A game by Joymasher for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2012.
Oniken is a game that appears to have overshot its intended release date by about 20 years. If you had seen this game locked behind the glass at your favorite retailer in 1989, you’d be drooling all over your British Knights and begging your mother for an advance on your allowance. Some graphical niceties aside – such as lack of flicker, and a few scaling and rotation effects – this game would have fit comfortably into your Nintendo Entertainment System or Sega Master System cartridge slot. But since the game didn’t come out in the 8-bit era, it acts as something of a window back in time when graphics were simple, gameplay was king, and challenging difficulty led to tossed controllers.
Oniken jumps straight into the nostalgia with its cinematic opening sequence showing a decimated city in the year A.D. 20XX. The world has been ravaged by cybernetic soldiers called Oniken, and only one man can stop them. As the hero is revealed, boldly stated are the words “The machines can’t stop him. No one can stop the unstoppable.”
Beginning the game’s first mission reveals an introductory cutscene, the length and detail of which would make Ryu Hayabusa a bit envious. As per the style it is emulating, these scenes are full of grand posturing, news of great threats against the world, and a bit of chest-beating amongst the ensemble of badass characters. Every mission begins and ends with these stylish cutscenes, setting the scene for the action to unfold.
Now that you know you have the right flavor of vintage late-80’s cheese, it’s time to sample the meat. The game’s protagonist, Zaku, has a very basic moveset. He has a variable-height 2x jump and a medium range sword strike. He also has a special attack in the form of limited-stock grenades, which are used by pressing UP and ATTACK, rather than being assigned to their own button. Yes, this does make them harder to use. No, this was not a mistake. This is how we used to do things in the world of 2-button controllers.
While Zaku wields a sword and appears to be a ninja-like character, he has none of the characteristics typical of 8-bit ninja heroes. He cannot cling to walls, nor can wall-jump, double-jump, or dash. About the only concession to ninja-dom he has is the ability to hang from pipes and move along them hand-over-hand. Oh, and he can duck, but he cannot crawl. Otherwise, he simply walks through the environment, slashing the bejeezus out of everything he encounters along the way, and slicing projectiles out of the air with his sword as you’d reasonably expect him to do.
Along the way, you will encounter crates that contain one of three items. For the most part, what appears in the crates is random, although there are some (usually appearing before boss battles) that contain specific items. Random drops can make it somewhat difficult to plan your assault on a given level, but you’ll find that your core skills need to be rather polished either way, rather than relying on a particular drop. Still, having a sword powerup when you need one can make a big difference.
First, there’s a health restorative that returns a paltry 6 units to your 20-unit long health meter. It’s not much, but in a game with this level of challenge, it can be the one thing that stands between you and your unceremonious return to the most recent checkpoint. Secondly, there are the aforementioned grenades, and each one collected adds 5 to your stock. These can be tossed at enemies at a medium distance and cause double the damage of your sword.
Lastly, there are sword powerups. By default, your sword swipes a good distance in front of you, but grabbing a sword powerup gives it a bit of extra reach by sending a wave out in horizontally, and gives it a slight bit of extra vertical reach as well. It doesn’t do any additional damage, but it does help you defeat enemies without having to get quite as close. This is particularly effective when dealing with strong enemies and bosses, and gives you a bit of extra leeway when striking down incoming projectiles.
The pickups are stackable, giving you somewhat more reach with each pickup, but you lose one unit each time you take damage. The first pickup gives you 2 units of sword power, and each additional pickup gives you 1 for a maximum of 5. In addition to its immediate usefulness when dealing with enemies, sword power also gives you a secondary ability called Berserk Mode.
As long as you have at least 2 units in your sword meter, you can press the BERSERK button to enter Berserk Mode, turning yourself temporarily invincible and doubling the power of your sword strikes while your sprite flashes red. While in Berserk Mode, units drain away from your sword meter until it is empty, at which point you will return to normal. So, the player has to choose to sacrifice additional reach for a few precious seconds of invincibility and power, but this is just the sort of thing that can turn the tide of a particularly difficult boss battle.
