Out of all the vast and infinite styles of games out there, the old GameBoy aesthetic still has a special place in my heart. It might be because it kept me company on those long childhood car trips, it might be because it had some remarkably strange and creative games, or it might be because that little LCD did a whole lotta work. Whatever the reason, that pea-green pixel style is one that takes me right back to some of my favorite gaming experiences. It’s a look that’s not often imitated these days, and I consider that a loss for gamers too young to have carted around one of those brick systems.
This is why I have such a unique fondness for the GBJAM, an annual game jam that challenges creators to make something playable with only four colors and a 160×144 screen. GBJAM 5 was the most recent one back in 2016 (this year’s event never seemed to get off the ground for some reason) and featured nearly 400 creations across pretty much every genre imaginable. Today we’ll be taking a look at several browser-playable entries to give an idea of the range this jam covered. With so many titles available though, I’d definitely suggest checking it out yourself.
LURK – Man, I wish the GameBoy had a roguelike like this back in the day. LURK follows the common conventions of the genre, dropping you onto randomized single-screen dungeon floors to navigate to the stairs down. There are plenty of items to pick up like swords and potions (surprisingly identifiable despite the tiny resolution) and plenty of monsters to harangue you with their unique patterns. It’s simple bump combat but you’ve got room to maneuver and the turn-based pacing gives you time to think. Give it a try if procedural death labyrinths are your thing.
MARS TYPE I – Reminiscent of R-TYPE or even Abbadox if you can remember that far back, this side-scrolling shmup has you battling gooey critters in orbit around Mars. Levels are plenty open, allowing you to work your way around and through clouds of streaking eyeballs and bullet-happy skulls. There are no powerups to be found outside of bomb pickups but the core mechanics are solid and there are multiple stages of alien-blasting to be had. As a fan of the shmups of yesteryear, this one pushed all the right buttons for me.
EXIT – If you’ve ever wondered how creepy a GameBoy game could possibly be, this one might hold the answer. EXIT is an intensely atmospheric first-person puzzler where you navigate darkened rooms to find a way out. The graphics are first-rate, using the tiny color palette to the fullest to keep you in the dark about what may lurk in the darkness. Some impressively oppressive sound design helps make this one terrifying even when simply crossing a room. I had some trouble with the mouse controls but aside from that, this was a spooky little gem.
Bob&Dob – I’ve been playing a lot of Stardew Valley lately and I can’t stop fishing, so this one immediately appealed to me. It’s more of a proof-of-concept than a full game but you play little Bob and his seal (?) buddy Dob out on a side-scrolling fishing trip. Casting your line actually chucks Dob into the sea for you to guide around and gobble up fish. There’s a collection list of different fish to catch and a store to upgrade your gear, so it’s not hard to spend plenty of time splashing around in this one.
Ottopunk – One of my favorite things about game jams is seeing themes and settings that most wouldn’t think to base an entire game around. Ottopunk features a unique techno-Arabian motif that feels like Prince of Persia mixed with Borderlands. Your airship has crashed in the desert and a kindly merchant can fix it if you bring back the parts, but there’s an army of laser-totting robots between you and the goods. Your spy little guy can dash like a ninja but consumes water to do it, so you have to use your mobility sparingly. Not too sparingly though, because there’s no shortage of high-speed hijinks here.
Ultimate Evil – If Resident Evil had somehow made it to the GameBoy, it might have looked something like this. Take a first-person romp through a spooky mansion in search of keys, notes, and more keys while trying not to end up as zombie food. The graphics and movement are nice and smooth, with just enough detail to let you know where items and foes are. Combat is pretty basic and it does boil down to a key hunt, but the low-res stylings and creepy atmosphere keep it fresh.
Gunsheep – This one’s worth a mention just for the ridiculous premise and mechanics. You play a two-legged sheep accidentally bestowed with an arsenal of high-powered firearms. He’s hardly mobile on his own but you can use the recoil of the different weapons to bounce him into the air and launch off in different directions. You’ll spend most of your time QWOPing around with the controls but it’s worth at least a laugh, and the lovely pixel art doesn’t hurt either. I’m not even sure what exactly the point is and I’m not sure I care, because bouncing around and unintentionally blowing things away was surprisingly fun.