Kamiko: A Lesson in Bad Retro Game Design

If you’re looking for an old-school hack ‘n slash style game, look no further than Kamiko.  If you want pixel art straight out of the 1980’s, why not give Kamiko a try?  Let’s say that you love 8-bit chiptunes music, and you want a game with a soundtrack like that.  Kamiko is the place to be.  Do you want a game that’s mindlessly repetitive and needlessly infuriating, as if it was made that way to pad out the amount of time it takes to complete it, just like an 80’s console game?  Oh boy, Kamiko is perfect for you.

 

I should pull back a bit and say hi, if only to show how fucking polite I am.  Today, I am looking at Kamiko, a $5 Nintendo eShop title that looks way more promising than it actually is. I say that because personally, at first glance, I was very excited to try it out.  From the trailer, you can see exactly what they were going for.  That being the kind of action-adventure gameplay that you would find in the 2-D Zelda games or Secret of Mana.

 

You play as one of three shrine maidens, or Kamiko, and can run through the four levels of the game with each of them.  One wields a sword, one a bow, and one can throw her shield like a boomerang and attack with a dagger.  The reason why you are given these weapons doesn’t matter.  Hell, the game doesn’t even seem to care enough to give you specifics.  There is evil in the world, it’s being a dick, and you should really do something about it, girl… don’t you think.

 

The first thing you’ll noticed when you’re dropped into the game is that… it’s fun.  Well, depending on which character you pick, it’s fun.  The blue sword chick (that’s all you are going to get out of me.  Having played the game, the story, names and places don’t matter.  Feel free to tell me how irresponsible it is for a reviewer to not care about a game’s story, and I will go right ahead and forward your comments to the game’s developer.)  *Ahem* The blue sword chick is a blast… almost to the point that you’d think the game was made around her, and the other characters we’re placed into Blue Lady’s custom playground.

 

That’s not to say that the other characters aren’t fun or interesting when you pick them.  On my first playthrough, I choose Red, the girl with the boomerang and dagger, because I wanted both range and close combat weapons.  It’s challenging but mostly enjoyable.  Her play style consists of throwing the boomerang, or mirror as it is called, at the enemies.  Then you move to a place where other baddies are between you and your weapon so it can cut through them on its way home. It is pretty satisfying, if at the very least it takes a second to master.  Steer clear of the bow and arrow maiden though. Trust me.

 

But now, let us dive a little deeper and get a bit more existential, as we ask the question, “Why?”  Certainly, in the game’s narrative, there’s a reason.  Bad is bad, good is good. Kill all monsters and such.  However, we aren’t characters in this world and know that there are game design reasons for why we are wasting enemies.  Enter “SP”, or “mana” if you will.  SP doesn’t always stand for the same thing in every game, and I’m not sure what it means in Kamiko.  I just referred to it as Mana cause that’s how I roll.  Mana is required to clear the four shrines in each level. After that is completed, the boss door is unlocked.

 

When I first saw Kamiko’s trailer, the thing that put me over the edge and left me wanting to play it was the kill streak counter in the corner of the screen.  I love games like They Bleed Pixels or Viewtiful Joe, where the more enemies you dispatch without getting hurt or taking too long, the higher your score multiplier goes.  The higher my score goes, the bigger my nerd chub gets.  They are directly proportional.  Kamiko, however, funnels this kill streak not into hard… very hard… numbers, but into your SP.

 

In Kamiko, the higher your kill streak, the more Mana you are rewarded per kill.  You need Mana to unlock certain doors and chests in the levels, so, for that reason, the enemies of an area will always respawn.  They want you to never run out and to always be able to get a good kill streak going.

 

The problem with this system is you don’t need a lot of Mana to accomplish your goals in a level.  Each character has one super move that uses it, but, other than that, Mana has no use outside level progression. This is where the game starts to feel like an example of annoying, 80’s retrograde, rental fodder. Just a padded out, piece of garbage. But stick with me dear viewer, and we will get there.

 

Everytime you walk through an area that you have previously cleared of enemies, it repopulates.  And what’s even more infuriating, is that the places the enemies respawn are completely random.  Sure, the same type and number of enemies show up, but, except for a couple of specific instances, they pop in stochastically.

