Yes, it’s finally an update to this list! This time I cover five games. One I like a lot, while the other four have some positives and negatives. With this update I’ve almost reached the end of the alphabet for digitally downloaded 2d games, but I have a handful more games to cover that I bought while working on this section of the list and decided to do at the end instead of in the beginnings of random other articles as I did several times before, so this category is not quite over yet.
Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge (2013, WinXP+) – 1 player, saves, gamepad supported. Ultionus is a classic-style platform-action game from Lost Dimension, a mostly one-person team who also made Mystik Belle, which I covered earlier. This one was his first game released on Steam. Like Mystik Belle after it, this is part modern platformer and part classic European computer game-inspired, but the two games are quite different. Where that game is part Metroidvania and part Dizzy-style sidescrolling adventure game, this one is a side-scrolling platform-shooter with some shmup levels starring a scantily-clad female protagonist. The game has an intentionally ridiculous story, as you are trying to … find … someone who said some mean things about you on Spacebook. Heh. The game apparently is pretty much a remake of a European ZX Spectrum game called Phantis, but as an American I’ve never played that game. It looks quite similar design wise-however, going by videos. One title this does remind me of, though, is W.U.R.M. for the NES. The two games are different, as Ultionus has no analog to W.U.R.M.’s boss battle system, but both games have female leads in a game that is part platformer and part side-scrolling shooter. Back in the ’80s to early ’90s game genres were not as set as they later became, so you saw more interesting crossovers that combine multiple genres into a single title, as W.U.R.M. or Phantis do.
So what is Ultionus? The game is a somewhat short but difficult platform-action title with big, very well drawn graphics and some gameplay variety as you go. Fairly traditionally, you can walk around, shoot, and that’s about it. Thankfully you do have a health bar, but depending on the enemy you can die quickly if you get hit. The controls are fine, but you do move slowly and somewhat stiffly. Your goal is usually to go to the right until you find the end of the stage, but there is a good amount of variety along the way, as some levels are linear, others are mazelike, and a few have you controlling a vehicle instead of walking. The variety is nice and helps keep the game interesting; if you dislike a stage, keep playing, the next level will probably be a bit different. There are only six or seven levels in this game, and they are not particularly long, but the game is hard enough that it will not be easy to finish, particularly if you choose to play on the higher difficulties, which give you limited lives. Fortunately there is also an easy mode which gives you infinite lives, and the game does save your progress after each level, but still the game is sometimes frustratingly difficult. In that classic style, the game makes up for its short length with high difficulty, and it mostly works.
I do have one significant complaint about the design here, though: as in games like Valis, this game absolutely LOVES to have enemies zoom in at you at high speeds which you only have an instant to react to. I’ve never liked the Valis series probably in large part because of that, and it’s no better here. The water level, where you are constantly being attacked by large dragons that pop up out of the sea at random, take several hits to kill, and kill you if they touch you, is really frustrating at times for example. I’m sure the original Phantis works just like this as well, but this annoying stuff is why I will never consider the Valis games to be great, and while it may not be quite as bad here it is sometimes an issue.
Graphically, just like Mystik Belle, Ultionus looks great. The game uses very large, detailed sprites with a nice cartoony art style and it is fun to play at times just to see the nice visuals. Each level has a different visual theme too, so there is variety here. The chiptune-style music is also good. So, overall Ultionus is a good game and I do like it despite its definite flaws. The game looks great, plays decently well though I do wish you could move faster, has some fun levels, and presents a good classic challenge, particularly if you want to beat it in the limited-lives modes. It is a short game with some really frustrating enemy speed and placement design issues, and I do like Mystik Belle more than this game, but the game is above average overall at least and is worth a look.
