Lunark sends players into the retro-future we all thought the '80s would be. It brings a world of flying cars and corrupt mega-corporations to life with vibrant pixel graphics and rotoscope animation. At its best moments, Lunark is an effective love letter to the cinematic platformer, a genre of gaming that doesn’t get much attention these days. Occasionally, though, it serves to remind us how far game design has come.
Loading up Lunark is just like entering a time machine. Everything in the game, from the music to the plot to the overall aesthetic, is inspired by the cinematic platformer genre. Unlike Mario, who can turn in mid-air to make physically impossible jumps look easy, our hero Leo’s movements are grounded in some aspect of reality. He’s got momentum and weight to him as he traverses the caverns, factories, and prisons he finds himself exploring.
This design philosophy will feel familiar to fans of the original Prince of Persia game or even the Oddworld series, but they certainly take some getting used to. There is a sluggishness to Leo’s movements that will surprise modern gamers, particularly in the way he turns around or in his inability to tackle multiple jumps in rapid succession. The only time it becomes frustrating is the slight delay between pushing the jump button and when Leo actually leaves the ground, resulting in jumps that feel sticky. There will be plenty of deaths that are the result of Leo simply running off a cliff rather than jumping at the last moment as you intended.
In most games, we’d chalk this up to poor design but with Lunark this is all part of the cinematic platformer experience. Everything is meant to remind you of the 80s, which is when games like this were more common. The imprecise controls are, in this case, a feature rather than a bug and you shouldn’t let them put you off. It takes some getting used to but once you do the game is a fair but challenging platformer.
It isn’t just the gameplay or even the graphics that sent us back to our gaming roots. The plot takes heavy inspiration from classic sci-fi films like Total Recall or Blade Runner. Humanity has relocated to a distant planet by retrofitting the entire moon into a deep space colony ship. Leo works with a man named Gideon, travelling to locations to pick up artifacts and bringing them in for research purposes. Of course, things aren’t exactly as they seem and soon Leo is on the run and has to uncover the mystery behind why he is being hunted in the first place.
There are roving gangs of sword-wielding robots terrorising neighbourhoods, a totalitarian regime to overthrow, and a conspiracy on the moon to uncover. If it wasn’t executed so well, it would be oppressively over-the-top and too '80s. Developer Canari Games has managed to make Lunark a loving homage to the era without feeling like they’re trying too hard.
For example, some of the storytelling here is surprisingly subtle. Engaging in some optional conversations in the early stages of the game will reveal that there is something unusual about Leo. Not only does he have enhanced physical abilities and a connection with the planet that other people don’t, but he also suffers from rapid ageing. Everyone seems to recognise that he is not long for this world long before the player finds out why.
Lunark's pixel graphics do a good job of bringing the different characters to life. Even with the stripped-back aesthetic, you’ll instantly recognise different enemies and NPCs that populate this world. Everything looks better in handheld mode, however, as blowing them up onto our TV stretched the pixels beyond what they were meant to be. Fortunately, the music and graphics are perfectly effective at setting the scene that the developers are hoping to create.
If we have one complaint, it's how inconsistent the respawn points are. Early levels seem to have them more frequently, while later levels will have you repeat long platforming sections over and over while you try to figure out the pattern to one of the boss fights. The train level, for example, was particularly bad about this. When one poorly timed jump can lead to your death, having to repeat the entire long section felt brutal.
The environments that Leo explores all play by the same rules but there is a clear progression in difficulty. He’ll jump up and down ledges and over gaps whether he’s on an out-of-control train or an ancient cave system. Lunark does a good job of slowly drip-feeding you different mechanics as you go along, with each level building on the previous ones to increase the difficulty. Some rely on timing or speed while others focus on stealth aspects. This results in gameplay that never feels stale from start to finish.
Cinematic platformers aren’t going to be for everyone, and that’s okay. Those who want an unashamedly retro challenge will find a lot to love in Lunark. The story pays homage to some of the best sci-fi films of all time while the gameplay adds a fresh twist with every level you complete. The retro graphics look great on the Switch, particularly in handheld mode. Once you wrap your head around the sticky jumps and the weight that Leo carries with him when he moves, you’ll be in for a solid adventure to the moon and back.
Even our minor frustrations with Lunark can’t overshadow the joy we felt as we played this unashamedly retro platformer. It is a competently put-together and lovingly crafted homage to an often-overlooked genre of gaming. Even the imprecise controls and Leo’s sluggish movements feel like a feature and not a bug in the game’s design. If you can wrap your head around them, there is a solid platformer to enjoy.