Platforms: Switch, PC
Originally released in late 2016, Owlboy from D-Pad Studio is an indie game that took over 10 years to develop. Most small-scale developers would get discouraged if their game took that long to finally come together. In fact, I’m not so sure D-Pad would have ever made Owlboy if they’d known it would take 10 years to finally finish.
But, lo and behold, Owlboy is real and it’s just as good as we ever could have imagined. After releasing in November of 2016 for PC, Owlboy has finally made its way to consoles with its release on Nintendo Switch—and this version of the game is even better. The portability of the Switch combined with the excellent platforming and beautiful pixel art make it feel like a game that was designed to take advantage of the platform’s strengths.
Focusing on the characters
Usually when you play a side-scrolling platformer-style game such as Owlboy you’re going in with a few preexisting expectations. For starters, you’d probably expect to do a lot of running, jumping, and maybe some shooting here and there and you’d never really bargain for a whole lot of text boxes. Owlboy turns all of those ideas on their heads with a focus on flight—not really running and jumping—and a heavy dose of excellent writing and a well-constructed cast of characters.
Even though Otus, the game's main character, is a mute, it didn’t stop the artists at D-Pad from making sure he absolutely brims with emotion. Owlboy tells a story of loss and failure unlike any other side-scrolling pixel art game I’ve seen, drawing favorable comparisons to another indie darling, Braid.
The power of flight
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Owlboy is that its story and its gameplay are so intertwined, making it hard to enjoy one and not the other. For example, you’re made adamantly aware of Owlboy’s flaws and deficiencies from the very start of the game, and as you meet side characters you’ll gain the ability to “carry” them through the air, using their abilities (such as shooting a gun) to supplement your own. In this way the game teaches you that relationships are at the core of growing as a person.
Since you’re playing as an owl that can basically fly forever it really opens up the gameplay a lot. Typical side-scrolling platformers would have you spending your time jumping over gaps and trying to fight against the ever-present threat of gravity, but that’s rarely an issue in the world of Owlboy. Instead, the levels are designed with such creativity that it changes the way you think about solving puzzles when you’re not limited to a flat plane with limited verticality. You’ve got to think about and use the entirety of your X and Y axis in this game.
Pixel perfect performance
10 years sounds like a long time to be working on just one single game because it totally is, but once you play it, you can tell that the passion never faltered throughout the entire development cycle. Each every feather on Otus’ back and cloud in the sky is placed with a hand-crafted touch you don’t often see in games today -- indie or otherwise.
And yet, somehow, throughout that entire process, Owlboy never lost its soul. From start to finish it’s a well-crafted and detailed love letter to a genre and era that countless developers are clamoring for ways to honor and it executes its vision with effortless poise. Owlboy achieves the rare feat of being an indie game that feels fresh and familiar at the same time, that scratches a particular gaming itch you didn’t know you had, and satiates your hunger as a form of digitized nostalgic comfort food.