Home brews are something that have always interested me. The thought of a modern programmer challenging him or herself to create a game with the limited tools of the original consoles, or just creating their own games for modern systems, is quite intriguing and I have to complement those who do (I mean outside of this series of articles which details a number of independent developers and their games). While Home-brewed games have existed even back in the days of the Atari 2600, it has only become really popular in the last two decades. What does this have to do with today’s game? Well, today is an extra special treat, as you can even play this game on the ZX Spectrum and an NES emulator. So if you are a time traveler who wants to bring a game back for your old computer, or just want to enjoy some retro-gaming goodness, I think you’ll enjoy Alter Ego.
Alter Ego is a puzzle-platformer designed, programmed, and ported by Denis Grachev, the one-man development team known as RetroSouls. RetroSouls is certainly an interesting developer, having made both 3D and 2D games that put spins on classic games. Alter Ego is a very special project however as it was released in three versions. The first was a home brew for the ZX spectrum, then a homebrew for the NES, though it was ROM only, and then finally the PC port. This is also an interesting addition to the list of games I’ve covered as you can get the game either from RetroSouls directly, or from Desura, the online independent game distributor.
All right, with the fluff out of the way, let’s talk about the actual game. In Alter Ego, you play as a young boy who has a shadow or “alter ego” who moves opposite to him. The boy and his shadow must collect pixels to get through 40 levels that are filled with enemies and hazards. Luckily for the boy, he can swap places with his shadow (press the spacebar) and collect gold pixels to change how he and his shadow are oriented (whether the shadow is above or below him or horizontally related to him. To add a bit of complexity though, there are some pixels that can only be picked up by the alter ego and some by the boy and some that can only be picked up when the two of them are switching places.
On the whole, the gameplay of Alter Ego is excellent. Like a lot of retro games, Alter Ego is very simplistic but challenging in the later levels. For example, one of the first things you’ll have to contend with is the fact that you can’t jump making it so switching places with your alter egos is sometimes the only way to dodge attacks. Additionally. You have a limited number of times you can switch places (the remaining times being shown in the in the bottom right corner of the screen) and some levels even force you to survive without using your ability to switch places, making you long for the times when you had the ability to help you.
Additionally, Alter Ego is a perfect mix of platforming, brain exercise, and action. The limits placed on you (not being able to jump and only being able to use your power a limited number of times) force you to plan your mpves carefully and some obstacles will even prevent you from backtracking, meaning you might have to plan the entire stage before taking even a single step. However, the game also keeps a healthy amount of action as an integral part of the gameplay, for example, some of the levels force you to wait till enemies are about to hit you before using your power and others make you use it while in mid-air. Overall it’s a good mix of mind-bending and twitch reflexes and is very fun to play.
Now, when it comes to aesthetics, I’ll be focusing on the PC version. Still, I am very fond of the NES (which was done by Shiru, another Russian programmer) and ZX Spectrum versions, which have nice graphics, limited lives and a title for each level. The PC version however, due to its lack of limitations, is much more active. The enemies and environment have a lot more detail and motion, the colors are more vibrant, and there are effects like rain and flickering lights. However, the game’s style feels very retro, from the pixels used for the skull enemies to the sound effects that play as you walk around and use your power.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack on the NES and PC versions, which is full of chip tune goodness. The soundtrack, which was created by the talented Richard J Armijo (AKA Kulor), is a light hearted set of tracks that perfectly matches the lighter spirit of this game while also becoming rather tense during some of the more difficult levels. Kulor actually created the NES version, limited him to 31 instruments and other limitations, on his own and, when Grachev asked him for permission to use the soundtrack for the Windows Phone 7 version of the game, Armijo did him one better and released a new version which was superior. If you want to listen to a comparison, you can find the soundtrack to both versions here.
Overall, I like Alter Ego. The game is easy to learn and a lot of fun, regardless of what version you play. If there was a problem, it would be that the game, despite having 40 levels, is pretty short, barely taking over an hour and-a-half to complete. Still, it has a great soundtrack, some fun gameplay, and a price that can’t be beat. As an aside, if you want to support Kulor and experience some more retro goodness, you can either get the phone version of this game or buy the spiritual sequel, 8-bit night.
Freeware Friday is a series of articles by Gabriel B. That explores the exemplary (or just plain weird) free games released by independent developers.