Micro Mages shows new NES games at their very best

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The NES really is a remarkable piece of kit. Not only is it credited as the saviour of the western video game industry following the 1983 “great crash” in North America, but it’s somehow managed to remain relevant long into the 21st century. Because here we are in 2022, looking at Micro Mages, a new NES game that was released more than 35 years after its host platform.

Micro Mages is a game that you can download by itself — you can even get it on Steam in a ready-to-play format — but the reason we’re bringing it up today is that it’s the headline title on the newly released Morphcat Games Collection 1 cartridge for our favourite officially licensed retro gaming system, the Evercade. The Evercade VS is a great console on which to enjoy the game in its chaotic four-player cooperative mode — or you can enjoy it just as well solo.

Let’s rewind a moment and talk about exactly what Micro Mages actually is, and who Morphcat Games actually are. Well, the story began back in 2011, when programmer and designer Julius Riecke started work on an 8-bit game as a passion project. He was joined by UK-based musician Blitz Lunar, and the result was the Super Bat Puncher Demo, a legendarily unfinished title (also included on the Morphcat Games Collection 1 cart for Evercade) that was nonetheless extremely positively received by the community.

Super Bat Puncher Demo’s glowing reception led Riecke to think that it would be fun to make another project — and perhaps to set some specific limitations. In December 2015, Riecke and graphic designer Nicolas Bétoux started work on what would become Micro Mages — which they initially believed would be a fairly simple one-month project.

The pair chose to work within the limitations of the 40-kilobyte NROM format used by old-school NES cartridges because they believed that this would keep them from getting too carried away — but this also caused them to spend three more years optimising and refining the game to make the best possible use of the available space. Indeed, the video chronicling their efforts to do so became a viral success on YouTube, bringing both Micro Mages and Morphcat Games to the attention of the broader public.

Make no mistake, though; that 40-kilobyte limit doesn’t mean that Micro Mages is in any way compromised. In fact, it’s a beautifully designed, immensely solid game that is an absolute ton of fun whether you’re playing solo or with friends — and one which can provide a number of different experiences according to what you’re in the mood for.

The concept of Micro Mages is that a beautiful princess who lived with the eponymous Micro Mages has been kidnapped, and it’s their job to shirk their studies at the Hocus Pocus Academy of Applied Magicks in favour of tracking her down. 26 stages and eight worlds stand between our heroes and victory, with each stage taking the form of a tower, a single screen wide and several screens high. Your aim is simple: get from the bottom to the top of each stage safely, preferably scoring as many points as possible along the way!

The Micro Mages are agile little fellows despite their diminutive stature, able to run, jump and either slide down or hop up vertical walls. They have unlimited magic at their disposal and can either fire a relatively weak shot with quite a long range, or a powerful Mega Spell which not only does damage, it also causes enough recoil to let you jump higher if cast downwards in mid-air. Both types of spell can be cast upwards, downwards or to either side; you can even cast while sliding down a wall or climbing a rope.

Micro Mages

The stages are littered with boxes and treasure chests that can be destroyed or opened to reveal precious items. Gems and pearls provide you with points, and there are two main power-ups you’ll encounter also. Fairies will protect you from a single hit — or, in multiplayer mode, allow you to resurrect a comrade who has been defeated and turned into a ghost — while feathers will also protect you from a single hit and allow you to float across gaps thanks to a friendly Magic Seagull.

The game provides an interesting twist on the scrolling platformer format by occupying a space somewhere between forced scrolling and player-controlled scrolling. Proceed more than a certain distance up the screen, and the screen will scroll upwards — the higher up the screen you are, the faster it will go. This naturally means that certain parts of the stage will scroll off-screen — and you can’t return to lower parts of the tower. Falling off the bottom of what is currently on the screen will hurt or kill you.

The most intriguing thing is that you are actually in control of the scrolling, even though it can, at times, feel like it’s forcing you upwards. But stand still on a platform low on the screen and you’ll see that you won’t get pushed off (unless you’re playing multiplayer and a friend is higher up, of course) — it’s all about pacing yourself.

Micro Mages

Each tower contains several sub-stages, culminating in a challenging boss fight. These are all heavily pattern-based in classic old-school NES boss tradition, so keeping a keen eye out for the rhythm of your foe’s attacks is essential. The first couple of towers are reasonably straightforward to get through, but from the third onwards Micro Mages will really test your platforming skills — you’ll need to master multitasking in order to make it safely across the perilous terrain ahead of you while simultaneously fending off the enemies.

Those enemies are delightfully varied, too, ranging from simple skeletons and bats to bubble gum-blowing goats, trident-chucking devils and cackling demonic skulls who feed on human fear. Each has to be dealt with in a distinct way; no two types of enemy are quite alike.

Micro Mages is a constant pleasure to play. Not only are its mechanics beautifully refined, making for wonderfully smooth and varied gameplay, but also its visuals and sound design are some of the best you’ll see on the humble 8-bit Nintendo. Consider that the sheer amount of graphics, sound effects and catchy music present in the game has all been crammed into just 40 kilobytes and one can’t help but wonder if today’s latest releases really need to be hundreds of gigabytes in size.

Micro Mages

The fact that the game can take on one of several markedly different feels according to what you’re in the mood for is testament to its good design, also. In single player, it’s a challenging, enjoyable precision platformer. When played multiplayer, you have the choice of either treating it as a strictly cooperative affair where you all help one another out — or making it a thoroughly silly free-for-all where you compete for the best score while sabotaging your friends’ efforts along the way. Most sessions will likely start as the former and degenerate into the latter if your friends are anything like mine.

Anyway, if you enjoy platformers that strike a good balance between accessibility and challenge factor, Micro Mages should be high up your list of games to give your time and attention. Whether you play it on the Evercade as part of the Morphcat Games Collection 1 cartridge — which also comes with the super-challenging “Second Quest” standalone expansion — or via the other available means of doing so, you’re sure to have an absolute blast with this one, whether you’re playing solo or with friends.

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Pete Davison
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