Review: Black Future ’88

Developer: Super Scary Snakes
Publisher: Good Shepard Entertainment, Surefire.Games (China)
Genre: Shooter (SHMUP)
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch
Rating: T for Teen
Price:$19.99

When a video game sports the kind of “adult cartoon” artwork that I have not seen since the days when I accidentally watched Heavy Metal (1981) on HBO in the 2nd grade (hey, it was a cartoon and I did not know any better!), I take notice. Its pulse-pumping synth music, postmodern palette, and post-apocalyptic race to the death looked promising. Though the actual gameplay in the trailers did not appear to be to my liking, I would find that Black Future ’88 is more than meets the eye. 

The youngins reading out there, that last phrase is from a certain famous 80’s cartoon.

Content Guide

Fan artwork by DEL

The official ESRB page for Black Future ’88 is accurate. Though the game is a side-scrolling shooter, blood is practically non-existent except for a few background effects and references to blood or bleeding upon death. Guns are ubiquitous, but bullets are large and cartoonish. Most enemies are robotic, so there are few depictions of death at all.

Drugs do play a role, but they akin to the fictional kind in the Fallout world, serving as buffs. I also wonder if one item, a blood transfusion, is a reference to the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s. Players can poison their bloodstream, and only a transfusion or severe damage can clear the status ailment. 

Though rated T for Teen, I did not see anything that would warrant excluding Black Future ’88 from the collections of younger audiences. 

Review

Gotta run that gauntlet!

I frequently lambast shooters for their exiguous stories, but Black Future ’88 goes hard with its bleak yet vivacious setting. The year is 1988, and nuclear cataclysm has blocked out the sun; cold and unable to distinguish day from night, humanity has ceased to keep the time. Terminator fans may imagine the skull-riddled fields post-Judgement Day, but the game is set in a concrete jungle, or rather, a tower riddled with graffiti, overlooking the desolate landscape. It is as if the vegetation had never returned in Far Cry: New Dawn, and the Father’s monument has been encased within something more foreboding. Scale the fortress, beat the bosses, and loop the mission indefinitely until an inevitable heart attack ends the run. Why does Black Future ’88 include an 18-minute timer before issuing players a game over screen? Well how else can it simulate an arcade-style exigency?

Compounding the pressure of the 18-minute timer is that time is the most  precious currency in Black Future ’88. A specific merchant will refuse to open shop unless players “spend” up to 15 seconds to look at the wares. Passive ability upgrades siphon either 25 seconds or a full minute depending upon their rarity, though frugal gamers may try to survive on meager boss drops. There are ways to mitigate the countdown, but they range from rare to high-level solutions that do not become available until players have devoted serious time into the game. 

Some upgrades are cursed, which triggers more difficult enemy encounters.

Even so, I did not feel pressed during my Black Future playthrough. Plenty of other elements would kill me long before the timer expired. Along with the natural escalation of enemy difficulty as I ascended the tower, the in-game AI mechanic known as Skynet Skymelt would, in realtime, apply additional difficulty modifiers such as more enemies, stronger traps , or bounty hunter spawns should I fail to pick up money and item drops from enemies. Said traps generally did not pose problems, but a few saw blades on floors became a nuisance. 

Though the enemies are not all that remarkable in design, the gunplay is plenty amusing. Actually, the default loadout of my favorite character, Seagerist, packs a sword which I love to whip out for close-quarters combat and the possibility that I can find the passive allowing me to reflect shots. Her rapid-fire pistol is a weapon worth keeping, but there are plenty of gas-powered rifles, laser shotguns, grenade-launching handguns, to find. I fancy the rifles because of their “hitscan” and railgun-style strength, and the plasma-powered BFG-style weapon that requires dash/dodge charges to fire—power at the cost of evasion. 

Cursed foes glow red as though they are malfunctioning when in reality, they hit HARD!

Black Future ’88 borrows from several roguelites at its core. Like Rogue Legacy, the experience earned by the end of a run unlocks more features—passives, weapons, and even characters. Like in Binding of Isaac, one can select from several characters of marginal differences. Like Dead Cells, the game displays accumulated unlocks in the beginning hub location, though differentiating what is what, and what does what is not easy. The in-game wiki is useful for those who have the time to match the images with the descriptions; I do not.  

With the exception of Sioux, who is handicapped with poisoned blood to begin her run, I did not detect genuine differences between the characters.

All these elements put together make for a fun game, but the 18-minute timer hints to the fact that this game is not nearly as robust as the roguelites I mention in the previous paragraph. When I was a beginner, there were times when I would die early, but I would not become upset because the experience I accumulated always contributed to the next unlock—gradual progress. However, after I maxed out at level 54 in about five hours, there is little incentive to jump back into the game, knowing that I must invest a good five minutes into a run before I can get a good feel of my character’s build trajectory. 

Synergies are ultra-rare, but powerful.

Enemies are relatively unremarkable, but the bosses are worth a word. Juno and Jupiter are my favorites, specifically because of the music that plays upon their introduction. Beware of cursed enemies, or enemies who appear unstable, and deep red. They are the most dangerous, with their fast and plentiful shots. 

The in-game glossary is a must-have for figuring out what’s what.

While Black Future ’88 does not usurp Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon from its title as the best (and campiest) 80’s throwback, goodness it tries its best. Though I did complain that the game feels short on content, this criticism comes in the context of robust indie games of different genres. As far as shooters are concerned, Black Future ’88 is the best I have personally played in 2019, coming just in time to close out the year on a good note.

Review copy generously provided by Sandbox Strategies. 

 

 

 

The Bottom Line

 

 

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Maurice Pogue

Since picking up an NES controller in 1985 at the age of 2, Maurice and video games have been inseparable. While most children aspired to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers (at the behest of their parents), he aspired to write for publications such as EGM, PC Gamer, PC Accelerator, and Edge. After achieving ABD status in English at MSU, Maurice left academia and dedicated his writing to his lifelong passion. He is currently the Video Game Editor at Geeks Under Grace.

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