Review – Nitro Kid

It’s no shame that I love the 80s throwbacks and revivals that continue to pop up over the course of modern creation. Synthwave, vaporwave, different forms of neon-soaked electronic music…they’re all wonderful. I appreciate movies like Kung-Fury and Turbo Kid to trying to capture the elements of films from my childhood that were both cheesy and glorious. Being able to tap into that vein of style and fashion, along with atmosphere and feeling, can really create something wonderful. But retro for retro’s sake doesn’t work, otherwise we would see it permeating the market even moreso than it already does. It’s not just style: it’s substance, and lacking the meat that goes along with the gravy leaves you dissatisfied and sometimes queasy.

At first, it seems like Nitro Kid, the newest release from tinyBuild and Wildboy Studios, is very straightforward and clear on its intentions. You’re in an 80’s inspired world, where an evil conglomerate, INFINITY Megacorp, has kidnapped a number of children for experimentation with Nitro, some kind of chemical or synthetic compound that could potentially grant extraordinary powers.

Taking on the roles of one of three heroes, your job is to infiltrate INFINITY, rescue these now dubbed “Nitro Kids,” and take down the head baddies, one floor at a time. Along the way, you’ll acquire different information from both random events and also from defeating elite mini bosses that give further insight into INFINITY, the mysterious organization CINDER, and also why three seemingly random people, each with a different ax to grind, figure that fighting a building’s worth of henchmen is worth their time.

Oh, L33. Like Lee. Like Bruce Lee. Like “let’s not get sued” Lee.

Let’s tick down the boxes real quick so we know what we’re getting into. Grid based combat system: check. Roguelite deckbuilding: check. Medium level pixel art: check. Synthwave soundtrack with tracks just made for this game: absolutely check. And, most importantly, randomized pathways of combat and events that literally make or break each run so as to really keep you on your toes and prevent you from fully building a gameplan: super duper check.

See, I love all of these things on their own. Each and every component of Nitro Kid has the potential to be a facet of a game that I overall adore. But that facet has to be done to the extreme and extremely well so that I remain fixated on what makes it special. The Binding of Isaac has incredibly randomized runs that can give you bottom tier items for multiple floors, but solid gameplay and some risky chances can take a run that’s stacked against you and turn it around.

One Step From Eden did grid based combat pretty well, and the aesthetics were off the charts, though the difficulty ultimately hamstrung me getting fully into it. And I haven’t forgotten that Fights in Tight Spaces took deckbuilding combat and elevated it into an artform, so I wasn’t just eager to pick the cards, but also to see how they played out once my turn had been planned. You don’t need to cook every single element of a Thanksgiving dinner yourself. As long as you pick one thing and commit, you’ll hear the genuine “These yams are fantastic, great job Barbara!” instead of everyone finishing their plate and someone lightly murmuring “Thank you for the food, Ruth.” You don’t want to get Ruth’s reward, you want that Barbara praise!

Let’s see, two different kinds of fighting moves or…hold up, a pocket banana?

Sadly, Nitro Kid took too many things and spread them out too thinly. Let’s start with the design and aesthetics. The thick pixel approach gives you distinct Karateka vibes, which is mostly good for a game where the first and primary hero is definitely a throwback martial arts type. There is a solid amount of differentiation between the different mobs, so I didn’t mistake the thug with a gun for the ambulatory cardboard boxes that shocked me with insects (still don’t fully understand that one, but alright).

The elite mobs and bosses have enough details between them that I was fascinated by what I might learn about them from the Codex, but, alas, you need to fight them many, many times to unlock each NPC’s “story.” I enjoyed the portraits and the color scheme for the game, but I didn’t really care for the levels as a whole. It felt cramped from top to bottom, but less in a “this is an office space where you’re fighting” sort of way and more in a “if we make the rooms bigger the AI will go wonky so let’s tightening it up” vibe.

I’m not trapped in the freezer with a Xerox and a repairman, they’re trapped in here with ME.

Also, I know there’s a bunch of tracks of Nitro Kid, or at least that’s what the website promised, but I felt like I was hearing the same one or two tracks over and over again. As someone who has deeply enjoys the works of Kotovsky86, A-Reis, Rogue VHS and more, I feel like I’ve had a good sampling of synthwave music, and what I was hearing was very repetitive and simple, like it wanted to focus on the dialogue happening on the screen with just a bit of background support.

Problem is, this game isn’t voiced and you only read things during the random events, so the result is the sensation of being stuck in an elevator at a club in 1986 in Detroit. It’s certainly not the worst soundtrack and I am looking forward to hearing the full release, but the music just didn’t stand out enough against the sound effects of enemies punching, being punched and random sounds of explosions and lasers. It was disappointing, to say the least.

Sorry, the chill synth beats are drowned out by the stupid AI exploding a barrel next to him. Again.

