Retro-inspired video games have never been more popular. If you head onto the Steam storefront and search the ‘Retro’ tag, you’ll be met with over sixty pages of titles to choose from. Some are good. Some are terrible. One is Dusk.
Dusk is the baby that Blood and Quake, two classic late 90s first-person shooters, would have. It has the small-town horror setting of the former that becomes the latter’s more twisted and Gothic environments. The weapons include pistols, explosives, and the all-important double-barrelled shotgun. The enemies are varied, creative, and numerous, whilst the pace is incredibly fast, Above all though, it’s fun.
This got me thinking about what makes a good retro game — beyond it being a good game to begin with. I’m reminded of Spaceguy 2 which was a first-person shooter clearly inspired by Blake Stone (another early first-person shooter) but was utterly dreadful. So I’ve decided to look into what aspects of nostalgia fuel Dusk gets so right that Spaceguy 2 really doesn’t.
This tends to be the first thing that comes to mind when people think of retro games. Some developers are happy to slap a pixel aesthetic on a game, call it retro, and have done with it. Very few go down the route of early polygonal games. If you take a look at something like Vaccine it’s easy to see why. That art style has not aged well, a fact that’s quite noticeable if you spend more than a few moments looking at the character models. Some recent games that have used this art style understand this very well though. Games like Strafe and Dusk are so incredibly fast-paced that you barely have a moment to notice anything that looks a bit wonky.
Of course, being talented enough to use that polygonal style in such a way to create varied, interesting, and indeed frightening monsters certainly helps. Dusk’s creators have made some genuinely unsettling creatures, helped along by the speed with which they barrel towards you.
This is, of course, the key aspect of any game, retro-inspired or otherwise. When it comes to retro-inspired games though, the gameplay is already there for the developers to apply to a modern game, so long as they understand it. This is where the teams of Spaceguy 2 and Dusk differ significantly from each other. Spaceguy 2 is perfunctory in its application of Blake Stone’s gameplay. The understanding is limited to the control scheme, how the enemies react to the player, and what weapons become available over time. There’s little in the way crafted levels or thoughtful enemy placement. As a consequence, deaths are often unfair, and you’ll regularly take damage with no way to avoid it.
Dusk, on the other hand, has a team that appears to understand how Quake and its ilk work. Even on the highest difficulty settings, enemies give you a chance to react rather than simply shooting you to death the moment you enter the room. You’re gradually taught how your opponents work when you first meet them before they become more numerous and mixed in with other enemy types. Add to that the fantastic weapons that are perfect throwbacks to the games that inspired Dusk. Everything feels powerful, and each weapon has its place for a given situation. Oh, and this is the best, most satisfying double-barrelled shotgun in a first person shooter in years.
A few bleeps and bloops aren’t going to cut it with a modern audience, even those looking for a classic experience. Spaceguy 2 sounds weak in pretty much all aspects. Its inspiration had a fun soundtrack, whilst this has next to no musical variety. Blake Stone had solid sound effects for its weapons and enemies, whilst the game inspired by it has none of this. Sound and music are incredibly important for creating a sense of the world your character inhabits.
Dusk realises this, with a fantastically fitting soundtrack right from the word go. The metal that pours from your speakers only lets up when the pace does, replacing it with something more sinister or ambient. Then there are the sound effects. That super shotgun sounds utterly brutal when unloading into a weak enemy, disintegrating it where it stands. Then there are the enemy sounds, letting you know what’s seen you and what’s coming up soon. There’s little more terrifying than the screech indicating one of the near-invisible goat demons is currently charging towards you.
Finally, we should consider what modern conventions have been put in place for the game. What is your game bringing that the classic that inspired it isn’t? When it comes to Spaceguy 2, there’s no reason to not go back to one of the classic games. It does nothing new, and in fact, has less than the games it seeks to bring into the modern era. Compare that to how Dusk handles bringing a classic game into the modern space.
Dusk actually does very little too, but it certainly doesn’t reduce the number of features. What it does add are simple quality of life inclusions. There’s plenty of customisation in terms of visuals, sounds, and controls, and some fun ways to keep the pace of your movement up such as sliding when you crouch on the run. Then there’s the inclusion of an Endless mode (essentially survival) for when you need a quick blast rather than playing through the campaign. Sometimes you don’t need a hundred more features, especially when what was already there was enough. Just don’t reduce the amount of content!
Creating a retro game is more than just slapping a classic art style over the game you were already making. You need to carefully look at the games of yesteryear and determine what about those games was fun, and what needs updating. I want to see more incredibly fun experiences like Dusk, and fewer cash grabs that rely on an eye-catching aesthetic. If you take nothing else away from this, at least take away that Dusk is a cracking first-person shooter that’s well worth your time!
Dusk is available now on PC via Steam.