How "Ikenfell" Gets Nostalgia Just Right
Analyzing how new indie game Ikenfell can feel nostalgic yet modern at the same time
I am always looking for an indie game that represents the golden era of games from my childhood. For me, it is the NES and Super Nintendo. If you remember blowing on game cartridges, only having two controllers per console, and going to Blockbuster on weekends, you were likely a child within the same era. Something about pixelized sprites doing battle over some perfectly composed chiptune music really brings a sense of childhood wonder. Ikenfell thankfully brings this to bare in spades!
Ikenfell by Happy Ray Games and Humble Games is a turn-based role playing game that takes place in a magical academy for youths. A non-magic user (or “ordinary”) named Maritte heads over to the titular school Ikenfell after her rambunctious sister Safina never comes home for break. She is suddenly thrown into an amazing journey to discover the secrets of the academy, and learn the wonders of magic and friendship to save the day. Also, there’s something about teen adventures at a magic academy that never gets old.
While Ikenfell has spectacular retro art, sound design and composing (done by aivi & surasshu, the main composers of Steven Universe), I want to focus on how the game’s design stays true to its nostalgic roots in this review, and get to the core of how the game is both nostalgic, and a fresh take on the turn-based RPG genre.
The Right Mix
Ikenfell invokes elements from a unique combination of games from the 16-bit era. Most notable is an attack system inspired by games like Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario, where timed hits increase your attack power, and decrease damage taken from enemy hits. This, combined with a 3 x N battle grid reminiscent of both Megaman Battle Network and Fire Emblem, and with spell abilities and quirky monsters vaguely reminiscent of Earthbound, Ikenfell creates the perfect mix of nostalgic gaming from the mid-90’s.
At the same time, they take what works from these genres. Players love story-driven gameplay, so Ikenfell mixes in elements of this with their pixelated animations and emotional character portraits during “cutscenes”. Exploration in RPGs takes place in what is usually a sprawling overworld; Ikenfell combines the overworld with a friendly and unique hub world (the school itself) to create a massive map of segments broken up to match the size of the screen (a la Legend of Zelda, Binding of Isaac, etc).
Learning from the Past
While Ikenfell borrows what works from 16-bit RPGs, it tosses out what traditionally does not work as well, via their Settings options. Gone is the endless slog of “grinding” EXP in tedious battles — the game provides an “Instant Victory” option that allows you to finish off battles and get the same EXP and currency you would normally receive. This puts the player in the position of playing their way — for example, I decided to fight each new enemy type (and boss) at least once before instant-winning future encounters. If you do not tweak these settings, you are in for a SNES-era difficulty curve that refuses to forgive mistakes!
Along with this, players are able tweak the timed attacks system to automatically give you “Nice” or “Great” success — if you are tired of timing attacks. This, combined with settings that reduce vibration intensity, photosensitive events, and content warnings for possibly triggering moments, all give casual players a chance at enjoying the game in their own way.
Overall, Ikenfell provides a modernized approach to turn based strategy games of the SNES era, while updating elements to stay current with the times. It is a breath of fresh air to see inclusion, battle music with lyrics, and depth of customization in a game that so closely mirrors those from a millennial’s youth.
As a freelance game designer, I am constantly trying new indie games and learning from how they subvert genres and create unique systems for their games. If you are interested, check out some of my other game design articles.