Umihara Kawase (1995/2015, WinXP+) – 1 player, saves (menu and settings stuff only, not game progress), gamepads supported (xinput only). Umihara Kawase is a modern port of a Japanese Super Famicom (SNES) game of that name, which had not had a Western release until this Steam release by Studio Saizensen and published by Degica. Umihara Kawase is a cult classic, and it is for the most part pretty good. You play as a Japanese schoolgirl traveling through a world full of platforms and fish-monsters. You can run and jump, but jumping on enemies kills you. Instead, inspired by Bionic Commando, you have a fishing pole with line which works like a grappling hook, a lot like that games’ bionic arm. You can throw the line in any direction, and then swing on it back and forth and pull in or let out the line to change the line’s length. Being able to change the line length is great, and is something Bionic Commando never did. On the other hand though, it is harder to swing from grapple point to grapple point in this game than it is in Bionic Commando; here that is very easy and is the core of the game, but here it is a tricky maneuver that will take a lot of practice to get used to. Easier swinging without landing would have been great here. Still, there is a lot you can do with the line, and your control over the line is the central focus of this game. Fortunately, the controls are great. Comparing Umihara Kawase to Bionic Commando, the two games are similar but different. Both focus on a swing mechanic, but beyond that they diverge, as Umihara Kawase focuses entirely on traversing difficult puzzle-style platforming challenges with your fishing line, instead of being both an action shooting game and a grapple-platformer as Bionic Commando is. You can defeat your fish enemies by hitting them with the fishing hook, but they will just respawn at random as you play so you always want to move forward if you can. I do prefer Bionic Commando to Umihara Kawase, but this is a pretty good game too with some great ideas.
As far as the gameplay goes, Umihara Kawase is very simple; this game is entirely focused on puzzle-platforming. There are 40 difficult stages to get through, and this is a very tough game, but there is minimal gameplay and graphical variation along the way. The graphics look nice for a Super Nintendo game and have held up well, but there are only a handful of enemy types and the stage environments and backgrounds all look similar. The levels, again, focus on difficult platforming challenges. Except for a couple of boss levels, your goal is to get to the exit on each stage. Some stages have multiple exits, allowing you to skip levels if you can find the hidden warp exits. The first couple of levels may seem simple, but the difficulty level goes up steeply, and very good line control is required. That’s great, but the game has a major flaw: the save system, or lack thereof. To complete all fourty levels you get ten lives, zero continues, and no saving allowed. Oh, and oddly all Umihara Kawase games for some random reason put the status screen info in the middle of the screen, instead of the top and bottom. I wish it was in the usual places, but you get used to this quickly. Anyway, you cannot save your progress or continue from any point other than the beginning, and in a game this difficult and memorization-based, that, for me, is a crushing flaw. This PC port does add a mode where you can play any level you have beaten in the main game, but you cannot progress to new levels from there so this does not fix the problem. They really should have put in a normal save system here, because it kinds of ruins the game. I love the controls and gameplay here, and the difficult grappling challenges can be a lot of fun to figure out, but having to start the whole game over constantly is not fun or rewarding. Definitely play Umihara Kawase, but play it with savestates in an emulator or something if you want to enjoy it. Also on Super Nintendo, in Japan only.
Valdis Story: Abyssal City (2013, WinXP+) – 1 player, saves, gamepad supported. Valdis Story is an indie Metroidvania action-platformer with a combo and cancel-based combat system. This game was originally a Kickstarter, but I got it from a bundle somewhere, I believe. This is an okay but flawed game that I don’t particularly like, but I don’t really dislike either. I can see why some people really like Valdis Story, but it does some significant things I don’t like. In the game you play as one of initially two but later four characters, two male and two female. You start out with two unlocked and get the others sometime later on. They are similar, but each has distinctly different gameplay and upgrade trees. The story is confusing at first and poorly explained, but there is a war between two goddesses, both of whom are turning humans into their allies, angels or demons. Humans who are neither angel or demon are becoming rarer, but the four main characters are still human. The game is set in the eponymous abyssal city, which sank into the earth early in the war between the two sides. The protagonists are from the surface but giant monsters sank your ship, so you descend to it. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t explain things very well and the story is confusing. The story is also perhaps a bit overly edgy at times, and is not the draw here. The gameplay is also lacking explanation, as there is no tutorial at all in this game despite it having a somewhat complex combat system and skill leveling mechanic. There is a manual which helps a bit, but even that lacks details of what some commands do. The game has other issues as well, including unbalanced difficulty, design which punishes you for not getting high ranks when you beat bosses, and a very bad map screen. There are things to like here, including some elements of the graphics, the great soundtrack, the controls, and the exploration, but Valdis Story has a bunch of little issues.
