Just weeks away from the much-anticipated Stranger Things Season 2 release date, Netflix has a mobile treat for nostalgia fans! Few shows nail the 1980’s vibe like Stranger Things. If you aren’t aware, Stranger Things is a combination of Speilberg, Stephen King and a dash of John Hughes’ style in a sci-fi/horror drama set in a small Indiana town in 1984. To me, the series recalls E.T. and the Goonies and accurately recreates what it was like being a kid in an average Midwest neighborhood in the 80’s, riding bikes, playing tabletop RPGs and forging unbreakable bonds of friendship…except that they also stumble into a supernatural government conspiracy.
Netflix has just released an amazing SNES styled retro adventure/RPG demake based on Stranger Things. Given that the show is so heavily steeped in nostalgia, a 16-bit retro game makes perfect sense. The game feels like Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past game engine but in the Stranger Things world of Hawkins, Indiana.
Beyond here are spoilers of the show, you’ve been warned.
The game begins with an 8-bit version of the show’s amazing theme. It’s so good I never skip it. You begin waking up in your bed (another nod to 16-bit console RPGs) as Chief Hopper. The game takes you thru familiar Hawkins locations, starting with the Hawkins Lab and eventually visiting the High school, the Quarry, Mirkwood and lots of downtown locations. There are great deep references to the show, such as owl attack reports and missing garden gnomes (the worst things to happen on Hopper’s watch until Will vanishes). If you pay careful attention, you’ll even notice the various henchmen you encounter look like the baddies working for the Department of Energy in the show. Little touches like this really make the game great.
There is nothing to establish when the game takes place, but everything seems to be pointing to a (probably) non-canon story taking on place after the events of season one. Hawkins Lab baddies are still at large. The fact that the Byers’ home has the crack Joyce smashed in the wall and the letters scrawled in the main room seem to support this theory. Additionally, there’s a dried up pool in the school gym, and Hopper remarks to Lucas, “Don’t worry about me, I’ve done this before” as he crawls into the Upside Down for the first time in the game.
Each character that you find has different powers. Hopper can take a beating and fights with his fists, Lucas has his handy slingshot that can hit switches at a distance and keep enemies back. Nancy is wimpy but wields her baseball bat which can bust down walls and logs. Mike has a flashlight and his bike which allows high-speed travel and jumping ramps. I am about five chapters in, but I’m assuming I’ll get Eleven on my team at one point as there are random Swimming Pools just set up in ridiculous places like the woods and alleyways of Hawkins. I’m hoping these will be dark world-like back-and-forth Zelda puzzles. There’s even a character who will become available (presumably with more content and quests) once season 2 is released on October 27th.
There are clearly things that never happened in the show. I don’t remember Hopper punching rats while exploring the morgue, or Nancy singlehandedly taking out 7 armed guards, but hey, it’s an RPG, gotta have battles. And the battles are good! The controls are perfect for iOS and Android; no on-screen d-pad garbage. Quick finger mashing does help in some battles but it never feels like a weak mechanic.
Much like Zelda, engaging a single enemy doesn’t seem dangerous or complicated to handle, but before you know it, you can be quickly overwhelmed. Enemies often play a role In the puzzles too. Boss fights are classic 16-bit stuff, finding the weakness or pattern to the enemy. The “Classic” mode is far more challenging if you’re finding the game too simple.
Tricky puzzles also pervade the game. I noticed in iTunes reviews some people couldn’t even solve the switch puzzle near the end of he first area. In my opinion, the puzzles are just tough enough to be a challenge but not so complex make you want to give up. You can switch characters at any moment which is also an element in some puzzles.
The game has a great sense of humor and keeps you from getting bored. There’s even a Polybius box in the arcade. Frequent trips into the Upside Down crank up the suspense and danger level. The bike chase levels break up the standard play into action sequences (after twenty minutes of endless bike riding I realized I was supposed to be tricking the van into crashing into stuff in the road.
The only complaint I have is the game feels like it’s 90% dungeons in the first hour or two of play. The first linear section is there for a reason; it slowly teaches you the game’s mechanics without it feeling like a chatty tutorial. After you beat that section, you’re free to roam around Hawkins at random. However, you won’t find much to do at that point. Much like Metroid, the game seems somewhat linear at first, lots of dead ends and locked off areas but each character you get broadens your reach into various corners of the town. In fact, you are collecting money for a full two chapters, wondering if its for anything but just score, but suddenly there are shops available rather deep into the game (so make time to get all those coins).
Another small complaint is there are tons of computers, books and TVs all say the same messages, making them kind of pointless. After a certain point, though, you become cognizant of of just how big the game world so really is.
The entire game is free, no micro-transactions or tricks. It’s basically a giant ad for season two that drops in a few weeks on the 31st. Apparently beating the game will unlock a secret scene relating to season 2. I’ve been playing for hours the last few days and only unlocked about 22%, so it’s clear this game will be on my phone for quite some time.