It’s 1986, you and mom are in the local department store on Christmas Eve, and she says you can buy one thing. Of course you immediately rush to the electronics section; more specifically to the precious Nintendo games. You want something hard, fun and insanely radical. A game that will suck hours of your time trying to conquer it. As you begin perusing the selection, it catches your eye, a black case with a terrifying mechanical face on the front. It’s called Oniken, and it’s about to kick your butt.
Now Oniken is not actually a game from the 1980s, but it honestly might as well be, as it perfectly encapsulates an action platformer from that time and clearly takes great inspiration from the early Castlevanias and especially Ninja Gaiden. It succeeds tremendously at being a time capsule for days long past, showing off the great heights of that time and the lows. In fact, it’s faithful to its source material for better or worse.
The story follows Zaku, a disgraced ninja who has become a legendary mercenary. He ends up helping a small human resistance to fight a robotic armada that ended the world, called the Oniken. It’s pretty ridiculous and is very thin, however that plays to the kind of era that the developers are trying to portray.
Oniken is split into seven levels – that might seem like a small amount but don’t be tricked. These levels are long and they are difficult, it genuinely took me hours on some of these beasts to get to the end. Each one has multiple stages with loads of enemies and often several bosses. And it only ramps up in difficulty as it goes on, so you may get through the first stage just fine but the next part is there to even the score. The areas themselves are diverse with well put together layouts of enemies and challenging platforming. All of them are designed to a perfect pitch with the sole intention of killing you and ending your game. You only have three lives to complete the level; after that you have to start all the way from the beginning.
Thankfully Oniken is never a drag, because the game feels completely fair. Not once did I feel like a death was cheap or a fault of the design. That’s in part due to the tight controls which consistently feel snappy and responsive. Attacks and jumps come out immediately, and there’s no awkward animation or delay. It’s also because of the excellent enemies that it throws at you. Your adversaries change up every level; there’s the common straight shooting soldier or turret, but then there are also aliens that rush you or Mad Max style bandits that throw axes while jumping around. It’s fun to discover the new elements that are introduced in every level.
That brings me to the bosses, which are just so much fun and completely wacky – in the best way. They fit the ‘80s Saturday morning cartoon vibe that the story gives off. While some feel much too simple – looking at you first level boss – they are for the most part great. All of them provide unique challenges and mix up the formula… as simple as the formula admittedly is.
And this is my biggest complaint that constantly came up while I was playing. Oniken does not try to do anything to mix up the genre standards at all. There’s a place for retro games that harken to the past but the best find ways to make it their own, allowing them to stand as unique by their own merits. Look at games like Shovel Knight or Celeste – these games try to push their retro heritage further. Oniken is instead a fun throwback and a great joy to play, but it probably won’t appeal to many except its target audience. Which is maybe all it needs to do, but it could have been something so much more.
Oniken on Xbox One has content that can keep you busy, with seven long levels that will take effort to beat. It also includes a boss rush mode where you will face every boss back to back and, for the truly skilled, a hardcore mode in which you only have one life to the beat the levels. This is a solid and really engaging hardcore retro throwback, and so if you’re looking for a blast to the past, you’ll feel like a kid again playing Oniken.