It’s not hard to think of the genre-mashup as the laziest route to a fresh concept. Lord only knows the amount of downloadable offspring and zombie-bites developers made around those poor misused Guitar Hero peripherals. Or, does this sound familiar: “Like Pac-Man but Angry Birds.” “Like an endless runner but a tower defence.” “Like Pogs but Crazy Bones.” So what makes the IGF-nominated Crypt of the NecroDancer, which combines the rhythm game with the roguelike, so special?
Well, first off, for creator Ryan Clark, using alchemy on those two genres wasn’t just throwing bantam ingredients in to the brew to see what comes out. Giving his roguelike a rhythm to dungeon-crawl to was, if anything, his solution to an uncooperative genre.
“I was trying to make a roguelike game that was more fair,” says Clark, “because if you play a lot of roguelike games like Rogue or NetHack, sometimes you just die and you feel like there was nothing you could have done. I wanted to make a game where, if you die, you blame yourself, and you learn something.”
Rigidness is one of the roguelike’s most praised attributes, a gruelingly difficult oasis for thicker-skinned players wary of hand-holding. For this crowd, NecroDancer offers something, but it’s not quite what they’ll want. Similarly, Dance Dance Revolution refugees may not get exactly what they are looking for in NecroDancer either. During my first run, I, the worst DDR player in the world, managed to survive three procedurally generated floors of monsters with only the stiffest of stomping on the optional dance pad. NecroDancer is both in-between these genres and neither of them, which is likely what makes it so much more interesting than being at either end.
The game has you in the moving shoes of Cadence, an adventuring gravedigger who accidentally earns the ire of the NecroDancer. After her heart is (literally) stolen, she is forced to explore four zones to get it back, her movement limited to the beat of her missing circulatory organ.
"When I made really short turns, it felt like moving on a beat. I tried playing it to Thriller, it felt really awesome."
Those beats, the ones the player is cursed to follow, were originally a much more familiar roguelike concept: turns. “I started making the turns really short,” says Clark, “so you have to think quick, and put skill into the equation. When I made really short turns, it felt like moving on a beat. I tried playing it to Thriller, it felt really awesome. It was this total fluke that changed everything.”
Now everything in the tombs of the NecroDancer are defined by merry melodies. Minotaurs carry harps. There’s a heavy metal grim reaper, appropriately named Death Metal, that scurries around at the speed of a double-pedal drum. One of the possible bosses the player may encounter is a conga line of zombies. The game isn’t just about dancing, but learning the floor moves of your opponents to stay two steps ahead of them. Though the combination of high fantasy and high fidelity was a design solution, it’s one NecroDancer isn’t shy to lose itself to.
“You can’t just go around putting two things together,” says Clark, “I did this because it felt good. I didn’t set out to mash things together just to see how’d they work. I once put together a mashup of Breakout and Katamari Damacy. The reason I did that is because, in Breakout, it often gets more boring as the level goes on, there’s fewer bricks, and that last brick is a pain to hit. I thought, what if your ball is getting bigger like in Katamari? So at the end of the level, it’s more fun, your ball is huge and you’re smashing more stuff. I mashed them up to solve a design problem. And with here, I mashed these things up to make roguelikes fair.”
Clark’s strange little patchwork is getting hype because he set out to make a good game first, and combining it with something else turned out to be a way to make it better.
RPG’s aren’t shy to rhythm flair. 2012’s Theatrhythm sought to put Final Fantasy in a musical context, and though it is a fun game, it leans far further to the music game side of things. Likewise, Kingdom Hearts II and other games have included “musical” segments under the idea that they may be fun. Or entertaining. Or endearing. Or anything other than nauseating.
If you’re just duct-taping together two genres you like, or, worse, trying to ride the fandoms of two niches, you’re likely going to end up trying to wedge a square peg into a circle slot. Clark’s strange little patchwork is getting hype because he set out to make a good game first, and combining it with something else turned out to be a way to make it better.
“I think most of those start out as a mashup for the sake of making a mashup,” says Clark. “They end up being wacky but don’t have much depth to them. I just can’t think of one that’s exciting.”
Well, now we have at least one.