'Going retro' is all the rage in modern download gaming. Pixels and chiptunes aren't hard to find in any download store, from the eShop to PSN to Steam and beyond, as gamers of all ages embrace titles that offer an enhanced twist on gaming's past. REPLAY: VHS is Not Dead aims to distinguish itself with retro-styled visuals and a theme riffing on obsolete technology - let's face it, some younger Wii U owners will barely know what a VHS cassette is.
Of course, a retro style riffing on old technology can easily be picked out as a gimmick, but what we actually have here is a clever, carefully constructed puzzle game. It's not quite perfect, rather like the crackling image off an old VHS tape, but it's certainly got enough modern qualities to stand out above the crowd.
You play as Harvey Aychess, who is involved in a very '80s plot that involves him jumping into famous movies on VHS in order to preserve his video store membership... or something. Though told in some pleasant cutscenes the story is little more than a vehicle for kicking us into some challenging puzzles. What we have are four 'worlds' that are posed as generic movie types on VHS tapes - an example is 'Star Trip VII: Wrath of the Glubons', which is basically a riff on Aliens, Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Anyone that knows movies will be able to pick out some funny references and in-jokes through environments and character lines, and some of the writing is undoubtedly witty. There's plenty of it, too, with 15 normal levels and a boss stage per world, along with unlockable stages if you grab some awkwardly placed keys.
The core gameplay is heavily reliant, meanwhile, on trial and error. You start off with at least two characters placed within a single screen puzzle, and you can only move one at a time. Their moves are recorded, as these are VHS tapes, and when done you rewind the tape back to the start and can either start afresh with that character or switch to another, but as you're starting from zero on the timer you're moving and acting alongside your recorded movements with the other characters. It's as tricky as it sounds.
When dealing with three characters, for example, stages can get fiendishly difficult. These are the kinds of puzzles where sitting back and plotting a strategy is important, otherwise it can be easy to get tangled up and confused; that's especially the case as you always start a new 'recording' from the start of the tape. When environments start to include timed mechanisms, deadly lasers, gravity manipulation and more, plotting precise and timed movements for multiple characters can be particularly challenging. At times you'll be dealing with very small windows of opportunity, perhaps having to complete multiple runs with each character, or placing one in a certain position to give another a handy platform before pressing on to push a block. Precision is everything.
On occasion the process of managing multiple movements, when constantly rewinding and making adjustments, can be particularly taxing. Unlike so many puzzle games the solving here is only part of the battle - then there's the execution. The controls are basic and easy to grasp, with solid mechanics in place, but one of our few criticisms is the occasional uneven spike in difficulty. With most stages we could eventually find the solution, but a small number required timing and movements that were extremely precise. No wonder publisher Neko Entertainment has published a full set of walkthrough videos on its YouTube channel.
The vast majority of puzzles, however, are satisfying. This is a game that will potentially take a lot of time to clear, especially if you're aiming for all unlocks through gold medal time completions and by collecting optional keys, but the pleasure is definitely in the discovery. It's worth noting, however, that this is purely a solo experience. Any kind of co-op would fatally undermine the rewinding VHS tape concept, in fairness, but any enjoyment with others will simply be in trying to figure out the puzzles together.
It's also worth giving some praise to the presentation in REPLAY: VHS is Not Dead. The artificial static between stages and some charming music add to the retro charm, and character designs also have a pleasing look. A couple of the boss encounters are a little choppy visually, but on the whole the art design here is faithful and effective in selling the concept. As for Wii U features there's the standard off-TV play on the GamePad, which suits the visuals rather nicely.
Even if the old movie jokes and spoof characters aren't to your taste, REPLAY: VHS is Not Dead nevertheless offers a clever, enjoyable puzzle experience. It can be a mind-bending challenge to set three characters on carefully timed movements to clear stages full of contraptions, and figuring out those machinations requires patience and practice. For those up to the challenge this offers great value and interesting playtime; this is one to enjoy rather than overwrite.