Growing up, my best friend was addicted to Dance Dance Revolution. Every night, he would spend hours pounding away on a dance pad, determined to complete a song chart without missing a beat. I never understood the appeal of the actual dancing aspect of the game, but I did enjoy occasionally playing with a traditional controller.
Maybe I didn’t have the rock star personality required to shamelessly jump around a dance pad, but I was proud of my ability to keep up with my friend’s feverish movements while using a controller. Dance Dance Revolution’s gameplay was a natural fit for the dance pad, with song charts laid out as scrolling bars of cardinal direction-pointing arrows. When it came to using a controller, things got a little more complicated, requiring some kind of mental kung-fu to think quickly and press both the directional and face buttons in proper time.
Nowadays, games like Dance Dance Revolution – titles so objectively different that they demand your attention – are few and far between. Video games, despite being bigger and better looking than ever before, often feel homogenized. We see it time and again with each new release, one AAA titles borrows from another and so on and so forth, leading to a trickledown effect that leads to games ultimately using the same basic control schemes and mechanics to tell a vaguely similar story about a tangentially similar hero.
Because of this subtle standardization of many video games, the games that dare swim upstream stand out even more than in generations past. By playing with genre conventions or setting a new control scheme standard, every video game generation is privy to a handful of games that deserve respect for their efforts to innovate and reinvent the familiar landscape of video games.
By shirking this concept of homogenization, a game like Crypt of the Necrodancer can succeed. A rhythm-based roguelike, Crypt of the Necrodancer takes the basic rules from one of gaming’s oldest genres and successfully pulls the monster-infested carpet out from under them.
Crypt of the Necrodancer hearkens back to my controller usage in DDR. Every element of Crypt of the Necrodancer requires the player to keep time with game’s persistently pulsing soundtrack. Movement, attacking and even picking up items are all dictated by the player’s ability to keep in time with the music, with dropped beats halting progress entirely.
By presenting itself in the same vein of classic roguelikes, Crypt of the Necrodancer allows the player to enter the game with certain assumptions. The game’s randomly generated, tile-based stages look familiar, the emphasis on random loot and weapons can easily be found in a handful of games released each month, and the pixel art doesn’t exactly feel fresh. However, spending even a minute in Crypt of the Necrodancer teaches gamers that it is no simple ‘indie roguelike’ thanks to its unique approach to gameplay.
There is a certain level of challenge to Crypt of the Necrodancer that stems from how it plays. The game is hard in that it tasks players with mastering their ability to think, move, and generally groove all at the same time. At first, it’s a tough learning curve. Pressing the directional arrows in time with the game’s incessant sounds feels unnatural, but that is because it is supposed to be.
Video games rarely rely on ludoaudio cohesion, but Crypt of the Necrodancer is built completely around it. Moving around the enemies in each stage, avoiding traps and keeping your movement multiplier (which relates to gold pickups) is deceptively taxing, despite only requiring the directional keys to play.
But, because it is so different, so fresh despite its somewhat trite appearance and familiar genre, Crypt of the Necrodancer is a perfect example of how a single game can effectively stand out among countless other titles. Death after death, run after run, Crypt of the Necrodancer manages to pull you back in. Its combination of simple controls, musical interaction and random levels creates for a familiar feeling, yet freshly sublime experience.
Crypt of the Necrodancer isn’t the first game to enter a familiar genre and effectively reinvent the gaming wheel. While Necrodancer focuses on subverting the player’s knowledge of roguelikes by making every action revolve around rhythm, Skate and its two main sequels, took the skateboarding (or, action sports) genre by storm with its intuitive controls and emphasis on realistic game design.
Up until the release of Skate in 2007, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was the king of the digital skatepark. Stemming from the perennial classic that was THPS, the Birdman introduced the gaming world to skateboarding in an arcade-like, combo-centric format. The series was so successful that it spawned a handful of other ‘extreme’ sports games that attempted to capture the flair of the Pro Skater titles.
While Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater’s sequels continued to iterate upon one another and introduce minor tweaks with each new entry, Skate took a drastically different approach. Much like Necrodancer’s basis in roguelike sensibilities, Skate lured gamers in with the familiar premise of controlling a skateboarder on the quest for kickflips, grinds and slides.
Where it set itself apart from, and ultimately overtook, the Pro Skater franchise, was in Skate’s intuitive control scheme. The THPS games required use of the face buttons to execute flip tricks, grinds and grabs, whereas Skate used the analog tricks to near-perfectly emulate the actual process of doing tricks.
Skate’s decidedly different approach to the tried-and-true appeal of skateboarding games was a blessing to many. While it was difficult to train yourself to think about tricks and their analog rotations, it eventually allowed for more realistic – and artful – skateboarding gameplay.
The arcadey gameplay of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was initially seen as the be all end all of the genre, but Skate came at a perfect time, opting for responsive and intuitive controls instead of repetitive gameplay. In doing so, the Pro Skater franchise fell largely dormant, heading into peripheral-based titles instead of a full-fledged experience (Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 notwithstanding).
Both of these games, Skate and the recently released Crypt of the Necrodancer are destined to be remembered fondly. For their daring design choices and emphasis on creative gameplay, these two games managed to stand out from the rest of the pack.
Skate might be dead in the water, but its influence can be seen in numerous sports games, from MLB The Show 15 to Fifa titles. Crypt of the Necrodancer takes the addictive nature of Dance Dance Revolution and the timeless exploration and challenge of roguelikes, making something more instantly enjoyable than virtually any other game on the market. Both titles were probably once seen as risks, but their ultimate reward is what they will always be praised for.
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