Ever since game fans collectively realised that crunchy polygons were worth getting nostalgic over, PS1-core indie games have been growing into the new pixel art. With Lunistice, one-person shop A Grumpy Fox has delivered a shining example of this modernised lo-fi aesthetic. Sparkling in chaotic but coordinated palettes of technicolor jaggies, it's immediately arresting – and once you start playing, it just gets better and better.
The set-up for this high-speed platforming adventure is something to do with a tanuki called Hana travelling through her dreams to get to the moon. Or whatever. You won’t be sitting through cutscenes in this game – A Grumpy Fox lets the gameplay do the talking. The skeletal narrative is sufficient excuse for playful and imaginative stage designs, ranging from a Japanese-shrine-flying-water-bubble-semi-undersea tropical resort with echos of Sonic Colors to a subdued forest of quiet autumn leaves.
The spiralling, vertiginous platforming levels are low-poly-low-res but with a massive draw distance and a gleaming frame rate. Yes, it looks like a Saturn game – but it's a dream version of what 32-bit gaming really was. Cracked, hovering walkways, twisting rails, floating spheres of water and endless creative paraphernalia wind off towards the horizon, letting you survey the lines ahead and behind and scout out potential secrets and shortcuts.
The striking contrast of early-3D-era graphics with pure fluidity of performance and modern, player-friendly game design somehow triggered a response in us as if seeing the jaw-dropping, groundbreaking technical might of revolutionary new hardware – but in 1995. In a world where a new console generation seems to bring improved grass modelling as readily as smoother gameplay, that feels like a rare and luxurious treat – especially on Switch, the only console Lunistice has come to for now.
There's a Japanese theme throughout the game, centering on Hana’s dreamworld of pagodas, torii-gate checkpoints, and odango sweets, which provides the main collectibles: origami cranes. These are present in their hundreds on each stage. However, the linear level design keeps things from turning into a collectathon bore – a '90s throwback that this game has mercifully elected not to modernise. There's no scouring every corner of open-world areas or tracking back and forth here, rather you’ll be glimpsing off-the-track havens just maybe within reach, then taking leaps of faith to find out what’s possible.
And if you fall, you reset fast for another go. There are no limitations on that, but there's a reset counter that contributes to your end-of-level grade, along with your crane count. On our first pass, we had at least a couple of dozen resets on every single stage, such was the frequency of tantalising possibilities that we couldn’t resist testing out. Quite apart from that, the game isn’t easy. Although there are no frustrations with limited lives or unfair controls, the challenge of mastering some devious platforming is very much present. Checkpoints are well-spaced for the most part, providing welcome relief after tough sections, but not undoing the old-school arcade test of skill served up by particularly gnarly sequences.
Everything about the game design feels tight, not least the controls. Hana the tanuki is virtually superglued to the analogue stick, accelerates rapidly, and carries just enough inertia to feel wily once going. A double jump and spin attack let you soar across cavernous gaps, complemented by a height boost if hit simultaneously. With dynamism, precision, and fast lines, this sometimes feels like an exhilarating 32-bit Sonic that never was.
A major contributor to the gameplay is a well-behaved camera. The airy levels don't ask for constant fidgeting, and the fairly limited y-axis keeps you focused on the path ahead. Potential vertical avenues are placed just within view – or sneakily kept out of view to unsettle when boosters shoot you to the skies.
While that tanuki-suit-style spin attack is used to eliminate enemies, there isn’t really combat in the game, and no boss fights. The enemies are really just platforming obstacles, placed cleverly to squeeze your jump timing or test reflexes and rhythm along a fast rail.
Clearly a passion project, A Grumpy Fox – AKA Deke64, Technical Producer at indie publisher Deck13Spotlight and a popular streamer – originally set out to create Lunistice in their spare time over the course of 30 days. More than a year later, they were finally done. The love that has gone into the game is unmistakable in its attention to detail of control, art, and level design, but there is also a clear delight in video games fuelling the whole thing. We were reminded of little fragments of myriad games as we played: the looping rails of 3D Sonic, Mario Odyssey’s Luncheon Kingdom, F-Zero’s cylindrical sky structures, a whole world pulsing to the beat like Crypt of the NecroDancer, even the overwhelming and unspeaking castle ruins of ICO. And when we managed to reach a tricky spot, a smiley block served as a quiet nod from the developer, a token reward for curiosity, like a hard-to-reach coin in Mario 64.
To top off this whole package, there's a shamelessly jingly musical score, which is used to its full. At one extreme, a whole level will dance to the music – with a big beat marker even added to the HUD – at the other, the SFX are laid eerily bare against total silence, until parts of the theme are unlocked by progressing through the stage. The audio style is certainly designed to match the graphics, with a vintage feel that’s harnessed perfectly.
Presenting itself modestly as “a simple and short experience”, Lunistice has masses to offer. A first run is maybe a handful of hours, but the thirst to retry is so strong it’s almost hard to move on to each new stage. Add the challenge of finding all the cranes and hidden items, avoiding resets, and setting faster times, plus unlockable characters with different moves, and it's a full and generous package. Launching at $4.99 or your regional equivalent, weighing in at a lean 600MB, and having a demo on the eShop, Lunistice is simply a must-try game.