Oniken is divided into 6 missions, and each mission is divided into 3 sections. The start of each section acts as a checkpoint, and passing a checkpoint restores all of your health (one of the few concessions the game makes to modern gamers). However, you still only have 3 lives with which to make it through the entire mission. Each time you die, you return to your last checkpoint – even if you die fighting a boss – and if you lose all 3 lives, you must start the mission again from the beginning. There are a couple of hidden 1UPs to be found (coming in several odd forms, such as a violin), but the checkpoint system means that they’re no substitute for true skill. The levels are tough, and the bosses are even tougher.
While the game has only 6 missions, there are over 20 boss and miniboss encounters along the way – and only a couple of minibosses are reused – which means that you will regularly be facing unique encounters. This means that you’ll need to resurrect the old school method of try-fail-try to learn boss techniques, and then start the whole level again from scratch when you run out of lives. You may be able to grit your teeth and mash your way through the first couple of levels, but you’ll eventually encounter boss battles where a single misstep could kill you instantly. You will be replaying some of these levels, and perhaps many times over.
Fortunately, the game does allow you to freely select any of the missions from the main menu once they have been unlocked (another modern gaming concession). So, unlike the true games of old, you do not need to return to the beginning of the game after you have failed. Of course, those games generally gave the player a limited number of continues before booting him back to the title screen. Oniken’s design essentially gives the player infinite continues with a level select option, without requiring the player to remember any codes.
The first level introduces you to some basic enemies: purple skulls with turrets in their mouths that fire lasers downward at an angle, infantry that march back and forth firing their weapons to the left and right or upward at an angle depending on your relative position, stationary turrets that launch energy projectiles at predictable intervals, and hulking mechs with chain guns that can be destroyed with a single grenade.
Humorously, most enemies throughout the game have animations showing the effect of your sword. Many enemies show a slice mark and fall apart after a brief moment of stillness, and enemies like infantry are always decapitated.
You’ll also have to do a bit of precision jumping on platforms suspended over pits of fire – which fortunately only hurts you and doesn’t kill you instantly – and you’ll have to hang from pipes while jump-dodging enemy fire. You’ll even encounter a section where the level splits into a high road and a low road, but you’ll find that the upper door is locked until you defeat the mechanoid boss in the basement.
Finally, you’ll enter a forced-scrolling escape sequence surrounded by explosions as you attempt to jump from platform to platform over a bottomless pit while avoiding falling rocks that can hurt you and push you backward. If you manage to make it to the end of the level, you’ll encounter a hoverbike that you can hop on… thus transitioning you into the opening vehicle sequence of Mission 2.
At the start of the second mission, you’ll be rocketing along the water, shooting or jumping over floating sea mines, blasting open crates to reveal grenade pickups, and dealing with enemies on their own jetbikes both in front of and behind you. You’ll also have to dodge a number of stationary objects in the environment, hopping on or over them to avoid being forced off the back of the auto-scrolling screen.
Grenades work a bit differently in these forced-scrolling sections, of which there are several throughout the game. Here, instead of lobbing them in front of you, you toss them over your shoulder behind you. This can be helpful when dealing with enemies coming up behind you (or you can jump over them and shoot them from behind), and it’s a requirement on the level that has you attempting to outrun a rampaging polar bear that turns out to be more than meets the eye in a somewhat comical sequence.
The player is regularly introduced to new gameplay throughout the first 4 missions. In Mission 3, the Ice Fortress, the player goes up against palette swapped blue infantry and mechs, proximity mines embedded in the ice, mechanical birds that drop rocks, and skulls with rifles mounted to their heads that fire downward at angles.
The most interesting part about the ice level is that thin platforms will fall if you stand on them for too long. This means that you must keep pushing forward and be wary of enemies that can slow you down (like the aforementioned rock-dropping birds). Usually, a falling platform will send you to your doom, but one area has multiple paths of travel depending on how far you make it into the level before you fall. You will eventually reach an area where falling down through the level is required to progress. The final boss battle in this level has several ice platforms jutting up between bottomless pits, and the boss can drop fireballs that melt down whatever platform you were standing on.
In Mission 4, you start off on a moving train and fight a series of minibosses before ending up in a jungle where you must jump from branch to branch through the trees. Here, you must avoid falling into the thorny underbrush below which knocks a whopping 3 hits off your life bar, and more than that if you can’t get out before your temporary invincibility wears off. Some branches allow you to hang from them, but will fall after a few seconds if you tarry too long. You even have to fight a boss while hanging from these temporary branches and avoiding its fire spurts.
