In order to fully appreciate Illuminator, one must become acquainted with its origins.

In 1991, a really shitty, unlicensed game called Action 52 was released for the NES. It was made by some guys who wanted to capitalize on the concept of the many-(shitty-)games-in-one cartridge, but who were barely trained and highly unqualified to do so. So it was that we received Action 52, and so it has been that talented developers banded together, seeking to right this terrible wrong. They came together under the Action 52 OWNS project.

The jist of it is that a great multitude of developers each chose one of the bug-riddled, oft unplayable titles from the original Action 52 cartridge, called it as his or her own, and set out to recreate it and innovate it in such a way so that it wouldn’t suck ass. I probably don’t need to go on again and again about how great innovation is in video game design and development, so I’ll just simply state that innovation is a great thing in video game design and development. Anyway, so this guy called Fifth decided to remake a game called Illuminator. Check out this video to see what it was all about:

As you can see, it was an interesting concept ruined by terrible execution. Enemies spawned randomly and just walked back and forth. All you had to do was just shoot the vampires and shadows over and over until the game ended, and killing an enemy would briefly light up the whole stage. After 10 stages, the whole thing just looped around in one monotonous circle.

The game I am here to talk about is not that game.

Fifth’s Illuminator is a brilliant reimagining of that simple concept. It takes someone else’s half-baked idea and turns it into something that actually works, something that is fun to play and which is challenging for the right reasons. It keeps the original story – that you’re a kid trying to rescue his sister from a gaggle of ghouls – but with a lot of neat twists.

A typical stage opening. Note how the protagonist's shirt glows.

A typical stage opening. Note how the protagonist’s shirt glows.

The game is still a platformer. Each stage takes place in one or more houses. Instead of ladders, you ascend (naturally) via staircases. The controls are tight and quite simple – arrow keys to move and ascend/descend, a flashlight button, and an action button. The flashlight button takes the place of the original game’s gun – when it’s fully charged and you turn it on, the intial blast will burn your enemies to a crisp. But after that, the battery slowly drains, and the light does nothing but illuminate your path. You are instead forced to turn the flashlight off, wait for it to charge, and use tricks and traps to tell where enemies and staircases are. It’s really quite clever.

The action button is used to open and shut doors, in order to create barriers between yourself and ghouls (though they eventually figure out how to open them). It is also used to pick up energy drinks to refill your health, and, primarily, to grab and plug in night lights, Christmas lights, strobe lights, lamps, and probably other implements I have yet to encounter, all which serve to illuminate various parts of the house you’re in. This allows you to keep track of where your enemies are. The only other way you can see normal enemies is if they pass in front of a window or an outside area.

Jingle all the way to Hell, motherfucker.

Jingle all the way to Hell, motherfuckers.

Your basic goal is to find a tear in space and kill enough ghouls to remove all the stitches, thus providing you an exit into the next stage. You’ll also snag another life for completing a stage, which is an interesting but surprisingly appropriate mechanic for granting extra lives (Now that I think about it, this sort of life system would probably be pretty solid for a lot of other games as well). Eventually, your goals are expanded – find and collect keys in order to unlock doors and progress to the exit. I imagine that this was added because, holy shit, enemies start spawning in waves as the game progresses, and you’ll likely be killing them in droves.

The result is a truly unique maze game that requires a considerable amount of thought and strategy in order to traverse. I’ll just flat-out state, this game can get pretty hard. At the time of this writing, I have yet to complete it. From what I understand, there’s even a final boss, which is really curious for this type of game.

Some monsters, like these fireballs, don't play by the rules.

Some monsters, like these fireballs, don’t play by the rules. It really changes up the game.

Fifth’s Illuminator is a fantastic game in its own right, but I’d like to direct your attention to the awesome nature of its basis. The original Illuminator was about killing enough enemies to progress through a bunch of dark stages, and killing an enemy would briefly light up the stage. Fifth took this beyond the next level. In his remake, the protagonist has a (more appropriate) flashlight, enemies are killed by powerful light flashes, and they burn for a while when dying, providing some illumination. He further toyed with the “light and dark” element by providing items that can be plugged in and used in various ways to light up dark parts of the stage. This alone “fixes” the original, but he didn’t even stop there, continuing to add things like door/key mechanics, background elements that allow ghouls to be seen, and more. The game also features a lot of different enemies – ghouls, vampires, flaming skulls, shadow things, and undoubtedly more, all of which have their own modi operandi. Illuminator even manages to deliver some shocks and some terrifying, claustrophobic moments – the kinds of feelings that, honestly, a game about wandering in darkness with monsters about really ought to invoke.

What I’m saying is, I feel that a lot of people could really learn a thing or two from what Fifth has done here.

This game may kick your ass. You may give up before you complete it. Despite that, I still highly recommend it to you. Seriously, check it out, even if you only play it once.

Download Illuminator

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