An emotional and cryptic adventure through a strange digital world.
Developed by Studio Koba and Published by Team17, Narita Boy is a retro-styled action adventure that takes place within a computerized space known as the Digital Kingdom. At its heart beats a tale of sadness and sorrow, but the narrative is filled with complex terminology and dialogue that requires careful reading and a fair bit of patience to fully absorb. The 2D perspective and backtracking lend it the feel of a Metroid game, but the NPC-filled areas and more pronounced story add a uniqueness to Narita Boy that make it hard to put down. Even if its easy to get lost in the details of his quest, the titular hero’s releasing of a tri-colored sword from its digital stone leads to a surprisingly enjoyable pixelated romp.
Any summation of the story I provide is likely to be an unworthy facsimile for what’s actually presented in game, but here’s what I was able to gather: as Narita Boy, a protocol activated to protect the Digital Kingdom, you need to repel an entity known as Him and his Stallions from destroying this kingdom. There’s also a human referred to as “The Creator,” whose memories you access throughout the story; Him is also attempting to delete these memories. The game obviously provides much more detail than I have, and those interested in more intricate, if at times confusing, narratives will enjoy what’s on offer here. I should clarify that it’s the technobabble and naming conventions that are what create confusion, not necessarily the plot itself. As the story moves along, more of its complexities are unraveled, culminating in a satisfying (albeit cliffhanging) conclusion.
Gameplay largely revolves around guiding Narita Boy left and right to new areas, collecting keys, entering doors, and engaging in combat sequences. Battles pop up somewhat randomly, with boss encounters often taking place just before uncovering and entering one of the Creator’s memory statues. Your arsenal starts off fairly basic, but new moves are added regularly to surmount obstacles and take town more dangerous enemies. Initially, you have a sword attack, a shotgun blast, and a powerful, concentrated laser; eventually, Narita Boy acquires an uppercut-like swing that allows him to reach new heights, in addition to various dashes and dodges. A life meter allows you to take a number of hits before you go offline, but frequent auto-saves mean that death is never all that punishing. Enemies are almost always encountered in waves, enclosed with a set space like an arena. Overall, the combat isn’t too challenging and ends up feeling less integral to the overall experience, despite being fairly enjoyable.
It might seem like the Digital Kingdom is ripe for exploration, but generally you complete a single section of the world and then move on. After an introductory segment, three Beams (yellow, blue, and red) take you to new areas, in that order: a desert, an onsen (a Japanese hot spring bath), and a city in ruins. Even though special traversal methods appear in each area that add a bit of gameplay variety, the overall visual style on offer is a bit on the drab and dreary side. In addition to the aforementioned primary color, you’re mostly seeing blacks, browns, and greys. This creates a distinct flavor for each area, but the impact does wear out its welcome about halfway through each area. Since most of the loop sees Narita Boy running from one end of an area to the next, key in hand to open the next locked door, a wider use of color or more unique visuals overall would have been welcome. It doesn’t help that acquiring some of the keys just feels like basic fetch-questing, with some trips literally taking you from one building to an adjacent one. Total trip time? Maybe a minute.
Narita Boy as a whole feels unlike anything I’ve really played before. It seems to borrow from titles like Hyper Light Drifter, Metroid, and even The Legend of Zelda, but the style, pacing, and story beats help it stand apart. While my overall impression after reaching the credits after about 10 hours is positive, I can’t say for sure that I loved my time in the Digital Kingdom. The experience was certainly an interesting one, and the steady clip of receiving new abilities worked well enough, but the way combat encounters pop up sporadically impacted the overall pacing. Many times, an NPC would tell me where to go or whom to seek out, and I would just chance upon my destination rather than know exactly where to go; the naming conventions at play don’t do the game any favors. Still, I’m leaving Narita Boy behind happy that I spent time in his world, and both captivated and a little miffed by how his story turns out. But sometimes that’s the mark of a tale worth hearing.