 

Each level has a mechanic where the game tasks you with carrying an orb, while remaining untouched, to a pedestal somewhere in the level. You can’t run or defend yourself, or you will drop the object and must restart. Naturally you’ll end up backtracking through areas that you’ve already cleared.  That’s when the bad spirits pop in out of nowhere as you try to dodge them.  If you get hit, the orb drops to the floor and you start over.  In the first couple levels, this is not much of a problem.  The distance you travel is short, and the enemies are dumb and do not give chase, instead just bouncing around as you attempt to avoid them.  It is in later levels where completing the puzzles feels like a matter of luck. I found myself thinking, “If I can make it through these five or six rooms and only have one or two spirits respawn right next to me, I might be able to make this work.”  This is not a thought you want your game design to evoke.  In fact, you do not want your player to be thinking at all about your level design.  You want them to become engrossed in your world, not to have them muse about your failings as a programmer after dying for the 15th time on the same obstacle.

 

This is perhaps when some of the more grizzled readers might point out (and by “grizzled” I mean people in their 30’s and older) that this is a retro-style game.  Maybe they wanted to make it ridiculously hard to complete, because that is the way things were back then, particularly in Japan, where this game was programmed.  To that I say “bollocks”, because it’s fun to say, but also just because a game was hard does not mean it was poorly designed.  At the root of good retro games was the need for skill, ESPECIALLY in old arcade games.  You couldn’t just bash your head on it over and over.  You needed to finesse your way through the game.

 

Take Ninja Gaiden, a game so hard they should have just called it “Priapism”, however it was not luck that made it difficult.  Enemies always appeared in the same place; they were just awful bastards.  And when you ran out of lives?  Back to the start baby. The actual gameplay and level traversal however was extremely satisfying.  Kamiko missed this part.

 

A lot of times when you listen to modern developers talk about making retro style games of their youth, they mention how they want to consider everything we as an industry have learned over the past decades. Then they take those lessons and make a better experience for the player.  The only lesson I think Developer Skipmore took away was built in save points.  When you die, you go back to the last shrine you cleared.  If they wanted to be real old school dicks, then they would’ve put in extra lives, so you’d have to start the level again when you ran out.

 

All of this brings me to my main objection with the game. There are PLENTY of things the developers could have done differently to make it a more enjoyable experience.  The first one is simple but would change the whole feel of the game for the better: just let the player put the orb/key down.  Trekking all the way back to grab another after getting hit three pixels away from the end point is the most infuriating thing in this game.  Also, the orb sections wouldn’t be as difficult if the bad guys respawned in a predictable way.  It’s tough to give the game a pass when enemies pop in on top of you.  If the developers did that, or put a cap on how many baddies respawn in each level, this becomes less of an issue.

 

There is clearly a reason why Skipmore wanted enemies to always come back, and that’s because they are the only way to gain more SP. But the first level only requires a minimum of 500 SP points to complete.  Yes, there is your special move, but it takes way too long to activate and has no real use in combat.  If they were dead set on random respawns, then at least give the player more and varied attack options.  Something interesting to do with your SP while your character mows down evil spirits to rack up a high kill count.

 

The kill count itself is also a huge miss.  You need to put a god damn high score system in your retro inspired game.  Almost all old school games had score counters, whether it made sense or not (see Super Mario Bros.) This gives the player another reason to play your game over and over again.

 

And lastly, I want a map. I get lost. I’m not proud, but there, I said it.

 

If they had implemented maybe one or two of these functions, this game might have been a bit enjoyable, or somewhat endearing, especially to people who grew up in the era of these kinds of action adventure games.  As it stands, however, all it reminds me of is those throw away games, the kind that were difficult just to pan out the length. I really wanted to like Kamiko, and perhaps if I had only gone through it with the sword lady, I would have scored it higher.  She controls well, but playing with the other characters is when you begin to see just how slapped together this whole thing really is.  You might say that I’m just being a stingy bastard, but I’m not.  This game is $5, sure, and the music is pretty killer. Everything else just reeks of less than B-Tier quality, and that is why I can only give Kamiko a 4 out of 10.

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