That throwing stick stunt of yours has boomeranged on us
As I played Belle Boomerang, my husband looked over my shoulder and asked if it was difficult. “Yes,” I replied, “but I have it set to retro difficulty.” He asked if I was going to review it, which I confirmed. “Why would you make it harder on yourself?” he asked.
There are a few reasons. The first is that I like the challenge. I also feel the need to play on the difficulty the developer “intended,” which is something that might not always exist. Finally, I have a chip on my shoulder. I’ve been strengthened in the crucible of retro games. I’ve climbed Castlevania and conquered Contra. Should be a cakewalk.
It wasn’t, but then, that’s what I enjoyed most about Belle Boomerang.
Belle Boomerang (PC)
Released: June 3, 2022
The boomerang is often the worst side-scroller weapon you can handle. It often doesn’t travel very far, and then you have to wait for it to come back before you can throw it again. It’s an odd weapon to pick as the primary attack of the game.
Not much backstory is given, and you mostly wind up putting the pieces together through short snippets of text. Save the King and Queen. Save the Kingdom. It’s nothing too revolutionary for the era that it tries to slot itself into.
I have to keep reminding myself that Belle Boomerang is a new release and not something that I had previously overlooked on my shelf. It looks like something between a Game Boy Color title and one from the NES’ library. The color choices are bright and almost garish, but the palette is restricted to a few colors per tile. It sticks pretty closely to the limitations of the era. It doesn’t go nuts with the animations, nor does it incorporate mixed pixel resolutions or sprite rotation; just some unreasonable pet peeves of mine.
Belle Boomerang is extremely faithful to the era. You’re able to select your difficulty from the outset, with the less challenging one giving you three hearts and more checkpoints, while retro gives you two hearts, fewer checkpoints, and less opportunity to breath.
I haven’t felt this way in a game since Cuphead or maybe that time I tackled Batman on the NES. It’s merciless. It starts off easy enough, but by the end, you’re replaying sections repeatedly trying to get them perfect. Or at least blunder through well enough. I was starting to have flashbacks of that clock tower in Batman. You make it a little bit further each time and then it smacks you down with something new.
It’s not unfair, but it does expect you to get it right. You can attest to knowing how to dance all you want, but if you can’t put all the steps together at the right time, you’re headed back to the checkpoint. Which, again, in retro mode can be horrifically far between.
The bosses play out similarly. They’re given short health bars, but you often have to jump rope for a while to get them to show their vulnerable side. As long as you didn’t miss your chance, they’ll move onto a different phase that you have to deal with on the fly, otherwise, you’re starting the battle over. It’s hard to stay mad at Belle Boomerang. Just when you think you’ve been pushed to the brink, you hit another checkpoint. It doesn’t want you to suffer, it just wants you to learn.
It kept me on the margins of frustration. I’d throw a hand up with every stupid mistake that would send me back. But every time I’d ring a checkpoint bell, it was a victory. Forward progression. Finally.
Each level is themed differently and entirely new. Power-ups are often introduced for that level alone, used specifically to navigate its unique hazards. Nothing gets recycled, chunks of stages don’t even resemble the ones that come before. It never lets up, you’re never given breathing room. I started praying that I had just hit a difficulty spike, and the next level would be easier, but no. It’s a gentle curve that reaches the stratosphere.
But then it’s so darned cute. Even the enemies are adorable with their little faces. As you cut through them with your throwing stick, you just meet them backstage after the level. They’re cursed, maybe, or perhaps the whole thing is a play. Whatever is the reason, it’s a wholesome reminder that you aren’t hurting anyone.
Your mileage is going to vary with Belle Boomerang. There aren’t a whole lot of levels, but if you keep bashing into walls as I did, you might be playing for a while. Its length is perhaps another facet reflective of its inspiration; most NES games could be beaten in an afternoon, but some of the best ones required you to practice before you see the credits. You can also collect roses in each of the levels for completion. They’re basically in your path in the first few levels, but eventually, you need to seek harder to find them.
New and old
Whether Belle Boomerang clicks with you is going to depend on how much appreciation for the challenges of yore. This isn’t a die-and-retry game like Celeste, this is Castlevania style, where getting knocked back into a hole means you’re trying large sections over again. You can soften the blow, but I didn’t, and my inner masochist thanks me for it.
You can throw a rock at the Steam Marketplace and hit a pixel art platformer that has heart but misses what made the era appealing. Belle Boomerang is not one of those games. It deserves attention, and I’m hoping that its charming visuals will help it achieve that. Don’t let this one get lost in the mix. It’s a tight experience, with its own unique challenges, and front-to-back variety. It may not completely reinvent the platforming genre, but it hits the target masterfully.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]