I’m a sucker for clever subversion gimmicks. One of my all-time favorite video games is Spec Ops: The Line, a war game that makes you feel like a horrible person for killing people you were led to believe were the bad guys. Virtual Virtual Reality is an excellent, self-aware VR experience that I insist everyone give a shot. And now Pixel Ripped: 1989 takes everything you love about classic, retro gaming and makes your nostalgia look and feel tangible.
In Pixel Ripped you take on the role of Nicola, a second-grade student that’s just as nerdy and obsessed with video games as most kids back in the late 80s and early 90s. Throughout the adventure you play her Gear Kid handheld (essentially a Gameboy) in which you control Dot, an 8-bit-sized heroine in the same vein as Mega Man. The bad guy is trying to take over both the digital and physical (VR) world so it’s up to you to stop him once the dimensions begin to merge together. It’s a VR game within a game…within a game? Sort of?
Perhaps what I like most about Pixel Ripped, other than the ingenious premise and wonderfully nostalgic presentation, is just how consistently inventive it all is. From the opening moments that see you hurtling down a retro-futuristic stylized tunnel of sound and color to the small references to gaming’s past, present, and future, I was constantly surprised. Just when you start to think you’ve seen all the tricks it has in store for you, it throws another curve ball.
For example, Pixel Ripped starts out simply enough as a basic 2D sidescrolling platformer game. You move from left to right, shoot bullets at baddies, and jump over gaps. We’ve all done that before. But then it starts to flip that concept on its head as you collect pixels to slowly evolve and build up your character. Then the levels merge into the world around you as it becomes more than just a game within a game. Before long, it’s not even a platformer at all, as the retro characters and VR world meld together into something that’s so powerfully nostalgic it’s almost overwhelming.
The actual platforming bits are extremely well done, thankfully, as that is the bulk of the game. If you ever played any of the classic Mega Man NES games then you’ll know what to expect in terms of not just the controls, but the difficulty as well. You should expect to die a lot which is perfectly fine given the source material. It wouldn’t feel authentically retro if it wasn’t frustratingly difficult from time to time.
Some of the VR interactions could have used some work as well. For example, during some of the levels you’re sitting in class playing the Gear Kid under the desk secretly. If the teacher spots you then you run the risk of getting thrown into detention, which can be a real bummer. To avoid this you need to shoot spitballs at different items around the class to distract her. It works well, but actually shooting the spitball requires looking at it on your desk for a few seconds, waiting, then looking at something in the world, waiting, and then having it shoot automatically.
It feels like an awkward break in the otherwise smooth, immersive action. A quick toggle on the controller (in my case, Oculus Touch controllers) would have helped.
Since I was playing with Touch instead of a gamepad, each of the controllers were basically representing one of my character’s hands. Luckily Touch has the B and A buttons in the same placement as the Gear Kid (shown below) so it felt fine, although I did miss a trust d-pad. Analog sticks for 2D platformers never felt right to me.
Pixel Ripped has an excellently realized world that oozes personality. While sitting in class Nicola has gaming magazines, game cartridges, doodles, and branded backpacks strewn all over the place. When you pause the game a HUD pops out of her Power Glove-laden wrist to give you a list of options.
The music is a wonderful combination of chip tune stylings with a modern twist. For all intents and purposes, Pixel Ripped nails that feeling of having your nostalgia come to life. So it felt like a bit of a shame that the whole thing is only around five levels (with some unlockables and collectibles spread about) and can be finished in just around three hours, or maybe double that if you want to find every last hidden thing.
Pixel Ripped is a love letter to all things classic gaming. From the inventive melding of retro graphics with a modern VR game setting to the way it subverts medium stereotypes by putting you in the dress and shoes of a grade school girl with a trusty Gameboy, it’s hard not to smile while playing this nostalgia-fueled adventure. A few minor hiccups hold it back from truly transcending the medium as a whole, but anyone that has fond memories of video games from the 80s and 90s absolutely needs to check this one out.
Pixel Ripped: 1989 is out now on Steam for Rift, Vive, and Windows VR for $24.99 with a 20% launch window discount as well as on the PSN Store for PSVR for $24.99. Check out these official review guidelines to find out more about our process.