It’s no secret that retro-looking games are common these days. There are a number of reasons why “pixel art” is used so often.. People want to make nostalgic tributes to older games they remember. Low-res art is simpler to draw and depends less on traditional artistic ability. It’s a trend to cash in on. It’s one of the few art styles that’s endemic to games specifically.
Whatever the reasons for using the aesthetic, there’s one characteristic that “retreaux” games nearly always have in common: features that would have been impossible in the era whose style they’re emulating. Liberties are taken with the color palette, low-res characters stand “between” pixels, and modern concepts such as tutorials, cloud saving, and leaderboards are seamlessly integrated. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–gamers today expect a certain level of ease of use, and there’s no way to make a 100% authentic throwback game without actually developing for the original platform. What sets Muri apart, however, is that it is accurate to the games it is inspired by while remaining playable and interesting by modern standards.
Muri is a platformer/shooter in the style of classics like Duke Nukem (before the series went 3D), Commander Keen, and Dangerous Dave. On the face of it, the plot starts out sounding like a standard Mega Man-type game of the late ’80s: scientists on Mars have developed a powerful robot suit and equipped the son of one of the researchers with it. However, it soon becomes clear that this is not a conventional story. A robot war breaks out over fears that the suit (dubbed “Muri”, naturally) is a dangerous and potentially cataclysmic weapon, and then Mars itself disappears. Rather than the son, as one might expect, the player is tasked with playing as his mother as she fights through a war-torn world infested with robots.
The style of older DOS games is very closely imitated—the EGA 16-color palette, sounds, and permanently on-screen border-style HUD will be very familiar to anyone who’s played a PC game from that era, with the basic gameplay similarly authentic and fun. Even certain modern concessions like tutorials are eschewed; a standard “Press F1 for help” prompt on the first screen is the only way to find out how to play. Collectibles are scattered throughout: some useful ammo powerups, and others nostalgic items like floppy disks and command prompts that only serve to increase the player’s score.
Even the framerate is deliberately limited to 16 frames per second for the choppy movement of such games, although there is an optional 32 fps “turbo mode” as a small concession to modern gamers. The game is divided into four “episodes” of five levels each, which are are all available at the outset, as a nod to early episodic floppy gaming. One unfortunate aspect of the accuracy, however, is that the only musical track is on the title screen—each level only has sound effects playing over silence. While this choice is accurate to the era, it’s still disappointing after Remar Games’ past games, which had great soundtracks that I still listen to (Iji and Hero Core in particular).
The most interesting aspect of Muri, however, is the way its modern influences transcend its pixel-perfect stylistic choices. The care that went into the level design is evident, with early areas designed to teach mechanics to the player without explicit instruction, and later areas making use of understated palette shifts and walks through silent corridors to subtly set the mood as the level progresses. The game ends when you run out of lives, but you start back at the same place immediately after dying. Exploration is encouraged through making every area re-reachable until the explicitly marked exit door is reached, and hidden secrets hinted at by the placement of level objects are entertaining to find, rather than the gimmicky ploy designed to get gamers to call pay-by-the-minute hint lines that they sometimes were in the past. Even the idea of modern set piece-style design is occasionally used, with a mid-game miniboss that can optionally be defeated in a satisfying way.
It’s hard to say how much of the combination of retro and modern design elements is intentional and how much is simply a product of the game not actually being developed in the 1980s, but the story also adds some interesting twists. Not many older games starred women, let alone middle-aged, larger women of color, and the moral ambiguity of all characters involved would stand out next to the alien-zapping kid heroes and gun-toting action stars of the time. The boss battle scenes are well-written enough to be memorable, and the penultimate one is creepy and sad at once in a way I can’t recall having seen in a 2D platformer before.
For a cheap game that took about an hour and a half to beat, Muri surprised me in both its effectiveness and its fidelity to the games it’s inspired by. It’s well worth playing if you’d like to experience a dark little corner of a past that never was.
Muri, by Remar Games and Ludosity, is available on Steam for Windows XP and later. Thanks go to Brian Skahan for editing help.
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