Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes

A game by 8bits Fanatics for Xbox 360, originally released in 2011.
Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes, from 8bits Fanatics, is the very definition of a throwback title. Its chunky 8-bit style and high level of difficulty may remind gamers of the developer’s previous work, The Tempura of the Dead. But in actuality, the gameplay in Aban Hawkins has much more in common with another game in the 8bits Fanatics catalogue, namely their super-difficult platformer Challenge from Kiyoshi (see the 2D CRED section below).

Oh, and for extra funzies… apparently the subtitle to the game is “The temple of the dead mourns the livings.” Nice.

The one concession that is offered in Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes is a 4-digit starting life count. That’s right, not only are there 1,000 spikes (maybe), but you also start the game with 1,000 lives. However, much like Prinny’s PSP adventures, you will quickly find that 1,000 lives isn’t so much a guarantee of success as it is a countdown clock to your eventual doom. In the early going, it may seem like you could never use up so many lives during the course of the game… but by the end, you’ll watch be watching them trickle away like your diminishing sanity.

In the fledging downloadable era of console gaming, we’ve seen a regular regurgitation of classic games “remade” with modern tools, turning our precise and chunky 2D classics into low-res sloppy 3D reimaginings that barely manage to translate these titles’ basic gameplay (with obvious exceptions to the rule of poor quality, such as Bionic Commando: Rearmed). And we’ve also seen re-releases of classic games appearing in emulated form, sometimes with the addition of save states to keep us from bemoaning the loss of our gaming skills.

However, a new dawn is rising for games that seek to recapture not only the look and feel of the classics, but their difficulty as well. From a console-specific standpoint Mega Man 9 is generally given credit for this resurgence, but PC gamers were able experience many hardcore retro-styled games well before this, some of which – like Cave Story and Spelunky – subsequently went into development for the downloadable market. And new original titles have been developed for consoles that hearken back to the gameplay and difficulty levels of old, such as Super Meat Boy and Platformance: Castle Pain.

Well, you can add Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes to that list, because it’s every bit as challenging as our beloved classics and as unfriendly as any controller-chucker you may have played in your Thundercats Underoos.

Like almost every treasure hunter featured in video games, Aban Hawkins bears a marked resemblance to Indiana Jones. Each level has a key, an exit, and dozens of things that want to kill you. It goes without saying that the levels contain lots of spikes, and they appear in 3 varieties: First, there are the always-jutting spikes that are spread about the levels. Second, there are timed spikes that jut out at predictable intervals, provided you can keep track of these intervals with everything else going on in the game. And third, there are spikes that jut out when you run across the blocks that contain them; these often appear in sequence, forcing you to make a mad dash across them, which often leads to panic and brash decisions. One touch from a spike, or any other environmental danger, and you are dead. In fact, the game is sure to announce “YOU ARE DEAD” each time you die… just so you don’t forget.

Additional environmental hazards include falling rocks, arrow-shooting statues, flamethrower spouts, and fireball-spewing lava. If that weren’t enough, many of the platforms are designed to drop down when you jump on them, giving you a limited amount of time to react before you plummet to your doom by falling onto more spikes, dropping down into a bottomless pit, or being boiled alive in a pool of lava.

You have some basic environmental navigation tools like buttons that open passages, moving platforms, and pushable blocks, but you also have a few tools at your disposal to help you stay alive for just a few more precious seconds. For one, you have the ability to duck and allow dangerous objects to sail safely over your head, but you cannot move while ducking. You also have the ability to throw knives, which you’ll need to do to destroy the mad purple scorpions that pepper the already-dangerous environments, dashing around wildly while you attempt to hit them with 3 consecutive strikes. Knives are in infinite supply, but only 2 can appear on the screen at a time. Oh, and for players with the skills and reaction time to pull it off, knives can also be used to knock deadly arrows out of the air. Yeah, good luck with that.

Finally, and most interestingly, you have 2 types of jump. One is a low jump, and other is a high jump, and they’re assigned to 2 separate buttons. At first, having a platformer with 2 jump buttons seems like an odd design decision. However, proper use of these 2 jump heights is essential to your survival, as the tightly designed levels leave little room for error. Most of the time, you can just stick with the high jump, but you will also face situations where a low ceiling or row of spikes will kill you if you use it.

Before you even leave the first set of levels, you’ll be asked to perform some pretty daring feats to navigate the environment and extricate yourself from dangerous situations. Your first reaction may be to immediately jump away from any object that presents danger, but it’s almost impossible to jump away from one kind of danger without jumping directly into another. The clever level designs offer very little respite, and generally punish you for not doing just the right thing with perfect timing. It is impossible to succeed in this game without generous amounts of trial-and-error. Thus the 1,000 lives.

