It's hardly a surprise that 1001 Spikes is an incredibly difficult, yet rewarding title when taking into account it's published by Nicalis, a company that has games like Cave Story, The Binding of Issac and VVVVVV under its belt. Where VVVVVV was a throwback to the aeshtetics of the Commodore, 1001 Spikes is certainly an homage to difficult games from the NES era. If someone watched me play this game without seeing the controller, they could have easily assumed I was playing an NES game.
1001 Spikes puts you in the very small, 8-bit shoes of Aban Hawkins, an unfortunately named son of a famous adventurer who sets out on quest to find his father, who was lost to ancient ruins. Even though the story is certainly secondary in 1001 Spikes, I did very much enjoy the NES style cutscenes that accompanied the game in the early stages.
But the meat of the experience lies in completing deviously challenging levels. You start off with (appropriately) 1001 lives, and if you think that's excessive, you haven't yet seen or experienced the devilish yet smart level design. Aban will have to jump, shoot, and push his way through over a 100 stages that I swear were designed by a sadistic level designer. A guy who is now sitting in his office somewhere, smirking to himself because he knows damn well that players will be constantly dying at his expertly hidden traps.
The level designs themselves are genius in that they often have shortcuts as well, which are usually riskier routes, but speedrunners will find these very enticing. In one of the earlier levels, I could have either progressed through the level by jumping down to a platform and then running up in a zig zag pattern until I get back up to the next area. However, I could have also opted to shoot out a brick, then jump into that brick and try to jump up to the next platform completely avoiding the zig zag hallway underneath. The problem is, the jump is extremely tricky, since a misstep or a poorly timed jump will send you hurling down into the abyss.
The game doesn't take a while to ramp up in difficulty. After just a few basic levels, hidden spikes will come shooting out of floors and walls at poor Aban. Just when you make the jump from one platform that's booby trapped by a falling block right next to it, you sigh in relief only to see Aban impaled by previously unseen spikes. It's a game where you need to be constantly aware of your surroundings, and never pause to take a breather just because you barely survived a falling platform. No, because after that falling platform is another hidden trap, waiting to catch you off guard, and making you restart the whole level again.
The way I'm describing this makes it sound horrible, but honestly, I couldn't stop playing. Even after dying nearly 20 times in a level, I was determined to not only get through the level unscathed, but also pick up the Golden Idols that serve as collectibles in each level. These Golden Idols will usually require you to stray from the obvious path on each level. Sometimes they're hidden away behind blocks, other times they'll require you to nearly fall to your death only to at the last second grab the Idol and hop up to a nearly out of reach platform. The sense of satisfaction you get from making that jump, or getting through a hallway filled with spikes as the last one shoots up right as you land on a safe spot is immense. It certainly has the Super Meat Boy mentality going for it.
What's more, the game has two different jump buttons, which I wasn't aware of in the beginning. I couldn't fathom why the game wouldn't just allow me to hold the jump button longer for a higher jump, and tap it for a smaller one. However, just a few levels in, it became invaluable. There is too much room for error when relying on how long the button is pressed, versus having a short or long jump button. The levels are designed with this in mind too. There will be situations where jumping high will make you hit a wall above, only to reveal spikes and impale you for example. Likewise, short jumps won't cut it when trying to reach higher platforms or trying to cross bigger gaps. It's a system that I ended up loving in the end, and easily adjusted to having to rely on two separate jump buttons.
As you progress, you also gain access to new playable characters, many of which are guest characters from other indie games, such as Commander Video from the Bit.Trip series, or Curly Brace from Cave Story and Nyx from NyxQuest. The coolest thing about these characters is that they actually change up the way you play the game, since they retain their signature movements. For example, since Nyx has wings, she can jump and float a little bit. However, playing as these characters does restart the campaign for them, meaning you can't just utilize Commander Video to get past level 34.
One feature that goes against the very nature of the game, though is obviously there to ease the mind of beginners, is the option to skip a stage. While useful for those stuck and unable to advance, it does lock out some of the later portions of the game.
The game does include both a co-op and competitive feature, which is just as insane as it sounds. However, these levels are slightly easier, and do give each player multiple lives. Players on Xbox One, PS4, Steam and Wii U can also play the competitive Golden Vase mode, which has each player trying to collect the most coins while avoiding various level hazards.
With a ton of levels, a bunch of unlockable characters, a few multiplayer modes and tough yet immensely satisfying gameplay, it's very easy to recommend 1001 Spikes to anyone that enjoys a good challenge that harks back to the good old days of the NES.