Gaming on the NES at its peak saw many action games that pushed players to their absolute limits. Some may consider most of these titles to be unfair game design or cheap. Games like the Ninja Gaiden trilogy, Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight, the Castlevania series, and the Mega Man entries guaranteed savage, sweat-running-down-your-face challenges.
Gamers who grew up playing these games are now developing their own, recreating some of the experiences with some modern flair. A crucial aspect of the games we grew up with was the shameless theft among the titles. Developers then and now can’t help themselves but jam-pack their games full of the stuff they love.
Konami was especially notorious for lifting movie imagery and using it in their games, such as Metal Gear, and for how Frazetta art and some shots from Vampire Hunter D (1985) made their way into Castlevania. With Prison City, Programancer harkens back to the days when creators were cavalier with their inspirations, tightly fitting it all into a sadistic action platformer.
Developer: Retroware, Programancer
Publisher: Retroware, Screenwave Media
Platforms: Windows PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release Date: November 16, 2023
Price: $16.99 USD
Prison City wastes no time in letting the player know exactly what kind of game that’s in store for them. Almost immediately, the absurd density and speed of the barrage of references will cause whiplash.
The premise is lifted straight out of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), but set in Detroit. Like in the film, Prison City has the entire city walled off and Hal, a rugged, one-eyed anti-hero, is sent in. Since it is set in Detroit, there are references to RoboCop and since there are endless references to the 80s, Die Hard gets a nod too.
Numerous cues to Metal Gear are made too. Hal’s design is a mixture of Solid Snake, Snake Plissken, and Steve Hermann from Shatterhand. Some of the foes he goes up against are homages Lord Humungous from The Road Warrior, The Toxic Avenger, and even a Hind D. Even the gameplay is a mix of Mega Man style stage selection and action that combines aspects of Vice: Project Doom, Shatterhand, Batman, and Ninja Gaiden.
There is never a moment where Prison City isn’t referencing something. It gets to a point where it becomes impossible to get invested in anything that the premise has to offer. Right down to Hal using the codec from the old Metal Gear games and one of the bosses being a game of Pong.
One of the few things that are original in Prison City is Hal’s chakram combat which is powered by a stamina meter. By holding directions with the d-pad, they can be used to swing around front-armored enemies and hit their weak spots in the back.
The Chakrams are all Hal has to fight. He gets no other weapons or combat techniques. The best Prison City can offer are one-time-use grenades that clear the screen of threats or a powered-up chakram attack. This severely limits the variety in the game since there is no sense of growth or progression.
The only upgrades are hidden health or stamina capacity boosts. Each of the eight main levels gets only either the HP or stamina boosts; making each stage have only one secret each.
Other than the chakrams, Hal’s other main ability is climbing and sliding. He can grab onto ledges which is handy when saving yourself from a fatal fall, but more importantly, is latching onto chainlink walls and horizontal cables. The best aspects of Prison City’s level design are centered around these abilities and the game seemingly takes it as far as it possibly can.
As for the levels, they all follow the standard Mega Man format of following specific themes with some minor exceptions. There are always the expected ice stage, jungle stage, sewer stage, electric stage, fire stage, and a stage where you’re on a fast bike. The one that stood out was the sports arena where the enemies are psychos with sports equipment.
One original flourish is that each stage is a closed loop where Hal can fully explore it. The goal is to unlock the door to fight the prison wardens of each stage and to do that, Hal has to find an operative who will give him the key. The door to the boss is usually found early and players will be free to explore the nonlinear levels to find the operatives.
This is the most unique aspect of Prison City. The operatives aren’t that well hidden and the stages aren’t huge, but the game is so difficult that it makes everything feel much further than it is.
Prison City plays it very safe with theming and ideas. It won’t win any originality awards and if it weren’t for its unbelievably cool pixel art, and Sunsoft-esque chiptune music, it could have easily been forgettable.
Things get most creative with the boss battles. Most of them are unique gimmicky fights, with only the final few bosses being more traditional encounters one might expect out of a real NES game. One boss has Hal fight him in a sewer with rising and falling water that affects the jumping physics. Another has Hal on a motorcycle and one is what it would be like to fight a Metal Gear as a 2D action platformer.
Getting the key and facing the boss is easier said than done due to the brutal difficulty. Prison City manages to capture the harsh and cruel challenge of what NES games were like. It may not be long, but it makes up for it by having some twisted platforming challenges with some annoyingly placed foes.
Prison City is a very solid retro throwback action platformer. It lacks originality and the main character is boring because he barely says anything more complex than one-word sentences. The challenge is hearty and gamers will find the references endearing… if they can survive long enough to see them.
Prison City was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code provided by Retroware. Additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy can be found here. Prison City is now available for Windows PC (via Steam), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.