Frustration awaits you, but that is the key to the game’s design. If you make a mistake, you die. Then you take the knowledge of that mistake and try again. Maybe you die a few more times before you get it right, but when you finally do, you feel a sense of accomplishment… which lasts about 2 seconds until you find a new way to die. This is the kind of love-hate relationship – or more accurately an accomplishment-frustration relationship – that was offered in many games of old. The game is hard, but it’s also possible to win if you stick with it long enough to hone your skills and learn from your many, many mistakes.

The game also teaches a valuable life lesson: Impatience is almost always punished. The only way to make a perfect run through a level is to remain calm, make good decisions, take deep breaths, and try not to sweat on the controller. Each time you die, you’ll have to start the level from scratch. So if you do find yourself up against a wall, and you just can’t seem to make it through no matter how hard you try, the developers did offer one minor concession: a level-skip, but even this comes with its own caveat.

When you skip a level, you have to live with the fact that you’re giving up. You have to admit that you didn’t have what it took to make it through. In fact, the game reinforces this by showing the level-skip option as “give up and skip stage”, and the game also keeps track of how many level skips you have made, so you’ll have a constant reminder of how many times you were forced to give up. You can only skip ahead one level at a time, so there isn’t a formal level select.

The levels themselves are short, and there are no checkpoints. The reason for this is explained in the tutorial: Here is no CHECK POINT. It is annoying TEMPTATION! At first it is nice but gradually transforms you into a lazy gamer! Don’t worry! You can beat! ;-)

The world is divided into 5 different environment types, visible from the Ghouls ‘n Ghosts-style world map, which also shows how many lives you have remaining. The screen appears between levels and after each death… so you’ll be seeing it a lot. A lost artifact is hidden in each of the areas, and it is the goal of your quest. Plus, finding each of them gives you a boost in your life count, which may help you to limp through the next set of levels.

As their name implies, 8bits Fanatics focuses on creating retro-styled games reminiscent of the 8-bit era. An enhanced version of Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes was later released by Nicalis under the title 1001 Spikes, with new levels, unlockable costumes and characters, and 4P multiplayer.

Prior to Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes, 8bits Fanatics released The Tempura of the Dead to the Xbox Live Indie Games channel. In this game, you have the ability to switch back and forth between two characters, a machine gun-wielding President Thompson (modeled after President Obama), and a sword-wielding samurai named Sugimoto, as you wage war against an army of zombies. But you don't just kill them, you must use the “Tempura-Ryu Samurai Arts”. Basically, if you decapitate a zombie, and then juggle its head long enough, the head will turn into tempura and the zombie’s soul will be freed. Obviously, this is a game that does not take itself at all seriously.

Each of the characters has different movement and attack abilities, and their stats can be upgraded during the course of your adventure. The goal is to chain zombie tempura attacks together until you enter “Tempura Fever”, which allows you to instantly tempura-ize any zombie head with just a single hit. Ultimately, you're out to clear each of the levels of several mutant creatures known as Germs of Calamity.

Prior to The Tempura of the Dead, the 8bits Fanatics game that was best known among English-speaking audiences (because it received an English translation) was a freeware PC game known as Challenge from Kiyoshi (a.k.a. Takeshi no Chosenjo). This is an extremely challenging and unforgiving 2D platformer that will try the patience/sanity of even the most hardcore game fans.

The game also appears to have been the basis for Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes, as evidenced by its difficulty, falling rock traps, fireball-spewing lava, and of course, its numerous blood-tipped spikes. The game is chock full of trial-and-error gameplay and numerous insta-kill traps. Oh, and the game also gives the player 2 different jump heights and a starting cache of 1,000 lives, further proving its ancestral nature.

Kolkhoz2928 is a Russian themed game about a robot farmer in the year 2928, who must harvest crops and dodge enemies through numerous single-screen platforming environments. The robot must harvest a certain crop quota in each level in order to provide food for the people who are suffering due to global climate change and population explosion.

And finally, there is Christmadius, which seems to have gained its name as a combination of the words Christmas and Gradius. In this game, you take control of Santa on his sleigh as Rudolph pulls him through the skies, and he hurls presents and candy canes at hapless little boys and girls. Then he collects their love, which appears in the form of floating hearts. This is a casual sidescrolling arcade-style game with very mild shmup elements.