We walk the streets at night…
[Note: Destructoid’s robot mascot, former news manager Conrad Zimmerman, and I appear briefly in the opening cinematic for Devil’s Dare. We’ll be giving out Steam codes for the game tomorrow on Sup Holmes if you want one.]
Secret Base it probably most well known for its incredible mock-ups for theoretical Ghostbusters and The Avengers games for the NES. It’s clear that the developer has a passion for adapting live-action fantasy/sci-fi icons for classic games, even when they don’t legally have the right to.
This passion is strewn all over Devil’s Dare, its latest release on Steam. Horror is the theme here, and no expense was spared to pay tribute to all the modern horror icons, both familiar and obscure. Of course there’s a boss based on Jason Voorhees, but you might be more surprised to see a tribute to both Baxter Stockman’s and Jeff Goldblum’s disgusting fly-man monsters. At least, I think that’s what’s going on here. It’s hard to be 100% sure, which is part of the fun.
Devil’s Dare is like classic, Glenn Danzig era-Misfits in game form, except it seems to be intentionally ridiculous, where Glenn might not have been as self aware. The references to horror classics, the low-fi aesthetic, the tension, and the levity all come together to form something larger than the sum of its parts. Even better, it plays a lot like a traditional four-player arcade beat-’em-up but with Smash Bros.-style flash and simplicity. This isn’t the kind of crossover that Nintendo is likely to publish, but it will likely appeal to many of its fans.
The game takes place at PAX East during a zombie outbreak, so it makes sense that all four of its playable characters are videogames lovers. Axel even has his own homegrown Hylian shield, Master Sword, and hookshot, though his use for the latter is more inspired by Scorpion than Link. Queenie is the magic user of the group, though you might not guess that at first glance. She looks like a cross between Tron Bonne and Baby Head from Captain Commando.
Kingston is a modern-day barbarian. He is the game’s tank and resident Golden Axe tribute. Jackson is the baby of he bunch, light and fast, wielding a pair of sais. Though he’s not a direct reference to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it would be easy to see how one might make that connection. Thankfully, Jackson plays a lot better than Raphael did in the TMNT NES game, meaning that he is not the absolute worst character in any action game ever. I still hate you, Raphael. I hate you for life.
Devil’s Dare uses just two attack buttons, which makes it seem simple at first. That surface-level simplicity makes it all the more surprising when you discover all the little decisions you can make in combat, and how those decisions can kill you. The main twist is the fatality system and the risk vs. reward tradeoff that comes with it. Bring an enemy’s health to zero and hit special to do a fatality. Sounds easy enough, but you can only store four special attacks at a time, and you need that meter for other important apocalypse-surviving stuff, like parries and projectiles. Your special meter replenishes automatically at a brisk pace, but new players are likely to find themselves out of meter and running for their lives fast, while veterans will have no problem controlling crowds of zombies while racking up huge fatality counts.
Fatalities aren’t just for fun. They’re also for profit. Pull off a fatality on three or more enemies at a time and it becomes a massacre which, weirdly enough, rewards the player with food and loot. The food may feel important in the moment, but it’s the loot you’re really need in the long run. Not only do you need loot to buy power-ups and stat boosts, but you also need it to continue. If you go broke, it’s game over, permi-death, save file auto-delete. Just like in real life, poverty comes with harsh consequences.
The idea here is to bring back the feeling of “arcade mortality” that comes from having to choose between using your actual money for real-life food or for in-game lives. A lot of brawlers lose that feeling after making their way out of the arcade and into your home. Limited continues just aren’t the game, and “pay-to-win” microtransactions are just exploitative and gross. It’s no surprise that most arcade-style games don’t even attempt to get that “arcade mortality” back. It’s not something you can just tack onto a game design. It has to be integrated into the whole experience for it to work.
Secret Base knows this, and has done well to make sure Devil’s Dare is fun no matter how much you die. The game has a stage select screen, which helps cut down on repetition. More importantly, the difficulty ramps up dynamically and drastically, regardless of what order you play each stage in. That means if you play the “Train” level first, the stage’s Jason Voorhees boss will be a “regular-sized giant” murderer. Play that stage second, and you’ll face both “regular-sized giant” Jason and some little baby Jason’s helpers at the same time. Take on that level third, and you face an entirely different “gigantic” Jason with huge Splatterhouse-style muscles and all new attacks. Permi-death is scary, but it also rewards you with the opportunity to see a lot of stuff you may not have missed before.
Even if there weren’t so many things to discover through replays, Devil’s Dare‘s graphics, music, and game feel make it a joy to play and replay, just for the heck of it. The sepia-toned sprites and cute-yet-gruesome character designs do a great job of being creepy and charming. The music is a mix of sweet and sinister, with ever so slightly dissonant chords joined by spooky, catchy melodies. Subtle touches are added all over the place to make every little event convey impact and gravity. An incidental animation here, a little screen shake there, a quick screen flash after a particularly big attack — it all adds up to make the game feel alive, even though most of its characters are long dead.
If you hate “cultural reference” humor, you may struggle to get into Devil’s Dare at first. The nods to various videogame and movies hit fast and furious in the opening cut scene and tutorial level. That’s the only thing that beat-’em-up fans might have to fear before picking up the game. It’s a fine example of how to infuse new ideas with old influences to create a game that feels simultaneously fresh and familiar.