We live as we dream — in 8-bit glory
A very unlikely franchise was born about 12 years ago on the beloved Xbox Live platform. Developer Ancient, which got its start in the industry back in the Sega Master System era, unleashed a game called Protect Me, Knight! for the service. It was an odd little retro game that flew under the radar for most players but managed to make something of an impact on those who actually gave it a shot. I know this because when I reviewed its unlikely sequel Gotta Protectors some years ago, readers in the comments immediately brought up its Xbox Live origins.
Being the type of person who doesn’t want to be left out of the scene for something he truly loves, I dove headfirst into the Gotta Protectors/Protect Me, Knight! fanbase and found a small but passionate contingent of gamers extolling the virtues of Ancient’s throwback hack ’n’ slash. That lively fanbase is the reason we got Gotta Protectors on the 3DS, and why Switch owners will soon be able to experience the franchise for themselves with Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness.
Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness (Nintendo Switch)
Developer: Ancient Corp.
Released: April 14, 2022
Despite the improvements in technology and scope, the Gotta Protectors series really hasn’t strayed too far from its original formula. Protect Me, Knight! was a fairly simple, single-screen tower defense game where your tower was the bright-eyed Princess Lola who you had to keep safe using one of four heroes and a couple of barricades. That’s still true with Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness, even if this entire production has been scaled up. Across dozens of maps and missions, you still have to keep Princess Lola safe from the demon hordes out to get her, only now you can choose from eight heroes, barricades are much more bountiful than before, and everything is on the move.
If you’re coming into this with absolutely no clue of what this game is about, just consider it an arcadey, 8-bit take on the Dynasty Warriors franchise. With your chosen hero, you’ll hack ’n’ slash your way across each stage, unleashing skills when necessary and doing your best to keep Lola out of harm’s way. It really is just that simple, even if that’s tough to believe with the wildly overpopulated screenshots and videos of this game in action.
For those who have saved the day in Magicadia before, know there have been quite a few changes made to how Gotta Protectors plays here. The most obvious of which is Lola and her castle. Rather than being stationary as she was in the last two games, Lola and her fortress are rolling in Cart of Darkness. Each stage has a track laid out that Lola and her kingdom will ride until she reaches the enemy castle waiting at the end. Once she’s face to face with this opposing kingdom, she’ll start to ram into it until that castle is nothing more than a pile of dust.
Ancient has put together a pretty interesting collection of maps in Cart of Darkness. I worried that always having Lola and her castle on a conveyor belt would become tedious after a while, but with all the gimmicks the developer has deployed — including branching pathways, trick switches, and holes you literally have to climb into so Lola can run right over you — I never found myself becoming bored with the action. Sure, it can be repetitive (especially if you play on a game reviewer’s schedule) but there was enough imagination in the design and variety in the visuals to keep me coming back for more. Not only do the maps make good use of the moving castle motif, but they also help highlight the game’s new party system.
Rather than just going into battle with one hero, you’ll choose three at the start of every mission. Each hero you select can be equipped with three skills to go along with their basic melee attack. These skills can be offensive or defensive, and with three heroes at your disposal, it’s fun to mix and match heroes and skills to find the perfect squad for you. For my playthrough of the game, the Ninja became an indispensable member of my team thanks to how quickly he can destroy monster spawn points with the way he hops around the map. Prince Mars was also a favorite thanks to a few of his devastating skills that worked well in boss battles, while my third slot was usually reserved for a character who could set up automatic barricade repairers. Just know that the process of switching between characters on the battlefield takes a bit longer than it should and that all of your heroes share a single health bar.
In addition to the skills you can assign, there are also hundreds of cartridges to collect that can boost your characters even more. These cartridges grant passive skills, such as increased speed or regain health, that unlock a secondary skill once you raise them to level 10. And when I say “hundreds”, I mean it. There are 948 cartridges to collect in Cart of Darkness, with names that parody the games released back on the NES. While that may sound like a lot to collect (and it is) don’t be surprised if a lot of these skills repeat across cartridges.
Coming off of Gotta Protectors for the 3DS, it was interesting to see just how much has been scaled back for Cart of Darkness. For instance, while you can still sidle up to Princess Lola to regain health, you no longer need to worry about leveling up at the castle during battle. That’s now handled between each map of a mission. There is no longer a bunch of junk to collect on each map, either. Everything is just money now. You also don’t need to worry about leveling up skills, buying equipment, or crafting in Cart of Darkness.
All of that has been excised for a more streamlined experience. Save up your cash from missions to buy new skills, upgrade your castle, pay alms… and that’s pretty much it. At first, I was a little disappointed by the simplicity of it all, but eventually, I came to realize there is a very good reason for dialing back the action outside of battle.
That’s because, I believe, Cart of Darkness was primarily designed as a multiplayer experience. Don’t get me wrong. You can beat this game solo. I did it on Easy and Normal difficulties, the latter of which proved to be quite troublesome on certain maps. But if you’re going to attempt the unlockable Hard or Hell difficulties, you’ll probably want to bring somebody along with you. Cart of Darkness supports both local and online co-op, and while I was unfortunately unable to play with anybody online, I did manage to team up with a few people locally for some truly raucous missions.
Even with an increased player count, you still get to choose three characters while playing in co-op, meaning it’s possible to have four Ninjas on-screen at once, bouncing all over the map, testing just how well the framerate holds up when there are dozens of monsters and a giant dragon tearing shit up.
To that end, everything holds up pretty well here. I can’t remember a moment where the framerate dropped, even when playing with two other people on ridiculously monster-filled maps. Cart of Darkness is just a solidly built game with great 8-bit artwork and outstanding music. Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack absolutely rips, and I only wish the DLC soundtrack options that let you listen to it with various sound chip formats were included in the base game. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Even without those extra options, I think Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness is a wonderful follow-up to an outstanding 3DS gem. It’s fast, fun, and genuinely funny with a real appreciation of ‘80s video game culture. I’ll admit I prefer the single-player-focused design of its predecessor and all the overwhelming systems that went along with it, but even with Cart of Darkness‘s simplified execution, there is still a great deal of fun to be had protecting that princess. Especially if you bring some friends along for the ride.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]