Which brings us to gameplay, the heart of the matter. It took me about twelve runs of Nitro Kid before I even got to the next floor, and that’s only partially due to my own incompetence. The card variety was great, and I even found some serious power moves between L33, J4X and K31 (the three heroes you can use). However, no matter what I did, it felt like the odds were stacked against you as the game moved forward. Firstly, the cursor and mouse interaction can sometimes feel floaty and indecisive. It was a mild inconvenience to click on a card, try to decide who it would be used on, and then to have the selection just uncheck itself. Plus, due to the confined arena, it was often a problem where I would click on the wrong mob: thankfully, many attacks hit multiple targets, so it didn’t end up being a problem.

Oh cool, that sword is going to hit everywhere I’m standing. And his strength increases every turn. Neat.

Additionally, the passive effects of the game were incredibly unbalanced. As you defeat elites and bosses, you get to choose from a series of “patches” that add extra effects. The patches can be upgraded once at a shop for a price, and they range from silly and almost ineffectual to positively insane.

For example, the Beezlebub patch makes it so you automatically start with a fly in your hand. Flies are one of a number of insect cards that you usually get plagued with when hit by enemies, and they can give you some small effects (or nothing) at the cost of taking up space in your hand. Then, combine Beezlebub with the Kiwi patch, that gives you one shield every time you use an insect, and boom, instant one shield each turn start. Okay, not great, but also not terrible and, more importantly, not gamebreaking. You still need both of these patches to make something worth, but it’s a longshot.

The tears of people who went all in on putting their life in Meta stocks.

But then you bring in other patches that ARE gamebreaking, like Assassin, which lets you choose any card you want from your draw pile and put it into your hand at the start of a boss fight. If you upgrade it? That card now costs ZERO, meaning that expensive, long form cards can be dropped, round one, on a boss. If you get Tactician, upgrade it, then use Assassin after a minor hit card like Punch or, god forbid, headbutt, you can guarantee an opening of about 40-60 damage as J4X, which doesn’t sound like a ton but it’s a serious game changer when dealing with mobs! 

Hm, minor healing when visiting a shop, or PROMISED DEATH IN A BLOOD OATH?

That’s my issue with Nitro Kid and deckbuilding roguelites in general: they are wildly unbalanced. If you don’t manage to snag some decent cards or the right events before you reach the first boss, you have no hope of even getting past the first level. Likewise, once you pass that tipping point, suddenly there isn’t a lot of fear or high stakes behind what you’re doing. I mean, sure, when you’re actively taking eighteen damage a turn and all you have to heal is a Pocket Banana for a measly 2 HP, things are pretty goddamn grim.

HOWEVER, if you can just generate north of twenty shield before the first attacks come (and, unlike some roguelites, shield doesn’t dissipate between turns), then the pressure of trying to figure out what to do with effects like Fragile, Burn or Goad suddenly don’t matter, because you’re just a tank in running shorts. Yes, I’m being attacked by a hostile refrigerator and its repairman, but I don’t care because I just need to punch the repairman to death and then the real pain begins.

I will find out more about you, Fridge. That’s a goddamn promise.

All ranting aside, Nitro Kid has some fun elements to it that are simply lost in the fog of what this game brings to the table. There isn’t enough in the game to show progression: leveling up unlocks some new cards and a chance to change your loadout before a run, but the excitement just isn’t there in the thrill of the grind. L33 and R31 are woefully boring and underpowered compared to J4X, and trying to save kidnapped children when you’re unable to make it out of the main room without getting your ass kicked doesn’t make for a great action movie. I finally managed to hit a good groove in a run, and I just couldn’t be bothered to be excited enough to want to keep playing longform. I did a few rooms, then I’d want to do something else. That’s not a good sign for a video game that clearly wants you to engage for run after run. 

Nitro Kid has potential, but there’s a key factor missing that keeps it from just popping on the screen. The Codex is hilarious and I want to read more, the boss variety is interesting and the concept isn’t bad at all: I like the animation from rescuing the Nitro Kids and from certain enemy attacks. But the repetition and the need to basically luck into a strong route build keep it from being something I want to come back and play again. In a gaming ecosphere that is currently flooded with roguelite deckbuilders, Nitro Kid is barely able to tread water.

Graphics: 5.0

The pixel palette is interesting, but it can be very forgettable on the battlefield. Portaits and icons are solid but they aren’t the majority of the game.

Gameplay: 6.0

Unbalanced card drawing has it’s moments, and I can see that the patches, the upgrades and the different status ailments/conditional energies are at least interesting.

Sound: 5.0

I wanted SO MUCH MORE from this, and I couldn’t find it or hear it. I fully believe there’s a magnificent soundtrack in this game, but it didn’t grace my ears over the sounds of the game hitting itself in confusion.

Fun Factor: 4.0

If I just keep thinking that I have things to do instead of continuing to see what’s on the next floor, it’s a strong indicator your game isn’t engaging with me.

Final Verdict: 5.0

Nitro Kid is available now on Steam.

Reviewed on PC.

A copy of Nitro Kid was provided by the publisher.