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Disclosure: the author was provided with a copy of this game by the developer for the purpose of this review
Developer: Nauris Amatnieks
Caves…the first frontier…these are the journeys of some nameless caveman. His mission? To explore standard platformer worlds. To seek out a new wife among new frustrations. To clumsily go where everyone has gone before.
There Was A Caveman is a retro platformer both in its pixel art style, and its difficulty. The player runs and jumps across six 2D levels, killing dinosaurs, big dangerous animals, and dying a lot. It’s really as simple as that. The caveman has 4 basic abilities: a double-jump, a club attack, a forward dash, and a projectile throw. There are also 4 varieties of projectile: stones thrown straight forward, a wooden boomerang, a bone thrown upwards in an arc, and a wooden spear that can stick into walls and become a new platform. Only the first and last really have any use, but for the most part are just worthless in battle with the enemy insects or dinosaurs the caveman encounters.
Sorry to say the design here is so basic, so typical, that I don’t need to say much more when detailing all the gameplay. Each of the 6 levels pits the player against 5-10 areas of death-traps and enemies. Caveman has 3 hearts of health, and can collect hidden gold hearts to boost his health for a short while. But it’s inconsequential as he dies so quickly he might as well have only 1 HP. The biggest problem with There Was A Caveman is that taking even one bit of damage will unfairly screw over the player. Most games have a period of invincibility after taking a hit; the character will flash for a few seconds so the player can maneuver out of danger. Caveman gives barely one second of invulnerability, meaning taking a hit often leads right into another hit, and another hit to kill the player and throw them back to the start of the area. Also the hit-boxes on any hazard or enemy are ludicrously huge, with Caveman getting hit from barely grazing most enemies. Taking damage also knocks Caveman back a few feet, often right into something else that can damage him. Very, very rarely did dying in this game feel fair during my playthrough.
Defeated enemies drop collectable skulls, and the gold hearts and projectiles I mentioned can also be purchased from a shop late in each stage with these skulls. Thing is, the number of skulls collected is halved every time the player dies. Projectiles collected will also revert to zero upon death, while gold hearts break one at a time upon death. Basically the game’s economy is no help at all, as gold hearts are the most expensive item, while projectiles are worthless since the player will very likely just die on the next screen anyway. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been so bad had these shops all been placed before boss battles, but most are stuck halfway in the middle of a level where they’re probably at their least useful. Boss battles themselves are as frustrating an affair as the rest of the game, particularly due to the hit-boxes being so unfair. Projectiles which look tiny are massive hazards, and any attack where multiple dangers arrive on-screen are going to see Caveman bounce like a pinball before exploding into his 60th bloody death.
Boss designs are as uninteresting as the standard enemies. A big dinosaur, a pterodactyl, a mammoth, a big octopus. The level selection is highly cliche for a 2D platformer as well: caves, forest, underwater, icy mountain, giant stomach. The only creative section of the game is the fourth level, where the player goes to the caveman afterlife, to journey across dark, bone-filled canyons, and fight undead dinosaurs. The boss at the end is a dinosaur-skeleton wizard, which is unfortunately spoiled by standard worm enemies jumping in to frustrate, as well as the wizard’s tendency to teleport right to where the player is and decimate Caveman’s health by just floating there. The third level’s pterodactyl flying intro is basic, but neat, but is ruined by a sudden crash into an underwater stage where the player can’t dash or attack, and moves at a snail’s pace.
The final level inside the stomach of a giant dinosaur is an unforgiving section of NES hard rooms. Being a retro-platformer, There Was A Caveman certainly evokes the spirit of playing one of those very challenging adventures from the NES days. One of the bad ones which frustrates players with unfair design that is. The final rooms are a difficult gauntlet of strong enemies, instant-death drops, and moving platforms. Yet the whole game is just one big prehistoric slog through imprecise controls and hit-detection, near-useless items, and countless deaths caused by anything but the player’s level of skill.
While the pixel-art is okay, it’s not particularly impressive, as is the rest of the game at its core. There’s next to no replay value, with no unlockables worth suffering to claim. The music also adds immensely to the irritation the experience causes, with bland looping bloop sounds detracting from the experience the more they repeat. The clumsy platforming is what really kills There Was A Caveman though. Rather than providing a tough, but fair challenge, the adventure of Caveman is a 2 hour journey of frustration with little in the way of charm. The only value from the experience is how well it emulates the misery of the ridiculously punishing and maddeningly designed games that plagued gamers in the NES days. If you like to torture yourself with sadistic difficulty and little else, this might be worth a go. But if this sounds like something you wouldn’t be able to stand, then don’t bother excavating this caveman.