At 8:08 on August 8, 1988, Dr. H8 threatened the world with 88 thermo-nuclear warheads. It’s up to 88 different heroes to stop Dr. H8 within 88 minutes throughout 88 levels. Other than being a bit obsessed with a certain number, 88 Heroes: 98 Heroes Edition is a fast-paced 2D platformer with 98 unique playable characters (ten more than in the original version!). While the assortment of oddball do-gooders and wannabe saviors live up to the charm of the game’s premise, the gameplay and level design suffer as a result.
The use of 88 is certainly an interesting gimmick that also factors heavily into gameplay. You have only 88 minutes to get through the campaign and a scant 88 seconds per stage. Throughout the game’s levels, you have control over one of the 98 heroes, all of whom represent your life counter. You begin with one random hero, and if you die, you lose that character for the rest of the game, respawn back into the action as another random hero. If you can make it to the level’s exit, you keep that character but start as a different hero. While the revolving door of protagonists keeps things fresh, it quickly becomes confusing having to adapt to a different control style every minute, or every few seconds given the game’s difficulty.
To my surprise, all 98 characters play differently. Each has different attacks and some have wildly deviant controls and movement styles. For instance, the hero Jim Nastics can only move by cartwheeling, and Booster Goose travels in a rocket-boosted spaceship. The only attribute they share is that they're all references to geek culture and other games. Take Simon Borg, for example, a bionic commando who grapples on the ceiling. Then there are the four teenage mutant ninja armadillos, one of whom has the useless ability of eating pizza. It’s a humorous roster and learning each hero’s tongue-in-cheek biography is a joy in itself. There are even some cameos: SteamWorld Dig’s Rusty and a whole conga line from Conga Master Party.
However, the joke quickly wears thin and after the initial novelty, the game becomes a frustrating experience. The first issue concerns the heroes themselves. I should preface that I’m genuinely impressed that developers Bitmap Bureau were able to program so many varying gameplay styles in its numerous characters. That said, perhaps they were too ambitious for their own good. While a good number of heroes have simple controls and attacks, others aren’t as user-friendly. For example, El Delayo has built-in input lag and the hero What?, a parody of the Microsoft Word paperclip, is just as annoying here, constantly interrupting your jumps with pop-up tutorial messages. I admit I laughed each time a goofy hero was introduced, but there’s a clear bias towards humor over function.
This becomes apparent in the game’s level design. Each of the 88 stages can technically be completed by every character. As an adverse effect, none are that impressive. Most consist of the same obstacles repeated over and over. Boss fights aren’t any more exciting and all are simple variations of pressing switches to win. With four worlds, you’d expect more variety. At least there are moments of fun platforming and some of the laser and enemy placements are nice challenges. Additionally, I liked finding hidden paths by blowing up the walls or floors with certain characters. On the flip side, there are far too many unfairly placed traps that you wouldn’t see coming. Sure, there’s a “look” function, but it breaks up the chaotically paced action. Expect to lose many heroes over the 88 minutes, especially the unintuitive ones.
It’s disheartening to see your last hero die, but 88 Heroes offers the player an ultimatum: retry the current level but only with the last hero. In fact, for the rest of the game you are limited to that single character. It’s an odd move that defies the point of embracing the numerous wacky playstyles. As a side-effect, this decision reveals the heroes’ unbalanced strengths and weaknesses. If your last person standing is difficult to use like Hard Hat Harriot, who travels via jackhammer, then you may as well restart the entire campaign. If you get lucky like me and end up with the overpowered Bat Bot, a flying robot that freezes time, you could very well complete the entire game easily. Unfortunately, you don’t get to determine any of this. Collecting 88 coins does let you revive a hero but like the rest of the game, you won't know who it is until they appear.
The game is short, obviously lasting 88 minutes. Though again, not everyone will necessarily reach that point. There are a few extra modes that break away from the core experience. The Magnificent 8 lets you choose a team of eight of your favorite heroes, a potentially easier experience that cuts out the more useless heroes. Solo asks you to beat the game with one character. It’s an interesting idea, essentially creating 98 potential avenues to experience the game. Of course, you could cheese it with Bat Bot, but trying to achieve victory with some heroes is itself a puzzle. Finally, there’s H8 Mode, consisting of eight super difficult stages, if the main game were somehow not hard enough.
The colorful cartoon visuals and energetic retro music exude charm perfectly. The fact that every hero has a distinct voice and lines adds to it. While not every hero is fun to use, they are all a delight—well, minus the ugly ones. However, the game display is not so delightful. The screen is framed such that you’re looking at Dr. H8 watching a monitor of the heroes in action. Aspects like confetti dropping down after each hero’s death are nice touches. But the game takes it too far; occasionally, Dr. H8’s robot minions will walk past the screen, blocking parts of it – an unnecessary immersion.
Overall, the numerous heroes filled with in-jokes and references are the game’s biggest strengths. The novelty doesn’t last long and it becomes an exercise in patience having to relearn control schemes while navigating unfairly placed traps. It’s compelling to find each character’s inner strengths but it can also get repetitive thanks to the uninspired stage layouts. Indeed, 88 Heroes is an example of quantity over quality. I like the premise but wish there were more specialized challenges that took the heroes’ unique powers into account or levels that incorporated the powers as opposed to succumbing to a generic one-size fits all design. While the game isn’t necessarily GR8, I didn’t H8 it, and there’s some value to be found for 2D sidescrolling fans or anyone who’s willing to pay for a good laugh.
I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!