How can you not love a game starring a character named “Rusty?”
You might have noticed that we’re in the midst of a retro gaming renaissance. It’s given us wonderful titles like Mega Man 9 (and soon, Mega Man 10), Retro Game Challenge, the ReBirth series, a new Blaster Master game, and now Dark Void Zero. Dark Void Zero has the best fictional backstory of the lot, however. According to "legend", the game was developed for the NES late in that system’s life, but the project was ultimately scrapped so that funded could be shifted towards development for the up-and-coming SNES. As a result, all but one copy of Dark Void Zero was lost.
When Capcom was looking for old properties to remake, Dark Void was at the top of the list, and some plucky employee found that old NES cartridge. They copied the game and released it on DSiWare while Dark Void itself launched on the HD systems. While this history might be a humorous fable, Dark Void Zero is anything but. This is a true blue NES-era sidescroller, and if loving pixilated chiptune platformers is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
Developer Open Ocean has taken every step to ensure that the game retains an old-school feel. When you launch it from your DSi home screen, the first thing you see is a fake NES cartridge. It’s been sitting in Capcom’s closet for awhile, and as any longtime gamer will tell you, dust has collected on those gold contact points. The game instructs you to “blow!” into the DSi's microphone to clear the dust out. It’s a hilarious, appreciated touch. You are then treated to a classic NES plot-revealing slideshow: the nefarious “Watchers,” an evil alien race, seek to take over the Earth. You are Rusty, a “void-born” soldier trained in the art of alien-shooting. With Nikolai Tesla as your wingman, you head valiantly into the alien dimension to shut down their portal generator! Excelsior!
The game itself is reminiscent of such Capcom classics as Bionic Commando and Mega Man, and the gunplay reminds one of Contra to a certain extent. Rusty can pick up five different weapons in each large stage, each with specific strengths and weaknesses. The Hypercoil is insanely powerful but overheats quickly, while the Pulverizor has a slow rate of fire but can destroy certain walls. In rare instances, Rusty can equip himself with a deadly tri-shot accessory and different kinds of short-lasting shields. Through three stages, Rusty’s goals remain largely the same. His main task is to find keycards to open new doors, and eventually the stage’s exit. Each stage has its own secondary goal as well; in the first stage, you’re looking for journal entries of a previous human squad. In the second stage, you are actively hunting down and killing alien scientists (who are, of course, wearing white lab coats).
Enemies are everywhere, and Dark Void Zero has plenty of alien variety to keep you busy. There aren't just alien soldiers, but also giant flying beetles, Metroid-like creatures that explode if they hit you, and wall-mounted turrets that block your progress while shooting at you. Luckily, health pickups are easy to come by, and the game’s trademark feature—the rocket pack—helps enormously.
Controlling the rocket pack is simple. You double-tap the A button to hover and move in any direction, or hold down A to rocket upwards. The controls are generally excellent, but the buttons could have been assigned more naturally. The game uses A for jumping and B for shooting, with the likely intent being to recreate the NES's control scheme. Unfortunately, a more comfortable assignment would have been B to jump, and Y to shoot.
While you don’t always have the rocket pack on, it’s fun to use and critical for exploring every inch of each stage. The game’s level design does a wonderful job of negotiating between hovering, rocketing, and running-and-gunning scenarios. Each has its place, and none of them feel short-changed. The only disappointment is that the boss of each stage is the same, aside from variations on its particular arsenal. As expected, the game looks and sounds just like a late-era NES game. The music is catchy and typically energetic, bringing to mind classic NES Capcom games. The character sprite variety is wonderful, with the few instances of palette-switching feeling authentic instead of cheap. The backgrounds are wonderfully colorful and interesting.
Dark Void Zero is very short, clocking in at just over an hour. However, there are three difficulties to choose from, and the Hard mode is surprisingly challenging. The game is also essentially a score attack: there are no unlockables, but it’s mighty satisfying to enter your initials on th High Score list. You can’t save your game, but your progress is saved automatically every time you start a new stage. Checkpoints litter each stage as well, softening the blow of inevitable death.
Dark Void Zero is so perfect in its execution that I want to play it on my TV, Wii Remote held NES-style, chiptunes resonating from my TV’s speakers. Any unwitting passerby would correctly mistake it for exactly what it’s supposed to be: an old-school NES game. It succeeds in virtually every aspect of its execution, and if you own a DSi this fantastic piece of software is an absolute must-own.