Nintendo’s Switch has, perhaps unexpectedly, proven to be a wonderful console for an enormous variety of indie games. Though the sheer volume of titles being released on a regular basis does mean that there’s an awful lot of shovelware, there’s also a many games that are well worth checking out.
The volume, of course, makes it a lot more difficult to find those hidden gems, especially when they’re from smaller publishers and even more so when the game doesn’t necessarily have a unique selling point.
Once upon a time, an homage to 8-bit (and even more specifically, NES) run and gun games would have felt like a novelty. Unfortunately, there seems to be an awful lot of these homages around on the Switch alone, without even including the original titles available via Nintendo’s NES Online offering. So Biolab Wars feels like it’s starting off on the back foot, with a risk that it’ll be overlooked.
That’d be a massive shame, because Biolab Wars is well worth your time and what little money it’ll cost you. As an homage to the fondly remembered run-and-gun games on the NES, such as Contra, it succeeds admirably. Where it differs is in the level of challenge and with a few of the design choices, though this isn’t always to the game’s detriment.
The visuals really do evoke the NES, albeit perhaps employing a style and colour scheme that would, at points, push Nintendo’s 8-bit console to its limits. There’s also the soundtrack to mention, which is brilliantly evocative of the chiptune music you’d expect on the NES.
From a gameplay point of view, again we’re in familiar territory. Unlike Contra, as an example, the characters in Biolab Wars (of which there are three, including a dog in a cybernetic suit – though I couldn’t find any difference in using one character over another, beyond visually) have a somewhat generous life bar, so the challenge isn’t as high as it is in the games it’s homaging. There are still points where a single mistake – dropping off the bottom of a stage, for example – can prove instantly fatal, but for the most part, especially in boss battles, you’ll be keeping an eye on your life bar.
The bosses are, unfortunately, one of the weakest aspects of the game. Though they’re undeniably impressive and imaginative from a visual standpoint, the vast majority of them have dull and predictable attack patterns, with battles far outstaying their welcome through both the size of the enemy’s life bar and a trick that is repeated far too often: the ‘fake’ boss dying and then immediately reviving itself with a full life bar in a slightly stronger form. Bosses in Biolab Wars can feel like a slog and until the end of the game, they don’t even put up much of a fight.
Towards the end of the game, some frustratingly unfair level design rears its head too, with fatal drops off the screen becoming all too common, along with some enemy placement that feels a little cheap.
However, despite these issues you’re still likely to finish the game over the course of a few hours. There’s seven stages of increasing difficulty, with a vehicle level thrown onto the mix and some ice and moving train stages, for example, adding further variety to both gameplay and the overall look of the game. If you do happen to lose all of your lives and get kicked back to the title screen, you can start at the beginning of the highest stage you’ve reached – so it’s not too difficult to beat all seven stages with a little perseverance, regardless of the cheapness of the design in the latter levels.
Perhaps these issues also feel more glaring due to the short length of Biolab Wars; what I do need to stress, however, is that the problems outlined above in no way ruin the rest of the experience. It’s a fantastic homage to those 8-bit classics with some great visual design, some imaginatively daft power ups and enemies – and it’s well worth spending a few hours with, especially given how cheap it’s available for. It’s clear that the developers are a talented bunch – and I’m really looking forward to what they can do, given a bigger budget and more time. I certainly hope they get that chance.
Note: Forever Entertainment kindly provided me with a Biolab Wars code for review purposes.
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