So, what was up with the 80s and early 90s interest in time travel? Denver, The Last Dinosaur, Time Squad, King Arthur and the Knights of Justice, and even movies like Back to the Future, made the concept of travelling through time a thing. I say “a thing”, since it is to this day a hit and miss concept that requires established rules in order to work. Because of how convoluted it can be, it can either lead to a bigger mess than what Sonic 06 was or become as magnificent as Chrono Trigger. Interestingly enough, the best ones to do it are those who just shrugs and goes all silly with the concept, which is probably why it was a great idea for short lived cartoons. This is where Cybarian: The Time Travelling Warrior comes in, a game I only bought because of its title. I am hyped for wrecking everything in the name of honour and peace, in a new old-school era. However that works!
Time builds strength
Our story tells of a barbarian who searched out for the strongest sword ever, simply known as The Sword of Ages. When he finally found it and pulls it out of its stone, he is transported to the future and has to fight off fiends because they are mean. Yes, this title only gives you a reason for why he is in the future, and that you have to defeat bad people because they are bad people. Do you really need more from a cheesy 80s callback? Cybarian clearly does not think so, as it represents the old-school setup to a teeth by being simple and straightforward all the way to its gameplay. It is a linear platformer, a dominating genre from the early 80s to the mid 90s, where you will be venturing screen by screen. Some screens will require you to kill all the enemies presented in order to move onto the next and because of this, combat plays a heavy role in this title.
As far as the platforming abilities go, our hero is able to jump high up and has manoeuvrable controls in the air. The platforming is all about timing with a heavy focus on you being aware of your surrounding, such as hazards and the placement of enemies. It can be harsh, but never unforgiving thanks to the game warning about dangerous attacks, like utilising exclamation marks for highlighting that fire will spew up from the ground. The level design takes great advantage of our hero’s abilities and makes sure to introduce new elements in a fair manner, like moving platforms and lasers without taking the player off guard.
However, jumping on ladders is severely cumbersome as you have to be precise with it, which can lead to unnecessary damage being taken. Luckily, it is a minor issue as you can learn to find its sweet spot quickly and it goes alongside with the rest of what Cybarian is all about fittingly enough: timing. Platforming will have hazards with timed events, you will have to take in consideration when enemies fire, and more similar obstacles are revolved around timing, making it an overall theme to Cybarian‘s gameplay. It is an interesting idea that works great, and is also represented in the game’s combat.
Similar to the platforming, the barbarian does not have many abilities for combat, but definitely more. You start off with only a three hit combo, which the game forces you to be precise with the timing of the attacks in order to be executed properly. Mashing the attack button will only make our hero stumble and be open to attacks from opponent or hazards. This is actually a nice way to make the enemies a bit more challenging to take down, as the last hit does twice the damage of a normal attack, making it an important move to learn on how to perform. There are even subtle visual cues for when to push the attack button, which is a nice support.
In fact, there are a lot of small and clever design-choices revolving around the combat. The dodge-roll you get after the first level for instance, makes you invulnerable for a short time, providing a quick breather should your timing of attacks be off. The same can be said for the ability to throw your sword that you get after the second stage. This is the only attack you can use in the air and it throws your sword in a boomerang fashion, but only horizontally and you cannot attack while it is airborne. These are smart limitations to take into consideration for when to use an attack over another one, which in many ways reminds me of titles like the original Castlevania.
Speaking of, this intensity to how and when to attack is helped by the good variety of enemies, like the mercenaries, ninjas, brutes, and bombers for example. All have their unique setups and concept that relates to their type. Because of this, you will have to take on multiple enemies into consideration within the same area, but the game provides never an unfair challenge. You will only take on a handful of fiends while dealing with the platforming, making it fit perfectly with the barbarian’s limited moveset. There are even possibilities to experiment with attacks to find new tricks, such as throwing the sword for dismantling the enemies’ shields, which is clever.
The same praises for details can be given to the boss fights, as they are massive challenges with plenty of diverse attacks that hit hard and makes it important to read their animations thoroughly. All four were a blast to fight through and so were the levels. However, this is where the problem with Cybarian comes forth. The game is severely short with only four stages to get through. While I am all for a short and fulfilling experience, Cybarian sadly lacks the latter as it does not let you have all the tools until after halfway through the game, which is a terrible shame. I believe this hinders the game to reach its full potential, as only stage three and four really takes advantage of our hero’s different abilities. If there had been about two more stages or the developers retooled some of the earlier stages, maybe that would have provided more opportunities to use all of his potential skills.
