Narita Boy is one of the rare video games I can’t stop thinking about since the credits rolled. Part of that stems from it forcing me to reconsider my beliefs on the importance of presentation relative to other gameplay elements. The other is the incredible soundtrack that I can’t stop hearing in my head.
Like so many modern indie games, Narita Boy is a 2D action-platformer with pixel-art visuals. However, few can come close to the stylistic impact of Narita Boy. It’s not a case of style over substance – Narita Boy has solid gameplay on offer – but it’s one of the rare games in which the presentation is an inseparable part of the experience.
In the 1980s, a coder falls asleep at his desk as a malevolent force begins to take control of his hardware. Across town, a young boy who spends his nights playing video games on his PC is drawn into the Digital Kingdom as “Narita Boy”, champion of the three houses, tasked with awakening the memories of the “Creator” so he can purge the code of “HIM” and his “Stallion” minions.
Narita Boy does a great job of leaving the player to decide if the Digital Kingdom is a real construct in this fantasy story, or simply a manifestation of the creator’s experiences throughout his life. With the characters and locations in the Digital Kingdom so well-realized and clearly representative of the “functions” they embody, I couldn’t help but be drawn into the lore.
The creator’s memories gradually reveal the tragic origins of a Japanese-American boy with an interest in coding – his father clearly worked in the video game industry. They are equally impactful and allow the player to identify parallels in the Digital Kingdom. The purpose of Narita Boy, the creation of HIM, the structure of the three kingdoms, the presence of the “Motherboard”, the ritual movements. Every character and gesture has some connection to events in his life.
More and more indie games are creating experiences with strong narratives and underlying themes, but few are as cohesive as Narita Boy. It kept me pushing on through tough encounters and I gladly forgave several gameplay flaws. I just wanted to see how the story ended and was always thrilled to see what the next location would look and sound like.
Despite all my discussion around the narrative and themes, Narita Boy still has some solid action-platforming gameplay to keep you entertained and challenged. At its most basic, you could fault Narita Boy for its simplistic progression: find “techno-key”, backtrack to a locked door, enter a new area, find techno-key etc. Of course, there’s no shortage of corrupted “Stallion” code and nefarious bosses to slay along the way.
Narita Boy starts off simple. You’re introduced to basic platforming elements first, before recovering the “technosword” that grants you a simple slashing combo, along with close-range shotgun blast or screen-penetrating charge attack using recharging ammunition. Before long, you’ll unlock a back-dash, a slashing uppercut, a shoulder charge, a dash variant that can teleport you through enemies, and an armour breaking piercing manoeuvre.
As the complexity of your move-set grows, so too does the difficulty of combat encounters. Every time you unlock a new skill, you can be certain an upcoming new enemy type or boss encounter will test your mastery of it. Every fight is about pattern recognition and finding gaps in which to deal damage. You can slash your way through basic enemies, sure, but tougher foes and bosses will punish you for reckless, ineffectual attacks.
By the end of the game, you’ll find yourself on the move constantly. You’ll be dodging projectiles, dashing through enemies, charging the technosword with different elemental powers, piercing through armour, and triggering screen-clearing attacks at the perfect moment to get out of trouble with a sliver of health.
Platforming and code-hunting are the other gameplay elements – the first requires grappling with floaty movement and the second a keen eye to find symbols in the environment to power teleporters (and find rare secrets). It varies from area to area, but platforming remains commonplace and repeatedly falling down gaps is a great way to whittle down your health bar before a tough fight.
Both lengthy combat sequences and finicky platforming sections highlight Narita Boy’s problem with uneven checkpointing. Mercifully, the game saves before every boss and mini-boss fight, but in general play, it’ll often throw you way back to an autosave after you completed an objective (potentially many screens away). It also seems random as to whether you’ll respawn with full health or the amount you had when triggering the checkpoint.
Unfortunately, these gameplay faults grew more intrusive towards the end of the game, when combat became much tougher with precision movement became the key to survival. However, I still pushed on, eager to see the end of the Narita Boy’s story, the fate of the creator, and new areas in the Digital Kingdom.
Without its incredible presentation, Narita Boy would still be a solid action-platformer with satisfying combat and an intriguing story. With it, it becomes an audiovisual treat that compliments and elevates every other gameplay element. Despite some flaws, you don’t want to miss this experience.
Narita Boy (Xbox Series S) ReviewNarita Boy (Xbox Series S) Review
Story8/10 Very GoodIt requires a lot of reading at times, but the world and the characters within it are incredibly well-realised.
Gameplay7/10 GoodThe challenging combat experience - against visually spectacular bosses in stunning locations - is brought down by imprecise platforming and increasingly unforgiving checkpointing.
Visuals9/10 AmazingWe've seen this retro style before, but never with such authenticity and consistency.
Audio10/10 The BestIt's been ages since I've had a game's soundtrack so firmly stuck in my heads for days after finishing it. It's authentic to the time period, perfectly complements the action, and is just plain cool.
- Tron-inspired techno visuals
- Varied, atmospheric soundtrack
- Complex move-set that grows as you progress
- Tough but fair combat that reward observation and timing
- Fiendish checkpointing towards the end
- Floaty movement during platforming sections