While it may not the most populous genre, I’ve long since had a soft spot for twin-stick shooters, which I first encountered through Smash TV on Midway Arcade Treasures for the PlayStation 2 when I was in the second grade. There’s something incredibly satisfying to me about taking on hordes of baddies from all directions.
That’s why it should come as no surprise that I simply had to snap up Iron Crypticle as soon as I discovered it. Again, since there aren’t really that many twin-stick shooters out there, I figured I may as well try every example in existence. I wanted to see for myself what enhancements this modern outing brought to the proverbial table.
On top of that, I knew Iron Crypticle would eventually come to arcades via Exa-Arcadia, so I decided to give the home version a spin in advance. With these factors indicating a perfect match for my gaming sensibilities, did Iron Crypticle live up to my sky-high expectations? I guess you’ll just have to read the review to find out, suckers.
Developer: Confused Pelican, Tikipod
Release date: February 13, 2019
As alluded to in my overly verbose opener, Iron Crypticle is a twin-stick shooter—meaning you can aim your weapon independently of your movement by utilizing both analog sticks—presented from a top-down perspective. The primary goal is to eradicate hundreds of enemies room-by-room until you clear the final floor.
This may sound simple enough on paper, but you’ll find the sheer volume of enemies will often force you into precarious positions in practice. Being able to shoot in all directions is a real blessing when you find yourself stuck in the middle of a swarm or backed into a corner of the room. You may not always make it out alive.
As with any good twin-stick shooter, you’ll uncover a plethora of special weapons along the way. Some of these are admittedly more useful than others—I’m looking at you, grenade launcher type-thing—but I never took for granted the opportunity to shake things up. (The throwing swords are a particular favorite of mine.)
Speaking of shaking things up, the playable knights possess some nifty abilities beyond running and shooting: a dash and an atomic fist. Barring the brief cooldown period after each use, you can dash as much as you like to get out of tight encounters. The atomic fist, on the other hand, is limited resource that instantly kills every enemy within a large radius.
Forebears such as Smash TV and Total Carnage have already demonstrated how incredibly satisfying this style of gameplay can be, so Iron Crypticle kicks the core gameplay up a notch by sprinkling in role-playing and rouge-like elements. Building up your stats and collecting loot becomes just as important as, you know, not dying.
Upgradable player stats include fire power and distance, movement speed, and special weapon duration. These upgrades appear as random drops in rooms or for purchase in shops. Loot drops the form of everything from food and coins to “B-O-N-U-S” letters and gems. Even ? hours in, I still haven’t found every conceivable collectible.
I think these make for superb additions to an otherwise fairly consistent formula, mainly because they add significant replay value beyond the base fun factor. I can’t say for sure I would’ve replayed Iron Crypticle nearly as much as I have if it weren’t for the overarching compulsions to fill out my ledger and get a higher score.
Myself and others have previously described Iron Crypticle as a cross between Smash TV and Gauntlet, but I’d like to amend that analogy here. Beyond the dungeon crawling, light RPG elements, and fantasy theme, Iron Crypticle doesn’t borrow too much from Gauntlet. (I consider this a good thing.)
As far as I can tell, the composition of each floor is randomly generated, but you’ll often find minigame rooms and shops along the way. The sole minigame, “Castle Crushers,” has you tackle a platforming challenge to collect coins and cake, the latter of which translates into hearts if you grab enough.
Shops offer a random assortment of four valuable goodies, including hearts, stat upgrades, “B-O-N-U-S” tiles and gems, and continues. You’ll use any coins you’ve extracted from enemies or Castle Crushers at these fine retailers, so make sure you come prepared.
Now’s as good a time as any for me to discuss the difficulty. Iron Crypticle is portioned into three difficulty modes: easy, normal, and hard. Easy feels very manageable for the first few floors only to crank things up near the end. Normal and hard go in guns blazing from the very beginning. At the very least, Iron Crypticle feels far more fair than Smash TV ever was.
This is partially because Iron Crypticle utilizes an ever-expanding health bar as opposed to a one-hit kill system. Plus, you can pick up hearts as you plow through rooms. That being said, dying is still very much a possibility, and one made all the more darning by the limited continues. If you use up all five…well, say goodbye to your run.
Fortunately, you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting through the entire campaign on five continues with a little practice, provided you have plenty of patience at your disposal. I eventually succeeded after months of intermittent attemps, and boy was it ever satisfying.
My only complaint with the limited continues is they kind of ruin multiplayer. Whether you play with one friend or three, you all share the same supply of five continues, which doesn’t feel fair at all. I have a strong feeling some of the friends I introduced to the game were turned off by this hindrance.
In fairness, I think it’s really neat that Iron Crypticle allows four players to lay waste to baddies simultaneously. Historically, many twin-stick shooters have been limited to one or two players at a time, so this is a big deal. I just wish the multiplayer had been handled in a way that’s more inviting to newcomers.
Regardless, Iron Crypticle is a gawdern blast. All the little twists to the tried-and-true formula make for an overall experience far less monotonous than twin-stick shooters of the past, so I think Iron Crypticle offers more mainstream appeal in comparison.
At face value, Iron Crypticle isn’t really that long of a game. The five-floor campaign only took me a few hours to beat in one go, but I spent far more hours developing the necessary skills to make that happen in the first place. I spaced these runs out over a couple years, taking breaks whenever I got overly frustrated.
Speaking of frustration, I enjoyed having three difficulty options. This way, I not only had more content to complete but also the ability to scale the experience to my liking. Completing the game on normal was a herculean task for me, but I could always come back to easy if I wanted to squeeze a few more hours out of the experience.
Once you reach the end, you’ll unlock a “New Game +” mode, offering even more floors and goodies than the base campaign. So far, I’ve only been able to reach the sixth floor, and I’m incredibly curious to see what other surprises lie in store. Could there be 10 floors awaiting me—or perhaps more?
