Last year, Tikipod graced Switch users with the seminal Aqua Kitty UDX, a silly and extremely enjoyable take on the classic arcade game Defender which had that perfect blend of old-school design principles and modern game standards. Now, the developer has chosen to do a modern take on another arcade shooter classic, Smash TV, and the end result is Iron Crypticle, a horror-themed twin-stick shooter that doesn’t introduce a ton of new ideas, but absolutely nails that simple and intense arcade gameplay.
As one would expect, the story is kept to a minimum, following the escapades of the royal kingsguard in the land of Cryptonia. While the kingsguard is sleeping on the job during the night of the storm, an evil force breaks into the Cryptonian castle and steals away the royal treasure and the princess, so the kingsguard (accompanied by a cat, because why not?) quickly dives into action to retrieve what was lost. It’s nothing memorable, following the basic “save the princess” trope, but the general aesthetic of fighting Halloween monsters fits well with the gameplay. Another welcome plus is the frequent use of humour in item descriptions in the bestiary and interactions with the cat that runs the upgrade shop, keeping the tone lighthearted and fun.
As mentioned before, gameplay takes after the likes of Smash TV or Robotron 2084, tasking the player with weaving through waves of enemies in single screen rooms and gunning them all down. It’s simple enough for anyone to pick up, but quite difficult to fully master, due in no small part to the combo system that drives the player to take risks. Many enemies will drop some kind of food item when they die, and if you pick it up before it disappears, you can start a combo chain that boosts the score you get per kill. This combo can stack all the way up to 8x your normal score, and every food item snagged after that has a chance of also spawning a helpful item or stat upgrade on the floor. The sticking point, however, lies in how you lose the combo chain if you go too long between grabbing food items, and this is where much of the gameplay’s main hook comes into play. Do you charge into that throng of enemies and pick up the handful of items that dropped, or do you play it safe and pick them off from afar? A twin-stick shooter such as this encourages you to play conservatively and keep your distance to best manage crowds, but the combo system in Iron Crypticle delightfully turns this on its head, requiring you to constantly put yourself in dangerous situations if you want to see some of the best upgrades.
This focus on player choice extends to the game’s main mode, too, which features some light roguelike elements in how it handles progression. Every floor features a couple dozen rooms, culminating in a boss battle, but the route you take to the boss is entirely up to you. Upon clearing a room, you’re given one to three options of which door to exit through, and your decision can have serious ramifications for that run. Certain room types may be shrouded in darkness or house especially powerful enemies, while others feature arcade games that can win you coins or a shop where you can buy upgrades and refill health. You’re only allowed to see one room ahead at a time (unless you have a certain item), so there’s a certain amount of guesswork that goes into plotting out your path to the boss, and the random nature of each game ensures that no two floor layouts will ever be the same. Sometimes you get lucky and hit all the arcade and shop rooms, while other times see your already ailing character getting bodied in a catacombs room, and that even balance between random elements and player choice is part of what makes Iron Crypticle so engaging.
The randomness applies to your experience in each room, as well, affecting things like special weapon and item drops. Usually, a good streak of play is rewarded with a random special weapon dropping, swapping out your standard axe throw attack for something more useful like a flamethrower or mini-grenades that do a much better job of cutting through the monster hordes. Each of these weapons has a limited duration, however, so knowing when and where to use them is critical to surviving harder and harder floors. You can also be aided by random power up drops that affect your knight for the duration of the room, with buffs like a constantly maxed combo multiplier or a fire trail that scorches the ground you walk on. These extra power ups and weapons help to make battles in each room feel more dynamic, taking the gameplay a step beyond the repetitive run ‘n’ gun action by introducing an 'X-factor' every now and then to spice things up or bail you out of a tight spot.
Some progress does carry over between rooms, and this is all handled by an RPG-lite system which governs things like damage output and max health. Killing enemies and eating food grants a little bit of experience every time, and when you level up, it raises your max health and the max cap on all of your stats. Filling out the stats is a matter of hoping for drops from keeping the combo chains going and having enough coins to buy upgrades in the shop, and later floors basically require that you have a fair bit of progress in these stats to have a fighting chance. What’s nice about this system is how it introduces an element of progression to each run; your character at the end of a run isn’t necessarily the same as the one you started out with, and the game constantly throws new enemies and room types at you to meet that shifting power dynamic.
Though all of these gameplay concepts work well in practice, there is one minor caveat that hinders enjoyment somewhat, and that’s the overall slow pace of battles. Later floors, with tougher enemies and juiced-up characters, are a little better in this regard, but gameplay in Iron Crypticle can feel borderline sluggish at times as you cut through slow-moving zombie enemies with equally slow-moving attacks. This is the sort of game that would benefit greatly from a ‘boost mode’ of some sort that increased overall game flow, as repeated runs can become an exercise in patience as you wait for your now gimped attacks to slowly whittle down the hordes of enemies moving at glacial speeds.
For those of you looking for replayability, Iron Crypticle features online leaderboards for all modes and difficulty levels, leaving the door open for potentially endless hours of fun if you’re the type of player who is easily hooked by score-chaser games. Aside from the main mode, there’s a more straightforward, arcade-style endless mode that simply keeps you in one room and tasks you with surviving waves of increasingly difficult enemies, offering up an experience that’s less complex and a little easier to jump into. Upon finishing a run in either mode, you often unlock new weapon and item types that can then drop randomly in subsequent runs, ensuring that the game slowly gets more diverse as you play further. All told, there isn’t a ton of gameplay variety to speak of in Iron Crypticle – no interesting or surprising game modes – but those of you that are looking for solid twin-stick action won’t be disappointed by what’s being offered.
Naturally, co-op is a big part of the experience, too, and while there sadly isn’t any online multiplayer, up to three other friends can join you on the couch for a few rounds at any point in the game to help out. There’s even support for single Joy-Con play, if you happen to be on the go, but this is a bit more awkward in how it only allows players to shoot in the direction they’re facing, which drastically increases the difficulty. Even so, Iron Crypticle is a great experience for local play, and the simple nature of the gameplay ensures that just about anybody can pick it up without too much confusion or hassle.
Iron Crypticle does a solid, if a bit unimpressive, job with its presentation, going for an art style that’s faithful to its arcade-style, pixelated roots, right down to the fuzzy scanlines if you choose to enable that feature in the options. The scrunched-up sprites are detailed and rife with colour, and detailed effects around things like fire help to add that extra bit of visual flair to take things a bit beyond the pixelated look. Still, there’s nothing here that contains very much of a ‘wow’ factor; it’s a well-made art style, jut not a terribly ambitious one. The music, similarly, is a rather forgettable, consisting of muted, atmospheric tracks that at the very least fit well with the Halloween aesthetic. While the game is a twin-stick shooter through and through, it's worth noting that the key art gave us serious Ghouls 'n Ghosts vibes, which is no bad thing.
Tikipod has done it again with Iron Crypticle, successfully reviving an old-school arcade concept and infusing it with some modern ideas. Iron Crypticle may not do a ton of innovative or new things with that twin-stick concept, but it nonetheless hits all the right notes in recreating that gameplay that made Smash TV such a smash hit. If you’ve ever been into twin-stick shooters or want another game for local co-op, Iron Crypticle is a great choice; fun gameplay, high replayability, and decent presentation make this one easy to recommend.