Review: 1001 Spikes (3DS eShop)

Exquisite torture

We'll get this out of the way right now: 1001 Spikes is hard. So hard, in fact, that it's deliberately unfair. Those of you turned off by that knowledge can save yourself a great deal of frustration by walking on by. Anyone up to the challenge, however, is in for one of the most satisfying platforming experiences in recent years.

Extreme difficulty is the defining characteristic of 1001 Spikes, but there's more to it than that. There's a massive amount of love and charm on display in every punishing room in the game, so much so that it's easy to take a deep breath and try again — even after you've died to that same trap for the 25th time.

1001 Spikes is the story of Aban Hawkin. Or, at least, it is at first. A copious amount of unlockable characters represent the first — but by no means the last — cache of hidden content in this game. Regardless, the adventure is kicked off when Aban receives a letter from his missing father, challenging him to explore the ruins of Ukampa Temple, collect the treasures within and escape with his life. (Spoiler: he won't.)

The design philosophy of 1001 Spikes prevents any player — even the most careful, observant, and luckiest player — from making it out alive. One hit from anything is the end of tenacious Aban, and there's often no telling which ceilings will collapse, which platforms will fall and which tiles will trigger the titular booby trap. As such the game isn't so much an exercise in forward planning as it is one in retrospective planning. Aban begins the game with 1001 lives, and he may well need all of them, because he can only learn by dying.

The traps reveal themselves when it's already too late. The odds are good that if you see something deadly, you're already dead. In other cases, obvious traps make themselves immediately apparent, causing you to get struck by something else while you were busy avoiding the obstacle you saw coming. 1001 Spikes is a masterpiece of misdirection, and one that elevates brutality to an artform.

Your first clue that precision is key is the fact that two different buttons make Aban jump. One maxes out at a one-block-high vertical, and the other maxes out at two blocks. Why not just use one button and release it sooner if you don't need to jump a full two blocks? Because the simple act of moving in this game is a puzzle. Jump too low and you may clip a patch of spikes. Just too high and you may hit your head and fall into a pit. Like Goldilocks, 1001 Spikes is a continuous search for something that's "just right," and you won't know which porridge is too hot or too cold until you catch yourself on fire or die of frostbite.

Offensively, Aban can hurl an endless stream of knives. That sounds pretty impressive, until you learn — and you will learn quickly — that there's relatively little that's vulnerable to knives. In fact, more often than not you'll be using them to uncover hidden items and hit switches. Additionally, the enemies that are vulnerable to knives are often easier to avoid than to fight. Remember what we said about misdirection?

Each level has one item that absolutely must be collected: the exit key. There's also an optional golden skull, which is not only harder to get, but can also sometimes trick you into making the exit key inaccessible. The skulls are not mandatory to progress, but you will need them in order to unlock the extra characters, items, and modes. This adds a lot of replayability, and it also means that you must sometimes devise two entirely different strategies to make it through the same level.

Playing 1001 Spikes requires you, as a player, to beat it at its own game. As physically taxing as these levels are for Aban, the true assault is psychological. Certain types of blocks trigger spike traps, so you learn to avoid those in favour of other blocks — which then trigger something even worse. Early on, a friendly rat advises you to take things slow and observe the patterns of platforms before you act. Good advice, until you take your time studying a later layout only to have your head crushed by a falling ceiling. One level even had us anticipating a difficult encounter with a blade-spitting statue. As we drew nearer, we were surprised to find that it didn't spit anything at all. That pleasant surprise, of course, was tempered by the fact that a much simpler trap killed us while we were obsessed over a red herring.

If it sounds frustrating, you're both right and wrong. The deaths are unexpected and rarely predictable, but they also play as punchlines. Of course there's a trap right before the exit. Of course that horizontal platform drops vertically when you step on it. Of course that key is out of reach because you didn't pay attention to the blocks you destroyed on your way to grab it. 1001 Spikes is a prankster, and while Aban might not be laughing, it's hard not to see some its more fiendish traps reveal themselves to be elaborate — and very clever — jokes.

The presentation itself helps soften the blow, as well. With some genuinely great music in every single stage — as well as a few tracks inspired by the unlockable cameo protagonists — and a surprisingly vibrant series of backdrops, these unforgiving gauntlets are actually quite pleasant to spend time with. There's also a scene of satisfying fanfare when you do make it out of a room with all of your organs, as well as a Ghosts 'N Goblins-style map on the touch screen to remind you both of how much progress you've made and how reachable your next goal seems to be. It's a tease, but it's an effective one, and the most difficult levels kept us coming back in ways that felt entirely removed from any concern we might have had for our own sanity.

Two major unlockable modes also feature, including one that's essentially a completely different game: The Tower of Nannar. While this mode shares a lot with the main game, it feels very different, with vertical movement replacing the horizontal, challenging boss fights, and an emphasis on constantly moving onward rather than puzzling out smaller traps in sequence. This too owes more than a little of its aesthetic to Ghosts 'N Goblins, but, funnily enough, is actually significantly easier than the main game.

There's also a Lost Levels mode, which functions as 1001 Spikes' own sequel. It's another trot through the game's worlds, with a completely different (though admittedly smaller) group of levels to master. These are both very generous additions, providing both a full second game and an expansion pack for the main game in the same basic package.

There are a few downsides, however, that seem to be exclusive to the 3DS version. For starters, objects and interactive tiles tend to "jiggle" as the screen scrolls. It's not impossible to get used to, but it can be a bit disorienting as you already struggle to master the devious treachery of the level design.

The "jiggle" problem occurs even with the 3D off, and switching it on reveals another problem: the 3D effect gives away hidden passages. Much like the eShop version of Cave Story, little care seems to have been given to which elements should be part of which layer. Background objects bizarrely clip in front of our hero, and "foreground" objects recess backward, revealing passages we weren't supposed to know about. 1001 Spikes is plenty challenging — and plenty good — even with these issues in mind, but that's a pretty disappointing oversight.

There's also the lack of multiplayer features, which the Wii U version does have. The importance of that capability will vary from person to person, but it's worth pointing out. Also worth pointing out, however, is that this version of the game is portable, which is a good fit for levels that should only take around a minute or so to complete, once you learn their quirks.

It's a shame that 1001 Spikes has these issues, but they're by no means dealbreakers. The core experience is magnificent, and graphical oddities and missing modes don't do much to diminish its charms. If you're up for a solid, playful challenge that will redefine the way you look at platformers — as well as, possibly, mortality itself — then 1001 Spikes will scratch that itch. It's not a perfect experience, but you'll have enough on your mind that you won't likely be distracted by rough edges.

Conclusion

A long adventure, two great unlockable modes, a slew of hidden characters, a great soundtrack and lovely spritework are all hallmarks of 1001 Spikes, which also happens to be tremendously difficult, and thoroughly challenging. The levels are often unfair, but they're unfair in such clever ways that it's hard to stay mad at the game, and all too easy to get roped into one more try. Having said that, the lack of multiplayer modes, the propensity of interactive objects to scroll at different speeds from the rest of the tiles and a 3D effect that gives away hiding places hold this one back from reaching its true potential. A great experience, but not one without its flaws — and absolutely not one for the faint of heart.

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