There have been a ton of “retro” games these past couple years. Some are amazing homages to the games we grew up with, others are frankly insults and lazy cash grabs. The problem is when we see so many rehashes and remakes of these classics, using the same tried and true gameplay, it can get stale quickly. Thankfully we recently received Owlboy on consoles. After waiting for over 10 years, and not being a PC gamer, I was able to finally play this indie retro gem I had heard so much about.
Owlboy is the creation of Simon Andersen and was inspired by the 16-bit era of games. It was painstakingly produced to show how beautiful pixels can be and is up there graphically with some of the best games of that era. Take into account those games had a huge staff of developers and programmers, where Owlboy was a small team, and it’s even more impressive. The dedication from this team at D-Pad Studio is very apparent and Owlboy looks gorgeous. It truly is proof that we do not need life-like animations and graphics to tell a poignant story and make a great game.
In Owlboy players are thrust into the role of Otus, an owl and human hybrid, who’s race has been the wise protectors of this world for generations. Otus is awkward, shy, and doesn’t speak, he is physically unable to, he is mute. While his intentions are noble, he tends to screw things up quite bit and this tends to put him on the bad side of his mentor, Asio. Right at the beginning we see that Asio is a downright jerk to Otus and doesnt think very highly of him. Otus lives in a small floating village with some very odd characters. You can chat with them for some great dialog. One of these townsfolk is Otus’ best friend, Geddy. Geddy, and other friends Otus makes during the course of the game, are not only great for furthering the impressive story, but also provide support in the action for our reluctant hero.
This is one of the greatest aspects of Owlboy, Otus’ dependency on his friends. Otus isn’t the best flyer and he only has one “attack” that is a spin move that just stuns enemies. However Otus can carry his friends along and they will provide various moves, but mainly give players the ability to shoot at enemies and destroy obstacles in a “twin stick” shooter style gameplay. As you fly around areas, there will be environmental puzzles that are typical to most “metroidvania” games. Destroy this rock to open this switch, move this cloud to pour water in this hole, those sort of things. They are all well designed though and some were pretty challenging.
Otus can collect coins throughout areas to purchase health upgrades and other goodies, so exploring is rewarded. If you get low on health look for food you can pull from the ground just like Super Mario Bros. 2. Old school players like myself will see many references and homage to classic games like Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda, and many more. Owlboy doesn’t rely on being retro and re-use of elements to play at our nostalgia strings though. It has its own identity and I could totally see it having been made back in 1993 and being a classic now. It truly does a great job creating its own unique identity.
Owlboy’s music is superb as well. Some of the best chiptune based stuff I have ever heard. Owlboy should also be applauded for the story, its use of a disabled hero is something that needs to be shared. The goal of creating a touching and thoughtful tale, even with the limitations of pixel based graphics, was met, and exceeded what I thought possible. I honestly have never been this invested or kicked in the feels by a retro game like this. Controls are tight and responsive, and I was never left frustrated by anything beyond my own inability to solve a puzzle or boss tactic. My only real complaint was the lack of a map, something that is a staple in these side scroller games. That and it can get difficult all of the sudden with some boss encounters. But, I took my time and eventually was able to move past them. It was just a tad jarring at first.
Overall, Owlboy is a game that should not be missed. Fans of the old late 80’s to mid 90’s era games will see how much they missed this style. Younger generations should play to see that an amazing game can be made in a retro style if the proper love and care is taken. A reluctant hero Otus may be, but he will earn your respect and hopefully players will learn some life lessons. Never give up, no matter your struggles in life. Yes, ten years is a hell of a long wait, but I am glad I finally got to play Owlboy. It will stay with me for many years to come. Now lets hope we don’t we don’t have to wait another ten years for a sequel, but if its as good or better than the first, I will deal.