What It’s Like To Play Crypt of the NecroDancer 1


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.

angry congaCrypt 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.

conga throneThe 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.

blademasterLeft 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.

Dancing to the beat.

Dancing to the beat.

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.

Notes:
  1. It was in Early Access for a fair amount of time before that, but I delib­er­ate­ly didn’t play it dur­ing that time on account of I hate Early Access. []
  2. Steam thinks I’ve only played it for 49 hours, which real­ly isn’t very much in videogame terms. []

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and now Editor Emeritus (that means he doesn't really do anything any more) of the Ontological Geek. He currently studies law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wonderful wife and a pair of small and snuggly terriers.

  • Rowan

    Great arti­cle!