“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.”
I often hear the phrase “arcade-style” thrown around with wild abandon but I rarely experience the kind of transportive experience that such a phrase seems to hint at.
Typically, a game which borrows elements from arcade games contains things like playing difficult stages in short bursts, simplicity of controls, or emphasizing high scores. The coin-eating style of gameplay which many of us grew up with is perhaps what arcade games were, stylistically, in their purest form. You went to the arcades to play games for a limited amount of time and, for all the chatter of money abuses mixed in with gameplay with loot boxes and microtransactions, things essentially haven’t changed much in regard to games as products being about making money. The coin-op arcade games treated devouring your savings as invitations, though, not barriers to immediate fun. Their brevity made you want to play them even more.
However, there is a deeper truth to the phrasing “arcade-style” that I’d like to get at. A game can hearken back to the arcades in terseness and tension of segmented gameplay, but beyond and beneath that, a few special games can evoke the feeling of actually being in an arcade. Provided you can reasonably and safely excuse the reality of your immediate surroundings, of course.
Knight Terrors is a game which made me feel like I was back in an arcade. It hits every beat, its finger on the vein in which the lifeblood of ye olde arcades flows: Terrors has a fundamentally simple control scheme, it emphasizes attaining a high score, its rounds are played in quick, short succession, it is seemingly endless, its difficulty skyrockets. These descriptions fit the likes of golden age classics like Pac-Man, Centipede, Donkey Kong, Galaga, and Dig Dug, esteemed company in which Knight Terrors confidently stands.
The one area where Knight Terrors deviates from classic arcade games is it doesn’t eat your money. Knight Terrors is available courtesy of Nicalis in the Nintendo Switch eShop for a miniscule $2.99 (also on Steam). Quarters, breathe a sigh of relief.
In a world where you’re paying $60 at least for a new big name video game, plus DLC, subscription costs, and microtransactions, three bucks seems like it’s next to nothing. What is that, like the price of an ATM inconvenience charge these days? For that amount you get essentially a handheld or mobile game experience, the kind that you can pick up and play on the go for a bit while waiting for your colonoscopy, attempt to beat your high score, maybe unlock a few modes or power ups, and then go about your merry business. You’re getting a fairly addicting experience for a comparatively dirt cheap price.
Knight Terrors is an endless runner which follows the unending suffering of a knight clad all in blue plate mail, armed with his trusty sword and his bat-like wings, who must race on for an eternity battling hordes of specters, spooks, and baddies. The game’s procedurally generated levels scroll infinitely to the right and the knight keeps pace on his own. All the player has to do is time his jumps (or flight) and sword strikes. In this private Hell, waves of enemies increase with each stage as do environmental hazards like spike pits and walls.
If the knight loses three health, it’s a game over. Maximum health can be increased and missing health points restored via items encountered in the various stages (at random), but avoiding enemies to escape damage is not an option. If you fail to kill three enemies while the knight runs past them, it’s a game over.
This ensures that Knight Terrors demands all your focus, even with its inherently simple controls. You cannot let your enemies pass. You’ll have to focus your attentions not only on dodging obstacles, but also on maneuvering the knight into position in order to take out a range of bad guys with different modes of movement.
Zombies shamble along the ground and are among the earliest and easiest foes to dispatch. Then come the swarms of bats flying in a straight line over the knight’s head. These don’t present an immediate threat to your health but if you can’t let them fly past you, guaranteeing a game over. After that are burning skulls that fly in a zig-zag fashion, demanding even more attention. By the time you reach level 8, there are so many enemies that it becomes difficult to concentrate on them all and you start having to balance button-mashing your attack with timing your jumps and flight to survive obstacles.
I can’t remember the last endless runner I played (maybe WorldRunner on the NES?) but the two that come to mind are Flappy Bird and Super Mario Run. Still Knight Terrors seems much faster than most anything I played previously. It took me quite some time to get accustomed to the pace, and even then the gameplay is unforgiving. Make a few mistakes and it’s game over.
But why was Knight Terrors so transportive?
Well, frankly I don’t know exactly why. Its gameplay matches a lot of the old arcade experiences I mentioned, and though that’s not enough on its own, perhaps the sensation stems from the mixture of that with mobility. Knight Terrors is a game best suited for the Nintendo Switch. I’m guessing it would be too hard to see everything going on in the game on a cellphone and this is not the kind of game you’d sit down to play for an hour on your living room TV screen. Maybe this kind of take-it-anywhere accessibility combined with a game to be played in short, challenging excursions made me smell the popcorn, hear the tokens tinkle, the cabinets bleep, and the tickets print out in the neon-lit kingdoms of the past.
Ultimately, this association is likely personal. Not every gamer has had the experiences of visiting arcades, so I don’t expect that Knight Terrors would evoke the same transportive feelings for everyone. If it did for you, or if another title made you feel like you’d entered a time machine, please do share. I’d like to know.
The 8-bit Review
Of course Knight Terrors is bound to remind you of the most primitive 8-bit titles from the NES’s early years. Its Gothic characters will inevitably make you think you’re playing a Castlevania endless runner. The gloomy clouds lit from below in the background, the blood soaked spikes, the grimacing skulls, the arc-thrown axes, they all feel familiar. Importantly, the game’s graphics diversify each enemy so you can pick them out easily and adjust your immediate strategy.
