It’s hard to deny the nostalgic appeal of a simple side scrolling 8-bit adventure, but there is such a thing as too simple. Canadian Indie developers Ravenous Games and Noodlecake Studios seem determined to find out with their run and gun platformer Random Heroes, an iOS original recently ported to the Play Store. Fans of Ravenous Games’ hit League of Evil franchise will be attracted to this game’s old school graphics and classic action elements, but style still needs substance to back it up. Will Random Heroes’ big gimmick – a surprising range of, well, random heroes – save it from falling flat?
While “Random” explicitly refers to the array of arbitrary avatars, it might just as easily describe the plot trajectory. The opening cut scene informs us that a portal to another world has opened in a local boneyard, spewing forth an interdimensional invasion. Using satisfyingly responsive left, right, jump and fire buttons, you must sprint and shoot your way through legions of cyborg zombies, severed head helicopters, marauding robots and even Minotaur’s. Your campaign leads you over a series of spiked pits, dark tunnels and moving platforms in a city, down into the sewers, up through the graveyard, and deep into the forest. Each of these five chapters contains ten levels, and concludes with a boss fight featuring a bigger stronger version of one of the little enemies.
Simplicity is the order of the day in Random Heroes, and as such, upgrades can only be bought with game money – not found in powerups or items, or earned with experience points or achievements. In addition to the aforementioned 24 available characters, there are also 17 guns in the game store with varying fire rates and damage ratings, from handguns to automatic assault weapons, including exotic selections like antique Tommy guns to high-powered homing bazookas. It isn’t possible to complete every level without enhancing your abilities, so you’ll do best to start saving your game money early, and know what you’re saving it for.
Unfortunately, the developers have made smart shopping nearly impossible with the unpredictable quality of the pricey gear available. There is not a one-to-one ratio between price tag and potency, and the trial and error required to figure out the best gun and character combination is untenably expensive. Vanquished enemies hemorrhage coins, and little caches of change can be found around every corner; this would be great if said coins were in denominations of more than 1 and 5, since nearly all of the character and weapon upgrades come with at least six-figure price tags. To make matters worse, the most expensive options aren’t always the most effective; even though a fairly efficient $5,500 pulse rifle looks less desirable than a $10,000 blaster rifle with a punishing damage rating, users who have scrimped and saved for the latter will be disappointed by the blaster’s action, which doesn’t just fire less frequently, but actually requires that you hold the A to charge and release it to fire. This is far too much to ask of a player plowing through an undead-infested platformer where rate of fire is critical.
On the character front, although the $2,000 Robodude’s underwhelming agility rating may convince you to save up for the $4,000 Ninja, you’re set up for a letdown when you discover that the Ninja’s dominating agility rating leaves you no control over how high you jump and can send you skittering around dangerously around spiked pits and other obstacles. You will miss the groundedness and control of a low-agility character faster than you might imagine.
Ravenous Games and Noodlecake Studios could have distracted the player from the game’s financial crisis by offering more interesting levels, but the developers have favored Random Heroes’ adorable 8-bit charm offensive over stage design. Each level of can be played through quickly in a more or less straight line, or a more entrepreneurial player can choose to take a series of detours that lead to the aforementioned hidden cash and medikits. This exploration may sound exciting, but it rapidly becomes more of a tedious necessity as earnings persistently lag way behind your progress through short levels, sticking you in a rut of repeatedly replaying the same area in order to save enough money for a boss-beating upgrade. Choosing to meander instead of powering through isn’t much fun when the only motivation is scrounging up coins; Random Heroes could do with an additional challenge, like more of a maze structure, or a ticking clock to beat. But the design to engage approach has been has been somewhat discarded here in lieu of the boring the player into paying more money paradigm. After you have built a better hero and beaten the game, you might be excited to start over from the beginning with your new and improved character – but you’d better have a strong memory, since the game considers all levels completed and won’t hold your place in a new playthrough. So, if you stop and return to your new campaign later, you will need to remember on which of the fifty similar-looking levels you left off, and they are only differentiated by a generic icon and a number.
At the end of the day, the game’s vague story, simplistic mission, and singular dependency on cash can make even an old school arcade veteran long for more useful options and complicated challenges. Random Heroes’ retro affectations and matching ‘80s and ‘90s-inspired character selections are fun for a while, but only until the money runs out. Once you can’t afford your upgrades and the focus shifts from beating the big bad to building up your bankroll, the game’s escapist fantasy starts to seem a little too much like real life.