Developed by critically acclaimed indie studio Nicalis, 1001 Spikes is their ode to the merciless side-scroller games of yore – but does it hold up in modern standards? I took a dive in and found out.
To begin, I’m going to warn you that story is some sort of Indiana Jones-esque tale about an archaeologist family, which I never saw an end to. Not that it really matters though, as the story isn’t supposed to be the driving force in this tough-as-nails platformer.
Presented with pixel art that contains your usual slate of block-based levels – ranging from jungles and temples, to arctic caverns and lava pits – 1001 Spikes definitely has a range of retro-styled deathtraps. The playable characters (Alan Hawkins and friends) are of a very simple design that contrasts well against the more detailed backgrounds and blocks of the game world. This game looks right at home if you put it next to any other 8-bit games, even though it does not use the limited 8-bit colour palette they’re famous for.
The sounds of 1001 Spikes are quite enjoyable as well. While there isn’t much in the way of sound effects, there is a variety of moody chip-tunes that mix well with the dangerous nature of the game. On the other side of that point however, this game has no unique presentation – it’s just a simple 2D side-scroller trying to appeal to a sense of nostalgia that I am (sadly) just too young to have acquired.
As for controlling 1001 Spikes, it’s simple; you have a small jump, big jump, and projectiles to get through several temples and caverns that contain a multitude of various platforms, spikes, boulders, and scorpions to overcome. Each level consists of grabbing a key before getting to the locked door – which is generally placed on the far right – to advance on to the next level. Sometimes the levels also have a bonus idol you can go out of your way to grab, netting you unlockable costumes, characters, levels, and alternate single player game modes (the Vita version has no multiplayer) for your trouble.
Not so hard right? WRONG.
Slogging through the completely hellish linear hallways of 1001 Spikes is entirely trial and error. You’ve got to know where the spikes are (and aren’t), as well as whether to make a big jump or little jump at a specific time, or even which platforms will hold you aloft in a specific order. No strategy guide will help with the grueling nature of this game, and these are generally not obstacles that you can react to and overcome right away. You usually just get a spike in the ass and a new lease on life (literally), where you get to try it all over again. I just didn’t find this type of gameplay entertaining for very long (let alone fun), because there is no room to approach these obstacles differently. If you’re the kind of person who likes a challenge though – step right up ’cause this game has difficulty in spades.
That said, there are a couple consistent visual cues to prepare for some of the traps you face – but they’re few and far between… even more hidden spikes (oh lord, someone get me some alcohol to put on these wounds!). On top of that, the levels also hold some version of variety in themselves from what I played; some are speed-based and are meant to be ran through without stopping, while others seemingly require patience and timing. In the end, the game almost always requires memorizing the patterns – a gameplay element which I did not dig.
Because of the way the game punishes you, I felt claustrophobic and anxious for the first few lives and levels – however that quickly faded into rage after my first few hundred lives or so. The skip level button looks friendlier with every death, poking me with its false hope, to the point where I ended up skipping over half the game. Then that got me nowhere, because apparently beating all the levels is required to unlock the final world and ending. I found at that point that I had no motivation to try and get through any of the levels again, and am simply dumbfounded as to why there was even a skip button to begin with – if I have to beat all the levels, just make me do it! The generous amount of lives supplied in this game also lessened any fear I would otherwise have of dying/restarting the game, then combined with the multiple consecutive tries that quickly made levels feel repetitive and tedious. The levels I legitimately managed to get through took anywhere from 1 to 40 lives to pass, and as such any satisfaction after conquering the handful of levels I did beat was always quickly ruined with the world map serving as a wonderful reminder that the ending was nowhere in sight.
I can see that 1001 Spikes is a modern game developer’s ode to the difficult games from back in the day, and that it’s someone looking for a hard game or someone who feels that nostalgia might enjoy – unfortunately, I am not old enough to feel that sense to it. For me it was a painful experience which I never hope to have to go through again – and thinking back, maybe it was intended to (and did) break me.
Hopefully you’re not as easily broken, and if so, maybe give this one a try – just don’t come crying when you have to sell your soul to finish the damn thing (haha), as you’ve been thoroughly warned. 😉