Friday, July 22, 2011

In Defense: Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes

I picked this game up maybe 6 months ago or so after seeing a thread about it in the forums over at SomethingAwful. Upon checking out the thread for some information about it and discovering that it was an 8-bit style, tooth-grindingly difficult side-scroller for the small price of only 80 Microsoft Points on the Indie Marketplace, I had already made my decision. Upon scrolling down and seeing one person comment that they'd love to see if there's someone out there that could manage their way through every level of the game...I also had a bit of a challenge to meet.

1000 Spikes is a simple game at its core. You control an adventurer (Aban Hawkins...a strange name but that's not the point of the game) who has discovered an ancient temple by using a map that his father had given him. The temple, however, is absolutely riddled with tricks and traps that seek to destroy you at just about every single moment you're in a level. As a side-scroller, the control stick will move your character back and forth and cause him to crouch, the A button jumps, and X allows Hawkins to toss daggers for a simple form of self-defense. You can only have two knives on screen at once though, in true classic game fashion. In addition, if you're crouching before you jump, you'll perform a higher jump than usual which will allow you to reach higher ledges or dodge projectiles a little bit better. Strong emphasis on "a little bit"...but I'll elaborate on that when the time comes.

Wait a minute...there are SPIKES in this game? Didn't expect that!

In order to progress through a level, it's required that you traverse the trap-filled area and find a key. This will cause a door to open elsewhere in the level, which is your next target. Once you reach the door and press Up, you're set to head onward to the next level in the game. Sounds pretty easy, huh? Well it's not, particularly since the temple is apparently a physical manifestation of Indiana Jones-esque hell. The game is called 1000 Spikes for a reason, and the levels are littered with spikes to fall into that will kill you in one hit. There are probably more than 1000 instances of spikes, actually...but I'm not thinking about going and counting them all! Spikes aren't the only things you need to avoid, however. Other Hawkins-killing devices include falling blocks, boulders, flamethrowers, dart-shooting wall faces, scorpions, arcing lava...and so on and so forth. There are many kinds of traps you need to deal with...but it's their placement around the levels that really makes you understand the pain the developer wanted to put you through in order to get by the entirety of this game alive.

For example, when you think you've found a safe platform or block to stand on, it turns out that a set of spikes will pop out and kill you if you don't move fast enough. The next time you play the level, you'll find that you'll jump off that platform and land on the next...only to find that it's rickety and falls, dropping you to your doom. The next life you spend, you may get to this point and jump off, only to realize that a dart-shooting device is positioned perfectly at the peak of your jump, shooting and killing you in mid-air. This happens in every damn level...there is not a single place to breathe, and when you ACTUALLY find a safe spot, it just feels like the developer forgot to turn it into a deathtrap. It's hard as hell, and you need to remember everything about practically every level in order to get through, along with being able to perform pixel-perfect jumps and super jumps. There will be times that you think you've found a great way through certain obstacles, only to find that they'll still take you down multiple times because your execution needs to be spot-on.

Well it's a good thing you brought those knives along, isn't it? Only if you know how to properly use them. Knives become useful for multiple purposes, and add another element of accurate timing that you need to progress. For example, in the first level you can use them to simply smack down scorpions that bar your path without too much of a hassle...but later on, things become much more interesting. There are a few cases where you need to travel through a narrow passageway that allows no room for jumping. At the end of this path is a dart-shooter mounted on the if you just rush in, you'll get smoked. The trick is to advance slowly and at the right pace such that you can throw your knives and destroy each dart that's fired at you before it hits you. Throwing a knife has a bit of wind up time, and if you mess it up even slightly, you'll certainly be punished by a one-hit kill. You need to be absolutely perfect in execution to get by...and later on, the difficult just keeps getting ramped up. Some cases have you in the same sort of situation, but with dart shooters on BOTH sides of you! Have fun getting by that little trick! Other levels require you to throw the knives to hit switches and cause timed platforms to appear...but this is often required of you in the middle of a jump or a fall. If you miss, you're screwed. If you hit the switch...well, you're safe for now, but you'd better move your ass or the platforms will go away and you'll plummet to your umpteenth death!

