The escape room genre has been experiencing a boom in popularity thanks to the rise of the activity being thought of as a fun way to spend the afternoon with your friends and family testing your problem-solving skills. Over the years, we’ve seen titles like Saw: The Video Game, Superliminal, and even I Expect You To Die, all of which have their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of what they bring to the relatively recent genre. However, NEScape! is a little different as it originated from a fan-made Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge before being ported to the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One. So as a fan of puzzle games, I was interested in seeing how the developers would handle the port to modern consoles, and of course, I wanted to see how long it would be before I got stumped on one of the puzzles.
It did not take long. These puzzles are incredibly challenging, and there is no hand-holding other than a brief tutorial at the start, which only gives a vague idea of what to do. I found the intro really clever though, as when you first boot it up, you are greeted with a lock similar to something high school students would use to protect their belongings. But this is the only time any instructions are given to the player, and they’re super vague. It says, “What happens when a film starts?” That’s all. Now, I actually like the minimal amount of guidance because the main draw of NEScape! is its puzzles, and I think we need more games that aren’t trying to cater to a wide demographic. That’s why Dark Souls is so popular: FromSoftware deliberately tried to be exclusive instead of inclusive. So I commend KHAN Games’ willingness to be brave and try something while knowing they probably won’t have the same level of success as if they had made an effort to appeal to a broader audience. That’s where my problems lie with NEScape! though, the fact they didn’t flesh out the concept beyond an NES game.
The 8-bit graphics made it hard for me to tell what I was pointing at because it was a white cursor set against a muted colour pallette. When playing on the TV, I often had to squint just to be able to see what I was clicking, which forced me to play in handheld mode, defeating the purpose of playing it on the Switch in the first place. Plus, when you solve a puzzle in one of the rooms, it’s hard to find your next objective because it is difficult to decipher between what you’ve already completed and what needs to be done. I wish the team had moved past their roots and created an art style that still pays homage to those old-school sprites but, at the same time, is more easily understandable. Another thing that bothered me was the music, it becomes grating over time, and when you’re trying to figure out a puzzle under a 60-minute time limit, the whole experience can be stressful. I know that’s part of what makes escape rooms so much fun, and I admit that finally escaping and seeing the ending gave me a big rush, but I wish KAHN Games wasn’t stuck in the past.
Near the beginning of NEScape! there is a puzzle that tasks you with guiding a marble through a maze using two dials on the sides of a table. This is a good concept — it’s a fun twist on what the player has learned throughout the game, and it took me by surprise as I expected everything to be pretty consistent. But what I don’t like about this puzzle is how it's controlled: You have to move the little ball through the maze using two analogue sticks acting as the dials. This results in an uncomfortable resting position for your hands, leading to several marbles disappearing down the hole forcing the player to restart. Now, I can see what the developer was going for here; They wanted to create something unique. However, due to the controls being so uncomfortable and me being under significant pressure, knowing I would get stumped again left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The game did have some fun surprises in store later on, and I thought the ending was a fitting conclusion to what was a pretty basic story, but all the little issues started to add up near the end.
If the developer wasn’t so reliant on nostalgia and instead adapted to what other titles in the escape room genre have already done, then this could’ve been more of a positive experience for me. I really wanted to love NEScape!, and I did enjoy the rush of solving the clever puzzles that came with its great concept, but with its art style working against what it was trying to accomplish; its grating chiptunes, and the developer refusing to adapt to industry standards, it became another example of a game struggling to tie it all together.
NEScape (Reviewed on Nintendo Switch)
Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.
NEScape! is a great concept with some clever puzzles, and I enjoyed the rush they gave me, but some minor issues held it back.