There’s something to be said about games that so directly and lovingly, pay homage to the past. Utilising current generation technology to craft new titles meant to call forth the kind of fun you had as a kid is a genuinely sweet concept.
When this is done well, it results in games that are an absolute treat to play. They even occasionally go beyond the nostalgia-fuelled underpinnings and evolving a genre into exciting new places.
20XX is a game built from the ground up with this kind of reverence in mind.
Batterystaple Games have been slow cooking this retro platformer since July 2013. Steadily updating the game through Steam’s Early Access platform.
With the assistance of Fire Hose Games and a successful Kickstarter campaign, the game is finally coming to home consoles. The game’s history reveals just how much the developer’s hearts are in the right place; born from founder Chris King’s adoration for the Mega Man X games, 20XX exhibits the veneration of a studio who want to recapture the magic of games gone by.
The result of this five-year venture is a game which delivers an incredibly sound core structure and demonstrates a deep understanding of the genre but fumbles on the execution.
20XX melds platforming action with procedurally generated levels and Roguelike mechanics in a mostly cohesive tapestry. After a brief tutorial that introduces you to the games stellar controls, you’re dropped into an interactive menu screen/hub world from which you’ll begin in each new run.
Exploring the small hub — itself a spaceship hovering above the robot devastated Earth — allows you to experiment with a variety of settings and options that alter how your next trip to Earth will play out.
20XX offers up two distinct playable characters, equipped with an assortment of blasters and melee weapons, as well as the option to play through an entire run with an online co-op partner. Once you’ve collected some of the game’s currency on Earth it can be spent in his hub on upgrades to stats and other items to make your next trip into the robot apocalypse slightly easier.
After you’ve tweaked your pseudo-loadout it’s time to jump into a random stage and begin your rage against the machines. The allure of using procedural generation is such that you never really know what you’re going to warp into when you start a new run.
This is an excitement that burns bright but ridiculously fast in 20XX. At a base level the structure of these environments will be immediately familiar to fans of the genre; drop in, complete a series of platforming challenges, fight a boss, repeat.
It’s all a bit samey
Completing a level allows for some player choice, such as whether or not you take the slain boss’ signature weapon, how you spend your collected currency and which level you’re off to next. It’s an addictive core loop of gameplay, perfectly suited to the portability of the Switch console, but the particulars of each run that 20XX starts to stumble.
With randomly generated levels the nature of the beast is such that not every level is going to be… good.
While the algorithms going on inside 20XX occasionally string together some enjoyable surprises, the bulk of the levels produced in this manner are overtly mechanical.
Functional yes, but lacking the inspiration and design philosophy of other platformers that have been crafted rather than generated. This kind of effort can be found in the boss fights however, most of which are engaging and require quick thinking and a fast trigger finger.
Though for every boss there is another generic level to slog through, and once you’ve played through each a few times you begin to see the limitations of the game’s procedural generation. Which is a damn shame because the act of playing 20XX is an absolute blast.
It controls like a dream
In looking to emulate the past, Batterystaple have also perfectly recreated the precision controls of the genres best entries. Blending seamless animations with ultra-responsive controls closes the gap between input and action, a harmony that makes the platforming of 20XX easy to pick up and fun to master.
20XX is by no measure a dreadful looking game; animations are crisp and smooth, especially noticeable during fights with the incredibly cool bosses. These highlights prove to be the exceptions to the unfortunate rule of 20XX’s uninspired art.
Stages are generic, lacking any kind of world-building or coherency beyond recycled enemies and platforms, while the overall art style harkens back to early days of Flash-based browser games.
Fortunately, while 20XX isn’t much to look at, the entire game is underpinned by a thumping soundtrack. Composer Brandon Ellis, who goes by Cityfires on most music streaming services, masterfully scores the game, as the retro/synth fusion drums up excitement and tension for each run through of the robot apocalypse.
Ultimately a great soundtrack and immaculate controls aren’t enough to stop 20XX feeling like an overtly repetitive cycle of missed opportunities. That said, despite the missteps in execution, it’s obvious that Batterystaple has an adoring respect for the Mega Man X titles and a bright future ahead of them if the core mechanics of 20XX are any indication of its skills.
20XX was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a digital code provided by the publisher.
Game title: 20XX
Thumping Soundtrack - 7/10
Immaculate and perfect controls - 7.5/10
Uninspired procedurally generated levels - 2/10