An 8-Bit Love Letter
When playing a retro-inspired game I always look for a very particular feeling of nostalgia. That ongoing search has not been fulfilled yet, but 2014’s Shovel Knight brought me extremely close. Shovel Knight, although amazing, seemed to have peppered some modern elements throughout the experience that made it feel a bit too clean. I may be the only person who feels this way, but something just seemed wrong about comparing it to an NES game. Its graphics were too crisp. It consisted of fluid parallax scrolling, detailed animations, and a tad too much polish for my liking. So even though I adored Shovel Knight, I didn’t get the particular feeling of remembrance or recollection that I once had playing an NES game for the first time. So, the search continued for the “new” game that somehow recreated the magic of an old NES adventure. I was still desperately seeking for a feeling that I’ve been yearning for since I packed the NES away and filled its shelf space with a shiny new Sega Genesis. I want to rip the cellophane off of a brand new Nintendo game and explore a world on my own without internet or guide books to help me reach a triumphant conclusion. Well, the search has been a long and tiring one, but I’ve finally found perfection in “new” 8-bit form. Alwa’s Awakening is the retro-inspired game I’ve been searching for. Well, minus the whole ripping cellophane part.
When I fired up Alwa’s Awakening for the first time, I immediately noticed something that will make any NES lover fall in love with a game almost instantly. The start screen music will put a smile on anybody’s face who grew up playing an NES. Overall, the music in Alwa’s Awakening is hands down the best chiptune soundtrack I’ve ever heard. Composed by chiptune artist Robert Kreese, the soundtrack consists of over 25 of the catchiest tunes I’ve ever had stuck in my head in all my years of playing NES. Each and every track is memorable and feels perfect in every area of the game it’s presented in. My wife, who would probably laugh at me if she knew I listened to chiptune music while driving, was humming along to the music unknowingly as I was playing. I haven’t fallen in love with a video game’s music since the original Castlevania, but I can safely say that Alwa’s Awakening is on my list of top 3 chiptune soundtracks of all time. It really is that good.
I mentioned previously that Shovel Knight seemed too clean to be considered an NES game, with its subtle animations and crisps backgrounds, but you’ll find none of that with Alwa’s Awakening. This may sound like a bad thing, but if you’re going for a NES inspired game that feels 100% authentic, it fits the mold. This looks and feels just like a game you’ve played on your NES back in the 80’s. The sprites are cute and look nice, but they’re not super clean, and the environments are simple yet elegant. Pixelated mountains and forests look stunning and developer Elden Pixels made sure not to go overboard and fill the TV screen with eye candy. Underground caves are set against simple black backgrounds and 8-bit water animates as it should for an overall package that ends up making you feel like you are playing this game on an NES.
In addition to the game’s background and environments, all the characters in the game are memorable and full of charm. I giggled like a school girl when I bashed an enemy with my staff for the first time and one of his eyes bulged out à la River City Ransom. You’ll find while playing that there are several nods to the classics sprinkled throughout the game’s world. I ran into one particular knight who looked very similar to Arthur (gold armor and all) from the Ghouls ‘N Ghosts series. He explained that he was retired now and just lived peacefully in a shack at the far end of the game’s map. Good to know that Arthur had finally found peace and can enjoy his life now, but Princess Prin Prin was noticeably missing. These little references to the games of our childhood are placed sporadically and didn’t overwhelm to the point that they seemed forced.
So the story is pretty simple and easy to follow, as it should be. The town of Alwa was a peaceful town full of people who enjoyed life and loved helping one another. Everything was perfect, that is until the evil mystical being known as Vicar wanted the land for himself. Vicar descended upon Alwa and began enslaving its people. Once he ruled over the land he appointed followers known as “The Protectors” to destroy Alwa’s towns and locate magical items called ornaments, which grant their owners immense power. With Vicar and The Protectors ruling the land and obtaining the ornaments the people of Alwa were completely lost and powerless. After centuries of darkness, the people have now decided to fight back. One of the village elders has found a way to summon a heroine who has the ability to lead the charge to stop the evil Vicar and regain control of the ornaments as well as the town.
You begin the game as the summoned heroine Zoe and are told to search a part of the world for a magic staff to help you on your journey. This staff has the ability to be upgraded and can eventually make blocks to help access unreachable areas of the map. This is where most gamers will notice the Metroidvania-style gameplay. The player starts the game with just the basic staff that can be used to beat over enemies’ heads, and once upgraded and able to form blocks, a whole new area of the map will be reachable. Once that area is completed Zoe will upgrade her staff again but this time to make bubbles to help her gain even higher ground. This bubble combined with a block will help Zoe reach several uncharted areas of the map. Then Zoe will obtain another upgrade and so on. It’s a formula that’s tried and true and Elden Pixels has taken the idea and ran with it.
