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1001 Spikes (PC) artwork

1001 Spikes (PC) review

"Death shouldn’t be seen as an inconvenience. Instead, it is an integral part of the game."

I died 1,575 times before I completed 1001 Spikes.

That’s close to 500 more than the number of deaths it took for me to reach Spelunky’s secret ending, but while Spelunky – an action-platformer that uses procedurally generated levels to train you in becoming a better player – lasted 168 hours, 1001 Spikes is a different type of masochism, deriving pleasure from your rapid-fire deaths. My save clocked in at less than 12 hours, which is 135 deaths an hour. Or one every 27 seconds or so. You probably already know if this is for you or not.

1001 Spikes is a 2D platformer spanning ten worlds, following the adventures of Aban Hawkins as he searches for his missing archaeologist father deep in the temples of Ukampa in South America and then later the Antarctica. The objective in each level is simple: grab the key and head to the exit. Each stage is brief, the vast majority clocking in at less than 90 seconds, but they’re trap-laden to the brim and you die in one hit. Your journey starts off simple enough as you take your time to carefully avoid a variety of spikes, arrow traps, and scorpions. Sure, you’ll die a few times, but they don’t pose much trouble. Then it quickly gets brutal.

You see, the game sadistically tries to get you killed. For every spot where it looks like you may be able to take a breather, it could be a pressure pad that almost immediately sets off spikes straight into your body. That platform above the bottomless abyss? Well, it may well crumble the moment you land on it. At times, you’ll have to throw a knife at a switch as you’re plunging to your doom below, so a platform will emerge in time for you to land on. Spewing fireballs. Rolling boulders in tight spaces. Falling blocks from above. Whirling blades that take extremely awkward patrol routes. Long rows of spikes that pop out from the ground on a timer where you must jump the precise moment they shoot up as you move forward. And don't be surprised to see multiple hazards being thrown at you at the same time.

Arrows are one of the most common forms of traps, and aside from well-timed jumps to dodge them, you learn that you can also throw knives to deflect the projectiles. This, however, requires split-second timing, and one level features claustrophobic corridors with arrows firing at you from both directions.

You can usually tell when to expect arrows, as statue heads spit them out horizontally. Some shoot at timed intervals, while others are based on motion detection. Given how incredibly easy it is to die and how cruel the game is, you understandably expect every statue to be a threat. But a fair number don’t fire anything at all, cleverly screwing with your heightened paranoia.

So often you’ll be caught out when approaching a trap for the first time that you’ll start predicting your death a second or two before with alarming regularity. That’s okay. No one is going to deny that 1001 Spikes is unforgiving or harsh, and it's more a test of perseverance than skill. But don’t mistake that for being unfair. It lays down its marker early on, and the controls are tight and perfectly fine. An interesting quirk is the fact that there are two jump buttons of different fixed heights – one block and two blocks high – a design choice that pays off as jumping becomes precise and exactly how you intend (in contrast to platformers where a jump's strength is determined by how long you hold the requisite button). I had no problems throwing knives, either. If I died, it was because I wasn’t quick enough on the draw. In fact, with any death I experienced, I knew exactly how it happened.

That last fact is vital, because 1001 Spikes – despite its platforming mechanics – has more in common with the puzzle genre. Ultimately, every level is a series of puzzles that you must figure out how to navigate past. Even if an obstacle looks impossible, most of the time there is a simple and reliable solution, providing you don’t get sloppy. Plenty of traps require some involved planning on your part, but many can be solved by simply altering your positioning or timing slightly.

Death shouldn’t be seen as an inconvenience (restarting is virtually instantaneous). Instead, it is an integral part of the game, emphasised by the fact that you begin with 1,001 lives and receive a generous number of 1-ups along the way. Dying helps you understand how traps behave and respond, and you must use that knowledge to your advantage. When trying a new level, you may not even survive a few seconds on your first attempt. But by repeatedly playing the stage – sometimes maybe into three figures – you gradually get further and further to the exit as you become more familiar with the platforming and the traps in the way. The closer you get, the more thrilling it becomes. 'Maybe this is the run. Maybe I'll do it this time. I know I can do it.' Mastering a level and finally putting together a successful run after figuring everything out can be extremely rewarding.

And it usually is an achievement when you complete a level, because the execution has to be near-perfect. Hesitate for even a split second or have the smallest lapse in concentration, and you will often be punished. After completing the game and its 60 or so levels, I went back and replayed a couple of dozen stages. Despite previously nailing them, I was still greeted with the black "YOU ARE DEAD" screen far, far more often than not, a result of me failing to remember all the traps to a T and occasionally being off by a fraction due to complacency. It goes to show that you must be alert and at the top of your game at all times.

While the vast majority of the stages in the main campaign are impressively put together, a couple fall short slightly. Some levels ask you to manipulate enemy behaviour. Throw a knife at a penguin, and it becomes panicked. Another knife, it will do a running jump in terror.

They don't make the courses any more difficult, but there are two levels in particular where you're asked to figure out a path through a dozen or so enemies (one of which has the added bonus of featuring timed disappearing platforms, obviously). With enemy AI being less predictable compared to the very clear-cut trap mechanisms and with the level design being more open-ended to accommodate the high number of foes on screen at the same time, an element of fudging can't be helped, resulting in whatever solution you end up with feeling less calculated. But with the rest of the title at a very high standard, it's easy to forgive the rare dud.

The Ukampa portion also features optional collectible golden skulls. One appears in every level – some in the open albeit likely surrounded by hazards, others hidden away behind a breakable block. They unlock rather superfluous extras (and grant you 1-ups), but I always sought them out as they brought an added sense of accomplishment. It had the extra benefit of keeping my total number of lives healthy to the point where I finished the whole game with around 650 lives remaining, while other players I've spoken to, who may not have bothered with the skulls, have said that they've had to go back and grind near the end. It's worth bearing that in mind, at least.

Though the Antarctica lacks skulls to collect, the stages in the second half of the game are generally better-designed. Not only do they challenge you with more inventive traps and puzzles, but they're also grander and slightly more epic in scope. The snow-themed levels subsequently hold up better on repeat playthroughs.

Perhaps the most telling thing about who 1001 Spikes is aimed at lies in its inspiration. Aside from a fantastic 8-bit visual style reminiscent of the NES era of video games and the infectious chiptunes soundtrack, the title includes unlockable costumes based on the likes of Castlevania and Ghosts 'n Goblins. Also? A ninja costume lifted from Ninja Gaiden. The occasional moments of storytelling even employ Ninja Gaiden-like cutscenes. The original Shadow Warriors (as it was called in Europe) is a title that I adore more than most, so it's hardly surprising that 1001 Spikes and the sadistic qualities it shares with Tecmo's original Ryu Hayabusa-starring trilogy clicked with me almost instantly. This platforming gem was made with someone like me in mind, and I couldn't be happier.

Rating: 9/10

Ben's avatar
Community review by Ben (June 26, 2014)

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Suskie posted June 26, 2014:

Excellent review -- best thing I've read from you in quite some time. I don't agree with it, but hey :)

I actually died 2518 times myself (just did the math), but my total play time is 19 hours, so I had a slightly lower death rate than you. So nyeh.
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Ben posted June 26, 2014:

Thanks! I'm happy with the way this review turned out. Talking to you about the game as you were playing it actually helped me pinpoint everything I enjoyed about 1001 Spikes, so that was definitely appreciated.

Aha. I'm a little surprised there wasn't a 'total deaths' stat included and they make you add everything up yourself.

Looking forward to your review!

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