There’s no shortage of modern creations that evoke the look and sound of late 1980s games. Not so much as those games actually were, but as players fondly remember them—with bigger characters, better animation, and smoother play than any 8-bit system could manage. Are they neo-retro? Noveau 8-bit? Nostalgia traps? Whatever the movement might be called, Gotta Protectors was there at the start, with Protect Me Knight in 2010 and Gotta Protectors in 2016. And now Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness arrives on the Switch so thick with retro attachment that the initial screen mimics a fuzzy TV signal, while the game itself wastes few screens before its princess protagonist squeals that her castle is moving “faster than a hedgehog on blast processing.” If that sparks a grin of recognition, Gotta Protectors is for you.
But what about the players who don’t have fond memories or excessive fixations surrounding that particular era of video games? What does Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness offer them? As it turns out, plenty.
The realm of Magicadia is one of those unfortunate kingdoms rarely not under siege by evil forces, as Princess Lola and her lineup of eight loyal guardians learn at the opening of Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness. As with previous games, the princess must be defended from onslaughts of hostile foes, yet their new quest brings an offensive push. Instead of just sitting in her castle, Lola rides it along railroad tracks to reach the enemy stronghold. And then she gleefully slams her fortress into the enemy castle until her target explodes in a mushroom cloud. Princess Lola is clearly a go-getter.
To defend the princess on her castle-train journey, the player picks three of the Gotta Protectors and fends off a furious horde of creatures. Switching out with a simple command, the heroes span familiar archetypes with humorous touches; the short-range fighter, spell-hurling mage, and long-range archer play it relatively straight, but the ninja speeds around in merely a mask and a loincloth, the unflatteringly named Oldguy lumbers forth with a toy horse bolted around his waist, and the shaman-like oracle wears a candle headband and a constant expression of guilty, wild-eyed terror.
There’s an undeniable charm to the mixture of simple appearances and complex details in Gotta Protectors. It’s there in the stages themselves, which start off with basic tasks as the heroes ferry the princess onward and beat back enemies. But then the opposition expands from pushover goblins to include swooping bats, bomb-throwing bears, warping succubi, buzzing grim reapers, clustering zombies, and the occasional giant crab or equally oversized creature.
The stages grow in similar fashion, gradually introducing switches to change the castle’s path, gates that must be unlocked, pits that only a hero can bridge, and other gimmicks that transform each level into an fast-paced puzzle. It’s fitting, then, that the heroes have more than their attacks. If you want to play defensively, you can erect barriers to slow down enemies, who’ll busy themselves pouncing on the roadblocks while you plan your next move or simply strike at your foes. And if the barricades are damaged, you can fix them by attacking them—just like in real life.
Gotta Protectors is similarly calculated in its appearances. The characters and enemies are small and simple in design, but it’s all so the game can cram as many characters as possible into the playfield without a hint of slowdown. It’s easy to lose sight of a hero in the chaos of goblin throngs, glowing minotaurs, flying arrows, bursting spells, and the constant power-up cheers of the princess and her locomotive castle. Yet even if you’re confused, the game offers quick solutions. When in doubt, button-mashing will usually get you through. Perhaps a little too often.
Slamming attacks into hundreds of enemies per stage is repetitive at first, but again Gotta Protectors builds things up. With three characters on your team, it’s best to go for the variety of standard attackers, long-range projectile experts, and one of the less easily pigeonholed characters like the Oracle or Prince. Each mission brings in cash that can be used to upgrade your defense, attack power, barricade sturdiness, or the power of the princess herself. Unfortunately, those stat boosts disappear after each four-part mission, dismantling any level-ups you’ve purchased.
Long-term satisfaction lies elsewhere. Save your money, and you can upgrade characters’ actual abilities in a fairy-run shop. Each Gotta Protectors hero has several stock playstyles that carry over once purchased, and you’re free to make a custom profile with your favorite acquired moves. It brings great variety to the gameplay, even if you’re only allowed three characters in battle.
Gotta Protectors is rarely lacking in cute style, whether it’s the pleasantly detailed graphics assembled by programmers with decades of experience, the punchy soundtrack from industry legend Yuzo Koshiro, or just the characters quibbling. Princess Lola and her companions touch on everything from sequel pitfalls to self-censorship jokes, and during gameplay they’ll uncover little game cartridges with suspiciously familiar titles like “Balloon Fright” and “Jujitsu X.”
Even the interstitials are strewn with callbacks: pausing the game brings mock-ups of magazines, and title cards show fictional and often absurd fan art (including a piece apparently from singer and The Wizard star Jenny Lewis). It’s a constant flow of in-jokes, but it’s never an empty reference parade like Ready Player One or Hi Score Girl. Instead, Gotta Protectors is reminiscent of Game Center CX and its DS titles, paying constant and humorous tribute to an era while still standing on its own.
The game openly invites multiplayer at all times, with three spare slots at the screen’s top even when you’re playing solo. It’s only more hectic with other characters on the playfield, and that’s entirely the point. Having other heroes along to help and annoy each other patches up the occasional monotonous attacking, and the online play seemed smooth at this writing.
Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness carefully and forcefully looks back to the days of the NES and Famicom, and that’s hardly a rare aim these days. Yet there’s much more to the game than the overloaded trappings of an 8-bit game too technically impressive to have actually existed back then. It’s refreshingly complicated and relentlessly charming despite some repetition, and that earns it a wide-reaching recommendation, even for those players who won’t get the joke in an NES-like cartridge called “Hoagie’s Aisle.”