You are Narita Boy, triggered by the Narita Boy Protocol after The Creator disappears during the Silent Eclipse. You arrive in the Digital Kingdom, only to be greeted by the Hackernauts and Motherboard, their Protective Mother, who task you with climbing the Hero’s Summit to retrieve the Techno-Sword. Then it’s onto the Trichroma to restore the Creator Beams of the Houses of the Trichroma, and defeat HIM and the Stallions, who have called upon the Dimensions of Horror to corrupt the source code and – more worryingly – the Creator’s Memories.
If the start of this review has left you bewildered, drowning in a sea of technobabble, then treat it as a warning. This is how it feels to play Narita Boy all the time. Not since the Halo series has a game tossed around so many proper nouns that amount to pretty much nothing (sorry, Halo fans – we still love actually playing Halo), yet wanted you to step back and marvel at its world-building. We eventually switched off and started ignoring anything that wasn’t pointing to an objective or giving us a new ability. It’s just a tsunami of blah-blah-blah, like reading The Silmarillion without reading Lord of the Rings first.
It might seem odd to start a review by slapping Narita Boy across the wrist for its dialogue and story, when it’s an action-platformer that skirts on the edges of a Dark Souls-like, but Narita Boy is so dense with writing and character interactions that it’s in your face, all the time, and it’s so incredibly proud of itself. Yet if you strip away all the Trifurcations and ‘Synth-sensei’s, the story is just Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s about a hero defeating an invading baddy, gathering weirdly named keys as you go, so that you can get through even weirder named doors. It’s incredibly generic, and the sludge of gobbledygook doesn’t hide it.
Narita Boy is a fantastic radio station with all your favourite songs, but the most annoying of DJs is talking over the top. There’s a huge amount to love in Narita Boy, and now we’ve shoved the electric elephant out of the room, we can get on with celebrating the stuff that Narita Boy gets right, which is a hell of a lot.
Narita Boy is astonishingly beautiful. Screenies don’t do it justice, really. Your fancy Smart TV is going to be cosplaying as a dodgy CRT for the entirety of Narita Boy, and it does a fantastic job of capturing all of the screen-warping, chromatic aberrations, static and jumping that you’d get from your favourite telly from the ‘80s. Then there’s the world, which is Blade Runner rewritten by William S. Burroughs. It’s a dingy, horrific take on a technopunk world, and there’s a good chance that you won’t have experienced anything like it before.
It captures a mood that works extremely well. You never feel comfortable wandering the world as it is oppressive, dense, and unfriendly. All of the Quantum Meditators and Legendary Trichroma Dudes of the world are huge, looming over you, making you feel insignificant and small. The CRT-stuff is so well-done that it feels like you’re playing a relic from a few decades back. If you weren’t constantly being ripped out by the writing, all of these fantastic touches would layer on each other to create an immersive romp around a deteriorating hard drive.
To play it, Narita Boy lands somewhere between a Shantae game and a Castlevania. You move from friendly safe havens into sections that have lightweight platforming. Occasionally, the screen will lock, stopping your progress, and you’ll be thrown into a pitched battle with waves of Stallions, the enemies of Narita Boy’s world. It’s here that you’ll put your newly acquired combat abilities to use, and defeating them all will allow you to progress.
The platforming is okay, and there’s likely a good reason why it’s kept to a minimum. We found Narita Boy to be a slippy little character, happy to fall off a pixel and tumble off platforms. This is no Prince of Persia: there’s no gripping hold of ledges with your fingers, so you have to be precise, yet we never felt like that precision was available to us. Still, checkpointing is pretty generous, so you’re never more than thirty seconds away from your previous personal best.
Combat takes it up a notch. Narita boy has a fantastic habit of assuming you’re bored with the enemies it’s offered up to this point, and chucks new ones at you relentlessly, introduced with a cool swoosh and floppy disk title screen. In all honesty, we weren’t bored with the ones we already had, and had barely mastered the old ones. But the inventiveness and generosity in the enemies is welcome nonetheless, as Red Barons follow Warlocks follow Jumpers. They’re all animated with panache, as there’s clearly a lot of talent on Studio Koba’s books. It’s half the problem in remembering what each mob does, and the best strategy of taking them down.
Luckily you have an evolving list of attacks, gained at a fair rattle from the safe havens on your journey. We always felt like we were more powerful than the Stallions we were facing, and soon got into a rhythm that made death pretty rare. It’s not as intricate as a Souls-like or Nioh, but it’s as intuitive and fluid. If we had complaints, it’s that the LB dodge and RB slam were a crutch that we leaned on too much, and would have loved more opportunities to get out of the attack-dodge-attack sequence.
Just as Narita Boy is generous with its enemies, it’s free with its bosses too. There are bucketloads of them, from Glaucoma to the Black Rainbow, and they have attack patterns and weaknesses that reward you for working them out. We died, we got better, we eventually beat them all. While not pitched at the same high difficulty, Dark Souls is again a good comparison for how often bosses are layered on, and how much they require of you.
All that’s left for you to do in Narita Boy is to explore and solve puzzles. The exploration is surprisingly weak: for a game whose world is so rich, Studio Koba never feels comfortable with letting you off the leash to explore it. You tend to be pushed through a door to find a thing, and then backtrack through the door once you’ve got that thing. There are no vast Castlevania-like environments to work through; instead what you have is largely linear, and that’s a shame with the world that Narita Boy has been gifted with. We ended up feeling caged, and it’s not hard to imagine a freer structure. Saying that, in the moments where Narita Boy does open up a bit – including right at the start, when we might have benefited from a bit more direction – the game doesn’t handle it particularly well, as it doesn’t offer many ways to orient yourself, and that stupid gobbledygook gets in the way by naming doors and keys stupid things like ‘Waterfalls of the Eternal Dump’, so you can’t quite get a handle on where you’re going. Perhaps it was better that this wasn’t a Metroidvania or open world after all.
The puzzles amount to little more than spotting symbols on walls and recalling them in sequence. They’re fine, only annoying if you have to backtrack through enemies to find them again, but they’re benign mostly. These tend to unlock new areas and Creator’s Memories, where you get to take a momentary holiday in the real world, as you explore the past of the game’s creator, diving into piecemeal but engaging little stories that show a human side that Narita Boy could have done more with. That’s not to say that Narita Boy is slight: it’s substantial and good value, with just enough memorable moments (finding our power-animal was a personal favourite) to make wading through the terminology worth it.
We suspect that Narita Boy will have a cult following. Its combat and immersion are on point, and anyone who enjoys the mythic self-importance of Halo or Destiny’s universes will find a lot to love. It’s a 2D Souls-like, wrapped in tinfoil and slathered with ‘80s references, which will be catnip to a lot of people. It’ll be marmite, which makes it ideal Game Pass fodder.
In our case, Narita Boy on Xbox turned us off and on in equal measure. We wanted to love its Tron-directed-by-John Carpenter world, but it’s too impenetrable, and spends most of its time world-building when it should be thinking about plot. Its combat is gloriously over the top, with the enemies switching up constantly, yet the platforming is wet. It’s atmospheric, but you’re rarely given the chance to explore it in anything but a linear fashion.
If Narita Boy had a better handle on what it did well, and spent less time on the stuff it didn’t, we’d have a hit on our hands. Instead, we have style over substance – a Tron: Evolution rather than Blade Runner, say – when it could have been a bonafide classic.