I ain’t got time to bleed.
One common theme in art interpretation and art criticism seems to me to be the significance of the context of culture and history. The more I think about it, the more this emphasis seems crucial. After all, placing a creative work into the correct frame of cultural-historical context seems beneficial toward a correct interpretation, whether it’s a piece of music, a stone relief, an oil painting, or a mechanical novelty. Knowing the music is Late Baroque, or the relief is Grecian, or the painting is impressionism, or the mechanical novelty is 21st century Swedish allows the observer to understand what the creator, the artist, might not just have said but meant by their work, given the context. If we know that light was a frequent theme in Gothic architecture or chiaroscuro was developed in part by Rembrandt, then that helps give us interpretive factors.
I believe this is still an important sensibility with video games, despite the comparative youth of the medium. Constructing an interpretive climate is likely easier for games given the clear trends and definitive generations their short 50-year history, but this benefits us by helping to identify influences and inspirations, as well as throwbacks and historical references, for individual titles. Again, why is this at all important? Because it supports us to better interpret and better define.
Such is the case with Oniken, a title with immediately apparent influences.
Oniken will remind those old enough to remember of the 8-bit era coin-op arcades and home consoles. More specifically than that, Oniken summons the ghosts of games like Ninja Gaiden and Contra, two popular, if not iconic, games categorized in the “hardcore retro” field for their brutal difficulty and their demands for extreme timing from the player. Also cited by Brazillian developer JoyMasher (Danilo Dias, Pedro Paiva, Thais Weiller, Marco Galvão) are Shadow of the Ninja, Vice: Project Doom, Bad Dudes, and Kabuki Quantum Figther.
JoyMasher’s website proudly bears the motto: “We know retro.” I’m inclined to believe them after playing this game. Oniken is a work for which authenticity is key. It’s a kind of period piece, if you think about it; you’ll find that that sense of accuracy to the past influences nearly everything about the game, not merely with the obvious visuals.
For instance, one of the dominant story-forms in the games of the late 80’s and early 90’s was that of the action hero. Those of us in our late twenties and early thirties can likely picture in our minds the greasy, sweaty hulking and hyper-masculine super-soldier with his tattered tank top, ripped arms, face paint, bandana, and sword/heavy machine gun. Inspired by so many movies of the era, this embodiment of violence and virility is a cultural landmark. As such, that embodiment worked its way into video games, especially those licensed games directly based on action movies, of course.
With Oniken, the Schwarzennegars, Stallones, Fords, and Eastwoods coalesce into the figure of a lone ninja, sprinkled with a dash of Fist of the North Star and Strider. Oniken follows ninja mercenary Zaku, humanity’s last hope in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by war and death bots. Zaku meets up with the resistance against this world’s brand of evil masterminds, the mechanical military Oniken. He is armed with naught but a few grenades, his trusty blade, and his inhuman physical prowess (which may vary depending upon the skill of the player…).
All the mullets in the world can’t contain this much awesome.
As we continue to unpack this idea of contextual authenticity, I’d be doing the game a disservice if I didn’t discuss the tribute of its visuals to a bygone age. Immediately, it should be said that the indie 8-bit throwback is not uncommon. The 8-bit and the 16-bit eras likely represent a majority of the “pixel art” and “retro” indie games on the market today. While they can evoke feelings of nostalgia, there are clearly some titles which do the transportive experience back in time better than others.
Oniken, I can say with confidence, does this very well. The choice of font, the miniature icons, the predominance of pitch black in the menus and title screens, parallax scrolling, and of course the pixel art itself all point back with fondness to the 8-bit era and most specifically the NES. Oniken’s deliberately limited color palette appears grungey and desolate, but by design, it upholds its sense of integrity: deep blues and rusty reds are the colors of the day.
Perhaps the subtlest effect is Oniken’s emulation of CRT monitor scanlines, blurring, and bevelling. I began playing Oniken in handheld mode on my Switch so I didn’t notice this effect right away. That’s why I’d call it subtle. However, it is unmistakably there and it created this illusion for me that the graphics were stretching in odd ways as I played the game. That’s when I noticed that the edges and corners of the in-game display were beveled, resembling a CRT display. The center of the screen bowls outward, creating a very slight fish-eye lens effect. Coupled with the scanlines (horizontal lines dividing pixels across the screen) and the blurring of the graphics, there’s a tremendous amount of historical faithfulness here, despite the screen ratio that never really existed with CRTs.
Once I took the game to the big screen in the Switch’s docked mode, the blurring became even more impressive. Oniken matches the way old CRT monitors split pixels and colors so sometimes you’ll see red, green, or cyan hanging off the edge of sprites and objects. It’s not overdone or gratuitous here, which I think is important to mention, but it creates a primordial quality that reminds me of the days when I was just learning how to play video games. This is more than just nostalgia. This is about accuracy.
The only other game I can think of which managed the 8-bit aesthetics as well or better is the modern classic Shovel Knight (which famously even composed its soundtrack with the original NES sound chip). Typically, games of this cloth indulge themselves with the opulence of minor 3D effects, a myriad of sprites on screen at the same time, or unique color palettes beautiful but completely alien to the 8-bit era, things that simply could not have existed then. If anything, Oniken really seems like it could have been made in 1989, just executed with utmost precision.
