Joakim Sandberg is a man who clearly loves designing bosses. His professional CV includes an animation credit for Wayforward Technologies' well-received Contra 4, while his most recent indie game shares the same spiritual bloodline as Treasure favourites like Gunstar Heroes, Alien Soldier and Silhouette Mirage. Noitu 2 is the sequel to his previous freeware game Noitu Love, which was a pleasant NES-like Megaman style platformer, but the advancement between the two games is like comparing the leaning tower of Pisa to the Empire State building. For a game designed and put together by one guy, it's simply epic.
Set one hundred years after its prequel, Noitu 2 stars a female protagonist with the unlikely name of Xoda Rapp. This be-hoodied green whirlwind looks like the product of an unlikely coupling with Link from Zelda and Sonic's hyperactive sister, but she's actually a pretty cool character. To cut a long story short, Xoda has been summoned to deal with the resurrected Darn Robot Army – a horde of eternally grinning, death-dealing cyborgs. Appearing throughout the game in a variety of surreal and often comical guises (think along the lines of those humorous enemy animations in the Metal Slug games), their reliance on madcap, over-designed weapon technology is also a good excuse for Joakim to flex his boss-building muscles, as we'll see later…
Xoda is a grinning Darn's worst nightmare. Although the Treasure and Gunstar comparisons apply to the look, feel and inventive multi-directional scrolling style of the game, Xoda's highly effective method of attack has more in common with something like Strider, being a very potent close-range slashing move. Where the game departs from traditional 2D platform fare is with the control system – Noitu 2 uses direct mouse control coupled with the cursor keys for movement and attacking enemies. Xoda can be moved around with the keyboard, but left-clicking an enemy Darn will send her shooting across the screen to unleash an attack.
At first, it's peculiar to find yourself zipping across the screen from enemy to enemy, irrespective of your keyboard commands. While it takes a little getting used to (the tutorial is essential – skip it at your peril) you'll find the method 'clicks' after a little practice. Soon you'll be progressing through levels and decimating Darns like a natural born robot-killer. You can also build up impressive 'air-combo' bonuses by using the 'quick-dash' attack on successive enemies without touching the ground.
Add to this inventive system her ability to run, duck, wall-jump, grab and throw enemies into each other (very Silhouette Mirage). You can also unleash a handy 'charge' shot, and create temporary shields to absorb enemy projectiles. All considered, you can see that Xoda makes a rather nifty little robot-busting package. And Noitu 2 has a stunningly fast-paced game-engine to complement its rapid-moving heroine. It's one of the zippiest platform run-'n'-gun-style games money can buy. Although Xoda can dash through most of the seven levels, bypassing enemies, you won't get much of a stage ranking rating this way. Tearing up the place in a flurry of exploding grin-bots, while earning multiple combo-bonuses along the way, is much more satisfying.
And it's the diversity and graphical variety of those seven stages that really adds to the game's appeal. Starting in a modern cityscape, the anime-style characters and vibrant backgrounds have a distinctive Japanese-influenced look about them, which will make Treasure or Konami fans feel very at home. Later stages are designed around different themes, like the mock-Gothic Castlevania-esque appearance of the second level, a stage based on medieval Japan, or the futuristic final chapter (complete with gravity anomalies). The Darn, with their insane metallic smirks and witty animations, have a lot of character, adapting their appearance to fit in each game zone – for instance the slightly freaky Geisha Darn in the Japan levels.
The stand-out though has to be the Western-themed shooter level where you take to the skies on a patented Michael J Fox hover-board gizmo, taking out cowboy-hatted Darns with a reflecting laser beam. It reminds me somewhat of Jeff Minter's Deflex, but works in a rather different way. Enemies are destroyed by 'joining up' various bad guys with the beam, in a manner similar to a join-the-dots children's book, but some baddies have defensive shields you need to work around and outflank with your weapon. Quirky, cerebral, and above all, highly original, it's a work of genius. This stage also contains one of the game's most imposing bosses, which starts off as an Old West steam engine, before transforming into an evil, laser-spitting mecha contraption reminiscent of the infamous Seven Force from Gunstar Heroes.
Other bosses are equally imposing, displaying invention, style, and very effective use of sprite rotation, such as the Grim Reaper on level two, with his spinning scythe. Or the boss-fight that takes place on a giant piano, where you have to jump on specific keys to bring down the instrument's enormous hammers to wack him on the head. In the time-honoured tradition, most levels come equipped with mid-stage 'mini-bosses' and a more spectacular, often screen-filling guardian for the finale. Witness the first stage's enormous pink steam-roller contraption that tries to run Xoda into the dirt, or the giant mechanical snake on level three, fought atop a rolling water-wheel - like that daft bit in Pirates of the Caribbean, only more excitingly executed. If you love the old-school boss-fights of Contra, Gunstar or Metal Slug you'll be in your element here.
If I have one minor criticism it's that players who have grown up with hardcore run-'n'-gunners like Contra may find the game a little on the easy side in Normal mode, where most of the game's bosses can be dispatched without too much difficulty, and often on the first attempt. But then, that's what the hard level is for eh folks? Noitu Love 2 was originally released at a price-point of $20 US (at which it was still a worthy purchase), but earlier this year Joakim reduced this to an extremely wallet-friendly $10. If you have any fondness for this style of game it would be criminal to miss it at this price – it really is a bit special.
Download the game demo here (from Konjak's website).