I like using the phrase “style over substance” in reviews, because it is such a widely accepted and understood description; it’s not a sign of something being dumb and flashy over having something meaningful to say necessarily, it is more of an upfront and concise way to say that the presentation qualities of something is more interesting or solid than the thing it is presenting. I would love to be able to use that phrase for Narita Boy, but it just doesn’t feel right and I feel the need to add a couple of adjectives. “Sublime style over mediocre substance”. Narita Boy is one of the best-looking pixel-art games I have ever played and it has one of the best soundtracks of the year so far; beyond the presentation, it puts real effort in its story and how it artistically presents it through the video game medium, with audiovisuals and gameplay. It’s unfortunate that I have to play it as well, because the combat is average, the platforming feels floaty and unresponsive, while certain structure decisions harm the momentum of the game; I am so glad I experienced Narita Boy and I am never going to play it again, however I definitely will see and hear it again.
Narita Boy is the story of the eponymous character who is inhabited by a boy sucked into his computer, and needs to rescue this digital kingdom from a source code gone haywire; just from the premise, the game clearly wants to play off 80s nostalgia and it is one of its best features. This code wants to capture and erase the creator’s memories, which will make him forget about his kingdom and allow HIM (the game’s villainous code) to take control. The actual plot is not that interesting, besides some ambiguous aspects of its ending portion, however what is rather remarkable is the strong writing and vivid imagery. Despite the story not being particularly creative, Narita Boy’s writers have utilized some striking wording that allows players to visualize and “hear” the dialogue or exposition as if it was actually being delivered; I remember distinctly the first encounter with the villain, whose word choices made me feel like Luke Skywalker when he first encountered the sinister Darth Vader. Beyond the strong writing though, it is clear that Narita Boy cares deeply about presentation; visuals will range from small and highly-detailed moments like an android sleeping while electric sheep jump out of the wall in front of them, or gigantic, grandeur spectacles of vistas, cities, deserts, and so much more, just as highly detailed as the smaller stuff. The art is more than impressive – it is sublime – but, it is also more than artistic challenge; there are clear religious, social, and spiritual themes within the story and the way the game represents them through visuals is simply indescribably gorgeous and impactful. Meanwhile, the music is equally as impressive and consistently great, which makes me really glad that it is on Spotify; from synths to piano melodies and a few rock tracks to spice things up, it is a wonderful wrapping to a sublime package that is Narita Boy’s presentation.
This is where things go downhill for me though; gameplay of Narita Boy mainly consists of 2D hack & slash action, alongside frequent platforming and exploring segments. The action is mostly fine, but there are a couple of design decisions that left me perplexed and frustrated in equal measure. The basics are actually pretty good; one button attacks, one jumps, and then everything else is unlocked and explained throughout the entirety of the game, which makes the game very well paced and varied. However, I did find the basic attack to feel a little light, especially given the punchiness and awesome visual feedback of the abilities. Moreover, there is a health bar and action bars that will allow the player to use certain abilities once filled, which is done by attacking enemies; my problem here is that the game will not refill health at any point and once you die, you restart at the last checkpoint, which is bizarre since the game rarely feels like it has any mechanical stakes and would have been much better served in pacing terms to be more liberal with health refills – instead, you can use one action bar to refill a tiny health point. That would have been okay as well if it was any usable during combat, but the game adds a slight delay when using abilities to when the character can move again, which makes those abilities (especially healing) hard to use efficiently or worth the risk. Despite these issues, I liked the enemy variety (which is genuinely impressive) and could stomach some frustrating moments to enjoy the good bits, but the game has some really tough extended combat encounters later on that seriously made me question whether I actually want to see everything the game had to offer.
That is not taking into consideration the platforming and exploration segments. Exploring is actually pretty fun and the few puzzles that were necessary where never really annoying or too hard to figure out – although I do wish the game had allowed me to revisit areas, as I had figured out what to do for a specific, “hidden” puzzle and couldn’t get back to the first area to solve it. Platforming was a pain, as I found the aerial control and dash abilities to be floaty, janky, and loose; I seriously must have fallen into pits or water dozens of times and dashing never felt natural as I always was facing the wrong way or came up short/over where I wanted to go. This is also the one area where the visuals kind of harmed the gameplay; while in combat, the area was surprisingly readable and being blind sighted was rare occurrence for me, but areas where there was a gap or a pitfall were somewhat difficult to tell apart at times. However, I do have to give props to the devs for creating a very well-paced and varied experience; the different abilities changed combat each time, so did new enemies, while the worlds, stages, and situations they managed to cram into an 8-hour experience is nothing short of impressive.
At the end of the day though, my experience with Narita Boy has been one of admiration and frustration; I admire the team’s talents when it comes to audiovisuals and creating a great pacing within a varied and awe-inspiring campaign; I admire the ambition to create something like this with combat, platforming, and exploration that could (on their own and in theory) rival other games whose sole focus was on one of those features; I am frustrated by the controls, by some design decisions, and by some sudden spikes in difficulty. I don’t want to play Narita Boy ever again, but I do not regret experiencing it and look forward to seeing and hearing it again; hopefully a sequel can exist and take care of these frustrations, but for now I clap my hands loudly (twice) and I bow respectfully at Narita Boy.