The first time I died in Alwa's Awakening, the screen that allowed me to continue had a counter indicating the number of times that I had died. This was a pretty good indication that the game wasn't going to be a cakewalk and it did not disappoint. But unlike other difficult games I've played recently, the challenge in this game somehow seemed appropriate, although that didn't mean that at some times I didn't find it frustrating. Luckily, fantastic old-school gameplay, gorgeous 8-bit visuals and terrific sound design combine to build a game that rises above the occasional frustration.
Alwa's Awakening is a love letter to the games of my childhood. But at first, I wasn't sure that was a good thing. When you go back and play Metroid or one of the original Zelda games you most likely have the benefit of nostalgia, which lets you smooth over the rough edges that are present in older 8-bit games. But when I first started playing Alwa's Awakening, that nostalgia wasn't there. Sure, it had gorgeous NES style graphics and a catchy chiptune soundtrack. But jumping felt kinda floaty. The hit-box on my character sometimes didn't seem quite right. I was spending a lot of times lost and frustrated by screens that kept killing me and then having to slog my way back to them over and over again because of how the save game system works. But then, something clicked.
But then, something clicked.
The jumping that previously felt floaty became precise depending on how fractionally shorter or longer I held the button down. Because of how long you float in the air, I was able to slightly adjust my trajectory in air or dodge projectiles. The hit-box didn't get better, but at least it was consistent and after a bit, started to almost gain it's own nostalgia as I thought about similar frustrations when I was 10 or 12.
But maybe the biggest revelation of the first couple hours of play was that I was actually getting good at the game. That doesn't mean that I stopped dying, but it did mean that I was dying a lot less. By the time I went back in to record some gameplay from the start of the game after playing for three or four hours, I was able to speed, beating the first boss in far less than a half hour. Now when I play, I feel fast and powerful and the game rushes to meet and challenge me. It's a terrific feeling.
From a pure gameplay perspective, the game loop is terrific. Early on, you get a map that helps you find your way through the labyrinth of screens that makes up Alwa's Awakening. It's extremely important because it often seems like each screen is a mini-puzzle you need to decipher. At the start, you can only jump, which means you can't reach a huge portion of the map. But then you get a wand that lets you place a single brick which opens up a huge portion of the game, followed by a bubble that opens up even more. Suddenly, you find yourself backtracking over huge portions of the map, finding hidden secrets and collecting orbs that make it easier to defeat the bosses. And the map is a huge portion of what enables that, showing you on every screen where it's possible for you to move to in all four directions, regardless of whether or not it looks possible while you are playing.
This loop of exploring an area initially and then re-exploring to reveal it's secrets as you gain abilities is not only extremely enjoyable, but it also takes a lot of the potential tedium out of the game and more importantly lets you move on to something else if you are stuck. Multiple times I would bash my head against a section of the game I just couldn't figure out, but after going and re-exploring some other section would either come back with some new ability or a new perspective that would help me figure out what I needed to do in order to progress.
It may seem odd to say it, but the mark of a good 8-bit game to some degree comes down to graphics. And Alwa's Awakening has some of the most beautiful retro pixel-based graphics that I've seen in quite a long time. They are bright and colorful and crisp. They just scream original NES in such a wonderful way. Even the video we captured, running at 1080p at 60 frames per second doesn't quite capture how wonderful they look. But the graphics don't just look terrific, they are also wonderfully animated and run at a buttery smooth 60 fps.
Performance is obviously something the developers put a lot of work into as well, which is fantastic. It's also wonderful that they went out of their way to create a Mac version of the game. In fact, I played the majority of the time on a four-year-old Macbook Air; certainly not a machine made for gaming. But with my Playstation 4 controller in hand, my Mac became the perfect way to play Alwa's Awakening while I sat on my couch.
The final step in making a great retro title is making sure that it has a great soundtrack as well. I'll be honest, the biggest disappointment with the Alwa's Awakening soundtrack is that I don't appear to be able to buy it anywhere yet. Every single one of the 25 tracks is beautiful and catchy and they all sound exactly like they would be perfectly at home on a Nintendo.
Overall, if you don't like 8-bit Metroidvanias, Alwa's Awakening isn't going to change your mind. But, if you love that feeling of nostalgia that you get when you boot up your old NES (or your new NES Mini) then this game is going to push all the same buttons. It has beautiful, bright graphics with terrific animation. The soundtrack will have you humming long after you stop playing. And the gameplay loop is exactly what you remember from all the games you played as a kid. I heartily recommend you give it a try.
Our Recommendation: Buy it
If you are looking for an 8-bit masterpiece, put down your NES Mini and pick up this game. It's beautiful and sounds terrific, but most importantly its plays wonderfully. As a bonus, it will run on probably any computer you have.