And so begins your journey through Crazy Viking Studios’ 2D tribute to the difficult 16-bit titles of old, Volgarr the Viking. If you’re looking for a game with copious checkpoints, an Easy setting, or something more passive, I suggest you look elsewhere. Volgarr is a difficult game that may seem unfairly cruel at times, but once you master its perfect controls and understand how to properly approach its many obstacles and enemies, it will reward you with a gameplay experience like no other.
Its origins trace back to a small Kickstarter campaign launched in 2012 by just two guys: Kris Durrschmidt and Taron Millet. It successfully funded at the end of August, raising nearly $22,000 above and beyond the original $18,000 goal. There was definitely interest in making this game a success. One of my own biggest regrets was not knowing about this Kickstarter while it was happening. Had I known just how good this game was going to be, I would have sprung for the $150 tier, because the physical Sega Genesis box and cartridge would have simply been way too epic to pass up.
Fast-forward a little over a year to September 13, 2013 when Volgarr saw its public release. By then, I knew full well about it based on the buzz I’d been seeing online. Without a doubt, this looked like my kind of game. Tough, 2D, and meticulously constructed. I bought it, but as is the case with many of my purchases, it sat there unplayed while I focused my energy on Mario, Joel and Ellie, and the Nintendo Wii U.
So why did I choose this month to start? Well, when it comes to gaming, I fall into patterns and genres, and this summer has been all about retro games and platformers. Aban Hawkins & the 1001 Spikes, NES Remix, Electronic Super Joy, and Shovel Knight — which is another Kickstarter success story — are among the games that led up to my inevitable, true face-to-face with Volgarr…
…and I’m sorry I waited so long.
Before diving in, I have to quickly mention the manual. It’s fantastic! Styled just like a Sega Genesis manual from the ’90s, it’s full of great information, tips, lots of screenshots, and fun artwork. Again, I wish I could have this in physical form, but even digitally, it’s a thing of beauty.
Volgarr‘s gameplay will be familiar to those raised on the 8-bit and 16-bit games of the ’80s and ’90s. It owes a lot Taito’s 1987 arcade game Rastan, and even its opening scene will give fans of Taito’s game deja vu, but it pulls its influences from other classic games as well, including Magic Sword, Castlevania, and one of my all-time favorites, Ghouls’n Ghosts, which I did proudly beat back in the day.
Each area of the game is wonderfully and creatively constructed to not only challenge the player on an environmental level, but you’ll also have to contend with a myriad of cunning enemies, whose attacks are varied and extremely deadly.
And you will die. Over, and over, and over again. When I first began playing Volgarr, there was a moment early on where I was tempted to give up. I thought to myself, “Ugh, all this time I’m putting in, and I’m barely getting anywhere!” But then I realized that this was exactly the kind of experience that shaped me at a young age. Playing all of those tough games and beating them, no matter how impossible they might have seemed at the time.
That “one more try” quality is what makes Volgarr such a definitive experience for me. Mastery of the game’s techniques will turn you into an agile, bearded, loincloth-donning bad-ass. And you will take those skills with you — perhaps even arrogantly — through to see its three different endings.
To get you there, Volgarr had a wide assortment of moves and tools at his disposal. Most interestingly, his jumps have a single, predetermined arc. There are no low, mid, and high jumps, and if you jump in a direction, the only way to change which way you’re going is to initiate a double-jump. This is very similar to Super Ghouls’n Ghosts on the Super Nintendo. He also has throwing spears, swords, shields, and additional aides to help him through each world. Double-jumping will make Volgarr do a spin-attack, he can roll past enemies, and bring death from above with a downward thrust.
The entire gameplay experience is fantastic, complemented with its trademark controls, which are responsive and predictable. Crazy Viking Studios has also made a number of significant tweaks to the game to make it especially friendly to the speedrunners, which shows just how much they care about making this game appeal to serious players, completionists, and the competitive community.
Graphically, Volgarr get most things right. The character and enemy animation is simply out of this world, and the game itself moves along at a fluid and rock-solid 60fps. Volgarr himself possesses a ton of animation frames, including one of my favorite oldschool touches: idle animations. It always disappoints me when I play a game that lacks these.
The playfield can be either left in its default mode, or you can click a button to zoom out for a much wider view of your surroundings. The zoom effect itself is nice, and the feature itself is extremely functional and helpful.
The background and world art is also good, but isn’t a highlight of Volgarr‘s presentation. They have good color and are full of nice layers of parallax, but the level art isn’t as refined as the characters. When I think about the look of Sega Genesis games, I remember developers really extracting the most out of its limited color palette, blending and dithering together combinations that gave those titles their signature look. I am reminded less of those 16-bit console games here, and instead see early ’90s PC VGA games, which utilized fuller palettes, smoother gradients, and soft blurring.
As a result, I don’t think that the two different styles marry up quite as nicely as they could, but at the same time, the entire presentation does have a distinct, handcrafted look that gives Volgarr its uniqueness.
The audio, on the other hand, is across-the-board impressive, and it’s the one area of the game that belies its 16-bit exterior. That’s not a bad thing, however, as Volgarr is full of crisp, clear voice samples, vibrantly realistic sound effects, and a blood-pumping orchestral soundtrack, courtesy of composer Kochun Hu. While a more traditional Z80-based soundtrack might have been the preferred way to go, I think the music in Volgarr is great, and in my opinion, elevates the experience instead of it just being retro for the sake of it.
Volgarr was introduced for just $10 last year, and recently it saw a staggering sale price of $4 on GOG.com, but even at its full $12 asking price, this represents one of the best values in 2D side-scrolling action. There are six main worlds in the game, each broken into two long stages plus a boss battle. The main game gives the player unlimited lives, but sparse checkpoints. This is where players will hone their skills, learn enemy patterns, and master the game’s other various intricacies.
Beyond this, however, is a completely separate branch called the Path of the Valkyrie. This mode is comprised of remixed and redesigned worlds, plus a bonus seventh world and true final boss. It also features limited lives, which makes it a challenging, authentic, and super-fun arcade experience. Depending on how you do in this mode will determine which of the other two remaining endings you will get.
Speaking of the endings, they are all worth seeking out. Not only are they funny and entertaining to read, but they feature additional artwork not seen in the main game, plus a memorable credit sequence that is the icing on the cake.
In closing, Volgarr the Viking is so far my favorite game of 2014 that wasn’t released in 2014. It’s a game that truly respects the player’s patience, understanding, and perseverance, and it comes with my highest recommendation.
And now I shall pray to the Allfather Odin that Crazy Viking Studios will produce a sequel. The world existing with only one Volgarr game would be criminal.
- Graphics & Presentation: A-
Beautifully drawn and animated sprites, environmental effects, parallax scrolling, scaling, rotation, transparencies, and nice use of color. Some backgrounds and art appear muddy and are not as nicely detailed as the brilliant sprite work.
- Music & Sound Effects: A
An excellent orchestral soundtrack brings the world of Volgarr to life. Bone-crunching sound effects, atmospheric ambient textures, and crystal-clear voice samples round out the very impressive audio experience.
- Gameplay & Controls: A+
Perfect, ultra-responsive controls make this one of the most intuitive games I’ve played in recent memory. Branching paths, lots of secrets, and diabolical enemy and platforming challenges will put the most seasoned players to the test. Super-tough, but not unfair.
- Value: A+
It took me nearly the entire month of August to get all three of the game’s endings. For $12 or less — it’s currently part of Humble’s Adult Swim bundle! — Volgarr represents outstanding bang for your buck.
For more, including Volgarr playthrough videos with commentary, please check out my YouTube channel HERE.