Hey, you! Yes, you! Do you like challenging, Metroid-vania style platformers? Well, do I have a treat for you! Introducing Necrosphere Deluxe for the Nintendo Switch, developed by Cat Nigiri and published by Unties, to really scratch that itch!
Within Necrosphere, you take control of Secret Agent Terry, just off the back of a mission gone wrong in the worst way possible. Instead of a more traditional, mystery-driven story with twists and turns, the title opts for a simpler premise and objective narrative. Basically, you’re dead. Escape the Necrosphere to be… not… that…
You rely on notes from your fellow agents, who are aiding your escape through helpful hints and the delivery of special equipment (who couriers to Hell?), to fill you in on the where you are and what to do of it all. Thankfully, the game has some comic awareness regarding its simplicity, as you begin your adventure in a bespoke suit, yet by its conclusion wearing a ballet onesie, equipped with rock-breaking gloves with a jetpack strapped to your back.
Obviously then, this is not the kind of game you judge on its storytelling merits. Instead, it’s all about the gameplay. The ridiculousness of your costume is a nice, much-needed offset to the platforming challenges you are presented with, as this is one hard game. Upon taking your first steps in the Necrosphere, the first thing that hits you is your inability to jump. This means there is an awful lot falling in your preliminary experiences with the game, alongside an awful lot of death. As is the norm nowadays, you spawn instantly and can try again at the point which just spelled your doom.
The opening moments serve to introduce you to the twitch-based platforming required to progress through the underworld, with quick reactions necessary for both completing screen layouts and collecting the 20 devilish DVD’s scattered through the world (which unlock an even harder challenge map, hence the ‘deluxe edition’ title). In addition, these sections really help you get familiar with Terry’s weight and speed, both of which are just right for his 8-bit proportions, a stellar introduction that gives you a good starting point before the difficulty really begins to ramp up.
This unforgiving nature, implemented straight from the off, may be off-putting to some new players. But is clearly intentionally designed to be a throwback to the classic retro challenges of the past. The dangers you encounter include bottomless pits, fireballs and spikes pulled straight out of Mega Man; all of which are of course instant kills.
In Necrosphere you die, a whole bunch, but the immediate respawns keep your sense of momentum going. From here, there is an amazing sense of progression as you begin to unlock new abilities, which in turn allow you to open up new areas of the map, as you explore for the portal to return you to the Normalsphere (Earth). The map itself is competently designed, with helpful torches marking your progress and memorable moments scattering the labyrinth that spring to mind immediately after acquiring a new ability. Basically, everything you want from this kind of game. Initially, you really do miss the ability to jump, since it is such a staple of the genre, so seeing your repertoire grow is immensely satisfying. It’s rare for such a simple game to provide such a real sense of power, which is serious to the title’s credit.
Impressively, the title’s controls are even simpler than its inspirations, operating wholly off of two buttons: one moving you left, the other right, kind of. I say kind of since there are options available to how you control Terry, be it with the control stick, shoulder buttons, or on the Switch’s left and A buttons (yes, that is as strange as it sounds).
Even now, after fully beating the game, I cannot decide whether this control scheme is genius or not. On the one hand, it allows you to cater the controls to individual situations, switching to and from the various options to whatever feels the most natural. For example, your pink onesie grants you the ability to leap sideways, activated by double pressing the respective direction. When navigating the more traditional platforming challenges, such as the aforementioned falling sections, I preferred using the left/A combination, since it is what I am most familiar with, but for leaping across gaps, I could more quickly and comfortably double tap the shoulder buttons, treating it more as a special ability than a movement method.
On the other hand, though, the transition between the various control schemes is not seamless. You cannot combine two control schemes in most cases (for instance, one has to completely release the control stick before double tapping any button, else the move simply does not register) which can lead to some pretty uncomfortable cramp when playing in handheld mode, as well as some clunky transitions between running and jumping.
The game, therefore, has you fighting against your instincts, forcing you into a clunky stop-and-go control scheme to get past the harder scenarios you face; many of which I only completed by the skin of my teeth. This is probably due to the fact that this game is a port, originally designed for PC; an adaptation as opposed to being specially designed for the Switch itself. The result is the controls actually feeling cumbersome to your progress, making you wish for an option to map different abilities to different buttons. When a game has you wishing its gimmick didn’t exist, it’s not the best sign.
In addition, Necrosphere does suffer from some pretty uninspired, at times upright distracting, music design. The background music is forgettable and doesn’t add anything to the experience, even at the game’s culmination I was fuelled by my own desire to finish as opposed to being pumped up by the atmosphere the title was creating. Tiny things are accompanied by strange choices too, such as the sound of killing an enemy being downright bizarre. Features like this stopped me from ever getting fully immersed in the game’s world, which is a real shame when it is so close to perfection.
I’m torn with this game. When it works, it is delicate and satisfying, with nuanced controls and maneuvers that make you feel like you’ve mastered the mechanics through your own skill and determination. When it doesn’t, it’s up there with some of the most frustrating experiences of my gaming career. Constantly in the back of your mind is the memory of the smoothness just beyond your reach, leading to a wave of anger towards the game as opposed to your own abilities, which is arguably the ultimate gaming sin.
There’s just something missing, unlike peak of the genre hits such as Super Meat Boy, extended platforming stretches fill you with dread in the wrong way, looking like something you need to overcome for the wrong reasons. Instead of testing your relationship with the game through its controls, it tests how much frustration you’re willing to put up with before you put it down.
It took me around 4 hours to beat the game on a first run through, with almost 2000 deaths, but in theory, the whole thing can be completed in 20 minutes, if you are able to evade death that long. This is something I can see people wanting to do as well, the game even comes with a timer equipped to the pause screen, as there is real merit to sweeping through the various zones of the Necrosphere at speed. Ultimately though, I can only recommend this for those really searching out this kind of challenge, those really enamored with the soul-crushingly hard genre. These are the kind of people who are most likely able to overlook the flaws that the controls suffer from or be willing to put the time in the really get to grips with them.
In conclusion, since the price for Necrosphere is as low as its PC counterpart (around $8), this is a decent little investment, well worth your time or at least a look. Certainly, there are better options available, but below the slightly clunky controls is a rewarding, intelligent platforming core, which embraces its roots and really adds something to the genre’s conversation. Flawed, but highly impressive.