The year is 1988, and Dr. H8 threatens to destroy the world with 88 warheads in 88 minutes, and the only people who can stop him are… the 88 Heroes! Right off the bat I have to give the game props for its commitment to the number 8, with almost every number that pops up in the game relating to 8 save things that count down or count up. It’s a strange thing to embrace, but 88 Heroes: 98 Heroes Edition embraces absurdity in its plot and in the character of the 88 Heroes you can play as. Rather than giving you a capable bunch of heroes to take down the bad guy with, each of the ragtag 88 Heroes (expanded to 98 as a bonus for its late Switch release) is a quirky individual with a backstory and sometimes a special skill to set them apart… or to make them an absolute joke. While most heroes are capable enough, there are duds in the group that are almost guaranteed to flop, but this adds to the charm of the unusual assemblage and helps to keep it interesting in seeing who you might get next.
Unfortunately, the appeal of seeing who the next hero in your motley crew fades very quickly as you realize the nature of the quest you’ve been put on. 88 Heroes’s gameplay takes the form of a series of 88 platforming levels with designs so bland and uninspired that I actually though they had to be randomized designs at first since they were so unappealing. Levels feel more like they are designed by fans using a map maker rather than being the core levels of the intended gameplay experience, with most of them just rearranging the geometry and hazards in forgettable ways yet still setting them up so that it’s likely you’ll be losing your heroes rather easily. See, one of the big gimmicks of 88 Heroes is that when a hero dies, they are gone, and you can’t play as that hero again unless you collect 88 coins and get lucky on who it offers you to revive. Suddenly, the silly inclusions of characters who are basically a guaranteed death are a lot less fun, as they lower your life count and pollute the revival pool with characters you won’t want to see again. Characters like El Delayo who performs actions about a second after you press the button and Wang Wei who reverses your controls are thankfully pretty rare, but most of the game’s characters fall into a simple mold that make them okay for navigation and likely to die just through the process of learning the game. There are quite a few highlights in the cast though, with characters like Dr. Head Hugger who can briefly possess enemies and Claire Voyant who can move objects and enemies around seeming like they could support entire games on their shoulders if they were actually designed around them, but I wouldn’t say there’s more than ten characters who really make the game enjoyable and you’re always at risk of losing that character and getting stuck with all of the game’s filler.
I do think the game did a pretty good job at designing its heroes to be visually interesting and having silly, fun backstories to back them up. They just feel wasted on a game where they don’t get a chance to shine, as every level is structured so that most any character can complete it. There are some routes through stages only open to characters who can fly or break blocks, but for the most part its bog standard progression that you’ll likely be repeating a couple times as the stages do a terrible job when it comes to visibility. So many instant death drops and hidden hazards are just off screen and too easy to stumble into, and while there is an option to scout ahead by moving the screen, the game does not pause the timer as you do so. Besides the greater 88 minute limit on the game that doesn’t feel too harsh since it won’t count time spent in a failed level, each level also has an 88 second limit that, if you don’t complete the level in time, will instantly kill your current hero. The game encourages fast and careless play, with some levels pushing the limits of the timer, especially if you entered the level with a slow-going character. You don’t really get any chance to explore who you’re playing as when they have to rush into the meat grinder or risk being killed by the ticking clock, and even the fun characters might be timed out and killed because you didn’t have the time to learn a level. Surprisingly, I found the game’s supposedly super hard H8 Mode to be more enjoyable, as the game lowers the level count to 8 really hard ones but designs the levels to be a lot more interesting, but these levels definitely force out certain characters in the same manner as the main game and it is a lot easier to lose the good ones you’ll be relying on.
