Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pixel Force Halo (PC) Review

While many of you may have heard about this already, I hadn't until seeing this blog post on Pixel Force Halo is the work of one Eric Ruth, and it's a "demake" of Halo: Combat Evolved into a Nintendo Entertainment System Rom. Released as a free download for the PC, Pixel Force Halo sees the Master Chief take on the Covenant on Installation 04 (Halo) in 8-bit glory with all the platforming, side-scrolling, and cheesy boss battles you'd expect from a NES inspired title.

Eric, who was the sole person to work on the title, kept both design and control true to how a Nintendo game played back in the '80's. To control the Master Chief, you use "W,A,S,D" to move left and right and to look up and down, "H" fires your gun, "U" jumps, and "Space" throws Frag Grenades. Personally, I would have liked to remap firing, jumping, and throwing Grenades to different keys, but after a little tinkering, you get used to it.

Just like Halo: Combat Evolved, there are 10 Missions to play through, each preceded by a text briefing from Cortana. The Chapter "Two Betrayals" is missing from Pixel Force Halo, however, and "The Truth and Reconciliation" is split into two Missions (approaching the ship is one and rescuing Captain Keyes is another). The story, however, follows exactly what you remember from Halo: Combat Evolved, save that there's no cinematics or dialogue as this is a NES emulated title. Actually, true to retro-gaming, you can't even save your game progress at any point, though you can Pause by pressing "Enter."

Each Mission is broken down into sections, so if you die, you start your section over and not the entire Mission. You don't have any Shields in Pixel Force Halo, just several Health Bars that you can replenish with Medkits along the way. Keep in mind Boss battles are part of a section's end, so die to them and you'll need to fight your way back again. There's also only one Difficulty to start, and completing the game unlocks Legendary Difficulty for your next playthrough.

Beginning aboard the Pillar of Autumn, the Master Chief starts with an Assault Rifle and four Frag Grenades, and if you run out of ammo for any weapon you're using you're left with a slow single shot gun which I assume to be the Pistol.

Originally, you'll only be taking on Grunts who are armed with Plasma Pistols (which you can pick up by press "S" while standing over them) or stationary Plasma Mortars. The boss of the first Mission is an Elite who has a Needler and Plasma Grenades. The Needler is a great weapon that tracks enemies, and you sadly can't pick up Plasma Grenades but they are sticky and have a blast radius large enough to hit you on a platform above or below, so be careful.

In the second mission, Elites become a common enemy, and such is the case with all boss battles save for a few key exceptions; the next Mission will feature the boss as a regular foe. Banshees, Hunters (who do _not_ appear in pairs, use a Plasma Rifle, and charge a lot), Jackals (who are invincible at the front with their Energy Gauntlet and throw Plasma Grenades), Stealth Elites, Elite Zealots, Flood Combat Forms, 343 Guilt Spark, and a Proto-Gravemind all make an appearance and by the last few Missions the game was quite challenging, and honestly frustrating, just like NES game's of old. All enemies also feature simple and predictable AI routines just like games of old, and you'll need to exploit these as often as possible.

Pixel Force Halo becomes plagued with classic and cheesy platforming deaths, if you turn too quickly and fire you'll shoot in the opposite direction of what you intended, and I once even had an odd bug of a hovering, floating Elite Zealot. Being a classic-styled NES game, all enemies respawn off-screen if you go backwards or forwards, and yes, the floating Zealot came back. By the end of the game, I was sorely missing even a simple Checkpoint save system.

There is, however, some great top-down vehicle sequences. In Mission 2 and Mission 5, you get to drive a Warthog shooting and running over Grunts while dodging their Plasma Pistols and avoiding invincible Shade Turrets. The two sequences depicted are when you're searching for survivors from the Lifeboats after you first crash land on Halo and when you're making your way to the Silent Cartographer.

The last vehicle sequence sees you driving the Scorpion Main Battle Tank, which allows you to fire its machine gun, and you can also shoot Canister Shells as an alternate attack. I recall this sequence taking place on Mission 6 while making your way to Halo's Control Room, and to increase the challenge the Grunts are tougher and fire faster and Ghosts are also present who shot twin bolts of plasma.

Visually speaking, Eric did a fantastic job of bringing the Halo universe to 8-bit. Characters are clearly identifiable as their Xbox counterparts, though the models used for reference appear to be those of Halo 3 (Jackal's have their long beaks, for example). The locations are colourful and detailed for sprites, and just like character models, the locations are clearly recognizable for what they are with Human, Covenant, and Forerunner architecture clearly evident.

Audio-wise, hearing the Halo: Combat Evolved soundtrack in midi was exceptional and totally had me geeking out. There's no spoken dialogue and weapon effects and explosions are naturally very simple as one would expect from a NES game. It all fits together and works wonderfully well given the scope of the title.

Pixel Force Halo doesn't take long to complete, clocking me in at about 2 to 3 hours. It offers a great retro Halo experience that truly brings the spirit of the original game back to the '80's, and as mentioned, it's a free download to all. Be warned, however, that the last few Mission's were very challenging, and you'll likely need the 3 P's of gaming to get you through them. Honestly, I would have loved to have been able to save my Mission progress so I could have taken a proper breather, but of course that wasn't possible, which added to my frustration.

From one perspective, Pixel Force Halo shows us how much games have changed, not just in terms of technology, but in terms of difficulty and accessibility. Games released today are easier, and not just due to multiple difficulty levels. They're far less challenging but more accessible to the average person, which sports both pros and cons depending on what you like for your gaming experience. Overall though, Pixel Force Halo is a thoroughly enjoyable nostalgic experience that any side-scrolling platformer fan should check out.

I'll leave you with the game's trailer, since it shows off what the title really has to offer:

For those looking to get their hands on Pixel Force Halo, you can download it for free right here. It's a self-running executable that you just need to uncompressed, with no actual installation needed. Very simply, just make sure to read the Read Me file first.

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