You want pixel-perfect platforming? 1000 Spikes dishes it out in spades.

The platforming is really well done too, I find. The difference between a standard jump and a high jump is definitely noticeable and you can get a handle on the distance that they each provide quite easily. Using them correctly is a bit trickier, however. A high jump in the wrong place could propel you straight into the oncoming projectile fired from a wall-mounted dart launcher or a spike-lined ceiling, so a smaller jump will keep you safe...or in other cases, it seems like a smaller jump would be the easier way to go, but if you try it out you'll get smoked by an unexpected obstacle. It's interesting because by the time you've gotten through a few levels, you start to really think about your surroundings before you just jump, and learn to figure out how a trap will react to you and whether or not a high jump will help you clear it or if a low jump will simply avoid it. Some platforms will break and vanish, while other sets of platforms will tumble slowly but at different speeds. In one case, you need to step on platforms to get across a pit and grab the key...but you need to do so in such a way to make them fall in a specific pattern, because you need those same falling platforms to get back across the same pit. This game is as much a puzzle game as it is a platformer, and it does a really good job of both elements.

Each of the 5 worlds has 5 levels, and each world has a theme going for it. This comes across in a great old-school manner via the 8-bit style the game uses to present itself. The game's graphics resemble a very well-polished NES game, and it works great. Pixelated waterfalls pour out of statues in the background, fireballs that spew from flame pools look like classic Podoboos from Super Mario Bros., and Hawkins himself reminds me of characters such as Lode Runner or Lemeza Kosugi, the main character of La-Mulana. The pixelated style also allows for you to gauge your jumps and positioning a little bit better, which I find to be reminds me of when I would play NES games back in the day, and edge closer and closer to the corner of an edge such that the back of my character's foot was above the final pixel of a platform before making a jump. The style is just perfect for the game, and I'm glad they went with a simplistic design. I believe you are allowed to skip levels if you like...but I never did so. The game gives you 1000 lives to start off with, and at the end of each world (providing you finish every level that world has to offer), you find an artifact that will grant you more lives. In total, you probably have 1500 chances or so to get through the game. It's tough, and you'll burn through a good number of them...but it's certainly doable with some patience, observation, and timing. Believe me, once you get through a level successfully, it's extremely satisfying and rewarding to know that you thwarted the designer's array of tricks and patterns.

The soundtrack is simple...I believe there are only 4 or 5 music tracks. The main theme you hear for the most part is pretty catchy, and the tune for the final moments of the game is pretty well done as well. The other few tracks aren't terribly spectacular, but they do their job. All of the music is done in an 8-bit chiptune style which fits the overall game perfectly. However, when you die, the music starts over again...and since you die quite frequently, the sound of the music starting over a bunch of times in a row will become grating. I simply put on some Nine Inch Nails and Rush and went to town on the game once I got tired of the music...but it's not terrible music or anything. It's just hard to listen to it repeat itself over and over again. You can also change the music on the spot by pressing the bumper buttons, but I didn't find that I used it much.

Oh, and the trailer is hilarious! Check it out!


The Bottom Line

This review is a tad shorter than others that I've done...but that's not because it's a bad game. Far from that, in's just that it's so simply-made and basic that there's not much to write about it. The challenge is what's key here, and that's something that you really need to check out for yourself to get a real handle on what I'm talking about. Is this a game for everyone? Good God,'s extremely challenging and tough on your patience. If you find that you're an impatient gamer, you'll want to pass this one up. However, if you're welcome to a simple-yet-challenging trap evasion platformer that's very well-thought out despite its blatant brutality, definitely snag this little gem. For 80 Microsoft points, you really can't go wrong. Just keep in mind that you're going to die. A LOT.

...but there are sickos out there like myself that enjoy that kind of thing! :P


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