The end of this level features a harrowing chase as fire rises up from below and you must jump from platform to platform, ascending and fighting enemies (and not falling into the fire) until you reach the boss. You’re pretty much guaranteed to die upon your first meeting with this boss as it takes place on a moving platform over a bottomless pit. Once you know what to do, it’s mostly a matter of timing, but there is no room for error. There’s a spectacular cutscene following this battle that is reward enough for your sudden and frequent failure.
The final 2 missions place you against familiar enemies but even more dastardly level designs and complex scenarios, such as a level-filling blast of intermittent laser fire, electrified platforms, and conveyor belts. Of course, you must not only survive these sequences but make it through the tougher boss battles as well. And, just when you think it’s all over… it’s not over, so don’t set the controller too soon. The final pulse-pounding sequence is on par with any multi-phase final encounter you’ve ever faced. If you have laughed in the face of Emperor Sardius, Dracula, and Jaquio, then you’ll probably be fine here.
If you like showing off your skills, you can upload your total score to the online leaderboards. Just don’t forget that you get bonuses for your speed and number of remaining lives, so go fast, and don’t die! Also, if you manage to beat all 6 missions, you are rewarded with a boss rush mode that lets you go back through all of the bosses on a single life, with a standard life bar and no powerups, with the very occasional health drop provided between some pretty difficult boss fights. Good luck.
Oniken is an old school game through and through, from its audio and visual presentation, to its mechanics, to its difficulty level. It is designed to appeal to gamers who grew up with this sort of game as the norm, and it requires those same sorts of skills. Retro fans and old school players who have the wherewithal to polish up the necessary skills will find themselves at home here.
Mission 7: The Rescue
About six months after the release of Oniken, the developers released a free update with a seventh mission. Rather than starring our ninja hero Zaku, it features his gun-toting compatriot, Jenny Connor, who had theretofore only appeared in cutscenes.
Jenny is equipped with a machine gun that she can fire freely in 8 directions, allowing her to take out her enemies from afar, rather than using the up-close tactics of Zaku. In many ways, this makes combat easier, so players should not expect an escalation of difficulty over Mission 6. In fact, the seventh mission narratively takes place between Zaku’s first and second missions, when Jenny is left to tend to the survivors remaining on the enemy base.
And so, Jenny’s mission is one of rescue, as she infiltrates the enemy base and frees the trapped survivors who remain bound within. Rescuing these survivors rewards Jenny with a pickup, most often a 5-pack of grenades, and (very) occasionally a health pack. Since there are numerous survivors spread around the base, this means that Jenny will end up with a steady supply of grenades, which come in handy in the numerous miniboss and boss encounters. Rather than tossing grenades as Zaku does, Jenny is able to fire them with a grenade launcher, sending the deadly projectiles the full length of the screen. The player may toggle between the machine gun and grenade launcher at will.
Throughout the 3-stage level, Jenny will encounter familiar enemies, from soldiers to turrets to machine gun mechs. However, this is not simply a repeat of a previous level with a new character; Jenny has a number of unique encounters, such as timed jumps between Mega Man-style disappearing-reappearing blocks, a duck and cover run against a flying bomber, and bombs that threaten to kill survivors if not disarmed in time.
Oniken was developed by Danilo Dias in partnership with Pedro Paiva, both of whom are based in Brazil, developing under the label of Joymasher. The downloadable title also comes with a soundtrack and digital instruction manual.
Danilo Dias Pedro Paiva
Oniken was based on the code used for a short platforming game called MRC6-454, which was developed by Thais Weiller over the course of 4 days, with Danilo Dias providing the art for the game. Joymasher released MRC6-454 as a free bonus alongside the release of Oniken.
Following Oniken, the studio's next major release was Odallus: The Dark Call, a level-based metroidvania inspired by the Castlevania and Ghosts ’n Goblins series, as well as Demon’s Crest. The game is packed with retro visuals and gameplay, with numerous powerups that allow the player to slowly expand his explorations across a dark world filled with evil. Just like Oniken, the game tough, with aggressive enemies, challenging environments, and no shortage of boss creatures. Players are equipped with a short-range sword and they can and also make use of three different sub-weapons to take down enemies from a distance. Check our full coverage here.