In the game you have a bunch of different moves, including a jump, block, weak and strong attacks, a cancel command on the Down button/arrow key, a magic button which you combine with directions in order to cast spells, and an Assist button to call a helper character. You can also wall-jump off of walls when you touch one. The controls are okay, and I do like how you grab onto platform edges when near them, but jumping puzzles can be frustrating in this game because of the large sprites and small platforms. The key elements of combat are the two attack buttons and canceling, as you must learn combos of the two attack buttons in order to do well in combat. I’ve never liked or been any good at combo systems, and it’s no better here than anywhere. Worse, maybe, because of the boss experience system I will describe later. The enemies block a lot too, so you will need to learn when to block or dodge-roll behind an enemy to attack them from behind. In order to roll, you have to press down to cancel and then forward or back to roll in that direction. You are invincible while rolling so it is a key maneuver, but activating it is a bit clumsy. I also don’t really understand the cancel system which you activate by hitting down on its own; I wish the game explained how that works, but it doesn’t. You use this button to cancel your current action into another one instantly, as in a fighting game, though while I like fighting games I’ve never been serious enough about them to care about canceling, but this game never explains how to use this or all you can do with it, while also requiring you to use cancels perfectly both in combat and for many puzzles. That’s annoying. I like the magic more, though you have limited and too-slowly-regenerating mana so you can’t always use your spells. There are six magic elements, and you unlock one spell per button that you press along with the magic-use button, starting with two at the beginning. The buttons are for up, down, air, and left/right. It is interesting that each button has its own unique spells so you may have to swap during combat if you really need to use multiple spells in the same category, but thankfully you can switch from the pause screen. On the whole the controls feel okay, and I like how fast you can move around the screen. I don’t like the combat very much though, and that’s a big issue since this is a combat-heavy game. This game gets hard fast, and I don’t enjoy this kind of combat enough to want to keep playing or learn to get better.
In terms of level design, as usual in Metroidvanias, maps are made up of many inter-connected rooms full of enemies, with gates that require various abilities and such you will need to return to once you get the required upgrade. The designs are fine but not especially memorable for this genre. The map is awful, though, as the pause or on-screen maps only show the rooms very near to your location, and there is no way to view a map of the whole game world. The map also has no details on it beyond marking doors, so it does not tell you where save rooms, chests, or anything are, and doesn’t tell you what direction you should be going in either; hope you can figure that out from the clues people give you, the map won’t help. Beyond enemies and jumping puzzles though, the game also has many chests that are locked behind puzzles you can only access with perfectly-timed moves to get to that door before it closes. Sometimes you will need to use specific cancels in the puzzles, and the harsh timings can be overly difficult, but at least it’s something different. All you get from most of these chest are crafting items though, and, yes, this game has crafting. it’s the simple kind of crafting, where you get stuff then turn them in for items, but as someone who hates crafting, I don’t think that reward makes me want to do lots of these puzzles. The other reward you get is experience from the enemies you kill, which you can use on skill points and skills as you level up. The game has big skill trees, and lets you put points in anything regardless of if it’s a good build or not. Some bosses may be immune to your specialty, but fortunately there is a guy who will respec you, so you may be required to go back and redo your skills late in the game if you chose the wrong skill setup. Of course you won’t know this until too late. I love the original Etrian Odyssey even though it does that but worse, but still it is annoying. Worse is the boss experience system: this game has a rating system after each boss fight, and you get bonus experience for higher ratings. Getting higher ratings is apparently very important if you want to do well later on in the game, but I’ve never been one to want to master the combat system in this kind of game so hearing about that makes me less likely to want to keep playing.
Visually, Valdis Story is fully sprite-based. The art design is okay, but not the best, and some things look kind of look pre-rendered in a not-great way. The backgrounds can look nice, but the game does seem a bit low-resolution at times. Some graphical elements are nice and detailed, but others look blurry; it’s an odd mix. There is a nice variety of areas in the game though. Aurally, I do really like the classical music-style soundtrack; that is definitely my favorite thing about this game. It’s quite good. Other than that, though, Valdis Story is average at best and kind of a disappointment. This is not a bad game, as the controls, basic fighting when you don’t need combos, and level traversal can be fun, but with a combat system I don’t like much, blurry visuals, a confusing and overdone story, and a bad map that doesn’t really tell you where you should be going, this game probably has more flaws than strengths for me but genre fans should give it a look. Also available on Mac on Steam, along with PC.
VVVVVV (2010, WinXP+) – 1 player, saves, gamepad supported. VVVVVV is, yes, a very difficulty retro-styled pixel-art platformer. It is also a quite short game. That may not sound original, but this games’ retro style is more Atari or ’80s computer game-inspired rather than NES or SNES, for a simpler and very pixel-ey look, and this is a good game thanks to good design and its key gameplay feature, gravity flipping. Sort of like the classic NES game Metal Storm, but focused entirely on this mechanic, at the press of a button gravity reverses and your character will fall to the other side of the screen, top or bottom. All you can do in this game is move your Atari-like pixel guy left and right and flip gravity, and your challenge is to get through each screen without touching any of the numerous obstacles. This is a pure avoidance and platforming game with absolutely no combat element, and it couldn’t be better for it! You move quickly and do skid a bit after you let go of the movement controls, but the game is designed around that and once you learn the controls, moving around is great fun. I really like the gravity-flip mechanic, it makes for some really fun gameplay. When you die it is your fault and not the controls, and this game is all about precise control so that is important.
