8-Bit Nium Is a Striking Glimpse at an Irradiated Wilderness
In Nium, a hooded boy explores a lush forest rendered in familiar 8-bit graphics, carrying a, wait, is that a lead pipe? This is a retro-style exploration game with a twist. Think The Legend of Zelda meets Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Independent gaming collective Juegos Rancheros asked Japanese developer Ojiro “Moppin” Fumoto and pixel artist Nemk to create the game for this year’s Fantastic Arcade festival. The event, the gaming wing of the Alamo Drafthouse’s indie film festival Fantastic Fest, does a fabulous job mashing together oddball independent creator sensibilities and old-school arcade gaming. I played Nium in a custom arcade cabinet, with a high-def screen overlooking three buttons and a joystick straight out of the ’80s.
Nium looks like a simple, even optimistic exploration game, but that gives way to something more ethereal and dangerous. The gameworld features wreckage in the margins, weeds overrunning abandoned shanties, and moldering water towers. Upon finding the pipe, you are marauded by mutated fauna creeping through the forest. You fight giant insects and slugs, the victims of a horrible radioactive transformation.
In Fumoto’s previous game Downwell, you moved forward by falling. The game showed his talent for artistic collision, turning the logic of a 2-D shooter literally on its side and packing it into a high-intensity mobile experience. Nium, a top-down 2-D combat game with the look and rhythm of a 3-D action game, feels like an evolution of that impulse.
Your three buttons target enemies, pick up and throw weapons, and attack. The overhead camera winds over the densely foliated space as you circle enemies. During a presentation at Fantastic Arcade, Fumoto said he created most of the game’s spaces using 2-D sprites stacked one on top of another, a trick that provides the illusion of depth. The agile camera, which tends to spin to find the best view of the action, adds to the effect, its gaze peeking over the illusory treeline.
Enemies come from all angles. Hitting a flying opponent requires throwing your weapon. Complicating things, enemies on the ground might suddenly take to the air, and flying enemies might land.
The simple arcade interface makes gameplay feel responsive and immediate, like a taut guitar string. You frantically chase your weapons around the map, staggering attacks and throws to create breathing room. The design felt right at home in an arcade space, containing just the right balance of simplicity and challenge, surprise and beauty. Nemk’s pixel art, cast in organic greens like an impossibly high-res Game Boy, is welcoming from across the room.
You can play Nium on Windows and Mac through the 2016 Fantastic Arcade Bundle, and even this early version feels like something special. Fumoto confirmed in a tweet that development will continue, and I can imagine this becoming quite impressive indeed. It feels like an especially grim reimagining of the kid-exploring-the-woods-near-his-house concept behind some of the best Japanese games, from The Legend of Zelda to Pokemon. The current build is heavily combat-based, but Fumoto suggested this might change in favor of more exploration.
Either approach sounds compelling. My brief glimpse of the lush, irradiated world of Nium left me certain that I want to return.
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