Regrettably, this is not the only problem Cybarian faces and while the rest are minor issues, they are still noticeable. From fallen enemies or broken boxes, our barbarian can gather money which can only be used on vending machines to gain one heart back. However, they are expensive and with the huge health bar on normal difficulty, it does not help much when you can only gain one heart back, if even that. Considering this is the only way for you to heal and that the checkpoints only occur right before the fights against the bosses, it feels useless to have this feature. The stages do not overstay their welcome, but this is one area where the game’s uneven setup is shown.
This is made worse by the uneven difficulty curve the game offers, with some stages having hazards that will cause continuous damage, making me wish they were instakills instead in order to save time. This uneven setup can be seen in the bosses as well. The third one is actually the hardest, while the last boss felt just slightly harder than the first one, due to lack of more attacks and interesting patterns to learn. Then there is the gambling at the end of every stage, where you play a slot machine in order to gain one more heart. It is all based on luck and something I did not really care for, since it barely helped me in the long run. Some old habits should definitely stay dead.
These issues do not change that Cybarian provided a fun playthrough. It simply could have used more to make its concepts evolve, with some slight polish added inn. The game is beatable under 30 minutes, and while the Hard + mode gives you the ability to play with all the tools unlocked, it just showcases even more what could have been if the developers just went a step further. Though what is here, is a nice showcase for something that could reach new heights. A strong title, but not one that reaches its full potential.
Gameplay Score: 6/10
Look at those colours, bruh!
I have a hard time placing whether this is more of a Genesis- or DOS inspired title, but either way; Cybarian is brimming with strong colours in the style of an early 16-bit title, with plenty of effects and details in the background. It is all set in a colourful dystopian city of punk, where tiles can be orange and neon pink, making it adorably cheesy and artistically pleasing. The variety of places is solid for such a short game, like the construction sites with huge beams of light showcasing the buildings in the background, highways with beat up cars and questionable billboards, and rundown alleys with colourful tags all over the place.
What makes this sci-fi world set in a ruined civilisation so personal, is the focus on neon colours. It really takes the 80s focus on colours and style, and goes all haywire with it into this metallic wasteland. I love it. Even the enemies come in a huge variety because of this, like the purple soldiers, sky blue helicopters, and bosses in bright colours wearing huge armours. All of them come with impressive amounts of animation where clearly every pixel counts. I also love how the game keeps the mentality from titles of the 80s and early 90s, where everything has to explode upon being destroyed, even human beings. This is a common element brought from this era and who does not love constant barrages of 16-bit explosion?
The animations in the backgrounds are also impressive and each stage is memorable by their use of colours alone. Even scan lines can be added if you want to. Unfortunately, with only four stages available, they do have some similar setups and while it could have been seen as a way to make areas clearly connected, more to differentiate the stages could have been implemented. However, what is here is memorable and engaging. Even the simple “Go” icon to tell you to move on, is a nice callback and can be turned off if you wish to.
The sound effects are impressive with muffled voices, simple blips for gunfire, and attacks with the sword and jumps providing satisfying strengths to them. All of them are simply wonderful to listen to, including the explosions made from old-school sound chips. Then we have the soundtrack and it is a fantastic setup of energetic pieces that fits perfectly with the visuals. With its gorgeous soundtrack consisting of rock that sounds close to the Genesis’ bass and tone, it is a treat to listen to every track on every level. All of them have perfect buildup, variety, and memorable tone and rhythm. Matt Kenyon captures the sound of the hardware and the style that was popular from its era beautifully.
Presentation Score: 7/10
This is a classic example of being over too soon. Cybarian provides a great time, but never pushes to its limits and thus, stops far too early. With some clever inspirations, a neat concept, an impressive art style and awesome music, I am severely intrigued to look up more from Ritual Games. If they ever get to make a Cybarian 2, there is a possibility to see the full potentials of the original title fulfilled. As for this Cybarian, it is a good action platformer that simply does not reach its true strengths. If you just want a good game for a short afternoon, this is definitely an alright choice.