Knight Terrors‘s official description calls its graphics “retina-searing”. That’s bold, if not at least a little unnerving. I can assure you that, beyond the heavy contrast of colors, this game’s graphics will not burn your eyeballs. They are however riffs on the uglier, more garish graphics of yore. The muddy greens and browns clash with the lurid blues and reds in the limited color palette in a way that doesn’t aspire to beauty. It’s accurate in its nostalgia and ugly for it, but I’m certain that’s not unintentional. We’ve seen a lot of developers utilize pixel art in gorgeous games, so it’s refreshing in a way to see Nicalis take the route less traveled toward rugged and violent 8-bit imagery.
When I think about the graphics in Knight Terrors, I think about the commercials I saw as a kid with toys marketed for boys strictly on gross factor.
While the visuals of Knight Terrors purposefully captured the depths of NES graphics, the soundtrack of this game reaches that system’s heights. There’s all of the fuzziness, the electric static but there’s also the sensation of being propelled forward, not simply because the knight automatically runs forward but because the music drives. It’s energetic and melodic. It spurs on your heart rate, the adrenaline, the rush. It embraces the sound and style, the substance of that era in gaming.
I only regret that I can’t play this game at full volume when I’m out in public places. Like the library or the local mausoleum.
As you play Knight Terrors, you can unlock new power ups which will randomly appear in the game. These are achieved by reaching preset thresholds with your high score, so they’re unlocked in order. Some of these are weapons such as the Stick of Returning (a boomerang), but there aren’t ultimately a whole lot to unlock and they appear fairly rarely. Since you lose them after taking a single hit, it’s easy to play through most of a run without ever seeing many power ups, unfortunately. They’re nice variations for the gameplay but nothing major to rely on, unless you’re highly skilled at avoiding damage.
There are also different modes of play, four of which must be unlocked by completing certain criteria in the previous mode. So you begin with Normal mode that has all the regular settings and progressions from level to level, then there’s Flight Terrors where you have to fly the entire time as the floor is
lava spikes, however there’s a leniency to this mode as you don’t have to worry about being penalized for enemies that make it past you. There’s also Endless Knight which does not have defined levels, so it’s just one unending run forever. This means that you cannot reach the end of a level to reset the counter for how many enemies made it past you. If you let three past, you’re done.
After Endless Knight there’s K-Type. Is this an R-Type parody? Anyway this is similar to Flight Terrors in that you have to stay airborne to avoid a spiked floor but the game suddenly becomes a shmup since you can throw knives infinitely in this mode. This may just be my favorite mode in Knight Terrors as it gets really hectic with bazillions of enemies on the screen. K-Type got my heart to race faster than the knight!
Finally, there’s Knightmare mode. They saved the hardest for last. Knightmare gives you an instant game over if you’re hit by any enemy once. You also get a game over if you let a single enemy pass. Forever. If these are the kinds of nightmares knights have then I never want to be a knight.
The controls are super simple to learn and they could’ve operated nicely on the two-button game pad of the NES, easily. This game is after all designed to be grabbed and played whenever you have a few minutes to spare, so it spares you the tedium of rules and metrics and other complications. In true NES fashion, however, you’re required to figure out the nature of the various modes, the best uses of the power ups, the behavior of the enemies, etc. all on your own by exploring the game through trial and lots of error. It’s a game you must become familiar with as you play it if you expect to get some decent high scores.
I would call Knight Terrors brutal. I have already discussed how like the old arcade games are. They demanded that you learn their ins and outs, perfect your wit and your skill, and develop some real recognition of patterns and timing. Knight Terrors is just the same. I barely unlocked Knightmare mode and I know I will not be able to make it very far there. Expect to see “Thy Game Is Over” a lot.
The few power ups and handful of modes don’t go as great a distance as does the addictive nature of the gameplay. Difficulty in quick succession is a proven trick to get players hooked on a game. I’m not generally a high scores kind of guy but when it’s related to unlocking goodies, something which wasn’t possible with the early arcade classics, you can be sure I’ll come back for more.
This game will surely remind you of something. It’s a cute and jagged little game with a lot of influences coming together to re-purpose and re-propose old ideas. It stands on tried-and-true methodology, and it isn’t very unique for it, but it’s designed to become a quick habit, nonetheless.
My Personal Grade: 5/10
I am both drawn to and frustrated by Knight Terrors. It is a very well put together, deliberate game that knows what it’s about and sticks too it. It’s small, compact, focused and I adore it for that. At times it feels like it’s unfairly hard but there’s nothing unfair in it. Essentially you’re given everything you need to succeed. It’s just a matter of your coordination and reflexes catching up to what your eyes are seeing. Knowing what I couldn’t done different a millisecond after I died is highly infuriating but I know that I’ll come back for more punishment when I need to kill some time.
Aggregated Score: 7.1
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to games writing. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a community of authors with paid contributors, an alternative to mainstream games writing! See our Patreon page for more info!