What It’s Like to Play is a column that describes how videogames are played, to an audience that doesn’t necessarily play a lot of such games. It is inspired by the series of the same name that ran on CultureRamp in late 2012, and its basic premise is explained by L. Rhodes here. The name is used with permission.
I’ve spent most of my life more or less allergic to physical activity, so when the time came for me to get my Physical Education requirements in college, I naturally elected to sign up for Ballroom Dance rather than something more traditionally athletic. My wife (then-fiancée) was too busy to take the class, so I signed up with a friend of mine, and once a week for a year, we learned basic dance steps in the foxtrot, waltz, east and west-coast swing, salsa, cha-cha, and probably some others I’m forgetting.
I don’t remember most of these steps now, five years later, since I only have occasion to break them out about once a year at a wedding reception. But I look back very fondly on the time we spent awkwardly dancing to blurry music from a decrepit boombox around a crowded and ratty gymnasium. There’s something wonderful in the give-and-take of ballroom dance, the unspoken communication between you and your partner. I love the exhilarating feeling of successfully pulling off a complicated series of steps.
Men are generally supposed to “lead” in ballroom dance, but that doesn’t mean you should be dragging your partner around the dance floor. Neither should you be hesitant or nervous, though, which was more my tendency. Like most things in life, it’s all about balance, arms strong but not stiff, feet moving confidently but not aggressively. You need to be aware of where your partner’s arms and legs are, aware of whether she’s tired or ready for another spin, and aware of where everyone else on the dance floor is so you don’t go crashing disastrously into another pair of dancers.
That’s what Crypt of the NecroDancer feels like.
Crypt has been out1 for about four months now, and I can’t get it out of my head. I haven’t played it as obsessively as I sometimes play new games,2 but it’s been a very long time since a game has gotten as far into my bones as this one has.
Crypt is one of a number of modern Procedural Death Labyrinths, sometimes called “roguelikes,” or “roguelike-likes,” (so called because these games are either “like” Rogue, the 1980 progenitor of the genre, or, more pedantically, sort of like games which are themselves more directly similar to Rogue). PDLs differ wildly in theme and execution, from the bizarre body horror of The Binding of Isaac, where you play a naked baby traversing his basement, killing monsters with his own tears, to the wonderful spaceship simulator FTL: Faster Than Light. But there are a few tropes common to the genre: random or “procedural” generation of levels, ensuring that each time you play is completely unpredictable and different from every other; a deliberate opacity about how some of the rules or enemies work, requiring players to experiment in order to understand how best to play; “permadeath,” such that hitting a failure state erases your progress, forcing you to start over; and, most importantly, a certain gleeful propensity for player-murder in the form of punishing and exacting difficulty.
In Crypt, the player begins by taking on the role of a young woman named Cadence, who is descending into the titular Crypt in order to find her father, who went missing in the Crypt some years ago while searching for a mysterious treasure. On her way down, she is injured, and wakes up to find herself magically trapped, and only able to move in time with the mysterious music playing in the Crypt.
Here lies the genius of Crypt of the NecroDancer: everything you and your enemies do must be in time with the soundtrack. If you try to move Cadence out of rhythm, she simply hops in place, unable to move across the square grid or attack. In turn, enemies only move in time with the beat, breaking the game down into a series of incredibly fast “turns” played in time with Danny Baranowsky’s killer soundtrack.
All of Crypt is controlled with the four directional keys on the keyboard (or a dance pad, if you shell out for one of those, which I’m definitely going to do one of these days but haven’t yet). The Crypt is built on a grid, and both Cadence and most enemies can only move in the four cardinal directions (up, down, right and left). Press the “up” key in time with the beat and Cadence hops up a square. You attack enemies by moving into them – if you do enough damage to kill an enemy, it dies before it would move into you. If you don’t, you bounce off of each other and trade damage. Magical items and spells are activated by pressing some combination of the arrow keys, usually up and left for items or up and right for spells. This simplified control scheme allows you to focus on navigating the labyrinth rather than trying to remember which buttons do what, which I certainly appreciate.
