Alwa’s Awakening review: A modern NES classic

Alwa’s Awakening isn’t just a “retro-inspired” game, but one that combines a modern design sense with the technical limitations (and creativity) of the NES.

In a sea of increasingly wearisome “retro-inspired” indie platformers, it’s refreshing to play a game like Alwa’s Awakening. At a glance, it looks much like any of those other games, with its 8-bit aesthetic and Metroid-like progression. But it’s so much more than that: where other games superficially emulate the look and feel of older games, Alwa’s Awakening is built with a deeper understanding of what made those NES classics tick.

For one  thing, its retro inspiration doesn’t begin and end with generic pixel art and chiptunes. Rather, it’s designed with all the technical limitations of a NES game in mind, to create an authentic 8-bit experience. (In fact, it began began development as a homebrew NES game.) I’m no NES programmer, so I don’t know how strictly it conforms to those limitations under the hood, but on the surface, it’s a NES game through and through. It’s got the limited colour palettes, simple sprite animations, 8-bit music and two-button control scheme.

Alwa's Awakening review

And just as NES developers did in the ‘80s, Elden Pixels have used those limitations as a launch pad for creativity and smart design. Alwa’s Awakening is bright and visually arresting, despite palette restrictions, because the developers made energy pixel and every colour count. The score is catchy and energetic, because that’s the only way you can make a soundtrack that works when you’ve only got a couple of sound channels to work with.

Then, of course, there’s the game itself. Just as Metroid did 30 years ago, Alwa’s Awakening presents a compelling loop of exploration, combat, puzzles, and precision platforming with just a handful of tools. Jump and attack are your main tools, but as you progress, you learn spells that help you navigate and reach new areas. It’s maybe not as expansive as many other Metroidvanias, with only three spells, but that cycle of upgrade-based progression, exploration, and making new discoveries by retreading old paths is as compelling as ever.

All this is done with a control scheme that could easily be mapped to a NES controller: A to jump, B to attack (or vice versa), Up and B to cast a spell, Start to open the map and pause menu, and Select to change the equipped spell. It may not be available for the NES itself, but Alwa’s Awakening is a NES game through and through.

Alwa's Awakening review

However, it lacks one thing that’s come to define a lot of games of that era: unforgiving difficulty and all the tedium that comes with that. Where a lot of indie developers come at the whole “retro-inspired” thing with a rosy-eyed view of games that were difficult because they were poorly design, Alwa’s Awakening has a far more modern approach, and that’s a welcome thing. It’s not a game about pixel-perfect platforming so much as puzzle solving; figuring out how to get where you need to go with the tools that you have. There are those platforming challenges as well, but they’re not nearly as brutal as Castlevania et al, or games like Shovel Knight that try to capture that difficulty.

This is helped by a checkpoint system that’s quite generous in that any progress you’ve made, in terms of items collected, is retained when you die. The most tedious part of any game is completing a challenge, only to fail the next one and then have to go right back to the start and redo stuff you’ve already done. Alwa’s Awakening neatly avoids that, and it’s nice to play an 8-bit platformer that isn’t obsessed with a macho showing of difficulty.

The story wrapped around all this is simple – to a fault, perhaps. The world is in peril, and as Zoe, a mysterious hero transported from another world, you have to save the day. There’s not really much more to it than that; NPCs exist to hint at where to go, and there’s not really a lot of subtextual storytelling in the environment and so on. It’s easy to think of NES games as being narratively simple, thanks to flagbearers like Super Mario Bros., but a lot of games from that era were surprisingly deep, and it would have been nice to see a modern approach to the storytelling techniques of the 8-bit days. That said, the ending is fantastic – obviously, I don’t want to say what happens, but it’s surprisingly emotional, comes out of left field, and makes me hope there are plans for a sequel.

Alwa's Awakening review

In a world where “retro-inspired” has become a meaningless buzzword, a game like Alwa’s Awakening is a breath of fresh air. It’s not just “retro-inspired”; it’s a modern-day NES game, built with all the charm of the games of that era and all the creativity forced by technical limitations, but with a modern design sense that makes it far more approachable. A lot of games try to carry themselves with nostalgia, but this is one of the rare ones with the goods to back that up.

Alwa’s Awakening is developed and published by Elden Pixels. It’s available now for PC.

A press copy was supplied by Elden Pixels for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.