Gunning in the 90’s

The 80’s and 90’s were a very different time for games with regard to length. Many non-RPG favorites were considerably short, their playtimes extended by way of sheer difficulty. Some of this was due to arcade-centric design convention, but much of it was very intentionally done to extend playtime. Nowadays in a post-save state world, we don’t feel that so much. Games tend to be happy to let us throw ourselves at it again and again, with the only limits being checkpoint placement and our own persistence. This is a review of Escape from Terror City, a game that reminded me exactly what can be done when you take old school gameplay and touch it up with just a sprinkle of new school standards.

I’m going to get all of my game comparisons out of the way early because EfTC reminds me of several things at once. I immediately thought of Megaman Legends due to its chunky visuals, use of flat, colorful environments, big dodgeable bullets, and character models that look like action figures who’ve seen the business end of a microwave. But in terms of its actual gamefeel EfTC feels much more akin to Sunset Riders or Wild Guns. You’re near the camera, all the enemies are further back, run back and forth to dodge bullets while constantly shooting. It’s essentially the traditional beat ‘em up structure with a smidge of arcade light gun games, but only insomuch as it’ll let you pick your path through levels. Don’t let the 3D visuals fool you, this game plays a lot closer to an early 90’s title than late.

If that sounds like a reductive description I don’t intend it to be; we rarely see games this focused anymore. This is not a hybrid-genre game that wastes your time on things like “RPG elements” or “a plot”. EfTC offers shooting, lots of it, and it delivers on that promise every second of gameplay. There’s not an ounce of fat here, not a moment of boredom. If you aren’t shooting you’re either walking to the next room full of enemies or you’re making a horrible mistake. You should be dodging, hopping, and keeping that fire button firmly pressed at all times. Doing those three things will get you most of the way through your first play through with minimal deaths, delivering a satisfying run through all the game’s sights.

It’s after you beat the game once and unlock hard mode that EfTC starts feeling especially true to its forebears, because from about level 2 and on the game stomps its boots clear through your ass. Every single enemy ups the ante, showing up with extra friends and serving up extra bullets. The game even adds in a sort of rival character in the Silver Knight, a recurring midboss who shows up unexpectedly in areas that didn’t have fights on normal. I still managed to complete both modes and unlock all the achievements in about 3 hours, but I’d like to think I’m decent at these kinds of games and your average player might need a bit more time. Maybe. That could be wishful thinking.

Thing is, it doesn’t feel light on content. EfTC just respects your time more than a lot of older games like it did. If it had some kind of lives system or any sort of penalty for getting mauled beyond kicking you back a few rooms the game could have easily become more frustrating than fun. Walking around a corner directly into a bullet is a way of life until you learn the patterns and how to exploit them. It’s much more of a bullet hell experience on hard, is what I’m saying, but one where victory always feels within reach. Even when you have to do 5 rooms in a row again because you slipped up right before a checkpoint, you’re never so far back that what you just learned won’t stay fresh in your mind. The game constantly demands skill but not necessarily perfection, and in doing so it hits the Goldilocks midground of “just right”.

Escape from Terror City feels like the result of numerous gaming passions made manifest in a single project. A love for arcade-style quarter munchers, be they light gun or schmup, but without the assault on your wallet. A focus on action, the kind of experiential intense play that led to games like it being rented from Blockbuster again and again back in the day, only now owning the thing costs as much as that weekend rental did. A moreish, satisfying core loop that needs nothing more than the bare essentials of run, jump, and shoot to deliver its thrills. Don’t let the short clear times put you off – I’ve actually taken multiple breaks while writing this just to burn through a level while lying to myself that it was “for screenshots”. I’m going to play more as soon as I finish this paragraph. If that’s not a sign of quality I don’t know what is.

A Steam code was independently purchased for review.