Backspace Bouken

A game by RNG Party Games for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2019.
Aside from actual typing tutors, there aren’t very many games that focus on typing as a core mechanic, with The Typing of the Dead series standing out as the most famous example. Where The Typing of the Dead and its ilk were revamped lightgun shooters, Backspace Bouken is a first person dungeon crawler done up in a DOS-era aesthetic and accompanied by a melodic electronic soundtrack.

The game is aware of its own absurdity as it focuses on a girl named Kana (“kana” being the Japanese word for the symbols that make up written words) who must ascend the legendary Tower of F8 to save her sisters. Armed with only a keyboard, she embarks on an incredible adventure (“bouken” is the Japanese word for adventure), encountering silly enemies who can only be defeated through speedy and accurate typing.

The entire game is controlled via keyboard, with the mouse used only for menu navigation. The player navigates the world using the arrow keys or WASD, stepping forward or backward one square at a time, and rotating 90 degrees to the left or right, just like other classic first person adventures such as the Wizardry series (which was huge in Japan)… but considerably more straightforward and lighthearted.

Before you enter the tower, you speak to a couple of NPC’s, one of whom is a skeleton who measures your words per minute (WPM), which sets the speed/difficulty level for the game (there are four difficulty levels). Another NPC gives you the password you need to enter the tower. Throughout your adventure, you’ll need to uncover – or figure out – passwords in order to reach new levels of the tower. Each time you speak to an NPC, they join you, and you can view their dialogue in the pause menu, allowing you to see any password hints they may have given.

You are accompanied by a friendly fairy who gives you advice and comments on the goings-on. At certain set points during your adventure, the fairy saves your game. It is not possible to save anywhere or to manually save, so you’ll need to keep plugging forward until the fairy saves the game for you. This generally happens once or twice per floor.

As you may have guessed, fighting enemies is done by typing out the sentences spoken by each enemy. Early enemies use simpler words and shorter sentences than later enemies. As you type, the line of text slowly turns red, and once it becomes completely red, there is an audible cue, and then the monster attacks. If you finish typing the sentence before the monster attacks, its attack will be negated. Also, with the proper timing, you can dodge attacks by pressing the LEFT or RIGHT arrow keys immediately following the audio cue.

You have some leeway to fix mistakes while typing, as you can backspace over any mistyped word as long as you haven’t pressed the SPACE BAR. However, if you do mistype a word, you are temporarily stunned, allowing the monster more of an opportunity to attack. You begin the game with only three hearts – which may be lost in quarter-heart increments – although you gain additional hearts by finding heart halves through exploration, or full hearts by defeating bosses, eventually allowing for a total of 12. Typing accurately allows you to string together multiple hits, and if you achieve a long enough hit streak, some of your health is restored at the end of battle. Your hit streak and WPM are shown at the end of each encounter.

Later monsters offer new challenges by using unusual words, lengthy words, or odd manners of speaking. For instance, some creatures may stutter, mumble, speak in strange dialects, or extend their words, adding extra letters or punctuation beyond simply typing out a sentence. Bosses in particular can be quite challenging because they sometimes toss out extremely long words, and they speak for much longer before being defeated. One boss even changes things up by hiding some upcoming words so that you can’t see them until you reach that point in the sentence.

Another way in which variety is added to the experience is through the use of contractions. In the universe of Backspace Bouken, spaces act as attacks, and you only have a limited number of them, as indicated by a meter along the top of the screen. If you run out of spaces, you are all but certain to be defeated, as every two spaces you type while the meter is depleted will drain half a heart from your life bar. However, in order to conserve spaces, you can condense pairs of words into contractions. For instance, “can not” can be typed as “can’t” (but not as “cannot”), which keeps one extra space in your reservoir. Words are highlighted in blue as you type, so when a pair of words is highlighted, this is a clue that they may be contracted.

And the way you earn spaces? By reading hint signs! Adventure games of all sorts are famous for putting up wooden signs with hints or directions, but here they are used to resupply your reservoir of spaces. Of course, the signs still offer advice, or often just provide some silly remarks, but by pressing BACKSPACE, you delete all of the words on the sign and collect any of its spaces. As such, thorough exploration is rewarded, and you’ll want to check every possible nook and cranny before moving on to the next floor. To keep things fair, you get an indication when you’re about to approach an enemy, which keeps you from entering a new battle if you’re running low on spaces.

To aid you in navigating the dungeon is a minimap, which appears in the lower right corner and auto-fills as you explore. Color codes show the locations of doors, signposts, passageways to the next floor above or below, and switches that clear obstacles or open false walls. The only issue is that there is no way to view the entire map for a floor, leading to a lot of aimless wandering if you don’t know where to go next.

The pause menu shows a percentage of the floor explored and monsters encountered so you know when you’ve explored it fully, and an audio cue sounds when you’ve touched 100% of the spaces on a given floor. You’ll want to step on every floor tile, even those leading to obvious dead ends, so that the map clearly outlines the edges of the environment. Otherwise, it may appear as though you've left a branch of the map unexplored.

Floor layouts are generally fairly simple, especially early on, but sometimes you’ll need to revisit an earlier floor, and there are some holes that cause you to fall down to lower floors, per genre conventions… sometimes leading to otherwise inaccessible rooms. In a nice touch, there are a couple of occasions where completing objectives alters the environment, such as turning on a furnace which in turn melts ice crystals that were blocking your path.

The overall tone of the game is charming and humorous, with creatures, signs, and other text being quite silly. Examples include an underwater area with a “wet floor” sign, a library with a sign complaining about the lack of a “lore” section, and a series of signs giving safety advice for trespassers. There are a few puns here and there, and even some monsters that struggle to come up with the proper words, giving multiple incorrect guesses in the process, or even offering misspellings of the words for a bit of extra challenge and variety. That said, aside from some challenges in navigation, competent typists should have little trouble reaching the top of the tower.

Backspace Bouken was developed by RNG Party Games, a 2-person studio based in Bloomington, Indiana. Jack White is credited with code, design, and writing; Benjamin Busche is credited with art, design, and sound; and Peyton Balasko is credited with admin, art, and business.