A king sets out to rid his kingdom of a horrible curse.
Adam Mowery, who goes by the name Balrog over at GameSpite.net, has been working on Curse of the Crescent Isle for about two years now. Although the game certainly does not look like the results of two years of work -- maybe Mowery can get a job at Polyphony -- the result is a surprisingly well constructed platformer, a hybrid which most people are calling a cross between Duck Tales and Super Mario Bros. 2 (US). It's only fitting that Curse of the Crescent Isle feels like some lost Famicom game, perhaps a bootleg hack of the those two NES classics mixed with a bit of Monster World IV. Just as the King of Crescent Isle is seeing his daughter married off to the prince of Northern Isle, an angry warlock crashes the wedding and fires a spell at the king. The king dodges the spell but it backfires, turning all those present at the wedding into "abominations." The warlock makes off with the queen, and the king gives chase seeking to reverse the curse which has fallen over his island.
The "abominations" are creatures which the king will use to overcome obstacles and advance to the exit as he makes his way through 15 levels of action and puzzles. The level design is excellent with a layout free of tedious platforming, always engaging the player with some new hurdle which will require smart use of the available creatures to overcome. Much of the enjoyment comes from playing around with the creatures and their abilities, seeing how they can be used to reach some platform or bypass some wall. Ice creatures will freeze water, drill ones will smash blocks, and so forth, each and every one capable of being picked up, rode upon, and thrown a la Super Mario Bros. 2. The king can also jump and bounce on other enemies and spikes while holding onto the abominations, giving the game a bit of Ducktales style gameplay as some obstacles require the king to use the creatures to traverse otherwise harmful or deadly paths. A help screen shows how simply the king can manipulate his transformed subjects with one button to throw them and another to flip them over or under him. The game controls very well, and aside from having to figure out that I could run with the X-button to gain some jumping height and some awfully tight enclosures making leaping to a platform appear impossible, Mowery's Xbox Indie game is a solid platformer that's a joy to play.
Curse of the Crescent Isle is a rather straightforward platformer, offering players 15 levels and five bosses as the king looks save his land. The game can be quite challenging at points, and even with unlimited lives, Curse of the Crescent Isle can try players' patience as the lack of a save option means the game must be completed in a single run. This is certainly a manageable task, but I can imagine some players may be frustrated with frequent deaths in later stages, in particular the harsh trek across crumbling ice blocks late in the game. The bosses themselves pose a pretty tough challenge as well, mainly due to most of them being atypical boss fights due to the nature of the creatures the king will use to dispatch them. Death on any level means restarting from the beginning, more tolerable on a boss fight than a lengthy level. There are no mid-level checkpoints to be found, and aside from the infinite continues, the game wears its old school design on its sleeve, which may be off-putting to those looking at the sharp, vibrant pixel art and thinking the colorful graphics should indicate some kiddie cakewalk. It's nice to have a platformer which doesn't dumb itself down entirely to meet with modern players demands, and while Curse of the Crescent Isle concedes to a point with the infinite lives, I see that more here as a necessary feature to avoid having the few bugs from crippling the game and infuriating the player.
Levels can be restarted at any time from the pause menu, and this sometimes is a necessity as the king or enemies may find themselves pushed into a wall with no room for escape. I've also had instances where a needed creature walked off the screen and vanished, never to be seen again. These bugs are fairly uncommon and thankfully occur during the early parts of some levels as opposed to later on, and while they don't kill the game nor ever disgusted me when they popped up, it's nonetheless a sign of a game in need of some proofreading. Getting stumped on an obstacles because the player did not notice a needed creature's vanishing act can get annoying, and it blemishes the otherwise solid game Mowery has created, a flaw which is easy to move on from but cannot be entirely ignored. Beyond those rare moments, Curse of the Crescent Isle is a thoroughly enjoyable experience which has a unique charm about it. I can't help but smile as the king looks as though he is flipping me off when he jumps, and some of his subject's say some amusing things when spoken to after saving them ("I LOVE YOU WILD WAYS."). The graphics are simple but varied from level to level, and Daniel Davis' soundtrack is excellent as well. Davis has a definite command of what makes good retro PCM style music, and it's not accomplished by overloading a song with obnoxious blips and bloops as too many "chiptune" composers do. Curse of the Crescent Isle has a lovely soundtrack of great melodies which is thankfully available for purchase as well -- it's great stuff.
Curse of the Crescent Isle is absent from this year's Indie Games Winter Uprising promotion, and it's fitting as it and other recent releases such as The TEMPURA of the DEAD and Starlight show how Xbox Indies has become a treasure trove of excellent 2-D platformers among other video games for those who make the effort to check them out. The Winter Uprising has done well to highlight some great games schedule for a December 2010 release, but let's not forget that quality indie games continue to find their way onto the Xbox 360 with little to no fanfare and will continue to do so, Curse of the Crescent Isle being but one of many games deserving of some mainstream attention. With its simple but oddly attractive "retro" style, great control and design, and wonderful soundtrack, Curse of the Crescent Isle is a great excuse to cash in 80 Microsoft points for the hour plus experience, a treat for platformer fans and anyone who has fond memories of the classics which appear to have influenced it.