Skilled players may crack the campaign quicker than I did, but fortunately, that’s not all there is to do. As I mentioned earlier, there’s an entire ledger to fill out as you discover new items on subsequent runs. My one qualm with the ledger is that it’s a bit too dependent on random events for my tastes.
Even more fun than the ledger are the challenges. These are essentially built-in achievements that range from simple (“Collect 30 lemons in a single game”) to taxing (“Complete the first floor on hard difficulty”). I don’t like that some challenges are hidden, though, because I’d rather the game be upfront with me.
If all this isn’t your cup of tea, there’s also an “Endless Mode” in the style of Robotron 2084. This a great mode to screw around with when you don’t have much time to set aside for gaming during a given session. Plus, those who prefer Robotron over Smash TV could derive more than enough satisfaction from this mode alone.
I only wish the multiplayer were better designed. In its current state—which, to reiterate, forces all players to share five measly continues—I can’t see myself getting much more mileage out of it than I already have. (I showed the game to a few of my friends and quickly realized it was far from ideal.)
No matter your level of commitment, Iron Crypticle offers a delicious sampling of content to explore. I’ve apparently played for “15 hours or more,” and I’m still not bored. Like Smash TV, I may ritually come back to this game once or twice a year for the remainder of my gaming days.
By designating Iron Crypticle a “twin-stick shooter,” I’m sure you already have some idea how the controls work. That being said, the title introduces way more innovations to the faithful formula than previous poster boys of the genre, and to marvelous effect.
Naturally, you move your character across the map with the left analog stick and fire your weapon with the right analog stick. The only “hang-up” here, similar to legacy offerings, is you’re limited to eight directions of movement. I personally feel upping the range to 16 would’ve facilitated greater precision.
Enhancing the usual twin-stick shenanigans are the dash and atomic fist. As I explained earlier, the dash is an unlimited ability that allows you to zip past enemies and recharges after each use. All you need to do to activate it is hit the L button.
The atomic fist in a limited ability that wipes out all enemies within a defined radius and can be replenished by picking up the associated powerup. Deploying this absolute gosh-send is a simple as tapping the R button.
I wholeheartedly believe these innocuous additions add immense value to the tried-and-true twin-stick shooter framework, and I’m sure you’ll feel the same. Fewer of my deaths in Iron Crypticle seemed unnecessarily cheap compared to, say, Smash TV, in which most of my deaths seemed as such.
My only teensy-tiny nitpick is the platforming in the Castle Crushers minigame felt a touch too floaty. Fortunately, this is not only a relatively insignificant drawback but also one with which can be easily contended.
The bottom line is Iron Crypticle controls like a dream, taking everything fans know and love about twin-stick shooters and kicking it up a notch without completely turning the formula on its head. That’s all I want out of a retro revival.
Iron Crypticle goes present a decidedly retro aesthetic, which I understand isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Fortunately, this particular art style is more Smash TV than it is Robotron 2084. (Pixel art hasn’t let released its grip on the indie development scene, it seems.)
While the sprite work is good, Iron Crypticle doesn’t exuberate anywhere close to as much personality as Smash TV or Total Carnage. The grunts and environments feel like fantasy done “by the numbers.” Only the hulking bosses are distinct, yet even those borrow mechanics from Smash TV.
All this isn’t to say Iron Crypticle is a drab visual experience. I like the playable characters and “excuse plot” just fine. I only wish the game felt more impactful. As it stands, Iron Crypticle certainly isn’t as tongue-in-cheek as Smash TV, nor does it seem that serious. Perhaps my standards are too lofty.
On the bright side, the game runs like butter, no matter how many ugly sons of guns populate the screen. I’ve never once seen the framerate stutter or the resolution drop. This is another substantial improvement Iron Crypticle makes over Smash TV, which constantly buckles under its own weight.
I’ll offer major praise to the menus and heads-up display, too. From the instructions to player stats, the developers succeeded in communicating loads of technical information to the player with minimal text. I’d wager even non-readers could comprehend all the basic concepts fairly quickly. The presentation ain’t half bad.
If there’s one thing I don’t much like about Iron Crypticle, it’s the sound design. More specifically, the soundtrack is so incredibly limited that it’s more annoying than it is memorable. This is one of those games best played while listening to your own music. (Here are some of my personal recommendations.)
Of course, Smash TV didn’t have much of soundtrack either. The prime difference? The sound effects were ridiculously raucous. The sound effects in Iron Crypticle don’t have quite enough punch to make up for the shortcomings in the soundtrack. Plus, there aren’t any voiceovers to tie things together.
Still, I can’t honestly say the audio design is outright awful. I respect the way Iron Crypticle sounds. It’s subtle, subdued. However, that’s not a style with which I jive. I’m all about mountain-moving melodies and eardrum-shattering effects. Maybe the sound design will impress other players to a greater degree.
The twin-stick shooter genre is admittedly not for everyone. After all, this particular style of gameplay has well earned its reputation for being highly repetitive and brutally unfair. While it may feel less repetitive and fairer than its predecessors, Iron Crypticle still intentionally harkens back to the “good ol’ days.”
However, for those who love twin-stick shooters as much as I do, this title will scratch your itch for more action with remarkable zeal. Iron Crypticle is undeniably the Smash TV and Total Carnage of the modern—only 10 times better. I suppose that’s what we should expect from a game with nearly three decades of hindsight at its disposal.
I’ve returned to Iron Crypticle countless times since installing it on my Switch and haven’t yet grown bored of it, which I’d call a true testament to the vast depth hidden within this unassuming arcade callback. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll play Renegade Ops for the PlayStation 3. (Remember that relic?)