Once you get down to your last hero, you can restart the current level as many times as you like but only get to use that character, which can be a death sentence if you engaged the game in the way it encourages. Getting stuck with a character who is a chore to play as or has a huge handicap due to their size or capabilities means that the save file is essentially useless, and coin collection can be slow going if you aren’t a very good character. Instead, to succeed you’ll soon learn to thin the herd by killing bad characters and leaving you with the potential of only good ones to get to the end. Characters like Batbot who freezes time when he’s not moving or Miss Fortune who can instantly win or fail a level based on a coin flip make for good final characters that make the game manageable but suck out much of the interaction with the level because of it. If you choose to stick with a basic character instead, you’ll find that many of them play about the same, usually boiling down to jumping and attacking. Sadly, the game limits a lot of characters from jumping and attacking at the same time, making more interesting characters worse than ones who have that skill. Micromanaging my heroes to ensure I wasn’t screwed over near the end was more of a time sink than an interesting bit of tactics, but the game does have two modes that allow you to skip that in the form of the Magnificent 8 and Solo mode.
Magnificent 8 lets you pick only 8 heroes to play the game with, meaning you can curate the group down to the ones who might be able to handle every challenge. Solo mode reduces it down to one but gives that character 88 lives, but it still has the infinite retries once you hit the final life. These two modes all have the same levels though, so it’s mostly about ignoring the game’s premise to instead squeak a bit of enjoyment out of it, even though the levels never really get better. In fact, the game starts introducing boss fights with Dr. H8, and they are incredibly generic and uninteresting. Again, the game must accommodate any potential last hero in the fight, so they just involve hitting switches at the right time as the boss lazily tries to hurt you. Dr. H8 himself had the potential to be a fun and silly cartoon villain outside of these fights though, as the game is presented entirely through a screen he is watching the player on. When you beat a level or die, he will comment in a way that could have been endearing if the game didn’t repeat every single line of his ad nauseum. You would think in a game with a set amount of characters, time, and stages that the voice lines could be tailored to the situation so you never hear anything too often, but you’ll definitely hear the same lines before you’ve lost your 8th hero. Repetition is the core component of this game though, and while trying to make 8 crop up everywhere is cute and makes for a fine theme, repeating levels with repeating elements and having to start the game over when your last hero is a dud are not the kinds of repetition a game should be indulging in.
THE VERDICT: 88 Heroes: 98 Heroes Edition is a game that I really wanted to be good. I love the full embracing of cartoon silliness, I love the constant need to crowbar 8 into any situation, and the hero designs are appropriately ridiculous, filled with pop culture references and the kind of zaniness that would appeal to me in any other setting. It has such a wonderful set-up, but it appears all the inspiration was used up before they started making a game around it. The levels feel like rearranged versions of each other, prioritizing killing off heroes rather than providing interesting obstacles. The heroes are mostly either too similar to deliver on their premises or too limited to be worth your time playing. The game itself is bogged down by the limitations it imposes on you, discouraging the exploration of its characters and instead making you want to thin the group down to one ultra-capable hero so that you can actually complete the levels.
And so, I give 88 Heroes: 98 Heroes edition for the Nintendo Switch…
A TERRIBLE rating. For a game that seems to emphasis the amount of characters you can play as, it is far, FAR too limited. The time constraints and the nearly permanent death for each hero encourage a level of play that neither the characters themselves nor the levels really support. Mistaking a lot of offscreen kills and long levels with short timers as the main form of challenge does this game’s concept a disservice, and the timer becomes even more egregious when you encounter the slow moving vertical platforms in countless stages that you must wait to board without having anything to do. The 88 Heroes concept is definitely meant to make up for the unpolished level design, and then the heroes themselves fail to hold up the game as most of them can’t even match the textbox describing them in terms of quality. Fleshing out each of the heroes a bit more, even potentially making the bad ones more interestingly bad (for example, the game already has Glass Girl who is capable at beating levels but breaks if you aren’t careful with her jumps), could in turn allow the game to design better levels as they don’t have to hold the hands of a crew of mostly incapable characters. I know the idea of the game is that these guys aren’t really the best of heroes, and you should probably lose a lot of them along the way, but the game shouldn’t lose all its appeal once you’ve seen all 88 of them and now dread seeing 80% of them ever again. Besides that immediate curiosity the game inspires once you’ve just started to play, 88 Heroes has nothing else to offer.