My favourite roguelike in years
Black Future ’88 is a 2D roguelike action shooter set in an evolving procedurally-generated tower called Skymelt. Choosing between five characters, you have 18 minutes to live before you suffer “deadlock”, where your heart explodes and your run is over.
Once you’ve played enough of them, it becomes automatic to see and play a brand-new roguelike through a personal lens of other roguelikes. This part’s like this game, this part is lifted from that game – everyone does this on some level but roguelikes are such a defined breed. When they all have the same goal and overall structure – where the player experiences a “new game” every time they play, where death is absolute (or almost absolute), and the game is designed around this overtly repetitive structure – it becomes natural to break them down into comparisons. It’s like breaking down a sitcom: they all have so much in common that their differences really stand out.
Before I do that, though, I’ll start with this: I don’t think any game has reminded me so much of Spelunky and its incredible web of interconnected systems as much as Black Future ’88 has.
Puts it over the top
Developer Don Bellenger (aka SUPERSCARYSNAKES) calls Black Future ‘88 “Synth-Punk”, which means a bit more noir and gothic than the typical cyberpunk aesthetic. Skymelt drips with inky shadow and bright error-symbol corruption to give it more of an eerie supernatural vibe. The music – also by Bellenger – is a variety of synth-rock, a fitting mix of techno beats and melodic ‘80s rock alongside all the lasers, gunfire and shocks of thunder, adding momentum to a run.
On a basic level, Black Future ’88 is an action-platformer similar to Contra: you play as a small, agile character with bullet hell-esque gunplay, jumping and dashing around enemy fire while you fire back. Otherwise, it’s a bit like Hyper Light Drifter on a 2D plane. You move around like a side-scroller alongside a dedicated dash move that lets you dodge through projectiles, using either the right analog stick to shoot in a direction or pressing Y to automatically aim and fire at the closest enemy – the latter is a particularly fantastic addition, especially once you get the hang of switching between automatic and analog aiming. The soft-lock for analog aiming is very comfortable and well-implemented, too. Overall, Black Future ’88 feels great and slick in its moment-to-moment gameplay.
From there, Black Future ’88 feels like a mix of other roguelikes. Take the satisfying twin stick gunplay of Nuclear Throne, the weapon variety of Enter the Gungeon, the sleek, polished platformer controls and pixelated look of Dead Cells and even add in a dash of Flinthook, and you’ll be pretty close.
You move between rooms that trap you inside until you defeat all enemies a la Binding of Isaac, you earn cash from killing enemies, you find or open chests with weapons or other pickups inside, you encounter storefronts throughout each level, and so on. It has the usual template for procedurally-generated dungeons you’ll be familiar with from other action roguelikes. The overall “dungeon” is simple and ultimately quite short: four connected levels each with a boss – a “warden” – that, once completed and the final boss is defeated, loops into another set of four levels, now with added opportunities to extend your time.
The progression system is similarly straight-forward with a simple performance-based EXP system, where each level-up adds something new into the procedural generation of Skymelt. It’s a small thing that I actually really appreciate instead of an exploration- or store-based unlock system: for a while at least (it runs out eventually), it helps keep each run rewarding as you independently learn the game’s various systems and items.
But what separates Black Future ’88 from the crowd – and in my opinion, puts it over the top – is its singular focus on time.
How much are those seconds worth?
In Black Future ’88, your 18 minutes of time is your primary resource. There’s cash and ammo, too, but all roads lead back to those precious seconds. In other words, speedrunning is at the core of every run.
Roguelikes like Binding of Isaac and Dead Cells include speedrunning as more of a playstyle. They give bonuses for playing fast and efficiently but the games themselves are still designed around exploratory dungeon-crawling. However, I find it’s a playstyle that most players naturally lean towards anyway, where they grow more and more familiar with the game and organically focus on speed and efficiency (especially when you’re rewarded for it). Your runs aren’t as time-consuming or exhausting and – like in Binding – you’ll probably end up more powerful in the end anyway. So why wouldn’t you?
Black Future ’88 embraces this and places risk-reward at the heart of everything. Everything’s a gamble and you’re always gambling on time. There are even places where you can literally exchange some of your remaining time – 25 seconds, one minute, three minutes – for perks; when your time is literally your life, how much is that life worth to you?
Perks come in a few varieties and grow more powerful the riskier they are. Blue normal perks don’t come with any downsides (at least immediately) while the purple perks come with “curses” attached. Curses are a running tally that add more danger to Skymelt. They increase the chance for enemies (including bosses) to be “cursed” and become tougher and more rewarding, but can also play into certain weapons like the Black Richter sword, which increases in power the more curses you have.
There are Stims as well, another type of buff that come with fewer downsides but, if you’ve taken too many, risk infecting your blood. When this happens, a random pip of your health bar will be infected and losing it could possibly kill you.
