The original The Legend of Zelda had a lot of things long before other genres and properties became better known for them. It most certainly was a Souls-like open world adventure long before the term took the form it has today. The original Zelda was tough, and while later entries in the series left a more visible mark on the industry, the first game continues to provide a sound template in challenging and engaging adventure game design. Neon City Riders is a post-apocalyptic neon rendition of The Legend of the Zelda, yet it is anything but a clone thanks to its wealth of neat little ideas.
Neon City Riders is like the 1979 classic film The Warriors, taking place in a Zelda-style game design. It is rife with ‘80s references and plenty of neon-esque colour and aesthetic at nearly every corner. It’s an adventure and epic turf war with plenty of collectibles to boot. For the most part, there is a lot to enjoy about the experience, especially when it’s presented with such vivid imagination, but the journey most certainly isn’t for the faint of heart as this game is as old school frustrating as they come.
Still, to get players started right Neon City Riders has perhaps one of the most helpful opening tutorials in most of modern gaming. It isn’t the typical text heavy hand-holding affair like in most games, instead forcing you to acquire and learn some of the key abilities needed for the adventure. It’s a bit like a micro version of the main quest in that you explore four distinct areas in no specific order, each giving you an ability that makes other areas easier to navigate.
Once this tutorial (the game’s difficulty is apparent even here) is completed and the first boss encounter is done, then you enter the ever-expansive neon city with all the madness, foes and NPCs at your disposal. Of course, things can be done in any order but some areas are impossible without acquiring certain abilities beforehand, and so half the work is trying to figure out the correct order of tackling the many unfriendly locations of the city.
This is a difficult game, and perhaps the most cumbersome aspect of the experience is the combat, where players need to deliberately slow down the pace of combination attacks, mainly because it is almost too easy to get into the line of enemy fire. You need to be very patient here, and while combat gets a little easier when you learn new tricks, a mindless top-down hack and slash this game is not.
The adventure aspect shines better than the core gameplay, but even then the controls and gameplay mechanics don’t always complement the level design, especially with some of the environmental puzzles where you need to precisely deflect projectiles. Despite these naggings, it’s hard not to admire the sheer number of things crammed into the game world of Neon City Riders – in some respects this almost gives it a serious River City Ransom vibe. So just to recap: The Legend of Zelda, The Warriors, and River City Ransom. Mechanical issues with gameplay aside, that’s a pretty cool combination of styles.
There’s no shortage of things to do in Neon City Riders, whether it is the main quest, the many side quests, the little shops here and there, the NPCs who somehow keep sane in a riot-filled city, and of course the numerous customisation options available. The ‘80s fanservice is enjoyable too, even when there are so many indie games at the moment attempting to capture the neon charm of the era known for perms and acid-washed jeans.
The presentation of Neon City Riders is top notch, with the detailed sprites gifting personality to every nook and cranny of the game world. While the music doesn’t impress initially, you soon get to listen to some downright catchy chiptune music. This is a lovingly crafted and presented game fused with the right kind of nostalgia. It’s a bit like if an NES game was running on more powerful hardware.
Speaking of NES, to re-emphasise a point made earlier, Neon City Riders is difficult to the point where it can stop being fun. From the grind of repetitive and almost unavoidable combat to the opaque pacing of the adventure itself, it can become frustrating and not necessarily for the right reasons. It’s one thing to provide a satisfying challenge, but to go back to the heinously imposed difficulty norms of classic games is simply unnecessary in 2020. We don’t quite live in the age where a two hour game had to be made so difficult that it would justify a full retail price tag. Indie games come cheap now, and perhaps most players would prefer a more organic and scaffolded difficulty progression.
Neon City Riders on Xbox One is a refreshing ‘80s neon interpretation of The Legend of Zelda with plenty of inventive ideas, both in its game design and stylistic presentation. It is certainly not an experience for the faint and impatient, but it may be just the thing for players yearning for those brutal gaming experiences from that decade.