The story in VVVVVV is that you are Captain Viridian, captain of a spaceship which has run into trouble. In the game, you will need to find your missing crewmates and then reach the end point in order to win. There are also several dozen optional shiny trinkets in often hard-to-reach areas for you to collect if you want some added challenge. Instead of scrolling this game flips between static screens, which works well for its design but can take some getting used to in the few areas with multi-screen puzzles. The world map is open and nonlinear, but it is also not hard to navigate as there is a map screen that fills in as you reach new screens, with details of what is on that screen, and the map has a sort of hub-and-spokes design, as there is a central area with side areas you will go to with each of your crewmates in them. I occasionally didn’t know where to go, but just trying to find ways to reach the currently blank parts of the map works well. The games’ world is simply designed, made up of only walls, spikes occasional moving or static obstacles of various styles, bounce lines that repel you, disappearing blocks, teleporters, checkpoints, and your other crew members and the trinkets. You learn the various game components quickly, the challenge is figuring out where to flip gravity in order to fall where you need to in order to navigate through the screen to your goal. It’s a tricky but fun challenge that I really like. You die in one hit though, but this isn’t as bad as it seems.
That is because when you do die, you get sent back to the last checkpoint, but the game has infinite lives and checkpoints are numerous. As a result, most of the time each screen or two are a stand-alone challenge and you will rarely need to replay things you have finished already unless you are backtracking somehwere because of something you missed. This is a style also seen in some other hard indie platformers like I Want To Be The Guy, but thankfully while it is a challenge, VVVVVV does not match that games’ crushing level of difficulty. While it is a quite challenging game, the simple design and good controls make this game fun to play and not too hard to progress in with practice. It is difficult at times, but it is a challenge that you can overcome surprisingly quickly. I have finished this game, unlike many titles on this list, and it took only two hours to do so. Fortunately, VVVVVV has a level editor and comes with a bunch of included alternate levels made by fans, most as long or longer than the main campaign, so if you like the game there is plenty more to do, even if it is all using the same graphics and music as the main game.
Visually, VVVVVV is a very simple-looking game. Sprites are small and mono-colored, the platforms and walls that make up most of the screen are made up of a lot of straight lines and bars and only a handful of colors themselves, and while there is parallax, it’s just stars flying by behind the screen, not anything more complex. Each screen also has a name on the bottom center of the screen, which is a nice touch. The game looks very much like an ’80s computer game, and that is surely the intention. It’s a simple but nice look and looks good. The chiptune-style soundtrack is pretty good too. It is a techno-style electronic music soundtrack which fits the game perfectly and sounds really good. Overall, VVVVVV is a very good game. This game released back in 2010, but with great mechanics, good controls, and great level designs with a perfect balance of challenge and fun, it is still one of the better indie platformers around. VVVVVV is very highly recommended; platformer fans really should play this game if you haven’t already. Unfortunately, creator Terry Cavanaugh has not made another platformer since; his only other paid title since this one is the amazing but impossibly hard arcade-style title Super Hexagon. That game is great even if I’ll probably never be anything other than terrible at it, but I’d love to see him make another platformer. The game is available for PC, Mac, and Linux on Steam; as always you get all three versions for one purchase.
