- Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
- Developer: Morph Cat Games
- Release Date: 2019
- Price: $10.99 USD (digital), $45 Euro (CIB)
The excitement of buying a brand new Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) game, opening the box, and sliding the shiny new cartridge into your console didn’t die 1994. It’s alive and well thanks to excellent homebrew games like Micro Mages.
Micro Mages isn’t a typical side-scrolling platform game, it’s a vertical scroller à la Kid Icarus, but faster paced. As you charge up your attack and jump off walls, the screen automatically scrolls up. If you’re too slow -BAM! You’re dead.
To reach the exit at the top of each level, you have to make your way passed a variety of enemies and obstacles, ranging from bone-throwing skeletons and floating eye balls, to puddles of boiling water and deadly metal blades.
Learning how to effectively jump off of walls and precisely time your attacks becomes essential as the difficulty increases. Thankfully, the controls aren’t just tight, they’re perfect. When you die, it’s never due to unresponsive controls.
LITTLE SPRITE, BIG WORLD
The term “micro” isn’t just an aesthetic choice, the decision to use a tiny 8×8-pixel sprite for the player effects the gameplay.
You’re not a large plumber jumping onto giant pipes, you’re a tiny wall-clinging mage who jumps across vast chasms to reach your goal. Imagine the tiny 8×8 sprite from Batman on the Game Boy, but in the larger 256×240 NES resolution. It makes the playing field seem enormous.
Micro Mages isn’t just a fun action platformer for the NES, it brings something completely unique to the console: 4-player, vertical-scrolling action.
After completing the single player game, I got to try out a three-player match with two of my friends. It was a blast! As we bounced off each others’ heads, scrambled to stay alive, and fought for first place on the score board, my living room was filled with cheers, laughs, and even a bit of strategic planning.
One of my friends was waving his controller around and shouting as he tried to stay above the scrolling screen of death. My other friend knocked me out from safety during a boss fight… he claimed it was an accident. The game was different in multiplayer. There was more planning, new items showed up, and boss fights were much more engaging.
But the biggest change, and maybe the best design decision the developers made, was keeping players in the game when they die.
LIFE AFTER DEATH
When you die in a multiplayer game of Micro Mages, you turn into a ghost.
As a ghost, you can quickly fly around the level, shoot enemies to freeze them, and open treasure chests. If you collect a fairy (normally used to protect a player from one hit) you return to the game alive and ready to fight.
This means you never have to sit and wait to play. Instead, becoming a ghost is like switching to a support character. You can keep playing along side your friends, breaking open crates and freezing enemies to help them reach the goal.
Since your team doesn’t lose a life until all players are turned into ghosts, keeping at least one player alive becomes a top priority. There was constant dialogue between my friends about who was dead, and who needed help. Ghosts ended up playing an important role in our progression.
ART AND SOUND
I love the pixel art in Micro Mages. The backgrounds are beautiful, the sprites are gorgeous, and the use of the NES colour palette is excellent.
By utilizing darker colours, elements in the background start to blend into the black backdrop as if there wasn’t enough light reaching them. The enemy sprites are easily recognizable and fit the cute occult theme. And the player sprite displays the most fluid animation I’ve seen in an 8×8 pixel sprite.
The music makes me feel like I’m ten years old again, playing my NES on a Saturday morning to embark on an epic video game adventure. The boss theme builds up the tension, and the victory theme adds to the satisfaction of finally beating a level or a boss. My favourite track is Heroic.
A TECHNICAL MARVEL
It’s surprising that a game that plays like a late-era NES release, the kind that benefits from experienced developers and extra memory, is really a just a 40 kb cartridge. The same one used for the original Super Mario Bros..
Most top tier NES games utilized mappers which allowed for more RAM, larger roms up to 512 kb, and even expanded audio. Micro Mages doesn’t benefit from any of these. The developers at Morphcat Studios worked within the limitations of early NES cartridges to create something very impressive that runs on real hardware.
It’s hard to believe that Micro Mages could have been a NES launch title along side Tennis and Excitebike.
If Micro Mages had been released back in 1989, it would have been featured on the cover of Nintendo Power magazine.
Kids would have been talking about it in the school yard and praying for a copy to show up under their Christmas tree. The NES Four Score multitap accessory would have been the centre piece at all the cool birthday parties and sleep overs.
When it comes to NES games, Micro Mages is in the same league as Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, and Mega Man. It’s unique, expertly developed, and a joy to play with friends. If you have any interest in retro video games, modern indie games, or you just like platformers, I highly recommend buying a copy of Micro Mages.
And if you have the money for a physical NES cartridge, you can relieve the joy of being a kid in the 80s, slamming a big grey cartridge into your Nintendo, and playing till your mom yells at you to go outside.
Jenny Hitbox is an amateur pixel artist who loves RPGs and CRTs. Ms. Hitbox is currently working on her first video game, Retro Trivia Quest, a visual novel for the original Game Boy using GB Studio.
When Jenny isn’t grinding for EXP, she be found riding her bike and avoiding social media.