Back in 2019, a small cabal of game developers called KHAN Games brought NEScape! to Kickstarter. They’d already finished the game – an escape room envisioned as a NES game – but their ultimate aim was to make it into a physical NES cartridge. Doubling their target, they were able to not only make it a physical item (with SNES mouse adapter, no less), but bring it to modern consoles too. Which explains why we’re sitting here, as Xbox reviewers, writing about a NES escape room.
NEScape! is a simple beast. Before you is a single door, and your aim is to step through it. But before you get there, you’re going to need to open innumerable draws, chests and puzzle boxes, finding key after key that will – eventually – gain you freedom.
This is all doused in NES-style pixel art, and you would be hard-pushed to deny that it doesn’t look the part. We were immediately taken back to the NES port of Maniac Mansion, as the room looks like it was ripped from that game’s backgrounds. Everything is clear and detailed – or as detailed as you’re going to get from an 8-Bit game – and we could immediately see the appeal of demaking an escape room onto a NES.
Our other first impression was that NEScape! wasn’t going to offer any handholds. Before the escape room proper is the game’s main menu, and the main menu is a puzzle by itself: a series of five safe-like dials that you have to align to create the word ‘BEGIN’. You are puzzling before you’ve even started, and there’s no instruction or help to get you past it. This is a puzzling trial-by-fire, which fits, we suppose. Older adventures like King’s Quest and Zork were determined to put the player to work, and NEScape! is emulating them.
The developers don’t stop there, as you begin the game in the dark. You’ll need to find the lightswitch, which admittedly twinkles a bit to draw your cursor. But once the lights are on, things don’t become any more intuitive. There’s no tutorial to teach you simple things like how to change perspective, as you can view the four different walls of the room independently, or how to exit out of puzzles. Both need you to drag your cursor to the outside of the game screen, which took us far longer to figure out than it possibly should.
It’s something that you will have to buy into from the very start with NEScape!. Having played Escape Academy, for example – a game where hints are available at all times, there is a gradual increase in difficulty, and important elements helpfully flash and make themselves abundantly clear – NEScape! in comparison is bordering on the unhelpful. You are going to move slowly through NEScape!, and you will get stuck.
We’re a little on the fence with the approach. There’s definite value in making the player work things out for themselves, and a huge sense of reward when they get it right. It also wouldn’t feel right to create a NES-era game with acres of tutorials. But it’s a tightrope: if you create a single puzzle that’s unintuitive or unclear, then the player will blame you. And we definitely blamed NEScape! an awful lot.
To give you an example, NEScape! is broken up into chapters, and each chapter starts with the lights off. Except you no longer have the helpful twinkling of the lightswitch, and you have four walls where the lightswitch might be. So, we were pixel-hunting multiple times in the game, and it just wasn’t fun. There’s a torch in the inventory that might have helped, but it too was hidden in the dark. It might have been okay once, but multiple times dragged.
There are cassette tapes that need to be ‘used’ to hear them, but getting their audio to trigger was more convoluted than it needed to be. And you can ONLY play NEScape! with audio on: if you are deaf, hard of hearing or simply want to play quietly then nope, you’re not going to get anywhere. The game is loaded with audio cues.
This might seem like nit-picking, but the vast majority of NEScape!’s puzzles have an asterisk, a complication that makes them unwieldy. Getting a key is less exciting than it should be because there are a dozen locks and you will need to trial-and-error to find the right one. And puzzles rely on knotty, old-school and impenetrable frameworks like morse code (where you’re given the beeps yourself and have to translate them) and hearing music and translating it to musical annotation. Call us lazy millennials, but transcribing in this way is painful rather than fun.
We’re being a little unfair on NEScape!, simply because we feel like it’s a caveat you should be absolutely aware of. This is not the kind of escape room that you’d find on a high-street in an abandoned Woolworths. It’s more demanding, more old school, and there’s no-one to call for a hint. Although walkthroughs and guides will soon appear on the internet, so at least there’s that.
Because NEScape! is absolutely capable of producing some cracking puzzles. They’re rarer than they should be, but we enjoyed uncovering symbols from one puzzle and then using them to decipher another. There’s some lightweight graphic adventure stuff, where you use items on locations or other items, and – a hairdryer puzzle aside – they are logical and fun to implement.
And we really enjoyed how NEScape! could wring every last drop from only one room and four walls. Over the course of its chapters, it manages to shuffle furniture about, open things that were closed before, and allow the game space to open up like a lotus flower. We expected to be moving on to other rooms, but no – NEScape! just about makes the one room a viable space for an entire game.
We say ‘just about’ because there is another warning: NEScape! isn’t particularly long. Play with a walkthrough and you could finish it in ten minutes. Play without a walkthrough, and you’re looking at something in the region of an hour (there is a ticking clock with an hour to start with, but with no failure if it elapses). That’s not a huge volume of course, but compare it to the price of a physical escape room (NEScape! is a tiny £3.99) and it’s more favourable. And hey, you’ll get 1000G in return.
NEScape! does everything it sets out to do. It’s a convincing recreation of an escape room made into a NES game, and it’s as fiendish and unhelpful as adventure games of the period. Our problem was that we came off the back of Escape Academy, and we desperately missed the sense of easy flow that came from solving puzzle after puzzle. NEScape! can instead feel like stepping on rake after rake.
While its sharp-edges are enough to make it a wary recommendation, hardcore puzzle fans (or players who come for nostalgia) might find that NEScape! is at least worth a Blockbuster rental.
You can buy NEScape! from the Xbox Store
- Utterly authentic
- Makes great use of a small space
- Some fine puzzles
- Offers no onboarding whatsoever
- Finicky puzzles
- Lasts less than an hour
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to – 8-Bit Legit
- Formats – Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Switch
- Version reviewed – Xbox One on Xbox Series X
- Release date – 13 January 2023
- Launch price from – £TBC