There’s a certain group of wayward adventurers who think that difficulty has fallen by the wayside in games. They yearn for the old days, when you were lucky if the tape cassette in your Commodore 64 loaded, often found that the controls didn’t work, and where it was possible the game simply hadn’t been finished. Things have changed – improved most would say by accessibility and inclusivity – but a hard game can still be a precious delight, endangering our screens, our relationships and our controllers. Okunoka Madness is such a game.
You play as Ka, a blue demon-ish character who’s been raised from his slumber by things going ‘a bit wrong’, and who then sets out to put things right, seemingly by rushing headlong through a bunch of despicably tough levels and eating up a bunch of sprites and spirits along the way.
Okunoka Madness is a speedrunner’s platforming dream. Every single level pits you, not just against the spiky, lethal obstacles in your way, but against the clock, giving you a grade and letting you see where you stack up on the leaderboards; both local and global. While you will progress through the different worlds you’ll find yourself becoming obsessed with single levels that get in your way. You become steadily more gung-ho, living life ever closer to the edge of each platform, attempting to shave one hundredth off your best time. In order to achieve that you’re going to die over, and over again. Oh, and then a few times more.
You run, you jump, you wall climb. These simple tenets of gameplay are almost underwhelming in the context of modern gaming, and yet, they remain as vital and compulsive as they were when a young Shigeru Miyamoto decided plumbing was a suitable pastime for a hero. Ka has less weight than a Brooklyn Italianite, presumably due to less pizza and more ethereal indulgences like Special-K, but either way it sees him leaping and turning with incomparable precision.
Adding an extra wrinkle into platforming’s time-worn face, Okunoka Madness brings in elemental Sprites, which allow Ka to interact with certain parts of levels in a different way. Frost, the first Sprite you encounter, allows you to switch icy barriers and platforms on and off, often needing you to tap away at the shoulder button at the same time as leaping towards or away from something else, while the second world brings in Fire, doubling the ways in which you will probably die. We won’t even think about the fact there are probably even more ways than that.
It’s a war of attrition between you and your fingers. You begin many of the levels with a clear sense of disbelief about what you need to do in order to reach the end of the course, and yet you’ll grind away at your synapses until Ka is flowing from one platform to the next, narrowly missing the spinning blades of a death dealing robot to land neatly on the smallest of platforms before entering another pitched battle with yourself through the next section.
Okunoka Madness’ level designers are the kind of sadists that other sadists talk about in hushed tones. There’s some kind of devilish glee to be found in the steadily more vicious stages, and you might begin to hear their maniacal laughter after you start over for the umpteenth time. No, wait, it was my maniacal laughter. I do think the ‘Madness’ in the title might be a health warning. You should bear that in mind.
Our hands-on was limited to the first two worlds, with each one boasting twenty stages. The final level for these worlds plays host to a dastardly boss clearly meant to inflict further psychological damage on you. In a lot of ways, they’re not really a huge leap from the standard levels, being a heady mix of muscle memory, learned patterns and snappy reflexes, but they definitely serve to bookend each world in soul-crushing style.
Okunoka Madness is exhilarating, brutal, time-sinking fun though. It’s gaming in the classical sense, with a bright and bold skin that lives just the right side of Rayman’s best work. It’s the kind of game to wrap yourself up in as you perfect each stage, though there’s a real risk of needing to but the new 4K TV you’ve been lusting after thanks to some kind of ‘accident’.
I can’t wait to fling myself on all its mercies when it reaches full release.