Oniken Review: Falling In That Pit Like It’s 1988

Platform: Windows PC
Developer: JoyMasher 
Publisher: JoyMasher
Release Date: 2/5/2014 (v2)


Oniken understands that 80s NES platformers are fun in the same way that 80s action movies are. There is a lot to be said for responsive controls, precise mechanics and fun enemy patterns, but that’s not why it’s cool when Strider Hiryu grapples a giant robotic worm in Strider, or when Ken Hayabusa loses his iconic moonlight duel in Ninja Gaiden (no, not that Ninja Gaiden). In Oniken, you’ll swing through trees, fight a cyborg polar bear while riding a hoverbike and grapple through laser grids. Oniken never forgets to be cool.

There is a story, technically. You play Zaku, a mercenary hired to fight a terrorist bent on taking over the world with robots. There is something about a hidden mainframe, and Zaku’s dark past (spoilers: he’s a good ninja trying to kill the bad ninja), but the story, told through Ninja Gaiden/Vice: Project Doom style cutscenes, is extremely thin, though the cutscenes do tend to drag on for a few minutes more than they should at times.


Zaku can run, jump, swing his sword and throw grenades. Each of these four actions feels good, and they always feel responsive. The grenade mechanic deserves extra praise, as its low arc, slight bit of splash area and extra damage all feel perfect. The only pickups are grenades and sword upgrades, the latter of which can be expended to activate the extremely overpowered Berserk Mode, in which Zaku becomes invincible for a few seconds and does significantly more damage.

Oniken is not as difficult as the sometimes unfairly hard games it emulates, but the second half of the game is still a stiff challenge. A casual speedrunner could easily finish in less than 30 minutes, but I spent I spent a solid three hours playing through the six story missions. A game over starts Zaku at the beginning of a level, and reaching a checkpoint means full health in the default difficulty. Oddly, bosses do not receive their own checkpoints, which means that learning the fairly simple boss patterns is a bit harder than it should be, but given their general simplicity it is not a major problem. One minor concern is that progress occasionally relies more on luck than skill, since item pickups are randomized. A couple of sword upgrades before a boss can potentially end the fight in seconds.


The new version of Oniken on Steam is Version 2, which does not change anything dramatically but includes some welcome upgrades. A couple of levels have been reworked, including a significantly streamlined opening, a hard mode limits Zaku to a single life and doubles enemy damage while a boss rush challenges players to fight every boss with a single health bar. Finally, an additional mission that plays more like Contra than Ninja Gaiden unlocks after the credits roll. Steam leaderboards are supported, but only take the total of each level’s high scores. Oniken is also available on Mac and Linux through already applied wrappers.

All of the extra content is appreciated, but the bulk of the gameplay is spent mastering the six core levels, slowly turning Zaku into the unstoppable warrior he deserves to be. I never stopped having fun with Oniken, and it never stopped finding new ways to make me feel as badass as I did playing Strider a decade and a half ago. That’s about the best compliment I can pay a game like this.

A review copy of the game was provided by JoyMasher.