I’m not generally the biggest fan of roguelikes. Unless the game has Fire Emblem in the title, mechanics like perma-death and having to start again from scratch do not appeal to me. It’s difficult for me to play a game that feels like running into a brick wall until I somehow break through, and a lot of the roguelikes feel exactly like that. But when I looked at Black Future ‘88, an indie roguelike from Super Scary Snakes, I was still intrigued. The frantic action was different than a lot of turn-based, methodical roguelikes, and despite usually turning away from the genre, I wanted to give this side-scrolling, bullet-hell roguelike a try. Thankfully, I was not disappointed!
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In the word of Black Future ‘88, your life is measured in minutes — not days or years. In fact, you only have 18 minutes to climb a deadly tower and defeat the man who caused the end of the world before your heart explodes… and you die. Defeating the villain won’t save your life, the game admits, but at least you will have done something good in your last moments.
Normally, placing a time limit would make me about as anxious as the whole perma-death thing. I don’t have the patience for most games that force a tight time limit, either, and 18 minutes to get through a tower that changes every time you enter sounds like anxiety central.
However, I actually found the time limit more freeing than restrictive. In many roguelikes, you can spend hours on a run only to be ruined by a tough enemy or bad luck. In Black Future ‘88, runs mostly last mere minutes, and the fact that I didn’t waste so much time on, say, a bard run only encouraged me to hop back in for more — instead of urging me to close the game in frustration.
Ten Percent Luck
Every new run in Black Future ’88 resets the layout of the tower, so you’ll fight in new rooms with different enemy arrangements every single time. Things like events and item drops are also randomized, as well. If you’ve played a roguelike before, you probably get the idea.
Also like most roguelikes, this element of randomization keeps each run feeling fresh, while also introducing a bit of luck into each run that can help or hinder your progress. A good attempt will always be easier if you get a snazzy gun early on, and it’ll always be harder if you can’t find any Blood Packs to heal your health. Again: it’s pretty familiar stuff.
But given that runs are so short, Black Future ‘88 keeps itself from falling victim to its own randomness. Each run also earns you experience, which will unlock more and better weapons unlocks. So as you keep playing, the game slowly tips the scales in your favor, which means eventually you’ll make it to the top of the tower. It’s a nice progression system that makes every run feel like progress — in the vein of a Dead Cells or Rogue Legacy — whether that’s unlocking a new item or just learning to charge head-first into a room on two health, without checking to see if there’s a pit just through the door.
Fifteen Percent Skill
However, a good setup will not ensure victory in Black Future ‘88. It’s a side-scrolling shooter, similar to older Contra games, but with even more bullets flying on the screen at once. Killing an enemy faster with a good gun can up your survival chances, but if you run into bullets regardless, you’ll never get far.
Those that want to reach the top of the tower will need to master the dash ability. Dashing allows the player to dodge bullets and has a fair amount of i-frames (a short period where you’re invincible) so you’re less likely to dash straight into incoming fire. Of course, that’s entirely possible if you mistime your dash, but it never feels cheap; it’s definitely your fault if you dodge and end up eating a rocket.
There is a caveat regarding dashing, though. You can only do it once (sometimes twice, depending on your loadout) before waiting a few seconds for it to recharge. So you can’t spam the dodge button to try and avoid everything. You’ll just end up vulnerable when you need to dash the most. This is especially true during boss fights, where some attacks are nearly impossible to avoid unless you dodge.
Twenty Percent Concentrated Power of Will
Working through normal enemy mobs is more satisfying — even if their movesets are seemingly simpler than a top-tier baddie. Sure, a sniper can only shoot along its laser sights and seems like no threat at all, but throw in other foes that can stream bullets, and other whose attacks follow you around, and you may suddenly end up dead at the hands of an “easy” enemy.
As a matter of fact, boss battles are the weakest point in Black Future ‘88. They usually follow the same pattern of attacks, and memorizing them can somewhat trivialize the fight. Of course, bosses are still extremely dangerous, but if you know what’s coming next and can react, it’s a lot easier to take down a head honcho you’ve fought enough times — as supposed to a particularly tricky, more randomized mob of enemies. Bosses almost serve as a short respite between the true action than skill checks and challenges.
Factor in enemy placement, skills you can unlock, and the unique nature of each available characters, and there’s a lot more at play here than just shooting someone in the face. As you learn what makes Black Future ‘88 tick, you’ll get better and able to survive longer, which is the ultimate goal in any roguelike. It can be difficult to feel like you’re at a point where you’re good at the game, but Black Future ‘88 is generally pretty good about making you feel like you’re progressing and getting better.
Not All Pretty Neon Lights
To conquer Black Future ‘88, you have to keep heading back into the tower, dying over and over and unlocking more stuff as you go. While overall this is a fun gameplay loop, after a while a few seams start to show.
At times, it’s hard to tell what may hurt you by touching it. There have been a few times where a wall or something had a damaging effect on it, but I couldn’t tell by looking at it. It’s even worse when bullets start flying everywhere, as they obscure platforms and walls. The spikes glow a bit, but so do the doors, the projectiles, and practically everything else, so they aren’t always well signposted.
Also, while the colors are a bit more muted than the standard 1980s throwback style, this is definitely not a game for those sensitive to light. When fighting, the on-screen flashing is bright and constant. Black Future ‘88 revels in the spectacle. I’m not normally very photosensitive, but this particular game did eventually give me a mild case of eye strain from trying to (futilely) track everything on the screen. It’s the kind of game where those epilepsy warnings you always see totally make sense.
There are settings to alleviate these issues somewhat, and I loved the style that Black Future ‘88 went for with the grungy yet still eye-catching visuals, but it’s hard to sit down and play in long bursts. In that case, the time limit once again works in the game’s favor. For me, though, sitting down for play sessions longer than an hour or so did not make a fun time.
Back to the Future
If you’re looking for a new roguelike and want something with a bit of action, you can’t really go wrong with Black Future ‘88. It doesn’t reinvent the roguelike wheel by any stretch. But it’s a stylish game that’s a lot of fun, and thanks to the time limit, all runs are quick and action-packed, leaving little room for frustrating run-enders. There are some small problems, but ultimately nothing game-breaking, and there’s nothing in Black Future ‘88 that would put me off from loading up the game again. I can’t personally say that for a lot of other roguelikes. For that alone I find it an easy recommendation.
Black Future '88
Fans of Dead Cells, Rogue Legacy, and maybe even old school Contra can look to Black Future '88 for a truly quick fix of roguelike fun.
- The time limit makes runs fast and it feels like no time is wasted
- Fast and frantic gunplay makes the game fun to play
- The grungy yet colorful graphics and grainy audio really nail the 80's aesthetic
- The art style can be tough on the eyes, especially for extended play sessions
- Boss battles are weak and relatively easy to memorize
- Taking damage to spikes you didn't notice is lame