PIXEL FORCE: LEFT 4 DEAD / Eric Ruth Games / PC
You remember back around 2000, when punk covers of 1980s songs were the trendy thing? It started out with a few that were good, or at least cute, then suddenly every no-name band was crawling out of the woodwork to quickly cash in on the craze by slapping together some crunchy chords and screaming remix of Rainbow Connection or whatever. It got old and sad real fast.
I'm a little worried about the "de-make" scene going the same route. We're not exactly drowning in them yet, but there's a lot more bad than good at this point. I'm worried that no-name developers with marginal talent see this as a way to generate "buzz" for themselves, by just slapping together some shite conversion of a popular title with "NES Retro Style Pixels!"
Pixel Force: Left 4 Dead isn't shite. But it is kind of hovering close to the edge of the toilet bowl. It's by an indie developer who does other projects, some of which look pretty good (though I haven't played any others at this point), so I don't think it's just a crass slap-dash marketing attempt by some nobody out for quick praise and attention. However, it also doesn't seem particularly inspired, and ends up being mostly tedious to play.
Here's what designer Eric Ruth was going for, as per the text file included with the game client - "Lovingly recreated in a fashion that would have been acceptable in 1986 for the Nintendo Entertainment System, this de-make stands as the flagship title of the upcoming Pixel Force series from Eric Ruth Games." Further on in the included text file, various questionable design choices are explained away as being "appropriate for a 1986 NES game."
I'm not sure why the author arbitrarily chose 1986 as his standard, other than perhaps only knowing how to use Game Maker and thus not able to include anything too advanced that would require real coding (lack of online connectivity, lack of native gamepad support, and the rather bloated size of the installer for a "8-bit retro style game" tend to bear this theory out.) But it sort of crimps the game down to something like a so-so Ikari Warriors clone.
There's been very few successful de-makes; in fact, Rockman 7-FC is the only really good one I've personally played so far. That one was great because of two things - it was made with incredible care by a talented designer with vision, and it was actually an improvement over the game it was paring down. I don't feel like either of these things is true with Pixel Force: Left For Dead. The most compelling elements of the source material - four player online cooperative play, dynamic "dungeon master" AI, and a creepy sense of immersion in an apocalyptic zombie nightmare - are not even attempted here.
When you strip away the novelty of the Left 4 Dead tie-in, what you have is a simplistic shooter in which you face the same clone enemies over and over, and the level design is about as flat and uninteresting as can be. Like the source material, the four included levels (based on the four chapters of the original game) are massive and sprawling, taking a good 30 to 40 minutes each to pick through. Though there's "safe rooms" scattered throughout them to which you seem to respawn endlessly, there's no password or save system, meaning if you intend to plow through the whole game you need to have 2+ hours free at each sitting.
Is this "realistic" to 1986 NES design? Yes and no. More games than not didn't have password systems or save batteries at the time, but quite a few did. More importantly, the ones that didn't didn't have levels that take half an hour or more to get through. It's a baffling design choice and one that seems either not well thought out, or again because the designer is just sort of hacking things together with Game Maker and doesn't know how to add a save or password feature.
The play control is passable, but again bridles itself with unneeded limitations. If it was an actual NES rom, I'd give the two-button control system (one for your currently selected gun, one for a melee strike with the barrel that pushes zombies back a couple of steps) a pass as a fairly creative use of limited resources. In a PC recreation that takes up twenty megabytes, why not make a more friendly control scheme? Why is being married to the "1986 NES" concept better than actually doing the best job possible with the gameplay? And if it's just a case of not being able to do better than this with Game Maker, why not just be honest and forthright about it?
The game's best quality is the sound design. Music from the actual game is recreated effectively in chiptune style, and the sound of the sobbing Witches is particularly creepy. I think Mr. Ruth has a good future as a composer and sound designer even if the game design thing doesn't pan out. The game also improves in two-player mode, if you've got a hot-seat cohort and a spare controller - the mechanic of reviving the other player when they die is held onto here, and the game is at least a bit less repetitive with someone to talk to.
* Game download
* Gameplay Video