Narita Boy (Switch) Review
When I first saw Narita Boy, I fell in love with it instantly. The unique looking, neo-retro 2D pixel action-adventure game seemed right up my alley, and I felt compelled to get my hands on it.
Announced in 2017 on Kickstarter, after reaching its initial funding goal, the development was sadly fraught with several issues, including a restructure and multiple moves by developer Studio Koba. This led to a hefty delay in the originally planned launch date of December 2018. Since then, they found a publisher in the form of Team17. The studio, comprising of only seven members, managed to battle through the 2020 pandemic and emerge victorious on the other side, delivering a somewhat short but memorable action-packed experience.
The first thing that strikes you about this game is the distinctive art style. The heavy ‘80s aesthetic is apparent throughout the game and offers a real dose of nostalgia for those growing up in that era. During your journey through the Digital Kingdom, where the game is set, you make your way across various places with a uniform yet distinctive look. You travel through a yellow desolate digital desert and, as a contrast, an atmospheric blue forest.
The next thing that you really notice about the game is the carefully hand-crafted and amazingly fluid animations. The developers have done an absolutely fantastic job with this, and Studio Koba’s site states that “The animation is traditional 2D full animation, which means that every frame is drawn again and again to make a smooth and fluid motion.” They also mention that they don’t use particles, so the visual effects are all animated too. It’s certainly something they should be proud of accomplishing.
Before getting my hands on the game, and based on what I had seen and read about Narita Boy, I made the incorrect assumption that it would be a Metroidvania style affair. A genre that I’m a real sucker for. However, in reality besides a few bits with minimal choices of where to go, the game feels pretty linear. Much of the progression boils down to either getting your hands on a techno-key to unlock a door to the next level or finding three symbols scattered around, allowing you to activate a portal to proceed. This is more to do with my incorrect assumptions about what the game was meant to be more than anything. Although, if you’re an original Kickstarter backer, that’s probably an entirely different story.
Perhaps a Metroidvania style progression was actually in the cards, where you were able to revisit an old area with a newfound ability, but as the game changed during its development lifecycle, this may have been removed. I also remember reading about how the game would be set between an ‘80s ‘real’ world and the Digital Kingdom, but that feature is largely not present in the final game, sans a few sections you can explore the ‘80s through memories that you can walk through. Another feature that seems to be missing that I saw in an update video was a beat ’em up style part that was a homage to other games of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. Due to these missing pieces in the final game, I can’t help but feel that the original scope and vision for the game was a bit bigger than this and that Kickstarter backers will be somewhat disappointed with where the game finally landed.
The combat feels very well implemented. Fairly early on, you’re presented with the Techno Sword, your main weapon throughout the game. It offers you a decent repertoire of moves to tackle the enemies the game regularly throws at you. Each move is extremely well animated too, and you’re able to fluidly dodge and ram opponents while you slash your way around the screen. You’re also given a shotgun, which I rarely used, but if you have full ammo you’re able to fire off the Ultra Beam that goes across the screen damaging everything in its path. I found this to be very handy in sections where you’re facing hordes of enemies.
These enemies that have invaded the Digital Kingdom are known as Stallions. With mostly a red aesthetic and ranging from the simple zombie-like entities to powerful bosses, they are pretty varied and require particular tactics to defeat effectively. One of the mechanics that admittedly I sort of missed the very first time it was introduced, is the Wildfire. Certain enemies in the game have a coloured fire above their head, requiring you to switch between the three different Wildfire colors. This adds an extra dimension to the gameplay. However, I found that the game eases you into it quite well, but then throws a section with a sharp difficulty spike where you’re required to learn this ability effectively to proceed. At least for me, the game definitely seemed to get suddenly harder, and I got stuck at a particularly nasty section for a little while.
Luckily checkpoints are pretty generous, and for better or worse, there aren’t any real drawbacks to dying. In fact, I found myself intentionally dying a few times in order to restart at a checkpoint with full health. You can also regain health in the game by using an Energy Charge which fills up as you damage enemies.
The game gives you a bunch of new abilities as you progress, however, there’s no real going back to use them to unlock new areas of the game. Again, it feels like these were designed to be used more, but as it stands, it’s just one more thing you do that doesn’t serve much of a purpose in some instances. For example, you get the ability to smash certain parts of a floor or to bash through walls. Still, given how linear the rest of the game feels, abilities like this feel somewhat unnecessary and are pretty much only used once or twice. You also get the power to destroy enemy armour, but that’s rarely used too. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I came across an enemy that needed that move. These things don’t distract from what is otherwise a fantastic experience.
The game offers a number of what I guess you can call set pieces. These are parts of the game where you get a temporary upgrade that you normally wouldn’t have available in the rest of the game. For example, at one stage you turn into a powerful mecha that makes mincemeat of the enemies in your path. Some of these upgrades were very well implemented and fun to use, so it’s a shame how short-lived those sections of the game actually are. A lot of work went into something that only lasts a few minutes and I would have loved to experience more of those relatively brief moments.
One of the things I really liked about the game are the parts where you go to the creator’s memories, and in the process experience his life. Scattered through the game, they break away from the fighting and instead offer moments of respite that allow you to unravel more of the story. Something that whilst not as cryptic as the likes of Dark Souls, does have some elements of personal interpretation. I found the narrative and the writing to be quite poetic, and worthy of a second viewing, which the game allows you to do when visiting the memories. I won’t go into the story itself, but it’s definitely nicely written with some great lines. It’s also loaded with a bunch of cool geeky reference. Lord_VHS in the land of Beta Maximum Prime actually made me laugh out loud.
I also need to mention the music in this game, which much like the art style, is simply excellent. I felt compelled to play the game with headphones on in order to better experience the retro synth vibes.
Whilst Narita Boy didn’t quite live up to my expectations based on all the previews, I nevertheless had a great time playing it, and it will no doubt become a very memorable game for many. You can clearly see that this is the work of a very passionate team that poured their blood, sweat, and tears into making this game. The game may not be perfect, but I highly recommend grabbing it and playing through it to the end.
Narita Boy is a lovingly crafted action-adventure game that should appease anyone who’s into 2D pixel graphics. The game offers a relatively short but extremely memorable experience.
+ Amazing art style and animations
+ Cool abilities and set pieces
+ Great narrative and writing
- Relatively short
- Too linear
- Not quite living up to its Kickstarter promise