Volgarr The Viking (2013, WinXP+) – 1 player, saves (optionally), gamepad supported. Volgarr the Viking is a Rastan-inspired 2d pixel-art sidescrolling action-platformer. The character style, controls, and core gameplay all come straight from Rastan crossed with Super Ghouls and Ghosts. Rastan is a hard game but SG&G is excessively difficult in my opinion, to the point where I don’t like the game much, and this game is right up there with it in challenge but manages to be fun anyway. As much as I do like this game when I can manage to stay alive, the difficulty is oppressively high. You play as a barbarian guy wearing not much, much like Rastan, and have to get through a succession of very hard levels along your quest. The controls are simple, just right for this kind of game. Volgarr can jump, swing his sword, and throw spears. And not only that, but like in Super Ghouls & Ghosts, you have a double jump but have zero air control, so you need to plan jumps carefully. Air control is nice, but you get used to these jumps with practice. Additionally, hitting down plus attack will do a downward attack to hit enemies or blocks below you, a button rolls forwards, and your throwing spears are not only an attack but will stick into walls to make platforms you can stand on as well. The controls are tight and very responsive, thankfully. because you die if you are hit when not upgraded. Those upgrades come from chests you will find along the way in each level. The first gives you a shield which can block two hits before breaking; the second, if you reach it with your shield intact, gives you a helmet that gives you an extra hit; and the last gives you a fire sword that is more powerful than your basic weapon. Getting hit when fully upgraded drops you down to just having the shield, though. And when you die, you go back to the start of the current section of the level. Levels generally are broken up into two parts, with the boss at the end of the second part… and no, the boss is not a separate part, so die at the boss and you have to redo the whole last long section of the level in order to get another chance. It’s intentional and incredibly annoying, just like the absence of additional checkpoints is.
So as that suggests, Volgarr is an oppressively hard game based entirely around memorization. Each level section is a lengthy linear path, and your goal is to memorize exactly what you should do at each moment in order to defeat your enemies as quickly as possible, avoid obstacles, and move forward. This is a classic-styled game, with level designs and challenges very similar to arcade platform-action games of the later ’80s to early ’90s, and there is a lot to like as you slowly learn each one as the levels are well thought through and carefully designed. Every challenge can be surpassed if you are able to do the right action at the right moment. You will face armies of lizardmen of various colors, spike traps, faces that shoot arrows at you, bottomless pits, plants spitting acid at you, and much more. The first level has a tropical jungle temple theme, interesting for a game starring a Viking, but it works and looks great. Each of the six levels has a different setting and enemy selection, and the challenge just gets higher as you go. The sprite art here, for both backgrounds and characters, is all really good work, just as good or better than those from most classic ’80s or ’90s platformers. There are some nice effects here and there as well, such as transparent waterfalls. The foreboding and yet adventurous music, with jungle drums and other sounds, is great, and the sound effects are really good as well. This game has some very good presentation. But then you die again, and are reminded that Volgarr’s basic design philosophy is “git gud or don’t bother playing”, and that is problematic for a lot of ways, including that not everyone is equally good at this kind of very demanding game, that some people may want to see the later parts without having to put in the extreme amounts of effort required and that is just fine, and such. There’s a lot to love here but also some serious issues.
The problem is, I rarely feel like I have much choice in this game; you just memorize what to do, then try to execute that if you can. The ‘there is one correct thing to do at each moment’ memorization is perhaps not quite as strict as it is in Splatterhouse 2 for the Genesis, but that is what most of this game is, and when you mess up, as mentioned previously, you are harshly punished. As much as I like the aesthetic and do find the game addictive for a while, the excessively high difficulty level loses me after a while and I have never gotten past early in the second level of this game, because by the time I finally beat the first boss I had had about enough. At least if you manage to beat a whole level the game does save that and let you continue from that point, but you cannot continue from those mid-level checkpoints if you quit the game, you will need to start over. With how long levels are in this game that is a real problem. And to add insult to injury, if you want the good “A” ending, you cannot save at all and need to play the game in one sitting, and without taking much damage either as there is a whole alternate level path if you can beat levels fully upgraded! of course, this does not carry over if you “skip levels” as they call it to start from somewhere other than the beginning of the game. There’s oldschool and then there is just obnoxious, and I think this game, like SG&G, crosses that line. Overall Volgarr the Viking is one part a fantastic, very well designed classic-style action-platformer with great controls, very difficult but also very well designed levels, addictive gameplay, and good graphics, sound, and music… and one part exceptionally difficult and frustrating game that hates you designed by a guy who requires the player to no-hit-clear the game in one sitting with no saves if they want the good ending. If you are either very good at games or into masochistically hard games Volgarr the Viking is an easy recommendation, play it now! If you aren’t, maybe give it a look; so far I have still only gotten to the first half of the second level of this game, but despite that I really like the game anyway, despite the designers’ unfortunate and frustrating “get good or don’t play” attitude. Also available, as a digital download only, for the Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo 3DS, and Playstation Vita. There is also a free, but officially-sanctioned, Sega Dreamcast version available for download if you want, which you can burn to a disc and play. I’ve tried the DC version and it is a good, very faithful port, lower-resolution graphics aside of course. They could have sold it I’m sure, there is a market for retail DC homebrew games, so it’s very cool they released it for free.