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1001 Spikes Review: ‘Til Death Do You Part
“You are dead!” are the haunting words you’ll see all too often in 1001 Spikes. Rooted in the nitty gritty challenge of 8-bit, coin-eating arcade games of the ’80s, Nicalis Inc.’s retro platformer wants to kill you. A lot. As perpetually frustrating as it is immensely rewarding, 1001 Spikes breaks your resolve right before bringing it back in what’s undoubtedly one of the most challenging platformers in recent memory. Love it, hate it, or just plain fear it, 1001 Spikes’s murderous trials test your mettle in ways your fingers won’t soon forget.
You play as Aban Hawkins, an adventurer out to impress his good ole’ dad when he’s told about a treasure buried within the Ukampa ruins. It’s supposedly worth a fine chunk of change, but it’s going to take some work getting through the Poko-mum door to acquire it. That’s all thanks to the ruins’ devilish traps, and by that we don’t mean Wily Coyote trap doors. In Ukampa, there’s literally something deadly around every bend with your name on it, whether it’s spikes in the ground, a dart-spewing tiki-head, or a host of nasty little critters you’ll have to squash to trudge on, blood-stained spikes and all.
The scene is all straight out of an 8-bit textbook, with endearing animations, deceptively simple level design, and adorable sprites. Its impeccable soundtrack’s chip-tune flavor beautifully complements its old-school graphics. There’s a story of sorts to be had here with Aban’s adventure of family and intrigue, nothing Shakespearean mind you, but a kind pleasant framework to wrap around your reason to die on end. Its sound effects are excellent, albeit a bit sparse at times, and you’ll no doubt tire of its game-over jingle, but for the old-school, 1001 Spikes is unadulterated 8-bit wonder.
True to its retro roots, 1001 Spikes dumps you headfirst into its lethal barrage. You’ve got 1001 lives (which can be replenished) to live at the game’s start, but even that number will echo how small it seems in endless death. Beyond what tutorials its first few levels offer before you progress into the ruins themselves, there’s no hand to hold you and few shoulders to cry one but your own from then on. Each level has you in search of a key and the door it opens. What’s challenging is bringing one to the other, and harder still is the trick of getting to either without closing off a key passage to both in what amounts to a mind-boggling puzzle.
Akin to a pixelated Dark Souls, Aban’s time is most often spent surviving by trial and error. One minute you could be standing on a crumbling block. In another you could be dancing across a mine-field of spikes racing to save your life, and all in the first second you begin. From the get-go, the game deliberately makes sure you’ll suffer defeat and you’ll surely do, only to pick yourself up and try, try again. Death may hardly seem fair at times because of it, and maybe just a bit cheap, but the result is something nonetheless addicting.
And at least Nicalis gives you the tools to make that happen. Like everything in 1001 Spikes, less is more, and it’s the same for its control scheme. You have a small jump, a big jump, and darts that you can shoot like bullets, and you’ll probably use them more often than not. Level demands the most from all three of these abilities, methodically and strategically timing each in tune to every moving platform and leaping fireball. On the 3DS, the d-pad’s your most likely button of choice to accompany the game’s side-scrolling mechanics than its more 3D-oriented circle-pad, but the challenge is no less daunting either way.
1001 Spikes is certainly the sort of game that rewards perseverance, though it only does so given sheer will. You’re given the merciful ability to saving your progress after beating any level, which is a thankful inclusion. Otherwise, it’s still up to you to conquer a level the best way you know how. It’s a trial by fire that only gets harder the quicker the spikes and the more plentiful their number becomes. In addition, you can find bonus skulls to unlock more in-game goodies including extra playable characters, though collecting them isn’t quite as easy as it seems, by yourself or in the game’s hectic co-op. At times it’s all too exhausting of a process, but one hard not to be invested in. “You won’t beat me, I’ll beat you!” I often screamed inside, and it’s no doubt what made me smile every time I crossed that finish screen.
There’s no easy way to pave your way through the game’s six crazy worlds, and even then, it has plenty more to offer beating your times or playing with a friend. While the impatient may waver early in, the most devoted will find a lot to like and even something to love if not only occasionally curse. As a fitting tribute to the games of yesterday and a jewel to the hardest core gamers, 1001 Spikes is nothing more than a treat in whatever doses you can handle. Just make sure to clear your schedule for a lot of dying.