Tecmo‘s latest, The Isle of 8-Bit Treasures, is misleadingly titled. No 8-bit system was even remotely capable of producing the number of colors or the level of visual detail here present. Visually, audibly the game is more akin to games from the 16-bit era, on the SNES for example. A minor quibble, but if you’re the sort that fears dated graphics and quivers at bits numbering in the single digits, fret not; The Isle of 8-Bit Treasures is prettier than the name would imply.
The game is a roguelike, in that you will spend your time exploring randomly generated dungeons, fending off the local denizens and looting as you go. As you progress deeper into a dungeon, you will face foes of increasing strength; and should you perish at their hands, you will lose all experience and treasures accumulated in the dungeon thus far. Roguelikes comprise a subgenre of role-playing games notorious for their difficulty; The Isle of 8-Bit Treasures will not hold you hand, and it will not go easy on you.
As roguelikes go, however, The Isle of 8-Bit Treasures is rather gentle. It eschews the complexity of classics such as Rogue or Nethack, which I count to its advantage. I find those games cumbersome, especially as ported to the iPhone, and so overweighed by complexity and clumsiness that they’re just no fun to play. Instead, The Isle of 8-Bit Treasures follows the mold as set by Japanese classic roguelikes such as Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer or the more recent Izuna series on the Nintendo DS. Despite being a roguelike, the game remains accessible, easy to pick up and play, and — most importantly — fun. This is a game that can be played in short bursts, or in long dungeon-raiding marathons. And it’s cute too!
In dungeons, characters level up as they fight, gaining in hit points, attack and defensive power. Upon leaving the dungeon, however, characters are reset to level one; experience gained cannot be kept. Instead, you keep your loot. You can stockpile up to 10 of each item in the game, and can choose to carry items with you into each dungeon when you embark. You can also strengthen your weapons between dungeons, changes being persistent thereafter. Therefore, any lasting advantage you have will be based solely upon your inventory.
Characters: Three adorable adventurers await to do your bidding. The Swordsman offers the best attack and defense, but the weakest magic abilities and is recommended for beginners. The Witch excels at magic, but is weaker in attack and defense; recommended for experienced players. For advanced players, there is the Hunter; the hunter has the fewest hit points, but a middling magical ability and can attack from a distance using a bow and arrow. These different characters encourage different playing styles. And because progress is tracked individually for each character, you can take out any character you wish without losing or harming your progress with the others. All characters draw from the same stockpile of items, however.
Missions: The Isle of 8-Bit Treasures is made up of many dungeons, each in a different location. Dungeons vary in design, each offer a different soundtrack, and are randomly generated. Thus can they be replayed and explored anew each time. In fact, the game encourages you to revisit dungeons using missions. On first delving into a dungeon, you must simply reach the bottom to collect the Heart of Valor. Dungeons are typically three, four or five levels deep to begin with, becoming deeper as your unlock new locations. After completing each dungeon the first time, you can replay that dungeon to meet specific mission criteria. The “Nooks & Crannies” mission tasks you to map every room in the dungeon, while other missions might ask you to slay a number of a particular type of monster, kill a rare beast, complete the dungeon without leveling up or finish the dungeon under a par number of moves. In all, the game features 60 missions spread across many dungeons.
Smithing: Your music can be used to generate new weapons. Weapons have slots that can be equipped with crystals, boosting attacks, adding elements like fire, wind or lighting, giving your weapon healing properties and more. Crystals must be found in dungeons, or purchased from the shop with accumulated loot. The weapons operate according to the Weapon Reel; think of the reel as a slot machine that advances a number of clicks with each attack. When the reel lands on an equipped crystal, the special ability is activated and added to the attack.
Dungeons: As mentioned, The Isle of 8-Bit Treasures is comprised of dungeons in many different locations, including caverns, ruins, forests and more. The variety is appreciated, the tile sets are attractive, and each features its own soundtrack. Additionally, the game can acces your music library and use the songs to generate new dungeons, just as it creates weapons. Unfortunately, the game will not play your selected song during its dungeon, instead selecting one of its own soundtracks for the escapade.
Lost Levels: It is disappointing that none of your experience carries over beyond the dungeon you’re presently exploring. I wish there were some small benefit retained from your efforts, even if not the full strength of your level.
Interruptions: Sadly, the game does not save your progress mid-dungeon. If you’re interrupted by a telephone call during play, or if you abruptly need to quit out of the game, you will have lost all progress in your current dungeon and will begin again from the island map the next time you start the game.
Purists may complain that The Isle of 8-Bit Treasures is the roguelike over-simplified. You will not be poisoned, cursed or transformed every other step; you will not descend dungeons to incredible depths; you will not be managing a myriad pieces of weaponry and armor, potions, scrolls, wands and knick-knacks. To wit, you will not be buried beneath the abundant minutia and tedium inherent to most traditional roguelikes. Frankly, I count that among this game’s strengths. All of that stuff is fine when you have a full keyboard at your disposal, and if that’s what you want, then go play POWDER; it’s the best roguelike out there, available on many platforms and its an amazing feat of complexity. I reckon it would make a terrible iPhone game, though, because it’s just too much.
The Isle of 8-Bit Treasures distills the roguelike to its essential foundation, and douses it in charm and style. Tecmo has created a gem of a game for the iPhone, and one that I foresee myself playing well into the future. In it, I believe I’ve found my first contender for November’s game-of-the-month.