My fellow fanatics, it’s that time again. Time to shine some light on an utterly special game that you should absolutely check out. It might not be the next big craze like the Battle Royale trend, but for those of you out there looking for something different, you are in for a treat. This month’s subject is the exciting retro platformer roguelite 20XX by Batterystaple Games.
When it comes to action platformers, Mega Man is one of the most iconic. And it isn’t hard to see why. The series has a legacy of some of the most exciting experiences in all of gaming. With a very simple goal of getting to the end of a level and defeating a boss with the basic controls of jumping, shooting, and running to the right, the very name Mega Man brings with it powerful emotions and controller-breaking excitement. Something that players young and old can experience themselves thanks to some comprehensive Legacy Collections that released recently celebrating the series’ 30th anniversary.
So, naturally there have been attempts by other developers to imitate, emulate, or even improve on this formula. And so, Batterystaple Games’ founder Chris King and his team came up with a grand plan. What if you took the accessible and elegant design of Mega Man, and added randomly generated levels, permadeath, and power-ups and pick-ups that slowly unlock as you play multiple times? Thus in July of 2013, development began on 20XX. An earnest attempt at making a modern spin on the action platformer formula with some personal touches.
And with the bar considerably lowered by the reception of Keiji Inafune’s own attempt at a reimagining, Mighty No. 9, crashing and burning spectacularly, 20XX had plenty going for it from the start.
In the broad strokes, 20XX is a decidedly retro experience. You play as one of two robot warriors, one with a blaster and the other with a sword, go to three distinct locations and fight various boss monsters. Gaining more powerful abilities and power-ups as you explore and defeat your enemies. The only threadbare excuse for a plot being that they have been unleashed as a sort of live science experiment by mad scientists Dr. Flat and Dr. Sharp, to test their robots’ lethality.
Naturally, anyone can make something that looks and acts like a game of a certain genre, but if you truly want to embody the spirit of what makes it great, the devil is in the details. The jumping has to be precise, the weapons all have to feel punchy and substantive. The enemies have to be distinctly designed, their attacks dangerous but manageable with the right know-how.
Furthermore, there are the additional tweaks that King and Batterystaple are introducing. Every single time you start a game of 20XX, it won’t exactly be the same. Enemy placements, certain power-ups, platforms, health and energy pick-ups are all randomized. The only real choice you have is which boss you will have to face at the end, and one of a few rewards you earn for finishing a level.
Finally, there is the fact that once you die, that’s it. As you play through 20XX, all of your power-ups gather over time, slowly turning you into an unstoppable force, but all damage you have suffered sticks around as well. Leading to scenarios where you can blast away certain enemies with a few well-placed shots, but can lose all of your progress by missing one small ledge and falling to your doom.
Any one of these elements handled poorly could have turned 20XX into another alsoran, but thankfully the development team a crucial advantage: lots of playtesting. After the game was successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter in 2014, 20XX was released for PC using Steam’s Early Access program. The studio then took player feedback from the alpha build of the game and dedicated themselves to addressing and tweaking everything from hit detection, animation, and even how the levels are created, all to polish the heck out of a game that had the odds stacked against it from the word go. According to their official site, the updates happened on a biweekly basis before the game officially launched as a retail experience on Steam in August 2017.
And all of that diligence has paid off in spades. 20XX feels amazing to play. Jumping from platform to platform feels exact and graceful. The thrill of defeating a boss and getting a little bit stronger is palpable. And when I did eventually meet my end, it never felt cheap, but felt like a learning experience.
From my observations, there are three crucial pillars keeping the game from collapsing in on itself. First is the levels have a consistent sense of identity. Each location you explore in 20XX is characterized by distinct challenges and obstacles. The sky temple levels are vertically designed and are covered in energy beam obstacles and rotating platforms. The garden levels are covered in spikes and are filled with dangerous flower and monkey-themed enemies. And the ice world has slippery surfaces, dangerous icicle hazards, and warp portals that sling you around the level.
The levels are also generated with a consistent logic at play. There is a key path from the start to the boss room, but there are also paths that branch out that are full of challenges and a reward for your trouble. It honestly feels like each level was handcrafted.
Second, the player is given enough sense of agency to plan against the randomness. Every time you defeat a boss or a special type of enemy in each stage, you are awarded with Soul Chips. You can spend these between each run to purchase power-ups for yourself. These include permanent upgrades like more health or instantly getting a base weapon boost at the start. There are also more interstitial bonuses like the ability to unlock helpful item drops when you hit certain stages or unlock a power-up that let’s you regain a bit of health at the start of each level.
There are also special challenges sprinkled throughout the game to help give you an edge. One is a time limit. If you finish a level before a clock in the corner of the screen ticks down to zero, you get an extra power-up to give you an extra boost. There are also challenge rooms you can discover that will give you certain tests like “get to the end of this gauntlet in a certain amount of time without getting hit,” or “hit all of these switches,” with armor upgrades as a reward. Which can grant the player abilities like a second jump or the ability to charge their weapon for a more powerful blast.
Even for those who aren’t ardent platformer players have help with difficulty settings. You can control the game’s generation seed, basically a bunch of characters that determine how the levels get made in case you want to try the exact same level layout again. And in addition to a normal difficulty, there is a Reverent mode that gives you three lives before it is game over.
Finally, despite all of the randomness, there is still a sense of difficulty and progression. Boss battles become more tricky, not through a larger health bar but from extra challenges added to the room. More powerful enemies slowly enter the later levels. And it all culminates in the final level where all of the elements from all the levels are thrown at you in gauntlets that make other masochistic platformers look tame.
Usually with Indie Game Spotlight, we have questions and comments from the developers. Sadly, King and his team at Batterystaple games haven’t been able to get back to us about 20XX’s development. Aside from the game getting a multiplatform release on July 10 on PS4, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One, there really isn’t that much to say about the game. King had a vision, got some talented developers together, made a rough build, iterated the hell out of it, and made the exact version of what they wanted.
A version that also has local and online co-op.
And as a big fan of the series that inspired him, I think they did a fantastic job.
If you really enjoy the antics of Mega Man and have already burned through the Legacy Collections, I do heartily recommend 20XX. It doesn’t look like much, but once you start playing, it will give you a rush that only the best of retro platformers can give.