As both a child of the '80s and a fan of roguelikes, Black Future '88 is a very exciting proposition. This 2D run 'n' gun platformer brings a lot of fairly traditional roguelike mechanics to bear in a replayable adventure that we've been enjoying on PC, including procedurally-generated environments and a not-quite-perma-death system that sees you unlocking new items for future playthroughs every time you bite the proverbial bullet. We're talking about screens filled with enemies, bullets flying this way and that, and a story that has us heading up a living tower that's very much out to kill us. It's hardly reinventing the wheel, then, but when you've got pixels this lovely, is that really necessary?
Oh, when we say "lovely pixels" we really do mean it. Black Future '88 has some of the most delicious pixelart we've ever seen, with the art-style doing a wonderful job of complementing the otherwise oppressive cyberpunk feel of the game. In keeping with the theme - which has you stuck in a perpetual futuristic version of 1988 - it's drenched in gunmetal grey with streaks of brash neon pink, and the whole thing looks phenomenal, with great animations and detailed backgrounds that really bring the play space to life.
It sounds even better - if that's possible. The synth-filled soundtrack pumps hard and fast, and if you're a fan of the style, we expect that you'll rather enjoy the audio experience on offer here. The tunes are further accentuated by some fantastic vocal work, with a narrator who rubs bravado into his lines, amping up the atmosphere even further. It's like a cross between the guy who does the announcements for Soul Calibur and the chap who did the husky VO from the Thriller video. Again, if you're a fan of '80s style and culture, you're going to swoon.
So it looks good and sounds great, but alas the performance of the game wasn't quite as silky smooth as we'd have liked, and we noticed a number of times when the action would just hang for a split-second. It's barely noticeable the first time, but after a while, we noticed that it was happening quite often. There are some really detailed animations in there and the screen can get chaotic at times, which probably explains it. At least it's not a game-breaker, and we never once died because of a technical hiccup, although it did take the shine off the otherwise flawless presentation. Here's hoping it's a wrinkle Superscarysnakes can smooth out ahead of the game's eventual launch.
Moving past technical matters, the game behind the retro-futuristic theme seems to be deeper than expected. Looking through the menus revealed a bunch of different enemy types that we have yet to encounter, as well as an arsenal that is similarly well-stocked. You can equip two guns at any time, and their various effects give them particular advantages over each other. We liked to mix up laser weapons with rapid-fire rifles, but there are a bunch of ways you can set yourself up, and your options only increase as you play because each death brings experience points that carry over into your permanent progression and new weapons unlock as you subsequently level up. These weapons are then dropped by enemies in future runs, so there's no guarantee you'll get them, but there's a chance you will.
The controls are intuitive and responsive, and we were double jumping all over the place, using a short teleport-dash to get out of trouble (though probably not as much as we should have), lining up our shots and trying to weave our way through waves of incoming fire. There's a bullet-hell feel to a number of the enemies you'll encounter, not dissimilar to the likes Enter the Gungeon (albeit with a side-on 2D view in this instance). It's not long before your enemies fill up the screen and you're having to work hard to dodge their various attack patterns while still inflicting damage. The boss fights are particularly difficult - not just because they're tougher and spew out more bullets; they're often supported by additional units, which means you're avoiding two different attacks at once, and that can get tricky.
Underpinning all this hard-as-nails '80s-infused action is a setup whereby you're entering a living tower (that grows stronger as you drop/leave items on the floor - or something like that) with a dodgy heart that's literally about to explode. Your mission is to get to the boss at the top of the tower before the time runs out, and there are various unlocks and abilities that you can grab on the way to help you on your path. It seems like there are plenty of different abilities and weapons to discover and unlock, and we're certainly looking forward to diving back in for a deeper look when the game's finished. When it is, it's coming to PC and Nintendo Switch, and if you hadn't already guessed by the tone of our musings so far, we're looking forward to climbing this brutal tower once again.