For a game that only lasts ten minutes, I have to respect Don’t Look Back. Terry Cavanagh packs a full game’s worth of challenge and story into a nostalgic Atari 2600 package for the low, low price of free. Initially released during 2009, Cavanagh ported Don’t Look Back to iOS and Android platforms as a pioneer for a potential VVVVVV release. If you’re a fan of VVVVVV, that’s great news, but this pixelated experiment attains its own merits. Within ten minutes, you’ll explore sinister caves, dodge hazardous traps, slay malevolent demons, and venture into the mouth of Hell for a surprising emotional tale.
Although there’s no shortage of bleak narratives to be found in the 16-bit space this year, be it To The Moon, Lone Survivor, or Home (technically 8-bit), Don’t Look Back remains the most cryptic of these indie contemporaries. The game’s opening image happens to be the title menu sans text. A protagonist stands in front of a tombstone while the rain buffets his back, raising one immediate question: Who resides in the unmarked grave? The game doesn't deface the experience with dialogue, though you’ll find answers soon enough.
Don't Look Back shares narrative similarities to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Don’t Look Back decorates the environment with a mere three colors and scant number of pixels. Red represents tangible surfaces, black signifies the static background, and white denotes characters. The game does more than emulate Atari 2600 visuals, however. Don’t Look Back also mimics the gameplay limitations of the retired system. The hero transitions between unmoving screens, platforming from the occasional ledge while eliminating spiders, snakes, and bats with a handgun previously found on the ground unguarded.
But firearms prove useless against Hell’s traps seeking to forestall the journey, as each obstacle kills off the hero in a single hit. Stalactites dislodge from cave ceilings, blocks rotate about the scenery, electricity arcs back and forth across the path, and balls of lava surge skyward from pools of magma. You can almost see inspirations for VVVVVV forming as you play Don’t Look Back, even if all deaths are met with an immediate restart on the screen you perished on. These infinite retries leave players to ponder the experience, not the punishment.
For gamers without an iOS or Android device, they can still play Don't Look Back for free over at Kongregate.
That doesn’t mean Don’t Look Back can’t be just as difficult as VVVVVV. As a touchscreen experiment, perhaps Cavanagh means to refine the controls, because Don’t Look Back situates the jump and fire buttons unnecessarily close together. I frequently missed leaps to the next platform if my taps were just centimeters off-target. Other times, I hurdled into approaching critters when I intended to eliminate them with weapons fire.
The combat eventually relents to rescuing a lady in white. Although she cannot be harmed, this escort mission induces a new set of challenges: never looking back. If the man happens to face the ghost’s direction any time, he fades from existence. This circumstance calls for more interpretations. Why can the protagonist not face this apparition? What purpose does chaperoning this ethereal women serve? Completing Don’t Look Back left me wide-eyed and confused (initially), but a little thought goes a long way towards building a narrative that’s anything but skin-deep.
Publisher: Terry Cavanagh
Developer: Terry Cavanagh
Release Date: October 16, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: iOS (Reviewed), Android, PC