I have been around Oniken for a long time now, since when the monstrous cybernetic creature wrapped onto a tree in stage 4 was actually a giant snake. Years have passed, and from its original release on PC back in 2012, On￼iken went through a few graphical and gameplay tweaks and it is finally available in its definitive form on Switch. I originally played it around 2014 and absolutely loved it. Now I have played it again and I still had a blast.
Oniken is an action platformer made with the intent of capturing the feeling of the 8-bit era and it succeds in every possible aspect. Joymasher travelled back in time and brought back the pieces to assemble a lost classic bit by bit, drawing for inspiration generously from all the best tropes and games of the good old times but assemblying a brand new game with its own unique personality, and a gameplay that respects and pays tribute to the past but manages to stay fresh and approachable.
The protagonist Zaku, is a mixed breed between Kenshiro and Gatsu from Berserk, beheading enemies with his Buster Sword and throwing grenades for that added spicy kick through 6 levels of retro-inspired action. Ok, this sentence sounds like an advert, but I like it and it describes it perfectly, so I’ll keep it.
Technically, Oniken never puts too much on the plate: you’ll never see more than a few moving sprites at the same time on the screen and animations use the lowest count possible of frames; only this time it is not the result of hardware limitations or obsolete programming software, but a deliberate intent to recreate the feeling of yesteryear action platformers.
The learning process and progression through the game follows the Contra philosophy. Learn the patterns, act fast and with a plan and your enemies will go down in the blink of an eye; try to brute force the game and you’ll probably quit crying halfway through it. The balancing works wonder. It stays challenging, but never becomes frustrating. Playing Oniken you can enjoy the feeling of getting good at a game, without all the grief. It really should be subititled “an excellent introduction to retrogaming”.
Oniken is generous with helping the uneducated player: medikits are plenty, and your health is replenished every time you pass a checkpoint. Also, when you clear a level your progress is saved and you can continue from there if you lose. Anything more than this and you’re asking the game to play itself. Seriously, if you’re still complaining about difficulty you should reconsider your hobby as a videogamer.It’s no cakewalk though. Snipers are positioned in the most annoying spots and that red ninja always throws his giant shuriken just a split second after you are expecting it. Jump around recklessly and someone around will be happy to knock you back into a bottomless pit.
While you play, don’t you dare skipping the cutscenes: they play a fundamental role to put you in the right arse-kicking mood with its cast of heroes, generals, pals and crazy bad guys.
Dialog lines are direct, raw and capture the feeling of a lost in time Japanese action game translated in some Tokyo basement. Cutscenes tell you half the story, while the rest is narrated through the gameplay itself, with Zaku storming the levels, fighting future gladiators on top of a moving train, riding futuristic hoverbikes, stopping missiles mid-air with a sword swing and climbing laser shooting giant cyber skeletons Yeah, it’s that good.
It only takes some determination, basic competence and motor skills to complete Oniken. I have heard some complaints about the controls (yeah, you know the old blame the controller) and apparently they are going to fix something with an upcoming patch, but personally I had no problem in playing the game in portable mode using the tiny digital inputs of the Joycon (I refuse to use the analog stick) and I only had to switch to using the PRO controller to beat the last boss who was giving me a bit of trouble because it requires a swift change of direction at some point.
Once you complete the six levels of the game, you will be rewarded with some goodies: a boss rush mode, an hardcore no-continue mode and an additional side story mission where you play as Jenny rescuing hostages in a brand new stage and gameplay elements. She has a rifle! Oniken is really good value for its price, and I promise will leave you satisfied.
Before the closing lines I’ll leave you with an anedoct: a few years ago I sent Joymasher an Italian translation for Oniken (the Steam edition included a .ini file for this purpose). They thanked me but for some reason uit never made officially into the game. Imagine my surprise when I found my translation being used for the Italian language in the Switch edition! Unfortunately, my name does not appear anywhere: the translation credit screen at the beginning of the game has been removed since the Unstoppable edition on PC and never made it back. (but it’s still there in Odallus, how unfair!) I am a bit disappointed as I am very proud of it and I would have loved to see my name associated to such a great title, but hey it’s their game, and the guys were so nice to forward my recent fan email to the publisher to get me review codes for the games, so I still love them ❤
I had to make an effort to calm down the enthusiasm to scrutinise the game for flaws. The only thing I have found is that, stripped down of all its coolness, looking at its barebone elements you can see that the level design and enemy placement is sometimes a bit unsophisticated compared to the games it gets inspiration from and lacks that spark to make it stand out. Maybe it is a flaw, maybe it is Oniken trying, and mostly succeding, in finding the impossible balance between old gameplay and modern taste for not being kicked in the teeth. I am not sure. However, as a whole experience, Oniken is a memorable game that you want to play and if it came out like 30 years ago, today it would be a cult classic.
+Genuine late ’80s/early ’90s experience
+Dripping with style and attitude
-I am not in the credits