Heavy on the garbled metal, electric riffs, and percussive noise of the 8-bit era, Oniken treads a path musically between the atmospheric and the melodic. While playing the game, I rarely took notice of the music but that might be a symptom of having to be so focused on the action.
Listening to the Oniken soundtrack in isolation, I found it fits the era it aspires to and it has a kind of catchiness to it that screams authenticity. Perhaps it’s for the best that it’s not so distracting in the game itself. I definitely needed all the focus I could muster to get through this game!
Instead of a run-and-gun, Oniken is a slasher action-platformer where the emphasis lies on melee attacks and player positioning rather than blasting away with a series of upgradable weapons. In fact, Oniken can come off as positively bleak in this regard. There aren’t many power-ups in the game. Health, laser swords, and grenades are the three main items you can pick up, with the odd extra life hidden here and there. Enemies do not drop power-ups or bonus health items at all. You are mostly left to your wits and your agility to get through stages.
When playing Oniken for the first time, you’ll likely notice just how fast-paced it is. Zaku’s sword swipes and jumps are extremely nimble, but then so are enemies. Projectiles also move quickly and things can go from bad to worse in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful. Oniken is all about the precision required to make it through each level, carefully dispatching foes one by one so as not to be overwhelmed on the steady march to the end of each mission. Zaku might be depicted in those cutscenes as standing effortlessly and unscathed among the bodies of his fallen enemies, but there is a lot of scathing that you’re going to see.
Given how few abilities Zaku has at his disposal, Oniken is easy to learn how to play. “Easy to learn, hard to master” goes the old maxim. Maybe in this case it’s “easy to learn, hard to play, impossible to master”? Still, Oniken has very simple button mapping. One button jumps, another attacks with Zaku’s sword. Pressing up and the attack button causes Zaku to lob a grenade, which can be tossed mid-jump, essential for making it through the game. This simple control scheme is yet another instance where Oniken remains faithful to the past; this is a game which can be played without issue on an original NES controller.
While the missions (stages) in Oniken are not long and there are only six of them, the checkpoints are seemingly far between given the speed and deadliness of the enemies in your path. Diabolical machines, mines and spikes, other ninja, bionic warriors, minibosses and bosses, and even a mechanoid polar bear will force any player to think quickly or die.
Maybe the only forgiving design choices (besides for the checkpoints for your mere trio of lives) are infinite continues and your health bar. You can (and will) lose your three lives often, but you won’t be forced to start from the very beginning of the game, just from the beginning of the level. This can still prove a major difficulty, as with the stage that opens with a fight against multiple elite hitmen sent to kill you. As for the health bar, just be glad that this isn’t a one-hit-death kind of game. It’d be impossible. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Oniken handles difficulty well in that it makes it a part of its tone and marketing, it has an immediately steep curve that doesn’t let up, it remains consistent, it keeps the stages from being over-long. It’s “retro hard” and proud of it, though whether that’s appealing to everyone will vary. Oniken cherishes player skill above nearly everything else, but the combination of high accessibility and high difficulty means the game overs are going to be on your head.
I should think that Oniken’s sheer difficulty actively works against its replay value. Likely, the developers believed the same. They introduced a boss rush mode and bonus stages to the mix, as well as a hardcore mode where you have to beat the game on a single life (whaaat?!), but as these are very much focused around the core of the game that is already difficult as it is, I don’t see that they provide that much replay value. There were already so many segments in this game, such as the vertical escape from the burning tree, that had me thinking “oh no…”.
After all this talk about how authentic Oniken is to the 8-bit age and specific titles from the NES, I’m tempted to say it’s not very unique at all. However, I think that’s a superficial observation at best. Oniken was originally released for PC in 2012 and is here being re-released as the Unstoppable Edition in 2019. However, its ability to touch upon a period some 30 years removed from our modern time is astounding in its legitimacy. Many indies toss out buzzwords like “retro” and “pixel art”. Few deliver on those premises as genuinely as Oniken!
Yet another factor must be considered, though. Oniken: Unstoppable Edition shares a re-release launch date with its sister title, Odallus: The Dark Call, also developed by JoyMasher. Both games are highly reminiscent of the NES, with Odallus tackling the genealogies of Castlevania and Metroid, while Oniken focused on Ninja Gaiden and Contra. The one-two punch of these twins released side by side is a nice touch, and their differing perspectives on the past highlight two distinct evolutionary branches within gaming, though of course, comparing their similarities is irresistible.
Our own Mail Order Ninja Mage has completed his critique on Odallus: The Dark Call, so if you want to learn more about that flavor of retro by JoyMasher, check it out!
Personal grade: 6/10
When I was younger, I played a lot of NES. Well, to be honest, I still do play a lot of NES. It wasn’t my first system (which was the C64 if I remember right) but it is a system which makes up so much of my DNA as a gamer. That said, I didn’t get into Ninja Gaiden or Contra very much as a lad. I can remember playing Contra but I don’t think I even touched Gaiden back in the day. Likely, I simply didn’t have the chops to beat it (and I still don’t)! Therefore, all of Oniken’s attributes remembering Contra and Gaiden are somewhat lost on me, though of course its time-machine qualities taking us back to the NES and the cultural context of the late 1980’s are not. I think it’s an incredible period piece of a game but it might simply be too hard to be very palatable to me.
I’d like to thank JoyMasher for providing us with a copy of their game for this critique.
Aggregated Score: 6.9
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Categories: Game Review