As of this review, I have dabbled in a lot of Ratalaika’s games and it has been quite the interesting journey. While I cannot say that every game they have published has been stellar, they clearly show enthusiasm for this media and do what they can to provide fun and unique experiences for the general audience. This led me to get Zero Zero Zero Zero the day it came out, as I was fascinated by its 1-bit look and focus on testing your platforming skills to the max.
Behind this title is Alvaro Salvango, who seems to be somewhat of an interesting madman. Making movies, ROM hacks and even going so far to make an online multiplayer version of Tic Tac Toe that is not turn based, all of this made me severely intrigued by this creative mind. So, does this game reflect him as a mad genius or perhaps just plain mad?
NB: For the sake of simplicity, I will just call this title ZeroX4 from here on out.
Do you feel lucky punk?
This is a familiar, yet unique take on the platforming genre. ZeroX4 consists of 100 one-screen platforming stages, where your goal in each is to get a gem and return to the starting point. It might sound easy, but ZeroX4 is anything but. Every stage (with the exception of the first tutorial stage) is a gauntlet of an obstacle course where quick thinking, reflexes, skills and studying the environment is required in order to survive. Be it avoiding surreal placed spikes, utilising jumps to change a stage’s layout or time your leaps to dodge ten bullets, every stage will demand you to bring your A-game. This is not just due to the levels asking the most out of your abilities, but also due to the fact that you die in one hit and with every death, you are taken to another uncompleted level.
This might seem like a harsh punishment since you will not be able to learn from your failures right away, but this was a great design-choice in my opinion. This helps to never make you bored due to being stuck on one level, and instead constantly changing up randomly which other ones you will have to tackle, until you are back at the one you failed on for another go. No stage lasts longer than a minute either, with some being even beatable within 15 seconds, making it easy to be addicted and try to fill up the completion-bar at the bottom of the screen.
This makes the punishment for failing a stage still a strong one, but due to the variety, you will never have a dull moment or feel discouraged to get further in this game. It is also helpful that while ZeroX4 demands a lot from the player, you will start every stage by being invulnerable until the second you move, giving you a nice breather and letting you take in the stage’s layout before you move.
Another element that makes ZeroX4 inviting is how simple its mechanics are. Our hero can only jump, double jump and shoot, with shooting being rather for activating mechanics and killing minor enemies. The focus of the game is the platforming and having you studying the levels for the best approach. For example, some levels are tight corridors where a double jump will kill you, forcing you to put the mindset that the double jump is not there to make the platforming easy. In fact, this is one of the few games I have played where double jump does not feel like a compensation for poorly designed levels, showcasing competence in their setups.
What does make ZeroX4 fantastic in the end, is through how tightly designed it is and that no stage is made to take you off guard. Every pixel is clearly shown with pinpoint hit detection, you can see the entire stage’s build, and the variety is always focused on your platforming abilities. It is a short game, but due to how tense and exhilarating ZeroX4 is with its 100 challenging stages, it provides more than enough to make your accomplishments feel satisfying. Any more would have been overkill.
Gameplay Score: 10/10
The art of shapes and motion
I love the intriguing take on the 1-bit art style as it provides the opportunity to use your imagination to figure out what this bizarre world is made of, similar to games from the 1970s. Every stage is a bizarre creation of shapes, yet all have clear functions that are easy to decipher, such as dangerous spikes, fast bullets, blocks that are destructible or indestructible, and so on. The visuals are a beautifully surreal take on this media, comparable to a Jackson Pollock artwork, except more practically constructed and containing only two colours.
It is also genius how the animations of each unit represents if it is dangerous or not, making it easy to pay attention and be focused on its art style for actually understanding the game’s mechanics. This is an interesting form of visual tutorial, since the style itself transfers into gameplay aspects for an immersive experience that is more than just a traditional walking simulator. Combine this with the stages’ different theming and borders changing on each continue, you got a memorable nostalgia trip that oozes with charm.
The soundtrack represents this bizarre take by going for a chiptune soundtrack that is really all over the place, but in the best way possible. It can be calming with relaxing vibes, intense beats with harsh sounds, or somewhere in between. The songs are short enough to give you always a nice change of atmosphere when they mix between one another, giving the game a good balance in tensity. It is somewhat similar to be given a hot drink when it is cold and the moment it feels too hot, a cold drink is presented. The soundtrack always changes up to give you a hook and to not make you tired. Quite the achievement from Levi Bond! Alongside the sound effects that are of bit-crushed clicks yet diverse enough to represent the different effects, this is a surreal take on a classic style that is impressive. Just be aware that the game is best played on a big screen.
Presentation Score: 10/10
When the tension is pixel perfect
There is a handy save feature that will always make it possible to start from where you left off, but if you decide to play it all in one go, you will have a timer appear and can attempt at speedrunning this playthrough. This title is fantastic for such as you can easily be taken off guard due to all 100 stages changing order, and the game is short enough for this to be entertaining upon retries. What is just as exciting, is the hardcore mode where you simply see how many of the 100 stages you can beat with only one life. If you can beat it all without a single death, then my hat is off to you.
Both of these challenges are engaging, great ways to extend replay value and easily fun to attempt with friends over an evening of gaming. I just wish due to the simple constructions the levels contain, that there could have been a level editor of some sort. This is more of a wishful thinking than a critique, but it simply felt like this was a possibility that got scratched. It does not change the fact that what is here, provides more than enough reasons to easily get the “just one more try” mentality.
Extra Score: 9/10
Alvaro alongside Ratalaika has delivered a true essence of “hard, but fair” challenge that feeds your adrenaline rush. Every mistake is yours, the diversity and creativity is always on top with simple to understand gameplay, and it does not overstay its welcome. This is all captivated by a lovely art style that is as nostalgic as it is strange, with a wonderful soundtrack complimenting it. For anyone seeking a true old school challenge, you cannot do much better than ZeroX4.