Tropes be damned: it’s a love letter to retro games.
A lot of games have claimed to be love letters to retro gaming over the years, but the more time I spend with Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness, the more it becomes clear that other games should take heed of how this bright and bubbly brawler sublimely executes being a love letter to retro gaming. Coming from Ancient Corp, a game developer that has ties to the salad days of Genesis and Super Nintendo notably from its founder, the acclaimed composer Yuzo Koshiro, Gotta Protectors understands how to take old-school charm and adapt it for the modern era. The fact it does that while being a chaotic and fun local and online multiplayer experience and hiding some serious depth beneath its overt simplicity makes the end result even more impressive.
If you played Protect Me Knight back on Xbox Live Arcade or Gotta Protectors on 3DS, you have some idea of how this will play out. Those games were largely tower defense games, or rather, princess defense games. What makes Cart of Darkness stand out is now you place the princess on top of a castle that moves like a tank on a track and then clear out the ensuing hordes of enemies as the castle moves. Your goal is to get the princess-adorned castle to the end of the stage, where it rams into an enemy building over and over again until it falls. Stage over and you live to fight another day; rinse and repeat four times and complete a mission. Rinse and repeat dozens of times to complete the game.
The princess castle tank is just the thing you gotta protect while the real meat is the top-down beat-’em-up action that spills out of defending the princess. You choose from eight different classes, including a naked ninja and a Don Quixote-looking old guy. In single-player, you pick three to bring into the fray and you can bounce between at the the hold of a button. In multiplayer, you can destroy the gaggle of foes with up to three others both locally and online.
Every mission consists of four different stages where you follow the princess castle tank on a track and button mash your way to victory. Every character has a melee attack and three skills. Initially the skills are simpler, whether it’s tossing a shuriken or magic attack, or crafting or reinforcing barricades. However, you earn in-game currency that can be used to buy more skills and abilities to build out your characters in unique ways. You can make your mage all offense, or lean more towards relying on defenses. The depth of the skills caught me off guard the more I got into the game.
On top of that, there are 948 secret game cartridges to unlock by completing secret tasks and missions. They all have silly pun names on old NES games, like Teen Daedalus or Balloon Fright. It’s baffling how many there are to find, but they seem to be a little like Korok seeds in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild where you can go ahead and try to find all of them, but you’re probably fine just getting a few dozen. Each game cartridge can be equipped to a character and when leveled up, it adds a stat or gameplay bonus, bringing even more nuance to how you can build out your character roster.
Even with the degree of customization, the gameplay gets repetitive over the course of the 100+ stages. While there’s an admirable amount of twists, whether it’s tracks with switches so you can take alternate routes or occasional boss fights, you’re largely just spamming buttons to clear out a dizzying amount of enemies. It’s silly goofy fun and the fact that the game doesn’t slow down to nothingness when so many enemies are on screen is impressive, but it’s a lot of samey combat. It’s a blast with friends, but doesn’t have that same longevity on your own. What it does do is nail the vibe of old-school beat-’em-ups. While the setup and presentation aren’t the same as your old Capcom or Konami arcade beat-’em-ups, it evokes a similar feeling. That feeling is made even better by the earworm, vintage score from Yuzo Koshiro. Different Koshiro scores based on other retro soundchips are also the driving force for the four DLC packs that are available alongside the western release as well.
Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness is a delightfully unique twist on old-school retro brawlers that does enough to keep repetitive gameplay fresh enough, especially if you have friends to play with locally or online. It has a ton of content and a wild number of endearing collectables that should supply you (and hopefully your friends) with enough retro love letter magic to carry you right back in time to the 1980s and 1990s styles it evokes so wonderfully.