Don’t Look Back is a minimalist side-scrolling platformer by Terry Cavanagh, perhaps best known for his other minimalist side-scrolling platformer, VVVVVV. In it, you go through some very tricky jumps and traps, shoot some very fast enemies, and take down a handful of tough bosses. It is challenging, but always remains fresh and fun.
For the first few screens, this game feels like a typical platformer, but then you pick up a gun, and the game is equal parts platformer and shooter after that. I was surprised at how fast and aggressive the enemies were, right off the bat. Almost every screen is a serious challenge to get through, thanks in part to the player dying with one hit, but thankfully you respawn immediately, usually on the same screen. You will die a lot, but there is no penalty for trying, so the multiple attempts end up being fun instead of frustrating.
I’m told that this game is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, though I’ve never seen that explicitly confirmed by the developer. Apparently, the story goes that Orpheus and Eurydice were lovers, but Eurydice dies. Distraught, Orpheus goes to Hades to retrieve her. Admiring his dedication, Hades allows them to leave together, under the condition that Orpheus not look back at his lover until they make it out of the underworld. He does, she vanishes, and their chance at being reunited is lost forever.
In Don’t Look Back, you begin the game outside at a rain-soaked grave, travelling ever deeper into dark caverns until you eventually reach a dead-end and another person (sort of). You then must retrace your steps (with the bosses gone, but all new traps and enemies) and make it back to the grave. And, true to the apparent inspiration, if you turn to the right at any time during your journey back, your companion disappears (with a fairly horrifying scream) and you will have to respawn as though you have died.
This gameplay wrinkle for the second half was really interesting, and totally unique. I don’t think I’ve played anything like it before. Having to complete all of the jumping, climbing and shooting tasks while never backtracking, even for a step, was really fun, and added a layer of complexity to an already challenging game.
The visuals are straight out of the Atari 2600, with jagged edges and colors you can count on one hand, but the game underneath is seriously solid. Giant bosses, fireballs, rushing enemies, and disappearing platforms will all test your skills, but thanks to the forgiving respawn system, you never feel like the game is wasting your time. The atmosphere was cool, and I suppose the “story” is interesting, but this game worked for me on a purely gameplay level. If you’re a fan of tough, old-school platformers like Super Meat Boy or VVVVVV, you owe it to yourself to spend 10-20 minutes with Don’t Look Back. You can play it for free in your browser here, and visit the developer’s site here.