Where Alwa’s Awakening excels is how well Zoe controls. Her jumps feel perfect with a good amount of floatiness and distance. These jumps combined with making a block then jumping off said block onto a created bubble to reach a platform always felt just right. After a few of these jumps, you will know exactly where you can reach without even thinking about it, and this leads to feeling like you’re in complete control of Zoe. Once you have enough upgrades to make a floating block combined with a bubble to jump over a spike ball to then making another block to land on is pure awesomeness. Toward the end of the game you’ll be pulling off jumps that will make the most retro of retro game aficionados shed a tear of joy and the kicker is that it feels great! Zoe will gain 3 upgrades to her staff during the game – craft a block, craft a bubble, and shoot out a beam of lightning. These upgrades can also be upgraded making Zoe a complete badass towards the end of the game. To entice players to experiment with their magic abilities the developers have expertly placed blue orbs around the world that can either be obtained or ignored. I’d suggest acquiring as many orbs as you can though because the more you acquire the less energy a boss will have at the beginning of a battle. This creates a scenario where you can completely ignore these orbs and challenge yourself to harder boss fights, but figuring out the different ways to reach the blue spheres will help you understand Zoe’s abilities ultimately teaching you how reach different areas in the game. From the start it’s just add a block then a bubble to get higher but reaching these orbs later on requires a lot more skill and determination making certain areas puzzle-like in nature.
Since this is a game inspired by NES classics, don’t expect a cake walk. I’ve died more times in Alwa’s Awakening than I have in all the Dark Souls games combined. Zoe can take 3 hits before she dies, but touching spikes or water in the game world will cause instant death. There is plenty of trial and error when it comes to jumping around spikes and onto blocks that you’ve created but if you keep at it eventually what you need to do will click. One of the games downfalls is the numerous secrets scattered around the world that you’ll need to find to complete the game. Walking through walls and blindly jumping into spike pits that are just illusions is essential to find areas that need to be traversed. In most other games finding these areas will just lead to a secret room, but here they lead to new areas of the game that must be discovered to finish the game. On occasion, small hints by way of enemies walking through walls will show you where a few of these secret areas are located, but oftentimes it’ll take pure luck. At one point I was stuck at 72% on the map and couldn’t figure out what to do. I had to walk around every inch of the map and drop my created blocks in spike pits until I finally found the one that let me fall through. Most of the time I don’t mind this, but I’ve gotten so used to hopping on YouTube to watch a playthrough that I’m a bit rusty. I can see this being a turn-off to some players, but eventually, a walkthrough will be available to help those who are lost. I wouldn’t have minded getting a hint here or there by one of the many NPC’s who aid you in your quest, but their dialog never changed even after you’ve completed a task they’ve given you.
This lack of hand-holding brought me back to my glory days of reading through a Nintendo Power to figure out what to do in Castlevania, but since this game hasn’t even released to the masses yet (at the time of this review), I couldn’t find one shred of information or even a small hint. I’ve poured over 10 hours into the game and I’m stuck with the map being 75% complete. I searched everywhere and just can’t figure out what to do next. I’ve jumped into every pit, tried walking through every wall, and even let myself be killed by almost every enemy to figure out how to advance until I eventually got frustrated and gave up, but I must admit that I loved every minute of it! Thankfully there are several parts of the map where you can save your progress, and these are usually near difficult areas or boss fights.
I’d be doing the retro community a disservice if I didn’t recommend Alwa’s Awakening. The enjoyment I got from playing this was immense. Finding a new area and hearing the amazing music accompanied by it brought me back to a time where the only care I had was beating the game. Everything here just feels exactly as it should. I’m anxiously awaiting a sliver of information on what I’m supposed to do next because being stuck at 75% is driving me completely insane. I’d hate to knock Alwa’s Awakening for being too cryptic, but it simply is just that. However, knowing the game takes so much inspiration from the NES games of the 80’s, I can respect what Elden Pixels was trying to accomplish. Don’t let this game pass you by!
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Elden Pixels, Inc. ; Developer: Elden Pixels ; Players: 1 ; Released: February 2nd , 2017 ; MSRP:
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Alwa’s Awakening given to HeyPoorPlayer by the game’s publisher.