is a nice balance of what games were like back then but keeping it sane enough to give you a challenge that will not shatter your hopes and dreams of beating the game. Oniken feels like an NES gem that no one has found until 2012.
Oh yeah, and a head explodes in this game.
This review of Oniken is based on version 1.6 with a review copy provided by Joymasher. Oniken can be purchased at Desura for $4.99. A free playable demo is also available as well. No controllers were harmed during the review session of this game.