Release Date: Mar. 30, 2021
Developer: Studio Koba
Platform: PlayStation 4 [Played], Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
I picked up “Narita Boy” at full price knowing only that it was inspired in large part by Disney’s 1982 classic “TRON,” my favorite movie. I didn’t know how the game played or even what it was about. The game blew me away, featuring style in spades, fun combat and a surprisingly touching story. I don’t think this game is for everyone though, as its best content is buried several hours into a six-hour game, and its world is drowning in technobabble jargon.
“Narita Boy” wears its inspirations on its sleeve, with a story very clearly inspired by ’80s films, particularly “TRON,” “Star Wars” and “Back to the Future.” The game takes place in the digital kingdom, starring a young boy pulled into his Narita One computer by the Motherboard, ruler of the kingdom, and tasked with vanquishing the evil sorcerer Him. The boy must become the hero, the Narita Boy, and take on the Stallions, Him’s army, to restore the stolen memories of the computer’s creator, so Him can be deleted before he escapes into the real world.
The plot is weighed down by its ambition, as the lore of the digital kingdom is so built out that the front half of the game is overloaded by exposition. The Narita Boy must wield the Techno-Sword, learn the power of the Trichroma, defeat the Stallions and liberate the memories of the creator, who can destroy Him, wielder of the red side of the Trichroma. This produced some issues early in the game before I learned the world’s language, as a character would describe my current objective in a few sentences laden with the world’s terminology and jargon, and I couldn’t immediately discern what exactly the game wanted me to do. After a couple hours, however, these issues fell away.
The best storytelling in “Narita Boy” is found in the creator’s memories, usually given as rewards after bosses or other challenges throughout the story. There are 13 of them, and each provides a glimpse into the life of the creator, from his childhood to the present day. Here themes of ambition and loss are explored in these small experiences completely devoid of combat.
The visuals of “Narita Boy” are striking, though they are generally fairly simple, represented in a pixel art style. Set pieces and characters are beautifully detailed and animated, and the game manages to impress and vary the visuals throughout the game, keeping areas visually distinct. Enemies are a little less visually interesting, with most of the lesser foes Narita Boy faces being simple black and red figures. Even some bosses can look a little too simple, likely to account for the number of animations they have compared to other background characters. Enhancing the visuals is a neat filter that warps the edges of the screen and warps the colors, emulating the appearance of an old CRT monitor. This can be disabled to view the game in a more modern HD style.
Some visuals, especially earlier in the game, feature lots of strobing lights, which could be an issue for photosensitive players, the game features an extra warning about this on the title screen.
Like the story, the gameplay is also slow to develop. The game is not very quick to dole out combat abilities, making early fights not terribly interesting, and also needlessly punishing, as even the ability to restore health in combat is gated. Some of the combat abilities that are unlocked during the game are mostly pointless as well, for example, a shoulder charge that is only effective at stunning a single enemy type who carries a shield. Armored enemies later in the game require another unique ability specific to them. Despite all these shortcomings, when the Narita Boy has his whole arsenal available to him, and the game throws more varied enemies at the player, combat is tense and exciting. The game’s later bosses are spectacular, difficult but fair.
Each area in the game is fairly large, and the game doesn’t signpost where the player needs to explore to advance. Players need to roam around and talk to programs that give clues and find doors that require floppy disk keys to open. A glaring omission to the exploration is the complete lack of a map. Areas are not so large that the player can get lost, but it would have been nice to be able to consult a map, a basic tool in most video games.
Gameplay is also mixed up in certain segments by introducing vehicles. Most of these are little more than short diversions, like a segment that lasts a few minutes where the Narita Boy rides a horse through the desert, but they at least break up the action in a way similar to the creator’s memories. Suiting up in a giant mech and fighting kaiju-sized versions of the Stallions in the city was of course the big highlight of these.
“Narita Boy” seems almost perfectly targeted towards me. “TRON” and “Star Wars” hold a special place in my heart, and I loved the story for its clear inspirations, though it does diverge enough to tell its own original story. I also loved the style of the visuals and the music, and the combat managed to grow on me by the last couple hours of the roughly six-hour experience. It’s tough to know who exactly to recommend this game to, but it’s certainly an imaginative 2D action platformer, oozing with style and featuring a shockingly realized world, with a story rooted surprisingly in themes of loss. “Narita Boy” is also included in Xbox Game Pass, so players in that ecosystem can jump into the game at no additional cost. The game ends with a sequel tease, and I’ll be stoked to return to Studio Koba’s world if it comes to fruition, hopefully I won’t be waiting 28 years.