I’m no stranger to the term ‘retro’. Review enough indie games, and you’re bound to run across a developer or two who will use the word to describe why their game is so brilliant. In practice though, it tends to translate to a game with an hour or two of simplistic gameplay, with some bog-standard pixel art and an annoyingly repetitive chiptune soundtrack slapped on top.
But Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril is different. This is an actual retro experience, warts and all. That shouldn’t surprise you though, considering this is a port of an actual homebrew NES game that was released in 2010.
Why I’m only finding out now that people are still making cartridge games for the Nintendo Entertainment System is anyone’s guess. But, I digress.
In Battle Kid, you’ll be playing as Timmy, an unremarkable student in the prestigious combat training program at the Disch Research Facility. His former friend, Chester, has been kicked out of the program for cheating and is now back to enact his revenge. It’s up to you to stop him by travelling to the eponymous Fortress of Peril and doing battle against the waves of enemies that live there.
As a story, it’s nothing to write home about. It’s there to simply set up the action nicely. In fact, the game itself makes that clear by including an arcade mode which will skip most of the cutscenes automatically.
Focusing on the gameplay ends up being the right choice because, put simply, it’s brilliant. Battle Kid is your quintessential Metroidvania, and includes everything you’d expect from a game fitting that description.
The Fortress of Peril is an absolute maze, full of different enemies, bosses and new items to collect. There’s a ton of dead-ends as certain paths are inaccessible without the correct keys or abilities. It’s also massive, with the game including over 500 different screens.
They’re all beautifully designed by the way. Battle Kid absolutely nails the 8-bit art to deliver something that is vibrant and colourful and which wouldn’t look out of place in the mid-1980s. The massive old-school borders are just the cherry on top. And the soundtrack is even better. It’s loud and piercing and exactly what you want from a NES game about a dangerous fortress full of goons. It actually changes between areas to fit the theme too.
It should surprise no-one that Battle Kid is actually really hard. You’ll need to dodge waves of enemies, often whilst tackling some pretty challenging platforming. And that’s before you even make it to the bosses, where the difficulty is ramped up even further. There’s no temporary invulnerability either, so expect to get hit multiple times in rapid succession.
And if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can whack the difficulty up to ‘unfair’, which gives you 1 HP, and a death limit of 1.
It’s safe to say you will die. A lot.
And that’s fine. In fact, I appreciate the no-frills challenge that Battle Kid offers. But it’s here where the limitations of the original software begin to make themselves clear.
Most notably, Battle Kid completely lacks any kind of auto-saving, instead preferring (or being forced) to use the old password system that hasn’t been relevant since about 1996. If you’ve never encountered this before, it means you’ll need to find a checkpoint and then write down the password that is generated if you want to come back to your save game.
It’s a system that will probably be nostalgic for some, but ultimately one that should have been left in the past where it belongs. It’s cumbersome and annoying to use, especially in a game as hard as this. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself having to beat the same boss multiple times as you’ll probably end up dying a few screens down the line before finding another checkpoint. And trust me, that’s no fun.
It also lacks any kind of button mapping, which is a shame because the current button layout, whilst understandable on the original hardware, feels counterintuitive on a modern controller. You’ll shoot with A and jump with B, but it feels like it should be the other way around. You’re going to have to put up with it too, unless you manually reassign the buttons in the Xbox settings. That seems like such an unnecessary step though, and I see no reason why this feature couldn’t have been included in the ported version.
These two issues don’t swing the final verdict though. Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril is still a brilliant little blast from the past. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, and it fundamentally offers up nothing you haven’t seen before. Instead, it tries to deliver a solid slice of nostalgia and a decent challenge. And on those two points, it entirely succeeds. Battle Kid looks, sounds and plays like something straight out of the 1980s, and I’d encourage anyone to check it out. The Fortress of Peril is waiting…
Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril is available on the Xbox Store