Dark Void Zero Review: A New NES Classic Hits the iPhone

Dark Void Zero is a spin-off title and retro throwback based upon Capcom‘s Dark Void, released earlier this year for PlayStation 3 consoles. Dark Void promised open environments and combat flowing seamlessly between ground fights and air skirmishes using a jetpack. With epic intentions for both gameplay and narrative, the developers aspired to lofty heights. Unfortunately, the game fell flat by most estimations, its enormous potential unrealized, likely due to time and/or budget constraints on development. Dark Void Zero met with more positive reviews, however.

Originally released to DSiWare simultaneously with the PS3 game, Dark Void Zero has now come to the iPhone.

The story of the making of Dark Void Zero it somewhat unusual. To score Dark Void, Capcom solicited the talents of television composer Bear McCreary, well-known for his brilliant scoring of the Battlestar Galactica 2004 TV series. A long time fan of Capcom’s Mega Man series on the 8-bit NES console, McCreary jumped at the opportunity to score Dark Void for the company. Excited to be working on Dark Void, and being particularly in love with the music from Mega Man II — easily the best videogame soundtrack of all time — McCreary created a chiptune version of his theme for Dark Void and sent it to Capcom. On his blog, McCreary wrote:

I was especially thrilled to help launch a new action / adventure title from Capcom because I’ve grown up playing their games, starting with Mega Man II.  In fact, I had so much fun scoring Dark Void, I created a special 8-bit version of the Main Theme and dedicated it to Mega Man mastermind Inafune-san, who was also involved in the production of Dark Void … I called the track “Theme from Dark Void (Mega Version).”

Capcom enjoyed the piece so much, they blogged it on April Fool’s Day, joking that Dark Void itself was being revamped as an 8-bit title. And thus was Dark Void Zero born, an idea spurred first by a composer’s enthusiasm, then promoted in jest, and finally embraced with real intent by Capcom’s developers. Continuing to jest, they claimed the game was a lost title unearthed from Capcom’s vaults, and created a mythology to back the story, which can be seen in this video:

The game itself is a prequel to Dark Void on the PS3. The Void is a world parallel to our own, a world between worlds where the Survivors, humans having become trapped in the Void, fight against the Watchers, an alien race striving to break free of the Void in order to overrun our Earth. Amongst those trapped in the Void is Nikola Tesla, the oft mythologized 19th century inventor and electrical engineer known for his many revolutionary developments in the field of electromagnetism. It is Tesla, utilizing his own technologies, who arms and leads the Survivors against the Watchers, and who will provide players with guidance as they traverse Dark Void Zero’s three expansive stages.

Players take on the role of Rusty, a Void-born test-pilot fighting against the Watchers. Having finally established a reliable portal — Portal X — leading to Earth, the Watchers are rallying their forces for invasion. Tesla tasks Rusty to infiltrate Watcher territory and to shut down Portal X before they can invade.

Dark Void Zero is lovingly rendered in 8-bit everything, and masterfully emulates the feel of classic NES action/platformers such as Mega Man and Metroid. For the soundtrack Capcom returned to Bear McCreary, who recomposed more of his score for Dark Void as chiptunes for Dark Void Zero. As Rusty, players navigate three vast stages of the Void, utilizing several different weapons and a jetpack to traverse obstacles and Watcher defenses. On his own, Rusty can jump and fire his equipped weapon in eight directions. With jetpack equipped, he can also hover and soar upward.


Retro Spectacular: If ever you’ve blown dust out of an NES cartridge before playing it, you’re in for a treat with Dark Void Zero. In the 80’s and early 90’s, Capcom were the masters of 8-bit gaming on the NES, and that pedigree shines in this game. Younger gamers just may not get it; but any gamer that’s ever loved an NES will fall in love with Dark Void Zero. In every way, it feels like an NES classic, and that’s exactly what the developers had in mind. The game begins with an inside joke for old-school NES fans: a Dark Void Zero NES cartridge pops onto the screen and must have the dust blown out of it before you can play.

Graphics: Though they may just look dated to some, their datedness is all a part of their charm. Dark Void Zero is an 8-bit masterpiece, not to be judged by modern graphical standards, but by its intent. Dark Void Zero is beautiful.

Music: I am a massive fan of Bear McCreary. I own all of the soundtracks for Battlestar Galactica’s four seasons, two movies and the mini-series on which McCreary worked alongside composer Richard Gibbs, as well as the soundtracks for Caprica and Dark Void. He is a brilliant composer much in demand these days — he currently scores the television series Human Target, Caprica, Eureka and Trauma, recently collaborated with Captain Ahab on their new album, and is scoring a new anime film from the producers of Ghost in the Shell, titled Titan Rain. In additional to all of this, he also performs regularly with his orchestra — the Battlestar Galactica Orchestra — and somehow found the time to create the “Theme from Dark Void (Mega Version)” that eventually led to the creation of Dark Void Zero. He then went further, translating his Dark Void score into a brilliant 8-bit soundtrack reminiscent of classic Mega Man games. McCreary is a significant talent making a significant contribution here; the tunes rock. The Dark Void Zero soundtrack is available for purchase separately, and well work the $3.99 asking price. Get it here.

Weapons: Rusty will find a variety of weapons strewn about each stage, including Watcher renditions of shot guns and rocket launchers, powerful plasma cannons and more. There are also limited duration power-ups such as three-way shots and force fields.

Bosses and Mini-bosses: All great NES games had mini-bosses and bosses, and Dark Void Zero fits the mold perfectly. Challenging mid-stage battles await, and massive Watcher bosses will try to swat you from the sky at the end of each stage. Memorize the patterns, dodge the attacks and look for vulnerabilities; classic!

Replayability: With only three stages, Dark Void Zero is relatively short. Making up for its length, the game does much to encourage replay. Each stage contains two types of collectibles — 100 Tech Points and a set of secondary objectives — and an array of OpenFeint achievements. There’s a God mode, multiple difficulty levels to be unlocked, and a complex scoring system that accounts for difficulty level, lives remaining, enemies killed, collectibles found and more. The game includes multiple leaderboards, and scores can only be posted on level completion, meaning that all is lost if you should come to a premature end. Because enemy placement and patterns are always the same — a trademark of old-school NES games — the game encourages memorization-based strategy; practice makes perfect over the course of the game’s three lengthy stages, and completionists will find plenty to do. Practice is easy, as you can choose which stage to play at any time, and the game has an excellent save and resume feature.


Controls: The virtual d-pad and buttons are small, and the jump and shoot buttons a little too close together. With practice, the controls are entirely manageable; they could just be better.

Length: Despite its pure awesomeness and high replay value, Dark Void Zero’s three stages will invariably leave you wanting more. The included content is certainly worth the price of admission. I just wish there were more.

Dark Void Zero is a love-letter to old-school NES gamers, and being conscious of their target audience, Capcom delivers in a major way. No other developer is better suited to creating this type of game, and Dark Void Zero should be considered the new standard for retro, 2D action titles for the iPhone and related devices. Since catching wind of the iPhone port several months ago, I have been eagerly awaiting its release. And if you can’t tell by this lengthy and gushing review of the game, I am not disappointed in the least. Dark Void for the PS3 may have flopped, but Dark Void Zero is tops. Period.

Those looking for a premiere retro experience on the iPhone need look no further than Dark Void Zero.

Dark Void Zero ($2.99) is published by Capcom. Reviewed on an iPhone 3G at version 1.0.

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