The best action platformers combine nail-biting level design with super tight controls. Games like Mega Man X and Celeste are so satisfying to play because they masterfully execute both of those things. They have well-designed environments that present you with constant yet realistic challenges, combined with precise controls that ensure you can do what you want to do, when you want to do it, and never a moment later. Qualities like these are what set good side-scrolling games apart from great ones. Oniken is not a great one…
Oniken was originally released in 2012, which might be a surprise to some when you actually look at the game. Every part of the game is rendered in a faithfully classic 8-bit style that makes it look like something straight off the NES. Colour palettes are limited and cutscene art is chunky, while faked visual loading glitches between screens help capture that retro aesthetic even further. Aside from some background parallax that wouldn’t have been possible on the NES, Oniken is much more of a visual love letter to NES era platformers than just a simple 8-bit indie game.
Unfortunately, Oniken is a bit too faithful to the NES era. It has awkward limitations and quirks to its gameplay that constantly led me to struggle with the controls. Your toolset is simple, with one button for jumping and another for slashing your sword. You also have grenades that are activated by pressing up and hitting the attack button. Precise movements like grenade attacks and crouches were constantly hindered by the awkward sensitivity on the controls in Oniken. Even mid-air turns and attacks were wildly inconsistent during my time with the game.
Enemy placement only served to further my frustrations. Some encounters in the game are challenging in a respectable old-school way, but others are simply frustrating. Enemies that run at you full speed from off screen, foot soldiers who cause massive knock-back when they hit or touch you, and stationary turrets placed at odd elevations tested my patience relentlessly. These frustrating encounters could still be considered a fun and engaging challenge in certain contexts, but combined with the stiff and unresponsive controls they simply proved to be a chore.
Which is a shame, because once you get past the teeth-gnawing enemy encounters, Oniken presents you with some pretty fun boss fights. There are well over a dozen boss encounters in the game and a lot of them were a treat. Even though I was still contending with the clunky controls of my character, they were a bit easier to get the reigns on during these 1-on-1 battles. Bosses usually had challenging patterns and flashy designs that felt like they were a proper tribute to the design tendencies of old-school action games.
Another piece of the Oniken pie that was handled well was the sound design. Like every other part of the game, the music and audio of Oniken are instantly reminiscent of the kind of sounds you’d get from an NES platformer. Music was simple but effective throughout the game, and the satisfying crunches and beeps of the various enemies and attacks in the game helped solidify the unique aesthetic of the game.