Between the broken English text, 8-bit sprites and brutal, unforgiving difficulty, it's easy to think of the Nicalis-published 1001 Spikes as a long-forgotten NES gem. While certainly not for everyone, it's a rich, rewarding (and punishing) addition to the Wii U eShop library. This modern-retro platformer is certainly a gem, but a few quirks make it more of a diamond in the rough.
1001 Spikes is a supremely difficult puzzle platformer in which players initially play as Aban Hawkins, an Indiana Jones-like spelunker with a chip on his shoulder; he can shoot arrows, push blocks, and perform a low jump and high jump. Unfortunately, these abilities just barely equip Aban for his journey into the Ukampa Temple, which is filled to the brim with deathtraps and hazards that will kill him with just one hit. While players will die in 1001 Spikes — and they will die often — they are given 1001 lives to start the game with, and more can be earned throughout the game.
The objective of each level is deceptively simple: grab the key, make it to the exit and breathe a sigh of relief; each stage has an optional golden skull to collect which grants an extra life. Collecting enough skulls will unlock new outfits, new characters and even new game modes. While reaching each golden skull adds significantly to the already-painful difficulty level, it's hard not to get excited when a message flashes that a new game mode has been unlocked, or that a familiar face is now playable. Early on, we were able to unlock CommanderVideo of the BIT.TRIP series, and were delighted to find that when playing as him the music changed to the signature chiptunes of that franchise, getting more lively with each success. Grabbing the golden skull and the key unleashed the rainbow that fans loved in BIT.TRIP Runner, which was a great surprise.
The gameplay is taken to a whole other level when playing the story mode with local co-op. It's great fun trying to coordinate getting through a level, and since each character has their own unique ability, players will find themselves naturally teaming up on strategies. Each unlocked character does have to start the story mode from the beginning, however, and this can be a bit of a pain for those who just want to switch off from one character to another.
1001 Spikes' level design is both cruel and fantastic. It takes a lot of patience and trial and error to get through each level, but there is always a solution. The two different jumps are very important, with certain obstacles timed to work with one over the other. As for Aban's weapon, the arrows are not so useful for killing enemies (most of which can be avoided), but are extremely important for deflecting oncoming projectiles. Mastering the controls and skills in 1001 Spikes will make the game much more satisfying and fun — but not much less challenging.
In addition to the story mode, there are three extra modes that can be played solo or in multiplayer. Tower of Nanaar is a vertical scrolling adventure in which each character is given 9 lives and must traverse the stages to get to the top, collecting gold along the way. Lost Levels is basically an extension of the story mode, with even more challenging levels and less lives. Golden Vase is a more conventional multiplayer game (though it can still be played solo) in which players compete against each other to win the most gold. There are unlimited lives during each timed round, and it's frantic fun if not a little simplistic. Coins collected in these modes can be spent on unlocking new skins and costumes.
The visual and sound design in 1001 Spikes is phenomenal. The 8-bit style oozes personality, and the opening cut-scenes are excellent, recalling early games like Ninja Gaiden. Each game mode has its own story and introductory cut-scene, which adds to the fascinating world that Aban inhabits. For an often-silly homage to the days of poor translations and stories, the characters are surprisingly compelling. The one significant flaw in the presentation is the lack of off-TV play. The GamePad screen is used to show what level the player has reached, which is pointless. With most Wii U titles sporting off-TV play, there's really no excuse for this omission, especially since the GamePad isn't being used for another gameplay mechanic.
The frustrating lack of off-TV play aside, 1001 Spikes is a spirited, fun title that exemplifies the creative indie spirit that is permeating the eShop. With tons of unlockables, several distinct game modes and a charming presentation, 1001 Spikes is highly recommended. Just be sure to do some yoga and go to your zen place — you don't want to rage-quit your GamePad at the television after that 800th death.