This review is going to work a little differently than the usual here on Nitchigamer. It’s broken up into two parts.
The first part is a concise review containing a summary of the game followed by a recommendation on who might be the right audience.
The second part provides important context and detailed criticism for the curious reader.
The Concise Review
Venture Kid is a throwback retro 8-bit platform game. The development team says it’s their love letter to the games they grew up playing. It’s akin to the J. J. Abrams film, SUPER 8, which was his homage to the Stephen Spielberg adventure films of the same era.
This game has all the hallmarks of titles that were popular from that era, from the colorful overview map to the melodic chiptune soundtrack.
There is even a pitch-perfect storyline where you assume the mantle of Alex, a young man who must stop the evil Dr Teklov from completing his super weapon in an attempt to take over the world.
Alex is aided by his uncle who provides new special weapons as well as upgrades that can be purchased anytime during the game.
Players run-and-gun through nine visually distinct levels including classics of the platformer genre such as the futurist city, the snake-filled jungle, and the slippery ice caves.
Navigating each level tends to be a reasonably straightforward affair – fight a variety of hostile enemy combatants while avoiding deadly environment hazards, like spikes and lava, until you reach the final boss battle.
Venture Kid is tough to recommend for most audiences.:
- People who are new to retro platformers might find this game frustrating, even on the easy difficulty setting.
- Hardcore gamers may be unsatisfied with the short levels and inconsistent design.
- Casual gamers might find titles with contemporary mechanics better suited to their taste.
The game is best suited for players who grew up with 8-bit platformers, and still love them – warts and all.
Context And Criticism
Creating a video game is difficult under the best circumstances. Ideally, a developer has sufficient funding to pay the entire team market-rate wages (with benefits).
They should also have the backing of an experienced publisher to manage the go-to-market tasks, such as distribution and marketing. Even with that, success is not guaranteed.
Most indie teams are working on a shoestring budget with the hope their finished product will find an enthusiastic audience to provide them with some measure of financial security and the ability to make the next game.
That makes a difficult task significantly harder.
Anyone with a developed sense of empathy would take great care in suggesting that an indie game could have trouble finding their audience.
With that in mind, let’s dive deeper into how that conclusion was reached. There are three areas worth examining in greater detail: level design, powerup weapons, and difficulty setting.
The biggest concern with the level design is simply inconsistency. Sometimes the design feels inspired and surprising, other times it feels confused and derivative.
The design and placement of enemies are emblematic of the consistency issue. Many levels feature unique enemies that perfectly mesh with the theme. The primates feel right at home in the jungle level. The robots whose heads pop off in the factory level are delightful.
But then we have snakes, jumping piranha, and giant spiders that appear in multiple levels. That isn’t to say a designer can never reuse quality enemies, but there are already some nearly identical clones (snakes/scorpions, piranha/fireball, rifleman/spearman).
If you’re going to commit to reskinning enemies, it’s best to go all the way.
The use of branching in the map feels similarly inconsistent. Most levels are linear, while a few of the levels contain branching paths. Some branches appear to lead to dead ends or circles, while others contain secret passages.
Unfortunately, some players may never find those secrets and end up frustrated. Confusion and frustration are generally emotions that players don’t want to experience.
It would be preferable to streamline the levels and hide most (or all) of the branches behind secret passages along the main route.
Power-up weapons are an aspect where Venture Kid could really shine. The weapon designs are interesting and provide variety. Two major problems with how the weapons are implemented: usage and management.
First of all, there just aren’t enough opportunities where the weapons provide significant advantage. Players can easily defeat most enemies with the standard blaster weapon and they can reach most items without things like the boomerang or the freeze weapon.
Later stages show a little bit of promise in this regard. For example, the grenade and spike boots come in handy in the factory level. However, these situations felt like the exception to the rule.
The bigger problem is managing the weapons. Each special weapon has limited charge. Enemies will randomly drop fuel canisters that recharge the power, but those canisters are only useful if a weapon is actively equipped. So, picking up a canister with the standard blaster will result in nothing happening, even if all of your weapons were drained. This effectively wastes the energy.
This design choice means that players are required to constantly cycle through all the weapons in order to use and maintain their arsenal. That can quickly become tedious for all but the most hardcore players, and those players might find the limited effectiveness of these weapons disappointing.
It would be great if more enemies, boss and regular varieties, were weak to particular special weapons. For example, many of the denizens of the ice cave could be weak against the fire blast from the grenade.
Also, it would be great to have a special weapon slot so that a player could have one of special weapon active at all times. That way picking up a canister would always charge the active weapon.
The last thing that is challenging is the difficulty setting. The only difference between the various difficulty settings appears to be the maximum number of hearts allowed to the player.
This is a problem because there are many other variables that make the level challenging, including a high number of instant-kill environmental hazards.
The game would benefit greatly from changing other variables too.
Depending on the difficulty level, enemies could also have a lower or higher rate of fire, respawn points could be moved closer or further apart, and some enemies could take fewer or more shots to kill. Those changes could increase the appeal to a much wider audience.
Despite its shortcomings, Venture Kid has redeeming qualities. The graphics are quite strong overall. The models and the animation capture the essence of the era while looking great on modern high-res displays. The music is similarly superb, comparing favourably to the work of Manami Matsumae and Masato Nakamura. The special weapons have great design. The story perfectly fits.
All the ingredients are there for an excellent game.
Sadly, when combined into a whole, the finished product never feels greater than the sum of its parts. Hopefully, FDG Entertainment will try again. There is enough potential in Venture Kid to suggest they could have a very successful game in their future.