This retro-style platformer is fun but tough.
Developer Programancer has gone back in time for Prison City, a hard-boiled action platformer that is a clear homage to Capcom and Konami classics from the NES era. It looks and sounds great, with short but enjoyable levels, blistering boss encounters, and plenty of references to 80’s and 90’s movies and video games, but the unbalanced difficulty level–while probably also accurate for the time–is more than my aged gamer ass can handle.
In the far-flung future of 1997, Detroit has become a city-sized prison where the United States’ toughest criminals reign supreme. When “Techno-Terrorists” take it over, the military calls former cyber-cop Hal Bruzer out of retirement to take out the threat. Hal uses a boomerang-like “Chakram” weapon to take out his enemies, a weapon that is somewhat tough to master, but he can also pick up screen-damaging grenades, temporary shields, and health-replenishing food to help him in his quest.
I recommend taking the Tutorial before jumping into Prison City proper, as the Chakram and Hal’s many methods of environmental traversal take some getting used to. In particular, the Chakram cannot be shot through walls unless it’s fully upgraded, and Hal will be doing a lot of grate-crawling and pipe-hanging. The Chakram can be angled up or down, and you can (to some degree) control its return path, although I found this difficult to do consistently. Hal can also perform a long jump by sliding off a platform and jumping at the right time, which was also very hard to do.
You choose your stages Mega Man style, and these are organized into several different environments–a nature preserve, the highway, the sewers, a factory, etc. While each stage is relatively short, they are all open-ended, allowing you to explore to your heart’s content. I found that each stage has three goals: find all three upgrades for your Chakram, which results in a much larger, more damaging weapon; find the boss room key, usually given to you by a colleague; and find the secret room, which contains an upgrade to your health or weapon energy. Once those tasks are complete, it’s off to the boss room.
Bosses are difficult, not necessarily because they have hard-to-avoid attack patterns, but because their health bars are so unnecessarily long. On Normal difficulty, it takes two hits to drain one of their hit points, and their health bars are insane compared to yours. They also tend to change up their patterns halfway through the fight. To some degree, these are wars of attrition, and I found them exhausting until I turned the difficulty down to Easy (don’t @ me).
“But wait,” you say, “with a fully-upgraded Chakram, don’t you have a significant advantage?” Indeed you do, dear reader, and in fact going into any boss room with a beefed-up Chakram feels great. However, once Hal inevitably takes three hits, inside or outside the boss room, the Chakram’s upgrade disappears, and does not reappear when you respawn upon death. Thankfully, Prison City’s difficulty is toggle-able, so if one boss is kicking your ass, you can drop it down to Easy, beat him, and then pump it back up to Normal for the next guy.
The game is, indeed, filled with 80’s and 90’s humor. One of the first ally characters I came across, who gave me the boss key to the sewer area, was a cybernetically-enhanced, talking dolphin which I have to believe is a reference to the ridiculous 1973 spy thriller The Day of the Dolphin. Another ally is named Iroquois, a nod to Metal Gear Solid 2. The boss of the highway area is the world’s clearest homage to Mad Max, and I would expect nothing less. The rooftop area’s boss is literally a Hind-D, and the factory boss appears to be an ode to the security robot from Metroid Fusion. Hal Bruzer himself is an amalgamation of several grizzled action heroes: Snake Pliskin, Solid Snake, Robo-Cop, and Rutger Hauer all come to mind. Also, for a fun drinking game, take a shot every time you see a Mega Man or Mega Man X homage. You won’t last long!
Some boss fights are followed by unique bonus stages that mimic other video games. In one, Hal must destroy a car in a limited amount of time (Street Fighter 2). In another, he must traverse a small area and destroy all the targets (Super Smash Bros.). In my favorite, he must defuse several bombs in a “dam,” although it’s not nearly as difficult as in the game it’s parodying (TMNT).
Prison City is a fun game that nails the look and feel of 80’s action platformers. For fans of that era, this is a no-brainer. Now, for the sequel, I’m hoping for an Echo the Dolphin parody featuring that cybernetic cetacean.