We Are Wild Stallions! (Referred To By HIM): Narita Boy Game Review

Take me on a trip, I'd like to go some day Take me to Digi Kingdom, I'd love to go and slay. I really want to come kick it with you You'll be my Narita boy

It was the ‘Narita’ in Narita Boy that first caught my attention. Would you be playing a high school kid on the fringes of Chiba, or would it be a more international assumption that the place is just an airport, and in this game you play a baggage handler?

Fortunately for us all, it’s none of those things, but having lived there, can say it’s a lovely part of the world. Interestingly, The Creator over at Studio Koba spent some time there too, so there is some kind of connection, and you’ll see some hints through the story flashbacks.

But why are we looking at the behind-the-scenes when we haven’t tackled a synopsis? Narita Boy is Team17’s (Blasphemous, Rogue Heroes)latest that I’m calling an action platformer. You can call it a Metroidvania, but I’m going for a less specified description.

Playing as the boy of the title, you get wrapped up in the Digital Kingdom to rescue The Creator’s memories as they are slowly corrupted by a virus named HIM. With a legion of Stallions, HIM eats away at The Creator’s worlds, all the way down to the source code. You see, Narita Boy is a game within a game, but the concept isn’t that hard to understand.

Narita Boy - Techno
Techno techno techno. Source: Screen capture

What is a little confusing is the terminology. You don’t have to identify as a programmer, but there’s a mixture of jargon and extravagantly titled characters that it all gets a little too confusing for its own good. You will be able to make sense of it; it just takes a bit of time to digest.

That doesn’t mean that Narita Boy is pretentious or anything; this is a passion project from Studio Koba, and having read a few things, it’s taken some time for this to get into the wild. Was it worth the wait? I think so. 

Once inside the Digital Kingdom, you’ll encounter several High Priests expecting your arrival, foretelling prophecies and providing you with the bare minimal guidance required to complete your mission: defeat HIM and restore The Creator’s memories. This is achieved through mostly platforming and combat.

The scales are equally balanced here as there’s an abundance of jumping, combating Stallion minions and bosses, to quite a bit of backtracking for disks or keycards. Narita Boy is a funny old thing. On the one hand, it’s a nostalgic piece to people who were either around when this 80s futuristic aesthetic was considered edgy, or for those who missed out the first time and want some Tron-like action.

Narita Boy - Handy
Handy… Source: Steam

I’d argue that it’s not a retro piece, at least not in the conventional sense. For starters, it’s too good for that. It wasn’t until perhaps the 32-bit (from memory – there’s a tech joke in there) scene where it allowed for the precision seen here. There are the standard jumps and modified versions and an in-air evasive jump and wall-climbing skill like Ninja Gaiden.

Equally well-represented is the combat. You start with a melee attack (well, nothing at all if we’re truthful), and gradually unlock projectiles, charges, a Cyclops-like beam and Wildstyle that plays on one of three colours using a similar mechanic to Pawgumi. Each of these sets unlocks at a good pace, though some of them are a little too late to get the full benefit of. There are even a handful of ‘dudes’ that will assist you in some battles as well.

I’m typically heavy-handed when not paying attention, not using brakes in racing games, or evading/blocking in action titles like you’re supposed to. You could button mash in Narita Boy, but it’s not going to get you very far. The enemies aren’t exactly hardcore but can take enough hits where if you mindlessly tap away, you’ll eventually take a hit.

A solution? Evade. No more wedged between henchman like a rock and hard place, or syphilis and marriage, but you can actively get the advantage, and it’s easy to do as well.

Narita Boy coming to Steam
Source: Steam

An emphasis on easy here, as Narita Boy is a little easier than most, and one of the reasons why I wouldn’t deem it a Metroidvania. It’s a personal thing, but other than not liking the term, I associate it as a particularly challenging genre, almost like a rogue-like. So easier, not easy, as there are a few set pieces that can be testing at times.

The biggest flaw for me was the backtracking. Sometimes it was the design of going back and retrieving an item to unlock a new area or memory, but most of the time, it was wandering back and forth, working out where I needed to go. In terms of old school games, it hit the mark for that one and admittedly got a bit frustrated like back in the day of joysticks. There aren’t any maps or handholding, and while some could argue that ambiguity adds to the atmosphere, it could have done with a bit more direction in places.

But Narita Boy didn’t need any pointers on the presentation. The visuals were impressive. This is inspired by the aesthetics of the 80s but is far too good for the era. Though a simplistic construction of pixels, the characters are expertly animated – the way they explode in a digital goo as if Moonstone – A Hard Day’s Knight and the original Mortal Kombat had a baby. It was brilliant. From the animation through to the layered backgrounds, this is a stunning looking game.

Complemented by an equally fantastic soundtrack full of synths, I particularly enjoyed the CRT effect. As a Scanline Whore™, I’m always keen to experience games with that Double Dragon arcade effect of old, regardless of the game’s vintage. Here it’s pretty unique, and unlike any other filter I’ve seen in a game. It’s alive with a pulsing interference that doesn’t distract, but everyone once in a while reminds you it’s there as you look at a subtly skewed screen. All you need to do is mount your monitor in an old arcade cabinet and start drinking Tab Clear again.

Despite that backtracking dampened some areas for me, Narita Boy is a very good game. It manages to tap into the sentimental – both with presentation and storytelling, yet feeling utterly modern. It’s also void of those mechanics that used to plague the equivalents as we poked our 10ps (or quarters!) into the machines. It’s like an arcade classic, but it has too much depth for that and not the same duration as a typical adventure. Nevertheless, there’s no hesitation from me to recommend this.