Enemies move in predictable patterns. With the exception of a few enemies encountered in the game’s short tutorial, it’s up to the player to identify these patterns through trial-and-error, and part of the joy of the game is waiting to see what new tricks are waiting the further down into the Crypt you go. On paper, most of these patterns are fairly simple: blue slimes hop between two spaces, switching places every other beat; skeletons move towards you, alternating between raising their arms above their heads and then hopping towards you on every other beat. In a one-on-one fight, very few of the monsters in the game can put up much of a challenge once you understand how their patterns work. But you rarely fight these enemies one-on-one: usually you stumble into a room full of several different kinds of badguys and have to parse where to move while being pursued by half a dozen different enemies, each moving in its own unique way.
This is where Crypt feels most like a dance floor. But rather than negotiating a cha-cha routine while people around you may be dancing salsa or just awkwardly gyrating around the dance floor, you’re trying to weave through hordes of monstrous, beat-obsessed villains without being beaten to death. It’s thrilling and frequently terrifying, and I don’t know as there’s a better feeling in all of videogames than when you successfully negotiate a hair-rising scenario and come through unscathed.
The game has good bones, but its best moments are when it plays with the formula. It tends to change things up during its boss battles, which occur at the end of every three-level ‘zone’. My favorite boss is King Conga, an enormous gorilla who sits on a throne made of congas and bongos and waits to attack you until you’ve worked through his army of conga-lining zombies. This would be fun enough if it didn’t carry with it a brilliant twist: you can’t move on every eighth beat, much like how in a conga line, you kick or step to the side on every fourth beat instead of continuing to step forward. Try to move out of rhythm and you anger King Conga, who will leap down from his drum throne and punish you for throwing off his groove.
This pattern works beautifully with the boss’s theme song (Konga Conga Kappa) which reminds you to take every eighth beat off by doing so itself: every eighth beat, its electro-Latin bass line stops, leaving only a faint hit from a synthesized drum or some trumpets.
It’s this beautiful interconnection between the music and the game that really makes it work. Sure, you can play the game with your own music if you want to, and the in-game algorithm that hunts for beats and adjusts tempos does a passable job of making the game playable no matter what you throw at it. But after trying this feature out a few times, I have stuck exclusively with Baranowsky’s fantastic soundtrack. I’ve also had the soundtrack more or less on repeat on my iPhone whenever I’m walking the dogs or working on projects: it’s playing right now as I write this.
Some more examples: the Coral Riff boss is a huge, electric-bass-headed octopus whose many tentacles are actually trumpets and trapsets and keytars. Kill off the smaller tentacles and the appropriate track drops out of the music, eventually leaving you with only the funky slap-bass riffs of the octopus’s head. Banshee minibosses deafen you when you’re hit, fading out the music and making it much, much harder to keep time with the muffled beat. The shopkeeper sings along with the music, so you usually hear him long before you see the golden walls that signify his domain. The levels in Zone 3 are split between an ice-themed half and a fire-themed half, and the music switches from electronica to heavy metal arrangements of the same song as you vault between the two halves.
But the best enemy in the game is this guy, the Apprentice Blademaster.
Left to his own devices, the Apprentice Blademaster walks slowly towards you, hopping forward on every other beat. But if you attack him, he parries the blow, taking no damage, and hops back a step. On the very next beat, he charges two squares forward, and if you’re in his way, you take damage as he runs you through with his little sabre. If, however, you step to the side or one step further back, he finishes his lunge and is vulnerable. One strike finishes him off.
This creates a wonderful little dance pattern where both parties are dodging out of each other’s way and trying to catch the other off-guard for five or six beats of tense yet gorgeous choreography. Making it even more complicated is the fact that if the Blademaster attacks you while his back is to a wall, he can’t hop back but will still lunge two squares forward, either skewering you or hopping right past you, where you can’t hit him. So not only do you need to remember to get out of the way before killing him, you have to pay attention to your surroundings, and ask yourself if the Blademaster has anywhere to go once he parries your attack.
These little choreographed moments are why I love this game, why I keep dancing my way through the NecroDancer’s crypt despite the fact that I’ve unlocked every weapon and magic spell and most of the characters. Some of the alternate characters are brutally difficult, but Crypt is a joy to play in a way most roguelikes aren’t – I love FTL to death, but its minute-to-minute clicking is not so suffused with style and beautiful rhythm as Crypt is.
Since getting into Crypt, I’ve been considering taking ballroom dance lessons again, if I can find the time. But in the meantime, I can boogie through its dark corridors to my heart’s content.