Meme-Based Characters Need Not Apply: 88 Heroes Review

Posted in Kulturecade by - August 21, 2017
Meme-Based Characters Need Not Apply: 88 Heroes Review

When I discussed Little Nightmares a few weeks ago, I mentioned that as much as I love the simple pleasures of many budget titles we are blessed with in the current console generation, I was sure to mention that I definitely don’t view each one with a consistent level of enthusiasm simply for being released on physical copy. When it came to Little Nightmares, my concern was over the inherent laziness a developer might fall victim to when attempting to create a new game for the puzzle-platformer genre, as there are so many games like that coming out lately that it can be hard to figure out which ones are good or bad. In that same vein, another thing that concerns me sometimes is when smaller titles rely too heavily on the retro-style fad that Hotline Miami, Undertale, and Shovel Knight have been so praised for on top of their altogether incredible gaming experiences. It can be scary even to log on to the PlayStation Network or Steam and see legions upon legions of indie titles that go out of their way to look like they were released on the NES or Genesis, with pixels and low-count color palettes galore, and wonder which ones are actually made with the same dedication and understanding as Stardew Valley and the like, and which ones are as soulless as the schlock LJN and THQ used to put out in their early days.

The anxiety over a game’s motives and potential to simply miss the point, for lack of a better phrase, is palpable when firing up 88 Heroes, a game that would pass with flying colors if judged solely on its theme and its adherence to that theme. An old-school platformer developed by Bitmap Bureau, 88 Heroes, goes all in on its core concept based around the numbers 8 and 88, as you traverse through 88 2D levels with a time limit of 88 seconds per level, and 88 minutes overall to complete the game, as displayed by a timer on the main villain’s control panel in the game’s foreground. The final, integral piece of the “eight” theme is in the titular 88 heroes that you control throughout the game, each of whom is unique in their design and control, while all representing one chance for the player to complete a level, and, of course, are equally hopeless as far as being video game protagonists. As the story goes, the villain, Dr. H8 has threatened the world with a barrage of, you guessed it, 88 nuclear missiles, but for some reason, the true heroes of Earth are too busy to help, resulting in the employment of this ragtag army of ineptitude.

The roster of unique nobodies is clearly what the developers spent the most time on in making the game, and luckily, their devotion to a robust cast of characters pays off with far more hits than misses. Among the entire ranks, there are several characters that are useless for actually making progress, as well as some where the concept/joke they were going for simply falls flat (a unicyling panda that moves with reversed controls and a character based on Rick Astley, respectively, come to mind), but I can probably count on both hands the number of characters that fit one or both of those descriptions. And while each one has a unique ability or sense of control, they are, thankfully, very simple and straightforward, and mostly easy to understand before you venture out into the level to get them blown into a million pixels.

All-around, the game is rather funny, both in its character design and in its presentation, such as how the gameplay takes place on a massive monitor with Dr. H8 watching in the foreground, making snide remarks about your performance and scolding his robotic servants as they pass by and offer him tea and such. It makes getting a bad character who serves little gameplay purpose beyond cannon fodder a little bit less frustrating when they make you laugh a bit, and makes the good characters better until you whittle it down to a core group of successful heroes that you begin to cling to in the later levels.

But whereas 88 Heroes has wisely put a lot of time and effort into its titular cast and making sure to cash in on the quirky humor that would make it stand out, but as a result, seemed to put a lot less into making a title with as much spectacle or substance in its more traditional areas of play. The 88 levels in the game take place over the course of only four different types of area (office building, sewer, castle, and factory), and with the 88 second time limit (which starts over if you lose a life) actually being more than enough to complete most levels, there isn’t actually a whole lot to see in each one besides the same few enemies that fit that area and the new ways that their arrangement will ruin your day. There are a few spots where the layout will randomly match up with the abilities of a certain character and give you a new way to beat a level, but it doesn’t happen frequently enough to improve the overall impression of the level design.

As a matter of fact, the defining characteristic of most of 88 Heroes’ levels is simply that they’re quite difficult, in spite of their short length. But within that difficulty is the unusual ability to flip back and forth between good and bad difficulty, or even to allow both kinds of difficulty to coexist, although that will inevitably lead to the mathematical principle of making the whole thing the bad kind, like multiplying a positive by a negative. Castlevania-esque enemy placement and platforming design is commonplace, requiring solid timing and preparation, but can also be overtaken by the game sometimes simply banking on the character you’re controlling being one of the garbage ones, which feels kinda cheap and sours the good moments a bit. There’s a lack of consistency between clever design, poor design, and merely adequate design that only seems like a failure because the length of the game gives the bad parts too many chances to come through, while the random nature of the whole thing (having a particular character come up when you’re on a stage that’s good or bad for them) is too hit or miss to benefit the game, even though it adds some intrigue.

88 Heroes deservedly stands out amongst the pseudo-retro crowd for its intriguing concept and its success in fleshing it out — the cast could easily have gone the way of so many “101 Ways to…” books, grasping at straws by the time they hit the number 60 — but fails to impress on the same level in other areas that contribute to the overall gameplay. If you were to take out all the wacky characters and instead play the entire thing with, say, Mario, or Mega Man, the whole thing would be mediocre at best, but the characters add so much variety and flavor to the whole thing that they’re the only thing that really elevates it above that level. There’s absolutely some replayability to it, given how many characters you’ll only play for a few seconds depending on how tough the level you’re on is, not to mention it’ll take at the very least a few tries to make it all the way to the end. Of course, by the time you are good enough to play the game all the way through, the humor is a non-factor, and your enjoyment is entirely reliant on the characters, which may or may not be starting to drain you if they’re not your favorites. That being said, there’s still a decent amount of enjoyment to be had before the game starts to feel old, and overall that enjoyment is probably worth the $20 price tag for a physical copy, given the idea that you’ll enjoy seeing the crazy characters and trying out their unique control styles and abilities.

This post was written by
He is a video game staff writer and dreamed of being a video game as a young boy. Then somebody told him that you can't really do that, so he compromised by doing a bunch of stuff related to that, playing video games, reading about video games, writing about video games, working at a video game store, and all those good nerdy things. Aside from video games, he's also a dork of all trades, with an interest in heavy metal music, wrestling, sports, and Magic the Gathering.
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