Necrosphere Deluxe is a quaint love note, passed to the Flash platformers that came before it. It’s an exercise in simplicity, restricts your controls to two buttons (left or right). You’ll have to use the environment in creative ways to supplement for abilities like “jump” and “attack”. As far as indie games go, it’s a lukewarm premise.
But developers Cat Nigiri managed to find depth and difficulty in surprising ways. It’s hard as hell without wasting much of your time. It respects your accomplishments and gives you the ability to backtrack without forcing you to redo entire sections. But Necrosphere straddles the line between fair and unfair, as some of the challenge stems from its simplified – and often cumbersome – design choices.
Two Buttons, No Jump
In Necrosphere your character is already dead. And that’s punishment enough.
You start the game as Agent Terry, killed during some sort of impossible mission. You arrive in the PG version of hell, named the Necrosphere, where you’re able to walk left and right, and that’s it. Your fellow agents send you notes, letting you know that there’s a way to return back to life, also named the… Normalsphere. That’s all the story you need to know.
Navigate down a few levels and you’ll quickly notice alternate routes, each blocked off by stone walls and impassable ledges. The game doesn’t pay mind to them yet, but this sinking feeling creeps in as you explore: “did I miss something already? Am I going the right way?” You can’t drop down from platforms, and you can’t backtrack up high ledges. Combined with the lack of any sort of mini-map, and you feel lost. But travel onward through the first area of the game, and you’ll shake that feeling.
Guess I’ll Die Trying
Necrosphere’s prime directive is to push your controls to their limits. It does this by testing your reflexes in a variety of obstacle courses. You can use bubbles to send you into the air, excursion funnels to lift you up, and fireballs and spikes will kill you. If you’ve played Mario Maker, you’ll understand this game’s versions of P-switches and key switches. It’s decent fun at first, but Necrosphere is self-aware enough to avoid overstaying its welcome. Just as the controls seem to be running out of steam, the game introduces an upgrade that expands your movement options.
Your reward for completing the first area is one of these few upgrades: the ballet suit (not kidding). Now double tapping left or right lets you dash horizontally over large gaps and stretches of land. And before you know it, the game sends you back to the start of the map, where you’re free to test your new ability to reach new areas.
It’s the same way Metroid games avoid linearity, and it keeps their maps dense with secret areas and alternate routes. Later upgrades let you dash through stone blocks or even jetpack vertically, giving you the freedom to backtrack without getting stuck.
Not A Waste of Time (Mileage Will Vary)
The game is surprisingly smart – each area acts like its own N+ level or Mario Maker level from hell. But whereas those games force you to restart upon death, in Necrosphere your character is already dead. And that’s punishment enough. You’ll be sent back to a convenient checkpoint located a couple seconds behind your untimely grave. If you make it past a particularly brutal obstacle, you won’t waste much more time with it.
That being said, mileage will vary: later courses keep their checkpoints sparse. You will end up mastering entire segments towards the end of your 3-hour run.
Wait, Where Am I?
This is the point the game’s design philosophy starts to hold it back.
Imagine this: your body is controlled by two levers. One lever opens your mouth, and the other makes you lift a fork to your face. If you want to eat a slice of cake, you’d have to hit both levers at the same time, every time. If you miss one, you’re either left opening your mouth or stabbing your face with a fork. A sane person would question the god who allowed this to happen. A true gamer would ask: why not just add a third lever?
That’s what the controls are like in Necrosphere: almost unnecessarily simple.
As you acquire new abilities, it muddies up your two-button control scheme to the point that you lose precision. For example, the jetpack ability requires you to press both buttons at the same time. That’s fine in practice, but letting go of one button too soon sends you careening in the direction you’re still pressing. It’s forgivable for some of the generic platforming segments, but the game slowly expects more and more precision.
One level requires you to alternate your dashes and jetpack to climb up an entire area in one go. If you can’t input a dash fast enough, you’ll fall and be forced to start again. That’s not how Mafia works.
That’s not to say the controls are clunky. They take time to get used to. But I found myself dashing into spikes while trying to adjust myself mid-air more times than I’d like to admit.
And remember how I said the game never forces you to redo entire segments? That’s technically true, but with no map you will sometimes stumble into the same areas with no choice but to redo them. If you can memorize the locations of entrances you can’t access yet, you can avoid this. But taking notes for a platformer doesn’t bode well for its accessibility.
Is It Worth The Price?
NecrosphereDeluxe knows what it is. For $10, you get a solid two or three hours of platforming, and you can maximize your value by hunting down the 20 VHS tapes scattered around the map. It makes for a great speed-running challenge. It’s cheap enough to use some of your holiday PSN money or expiring eShop points. It’s quaint enough to spend an afternoon on, and challenging enough that you’ll lose track of time. But it’s also a bit of an RNG, as you’ll find the occasional hitbox collision stopping you at a corner every so often. It’s polished, but not without its flaws.