Because you always know the right direction in Black Future ’88 courtesy of an on-screen marker, even exploring a level is a gamble. Instead of the usual phase in roguelikes where you naturally grow in power as you aimlessly hunt down the boss somewhere in a level, you’re told where the boss is right from the start. It forces you to decide whether you want to risk wasting your time, health and ammo on better weapons or perks somewhere in the level, or head straight to the boss with what you have now.
Black Future ’88 gives you total power over how you spend your time. The timer is always on-screen and it pauses whenever you’re not in direct control, like in cutscenes or whenever you’re browsing a store (much like Dead Cells). You’re not forced to use your time exploring a level if you don’t want to because the game just tells you where to go. This way, your time spent is only ever affected by your skill and the choices you make. Each run feels worthwhile and not cheap or tedious.
There’s a double-edge to everything
Even the Skymelt, the living tower that has trapped you inside it, is tied to this idea.
As you defeat enemies in each room, they spill cash in the form of bright green Nuclear Throne-style rods that scatter across the ground, as well as ammo boxes. If you don’t rush to collect these during battle, they vanish in about five seconds – and are absorbed into Skymelt. When this happens, Skymelt’s own EXP bar will pop up and progress towards its own perks, which are just anti-perks that work against the player. Leaving behind ammo or cash literally makes the world stronger and your run harder.
Because of that, you’re faced with another decision: spend time collecting all the money and ammo on the fly but lose more time or take damage, or rush on ahead to save those precious seconds? Even choosing the perk that earns you more ammo and cash is a decidedly short-term gain since, late into a run, the much tougher enemies will be exploding into so much cash, ammo and more cash that it becomes nearly impossible to keep Skymelt from levelling up.
Almost everything in Black Future ’88 is a double-edged sword. Even stores have more risk than you’d expect. You’ll not only have to pay cash, time or health to access them at all, but if you’re browsing perks, you have to take one, even if you’re not interested in any of them. There are even moments where there will only be one perk available and you’re still forced to press A and take it – and that’s where Black Future ‘88’s genius lies. Everything’s a gamble, there’s always a chance that you will “lose” on a choice, but it’s all designed in such a way that nothing feels especially cheap or unfair. You’re constantly rollicking forward through encounters and making decisions on the fly to keep yourself alive in whatever way you think works best.
“There’s no time to complain!” says Black Future ’88. “You’re running out of time!” /guitar riff/
Despite all those earlier words about making a lot of decisions, Black Future ’88 doesn’t want you dwelling in angst and frustration over their dumb (or forced) choices. It wants you enjoying the thrill of every run. It’s about taking what you get and pushing forward anyway. The game isn’t designed to be particularly difficult – one of my favourite things about it is that bosses are fun and challenging without being extreme difficulty spikes like so many other roguelikes. Instead, the difficulty is largely defined by the player. Even so, there’s an always-appreciated Assist Mode to tone down the game’s difficulty and more punishing mechanics.
One more run
This is why Black Future ’88 reminds me so much of Spelunky and its masterful procedural game design. It’s brilliantly designed to keep players on their toes, to keep them taking risks and make each run dynamic. It’s as refreshing as it is clever, where moments that deliberately corner the player into a new direction – like defeating the final boss and being forced to take on a unique playstyle-changing perk as you head into the first loop – are exciting and not frustrating.
By focusing on speedrunning, Black Future ’88 is even considerate of your time by giving you an actual sub-20-minute time limit that’s only extended by skilful or risky play, and not by very much. This keeps you from investing too much into an individual run and helps keep that feeling of loss and defeat – like when you die with a particular fun build – rare and less demoralising. It keeps you excited for “one more run” better than most.
Technically, Black Future ’88 is a little rough. There are framerate drops during hectic rooms, there’s an irritating bug where you activate your dash whenever you use a teleporter (because you’re pressing A), and at least the Switch version of the game is very likely to crash at some point during a looped run. The HUD can really get in the way of the gameplay and while there are a number of options to tweak the overall presentation – be sure to turn off subtitles at the very least – it remains an issue. Hopefully patches can fix or help these things in the future but, for now, be wary.
By the time I was familiar with the game, I ultimately found it most reminiscent of Vlambeer’s output, especially Luftrausers and Nuclear Throne. Like those games, Black Future ’88 carries the same focus on skilful play and thrilling arcade-style game design (though Black Future is definitely softer on the player). It prioritises a strong core experience over shallow progressive systems and tons of content. It’s my favourite roguelike in years.
By focusing the game around risky play and speedrunning, SUPERSCARYSNAKES has made Black Future ’88 one of the most exciting and best-designed roguelikes to release in a long time.
John reviewed Black Future ‘88 using a retail Nintendo Switch code provided by POWER UP PR.
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