I’ve been working my way through Earthbound Beginnings, the first entry in the Mother series, now that Nintendo has released it in North America at long last. It’s like stepping into an alternate history of stunningly weird JRPGs, a timeline on which Space Funeral wouldn’t seem the least bit jarring. It’s pretty great.
For all its considerable charms and unexpected twists, minute to minute it’s kind of a grindy mess—almost a self parody of random battles interrupting your momentum every few steps and each meaningful piece of progress requiring battle after samey battle, stat increase after arbitrary stat increase. The game’s enchantingly straight-faced wackiness is buried beneath a prickly, brittle, samey slog.
There can be a great distance between what games meant when they were new, what it felt like to play them back then on the one hand, and on the other, how it feels to play them now. Games like Earthbound Beginnings are foundational—the Mother series really did reconfigure what an RPG could be, at least within its own niche of influence—and they’re rightly deified as classics, but in some ways they’re inescapably immature. Game design has come a long way.
This brings me to Odallus: The Dark Call, which shares Shovel Knight’s preoccupation with constructing a credible NES-style experience, souped up and mutated in carefully chosen ways. It begins from the design sensibilities and general aesthetic of an NES game, then retrofits the philosophies and technologies that have emerged since onto that template.
Critically, the goal here isn’t to make something that feels like a NES-era game so much as to bottle the lightening of what made NES games interesting, from uncompromising challenge to expressive low-res audiovisuals. These NES revivalist games are the nexus of nostalgia, game design scholarship, maddeningly specific engineering problems, and alternate histories.
I try to explain the tone and premise of Shovel Knight to people by asking them to imagine that Don Quixote and Mega Man are the same character. I could maybe draw a similar Venn diagram for Odallus, crossing Simon Belmont with the protagonist of the pirate comic-within-a-comic in Watchmen, all open, pulpy horror, vivid and earnest and over the top.
That’s fertile ground, since there’s so much that has disappeared from horror games in particular since the 8-bit era. Odallus takes on, for example, the original Castlevania’s approach to color—punctuating gloomy vistas and dessicated cobblestones with lurid strings of acid and pastel. It makes the environments and enemies feel alive and, yes, scary in a way that dim lights and gray-browns simply couldn’t—not with such small units of visual information.
It’s an aesthetic all about evoking a lot using only a little, about making every minute choice count—and it does wonders for the pixelated grotesques on offer.
The game is, in places, too loyal to the format of its forebearers. Most prominently, it uses a somewhat irksome, mostly-traditional lives system. Important doors remain opened, and important switches remain pressed, even after a Game Over—but still, having lives there at rarely adds challenge or tension. It mostly just adds a commute.
And while it’s neat that the gameplay is framed in a 4:3 ratio, there’s no real need to clutter the margins of my 16:9 screen with inventory and whatnot. Black bars would have done just fine. These are, of course, minor missteps. Not deal-breakers by any means. On the whole, Odallus is a more than worthy way to revisit a vivid moment in platforming, adventuring, horror, and minimal-maximal visual design.
I know that I’ll finish Earthbound Beginnings, and I know that I’ll be glad I did. But I also have a feeling I’ll end up enjoying Odallus more.
Game design has come a long way.