360, 3DS, PC, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One
Publisher/developer Nicalis Format 3DS (version tested), PC, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One Release Out now
Retrieve the key, reach the exit. A simple enough task on paper, but just as your objective never changes throughout 1001 Spikes, developer Nicalis is unwavering in its dedication to making it as difficult as possible. The single-mindedness of this sadistic platformer is one of its greatest strengths: its trapridden stages are designed to punish the hasty and the overcautious alike, and its abrasive nature even extends to the narrative. It’s slight but expertly judged, an economical setup establishing not just its protagonist’s motivation but your own. Aban Hawkins’ father is an explorer who finds himself trapped in the temple of Ukampa – but not before ridiculing his son’s failures and cruelly writing him out of his will. This is, then, more than just a rescue mission: it’s about Hawkins’ determination to prove himself to his father, reflected in the player’s desire to conquer the temple.
Good luck. You have 1,001 lives, although that tally looks distinctly ungenerous around the business end of World 4, by which time you’ll have been perforated by spikes on dozens of occasions, struck by poison darts many times more, stung by scorpions, squashed by boulders and burned by lava. It’s hard, then – gleefully so – and often unfair. You’ll pause briefly between falling statues, only to trigger a spike trap on the one seemingly safe tile in the middle. You’ll reach the platform on which the exit lies, the next step prompting an arrow from an unseen gargoyle to thwart you mere feet from the finish. You soon learn to expect the worst, however, and you’ll start to spot subtle clues that let you know when you’re in danger. There’s a blackly comic tinge to each new death: you’ll ponder the wisdom of having two different jump heights early on, until a high leap sees Hawkins’ athletic bravado instantly punctured.
It commits to its brutal conceit almost entirely. The three-note sting accompanying each death is followed by an autosave notification, an oddly humiliating way to accentuate failure. There’s no prompt to retry; you’re thrown straight back into the fray, helpless to resist another run. You can give up at any time, but you have to actively choose to do it. Rarely has quitting felt so much like cowardice. Only the presence of a level skip undercuts the challenge. The final stages may be locked out to those who fail to survive the rest, but otherwise beating or bypassing a level earns you the same reward.
And while the level design is meticulous, as the challenge steepens, so the process of rote memorisation grows steadily more monotonous, the satisfaction of mastering a stage long since surpassed by a wave of relief that it’s over. The craftsmanship is easy to admire, but 1001 Spikes can be a hard game to love.
In theory, new costumes and characters should encourage replay value, but you’ll have to start from World 1-1 whenever you switch, and you’ll only earn coins with the first character you use to beat a stage