Review: Devolver Bootleg

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Demakes are a trend in gaming I wish would catch on, because they offer an interesting way to analyze the original title. A demake, if the name doesn’t give it away, is a pared-down version of a game, usually presented in a retro style somewhere in the NES zone. Because a demake strips so much from the original game, it provides a new perspective on what makes it work or not work by reforming a new game more fully around a central theme. Devolver Bootleg is an entire collection of just that, stripped-down facsimiles of titles like Enter the Gungeon, Hotline Miami, and Gato Roboto, created by the developers of that last one. It is, by its very nature, an uneven offering, but one that’s varied and creative enough that you’re likely to find something that really clicks with you.

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Devolver Bootleg is eight games rolled up in a cute little DOS-like wrapper, each a riff on one of Devolver’s actual releases. You’ll find demakes of Enter the Gungeon, Hotline Miami, Ape Out, Downwell, Luftrausers, Absolver, Gato Roboto, and Pikuniku here, though some stray further from the source material than others. All are presented in fine 8-bit style seemingly taken straight from the classic Nintendo, and indeed the controls are limited to directions, two buttons, a pause menu, and a system menu. They cover a range of genres, from top-down action to platforming challenges and side-scrolling shooting, with two multiplayer-only offerings that you’ll need friends present for. None of them are particularly sprawling, though, and will last you thirty or forty minutes at best if you can blast through the levels to the end.

I could go through each game individually, but it seems unnecessary in light of how varied the collection is. There’s a certain charm in seeing a game you like reduced to a retro reflection of itself but there’s no guarantee you’re going to appreciate it the same way. Like I said, these demakes focus the gameplay down to just one or two of the elements of the original, turning it into a simpler, more arcadey take on a theme that might not have even been what you liked to begin with. Obviously the bigger, more sprawling games are going to lose more in the transition but even titles that were already retro like Downwell and Luftrousers have been transformed into something else.

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Take Enter the Gun Dungeon, for example. The original Gungeon is a vast array of wild guns and unlockable powers built around an ever-changing dungeon of sundry murder. There’s conduct to memorize, secrets to uncover, and hundreds of guns to experiment with. Gun Dungeon, on the other hand, is a crawl through seemingly infinite square chambers as you face off against tougher and tougher waves of enemies. You can shoot and dodge roll, but with no second stick your aim locks once you start firing. Enemies sometimes drop weapons like rapid fire and spread fire, which have limited ammo and only change your bullet pattern. All the exploration and wonder of the game is excised in favor of the methodical dodging and shooting, which is a bit of a tough sell even for fans of the original’s action.

I’m only mentioning this to calibrate your expectations, mind you. The point is that you’re not going to click with every demake here, but I can almost guarantee you’ll get attached to at least one. For me it was Hotline Milwaukee, a reduction of Hotline Miami to single puzzle rooms of enemies and a much sillier plot. Instead of the wild improvisation and messy executions of Miami, Milwaukee offers a more strategic approach where you can plan your entire run without fear of off-screen enemies or deadly surprises. Ape Out Jr. is another one, turning the puzzle action of Ape Out into a classic Donkey Kong platforming challenge to execute hunters and reach the elevator.

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The real value here is seeing these different gameplay systems boiled down to their barest essentials and finding what works, and naturally not everything’s going to work for you. Gungeon and Downwell are two of my favorite games but their demakes lose a lot of the magic they hold for me. Meanwhile I was always cool on Hotline Miami but its demake was compelling enough to beat in a single sitting. The retro stylings are on point in both audio and visual design and convey exactly what they need to while hearkening back to the consoles of yore. Devolver Bootleg is a fun experiment in game design, one that you’re sure to find value in as you discover new perspectives on games you thought you knew.

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