After reading about the development of and then playing Venture Kid you are immediately aware of its intentions and its roots. Developed by FDG Entertainment and described by the company as “a love letter to two very important parts of [their] childhood; The platform genre & The Nintendo Entertainment System” there is a lot that the game does well in echoing that style and the time period. A call back to the early Mega Man games on the NES, Venture Kid unabashedly wants to play on those heartstrings and remind you of simpler (or is it harder?) times in gaming. At times the game succeeds almost perfectly in doing so (especially when in the Switch’s handheld mode). Nevertheless, after a full playthrough, you cannot help but feel that some creative magic has been lost along the way and some gameplay elements are best left in the past.
Looks and feels like a retro game should
Starting life out as a reasonably well-received platformer on iOS, it makes a lot of sense for Venture Kid game to have made the jump to PC and perhaps even more so to the Nintendo Switch. Made to look and feel like an old NES game, it feels most at home in handheld mode. For a fan of the old-school 8-bit look – the game looks great. And the cool chiptune soundtrack composed by Retro City Rampage’s Matt Creamer definitely sets the right mood. It immediately takes you back to your childhood, sitting too close to the TV connected to a different world through your Nintendo Enterta…err… ‘Golden China’.
The 8-bit look and cool chiptune soundtrack really takes you back to your childhood.
However, straight from the get-go, I was concerned about how the controls would feel. While mobile gaming has its strengths, touch controls are never the best way to enjoy an action platformer. Like the games that inspired it, Venture Kid is rather tough even on normal mode (there are also easy and hard options). Some sections require pinpoint timing, lining up the correct rhythm for movements and some pretty accurate jumping sequences, particularly in the later levels. Happily, the team has done a really good job of porting to the Switch.
The controls, for the most part, felt tight. And barring very few moments of sluggish returns from enemies to a second blast or a quick double-tap jump misfires (which if my memory is any guide might actually be very NES-like) I couldn’t tell that this game had not been made specifically for the console. The controls felt responsive and I never felt that I had lost a life due to input lag or other button-related delayed reactions. In fact, the platforming element to the game is probably the part that felt most polished.
Nothing ventured nothing gained
Unfortunately, for the most part, Venture Kid feels not quite complete. Or at least a little disjointed. The story, though unimportant, sets itself up as a traditional good versus evil tale. A mad scientist is up to no good (setting up a nefarious space station of some sort) and it is up to Andy – a brave young man to defeat him. And then it all goes a little wonky. Instead of heading off to space – you absurdly head off to a series of very generic themed-worlds: Jungle. Dessert. Castle. In each world, you have to defeat the level boss – from a fire-ball breathing lynx to a boulder wielding gorilla to… two coal miners?! After doing so you’re awarded with a new ability – provided by your strange bearded biker/inventor and general odd inventory man. Once these areas are all complete then you’re suddenly off to space. It all just feels a little thrown together. And while a deep, engaging narrative would probably have felt unnecessary; some semi-connected, somewhat logical plot beats would have definitely felt less jarring and helped everything feel a little more cohesive.
Narrative issues aside (several of our favourite ‘old-timey’ NES games made no sense – I’m looking at you Super Mario Bros.) Venture Kid struggles in other areas too. The power-ups mentioned above, all have limited use – 6 or 7 shots and you’ll have to replenish it before using it again. This would be ok if everything felt well-balanced and the new abilities felt necessary but more often than not, I found no need to use the new ability and reverted to using the standard blaster with its unlimited shot amount. The final level is about the only exception to this and several of the learned abilities are put to use once or twice, but inventory management, in general, was almost non-existent for most of the game. I really wish there had been a bigger need to use my new abilities.
…some semi-connected, somewhat logical plot beats would have definitely felt less jarring and helped everything feel a little more cohesive.
The issues mentioned above culminate in the main gripe I have with Venture Kid: pacing. Now, it may seem like an odd issue to have with a retro-styled action platformer, but it’s something that bugged me the whole way through. Despite its reasonable difficulty, running through the 9 main levels in the Classic/Adventure story modes doesn’t take too long at all. I think it took me less than two hours. And while others will no doubt do it faster (or occasionally even slower) than that – it still felt like a bit of slog. Now, I will qualify that. The game itself is quite fun – so let me explain…
None of the worlds is particularly novel and similar enemies often appear across many of the levels. Because of that, it all feels a little repetitive. Then depending on the boss you encounter, it can all come to an abrupt halt. Lives can quickly evaporate and while you can continue – this only happens after seeing a “Game Over” screen, followed by a “Continue: Yes or No” screen, and then you need to start at the beginning of the level. Now, this may not seem like a big deal – but the restart process feels slow, outdated and unnecessary. Once again, I was reminded of the joy of instantaneous respawns in a game like Celeste. Venture Kid’s link to the gameplay of older games just begun to suck the enjoyment of retrying. It all feels too ‘stop-start’.
The pacing issue culminates during the end run at the final boss. This fight took almost as long as the rest of the game. And while that may sound enticingly epic – unfortunately, it actually felt unnecessarily stretched out: a lot like pink gum pulled from between clenched teeth that breaks off and falls onto your chin. Lucy O’Brien recently reviewed the game Days Gone and a snippet I read had her comparing it to a movie that starts off well enough but goes on for an hour longer than it needed too and in so doing loses all its appeal – and I can’t help but feel that the analogy fits perfectly in this case too. Even in a short playthrough of the story it somehow felt too slow and too fast and this uneven pacing really affected my enjoyment of the game and the bottom-heavy finale had a lot to do with that.
Even in a short playthrough of the story it somehow felt too slow and too fast and this uneven pacing really affected my enjoyment of the game and the bottom-heavy finale had a lot to do with that.
Now before falling into the trap of highlighting the points that I didn’t enjoy so much so that it makes it seem that the game was a complete disaster, there are many factors that I will say that it gets right. First off, as mentioned earlier in the review, the game looks and sounds really good. While the retro feel may not be for everyone, as a fan of the era, this game really does feel like a game out of that time – and for me and I know for many out there this is a great thing. The game is tough and won’t be for everyone, but for fans of Mega Man, the game really nails the memorising enemy pattern gameplay that is so beloved. And while you’ll be tearing your hair out if you attempt the harder difficulties, you’ll probably love every second of the challenge.
To add to this, the Switch version not only contains the Story Modes (Classic and Adventure) but also Survival and Boss Rush modes. Fans of the pattern-based platforming will really enjoy these takes on the game. In Survival Mode the challenge is to complete as many slightly shortened remixed versions of the themed levels as possible with only a set number of hearts. Then, as the name implies, Boss Rush is a fan favourite timed mode where you take on as many of the games’ bosses in a row as possible before your lives run out. In each round, you have a choice of three bosses and you accumulate a score based on how many bosses you get through and how long it takes to do so. It is remarkably tough, but again rather addictive.
While you’ll be tearing your hair out if you attempt the harder difficulties, as a fan you’ll probably love every second of the challenge.
Venture Kid is a game clearly made by fans of the genre and because of this – other fans of the genre will find a lot to love. Unfortunately, for all that it gets right, uneven pacing, unimaginative levels, and gameplay and narrative that feels just that little bit off, leave you feeling a little disappointed about how good it could have been. Sure, the extra modes and reasonable controls mean you may return once or twice – especially if you’re playing it on the go on your Switch. But it’s a game that’s only almost good. It probably needed a few tweaks and improvements and it could have been a real little gem. Instead, it’s one that you won’t regret buying (especially if you’re a fan) but ultimately is not one you’ll find truly memorable or rewarding.