Like most adult men still into games, much of my childhood was spent poring over games magazines. It was Official PlayStation Magazine from the ages of 9 to 14, and then I graduated into Official Xbox Magazine. One magazine a month – this meant a month of reading, re-reading, squeezing any and all info out of a single volume. And for me, the draw was in the smaller, weirder games. The big preview pages would be devoted to the new Medal of Honor, the new football game, the new Crash Bandicoot, the new big blockbuster. But the real intrigue lay in the little one-shots, the breezy news articles. These would tell you about cool new niche titles with some far flung release date, or an import game yet to reach the UK. The following was true about nearly all these games:
- They were Japanese.
- If a screenshot was supplied at all, it was always the same one.
- It wasn’t immediately clear how the game played or what you actually did.
- The game always looked cool as hell and I would be desperate to play it.
These little tidbits would hang around. Sometimes you’d see the same tiny screenshot across multiple issues of the magazine. If you were lucky, one month you’d open the magazine to find a full review. Only a half-page, mind, but enough to give you more of an overview and, crucially, more screenshots. Maybe those would let you glimpse a new level design, a new mechanic, a broader indication of the game’s fidelity. More context.
If any of those games ever came out in my country, well, it didn’t really matter at that point whether they were any good. They were a joy to discover. Games like Bishi Bashi Special, for example. I never did get to play Poy Poy though.
Owlboy was announced long ago. Way before we thought there’d be a black person in the White House, let alone there being any inkling of neo-Nazis moving in. It’s a game announced before Brexit, before ISIS, before the stock market crash, even.
And like those PlayStation Magazine press screens of old, the same few Owlboy screenshots have been floating about for years, jumping from press release to press release, surviving the ever longer intervals between them. Those screenshots could weather the vacuum like tardigrades, emerging unblemished at a convention after years in hibernation. I remember learning about the game. I had just finished school (that’s high school, not university), I was browsing an indie game site, because of course this was a time where such a site could easily cover that scene in its entirety and bigger sites only covered bigger games. It looked cool! Pixel art in indie games at the time was still reaching for the expressive fidelity of its big budget forebears, but Owlboy looked like something that could have come out on the SNES or PSX on a proper budget. Better, even.
This game was released a few short weeks ago. It’s a throwback, in more ways than one.
“It’s a throwback, in more ways than one.”
It feels like a rare find, in the late ‘90s sense of the word, like you’ve gotten lucky wandering into a videogame store and found it on the shelf, in its chunky PlayStation jewel case, a game you have known about for years, a game that’s hung in the air, nebulously, through a rotation of approved screenshots. Booting it up, there’s that joy of discovery, something lost in an age of unending preview and video coverage.
The art is firmly planted in a bygone era, with screens upon screens of shimmering pixel art. The majority of this game feels like the amalgamation of every platforming opening level, resplendent with lush green flora and giddily upbeat music. Grass billows in the wind. Characters sigh, and chirp, and express themselves with gestures reminiscent of an old Japanese JRPG. It’s all very ‘90s. Even the dialogue comes delivered in a speech bubble with pleasing brown text and a soft outline. There’s parallax scrolling.
So what do you do, exactly? You’re Otus the owl boy. You have wings. When you first take off, you half expect there to be some kind of depleting flapometer. “There must be some kind of flapometer,” you think. “It must surely deplete, and when it does, Otus the owl boy must surely plummet. Verily, I must have to upgrade this flapometer, increasing my time spent in the air and allowing me to reach new areas. O, Owlboy! Thy cruelty knows no bounds!” Except, that doesn’t happen. Taking damage will cause you to be thrown to the ground, or into walls, and you can’t fly under running water, but otherwise you have free rein over the skies. It’s a cool feeling at first, ignoring all the floating platforms arranged into familiar jumping intervals, and just flying off somewhere. While in the air, you can hurtle about with a charge attack type thing, which you can also do as many times as you want. Getting from A to B is as fast as you want it to be.
“All the puzzles involve the old pick ‘n’ plop.”
Otus can also pick up things with his gnarly talons and plop them elsewhere. All the puzzles involve the old pick ‘n’ plop. Sometimes you’re plopping that which was picked onto a switch, sometimes you’re screwing something in. But it’s always the same.
But gnarly talons are for more than just picking ‘n’ plopping. Otus can also summon up companions, who can shoot guns. These guns are used for fighting enemies and, crucially, for accessing new areas. Different companions have weapons with unique properties that only affect certain kinds of barrier to entry. It’s how the game dictates where you need to be, but there isn’t much of a Metroid-style hunt for previously hidden areas, with only a scant few places to go back and flex your new abilities over.
It’s all fine, really, but Owlboy didn’t blow me away. The art is always gorgeous, but so much of this game is a slog of the ‘I just need to get through this to see the next thing’ variety. Bosses and enemies get tedious fast, and puzzles tend to be an unfortunate combination of obvious and time-consuming. I spent a lot of time playing Owlboy thinking about how if this had come out in, say, 2009, all the filler would have felt far more manageable. The same goes for a lot of the game’s nostalgic theatrics. There have been so many retro throwback games in the time between Owlboy’s announce and its release, and so many of those have lifted themselves out of the quagmire of early video game narrative that it’s hard to go back to something like this. The game is peppered with little comedy skits, in particular when you upgrade your items. You quickly see where they’re going; they last a little too long, in the way things like that did back in the day. In the way games learned not to during the retro revival of the past decade.
“If you’ve spent the past decade playing just SNES roms and old PSX games, maybe you’ll still be inoculated; your immunities will still be up.”
So its slavish desire to pop out of a time capsule does weigh it down, even if it might bring back cherished memories of finally obtaining the weird rare game you’d only seen in magazines, that feeling of a game from another culture, time, and place being within reach after so many years. So many successful retro games now capture the feeling of what playing a game was like ‘back then’ but they do so with a few silent nudges and better practices that you don’t notice anyway because they’re usually reflective of the way games work now. Games like Axiom Verge work because they draw on your nostalgia without reminding you of the rough stuff. In Owlboy, that stuff sticks out. If you’ve spent the past decade playing just SNES roms and old PSX games, maybe you’ll still be inoculated; your immunities will still be up. This will be the game for you – it’s a new one of those but with a higher screen resolution.
I opened the cellophane expecting to be transported back to the ‘90s, in all its glory. Instead, I was transported to the ‘90s in all its historical accuracy. A decade of some fun videogames, but also a decade of Tony Blair, Britney Spears, and Slobodan Milosevic. Figuratively speaking. I don’t think they’re actually in the game, though I never collected all the secret coins, so, to be honest, who knows.