Every rose has its thorns. This one just happens to have 1001.
1001 Spikes is a retro-styled action platformer whose core gameplay is centered on excruciatingly exacting platforming challenges. Whether or not you enjoy this game might just come down to your tolerance for an experience that at all times takes glee in presenting just one more sadistically-placed trap to elude, one more precision jump to make, and likely one more trip through the level--this time armed with just a bit more knowledge of what to expect.
1001 Spikes’ main campaign is built around incremental progress, trial-and-error exploration, and skilled execution. Players are tasked with navigating a series of somewhat short levels packed to the gills with lethal dangers, from scorpions to blatantly protruding spikes to player-triggered booby traps and beyond.
The game is good at funneling players into experiences meant to introduce these dangers so that over time they can be incorporated into more complex challenges. The level design is impressive in this way, giving players a sense of progression through imparting skill and knowledge as opposed to abilities.
The most integral knowledge players must accumulate, however, is level layouts. Due to the game’s trap-laden, unpredictable design and deliberate lack of checkpoints, it’s often necessary to start a given level several times, dying over and over again while making incremental progress in either traversing or understanding the level. This can lead to frustration for many and places emphasis on memorization. It's a divisive way to structure a game experience.
The mitigating factor that mostly blunts the negative impact of this design is simply how rewarding it can be to finally get through a scenario that looked wholly unassailable at first glance. Only through patience and observation can one make sense of these levels. They’re very puzzle-like in that way. Rote memorization won’t be enough, though, as executing on one’s knowledge can be quite difficult and rewarding in its own right.
Players can take a break from Story Mode with a handful of Arcade Modes, which offer less punishing and more straightforward experiences. Once unlocked, these modes can be played using several different characters with unique jumping and attacking mechanics. Some of these are guest appearances from the indie game scene, while some are homages to classic video game characters. Most must be unlocked through gathering collectibles in the game’s various modes.
The Arcade Modes are really fun and a welcome respite from the main game’s more confined nature, though they don’t last as long as one might want. It’s also possible to play the Story Mode with the unlockable characters. Unfortunately, this means playing through each level again with each individual character. Few will have the patience to play through the campaign 15+ times, no matter how the different abilities may alter the experience.
In the Wii U version, any mode can be played with up to four players, which often makes things more complicated. Progression is harder when four people are jumping around at once, but it transforms 1001 Spikes into a party game almost. Multiplayer is at its best in the Golden Vase mode, which is a single-screen competition to collect coins in a time limit, and the Tower of Nanner, a co-op mode where everyone tries to get to the top of a tower with only nine lives each. In multiplayer, failure becomes light-hearted for the most part, which is sometimes needed as the difficulty ramps up.
The sheer volume of content on offer here is quite impressive, as is the presentation. The graphics and music feel authentically 8-bit, and even the Ninja Gaiden-style cutscenes present a story that adds an appealing texture to things. Those patient enough to tolerate 1001 Spikes’ punishing design sensibilities should find a valuable treasure beneath its prickly exterior.