Are 8-bit games only remembered for their difficulty?
Oniken is another 8-bit love letter to games of the NES era that delivers on the aesthetic and feel, but carries a little bit too much forward for the wider Switch audience. As ninja Zaku, players progress through side-scrolling stages slashing at enemies and defeating bosses across 6 grueling levels. While certainly reminiscent of titles like the Ninja Gaiden series, Oniken doesn’t really do much to separate itself from similar games in the action-platformer genre.
The story has a Terminator vibe to it in that you are part of a mercenary group trying to fight back against a military uprising and its robot army that have ravaged the planet. Cutscenes booked each of Oniken’s levels and add a little color to the game, but I found myself hurrying through them to get back to the action. The story just wasn’t gripping enough to entice me to invest in it.
The gameplay in Oniken is definitely the highlight. Chopping down minor enemies and bosses is satisfying, with each stage having at least two boss fights. Many of the boss encounters are extremely challenging and require a high degree of skill and timing to complete. You can collect grenades that make certain foes a lot easier to take down and a sword upgrade that gives your blade extra reach, in addition to much-needed health refills. Even minor foes can take your seemingly-long health bar down by 20 percent, so patience and careful movements are definitely rewarded. It would have been nice to see a few more power-ups or items to add a little more variety, though.
Most of the stages are fairly typical: a snowy mountain, a forest with branches to grasp, the inside of an enemy ship. Breaking up the on-foot segments are ones where your character rides a speeder bike that can shoot lasers, reminding me of similar sections in Mega Man X2. The controls are decent, but there can be issues with grabbing onto branches and beams and turning around in mid-air, making some of the boss fights pretty frustrating. Fortunately, each stage is divided into multiple segments, and if you die you return to the beginning of the segment. Unfortunately, upon a game over you do have to start back at the first segment of the stage. Boss rush and hardcore modes add some replay value to the package, but you have to complete the game to unlock them.
If you turn off the game, it remembers all of the stages you’ve cleared, so you can replay old stages or return to the last unfinished one. Score counters are included for each stage and a total score at the bottom of the stage select screen, adding an incentive to return to completed stages. In terms of presentation, The sound and look of Oniken are unquestionably 8-bit, but nothing here is unique or special.
The most memorable but also lamentable aspect of Oniken is its difficulty. Without difficulty settings, it isn’t likely to be accessible to a lot of contemporary players, especially those who didn’t grow up with Contra, Strider, or Ninja Gaiden. The fourth stage is a forest area with numerous hazards and platforms that break after standing on them for a few seconds and coupled with some of the most challenging boss battles I have ever seen, I nearly threw in the towel here. I suspect that others with less patience might call it quits at this point, or maybe even earlier. With Oniken, what you see is what you get, and your first impression of the game is probably spot on. If you miss your friendly, Tecmo ninja man, you might want to give this one a look. For everyone else, leave this one in 20XX.