The side-scrolling beat-‘em-up is quietly making a comeback in modern gaming. It was a genre once left behind by the transition to three-dimensional graphics, but players are now rediscovering the simple pleasure of beating down wave upon wave of enemies. Roller Riot, by developer MassDiGI, is a creative take on the concept, crafting complex, combo-based gameplay with only two buttons. The game is available for free on Steam, iOS, and Android, with all versions offering intense brawling fun.
The player skates through the streets as CB, a cyborg who is being chased down by a rival roller derby gang. Tired of fleeing, she fights back, dispatching enemies with a tap to the left or the right. Punches have to be timed carefully, however; swinging into empty air makes CB slip over, leaving her open to attack. Adversaries advance in waves, growing in number and complexity as time goes on. The first few enemies simply skate up and wait to be punched, but later ones dodge back and forth, throw fireballs, or zoom quickly onto the screen.
As each enemy type is mastered, a delicate dance emerges, CB ducking and weaving from one opponent to the next. Eventually, however, the hordes will overwhelm CB, sending the player back to the high score screen. A few small power-ups can be gathered during play, such as starting with four hearts of health rather than three or a boost to the score multiplier, but for the most part player skill is key to gaining that precious top spot on the leaderboard.
Of the two versions, Roller Riot works slightly better as a mobile game than a PC release. Tapping the left and right of the screen feels kinetically pleasing, and the short sessions are perfect for fitting in when watching television or procrastinating over your work. The mobile version is also slightly easier as a continue can be earned by watching an ad, rather than reaching a score of 100,000 as in the desktop version. The game does not lose its tough vision in mobile form, however; only one continue can be earned per round, and additional power-ups are available once a day.
Being created primarily for mobile does explain some odd design choices in the desktop version: Attacks are only mapped to the left and right arrow buttons, rather than the more common WASD. Applying power-ups requires the player to exit right out into the main menu, and their function is never explained. Some are pretty self-explanatory, but I never figured out what the fist icon did, given each enemy takes the same amount of hits whether or not it was active. Placing power-up selection on the “game over” screen instead of the main menu would make a lot more sense. Story snippets earned through gameplay are similarly buried in menus, accessible through the achievements screen.
I can see that these choices were made to create a nearly wordless interface, but the odd organizational style means some information would certainly be missed by players. Perhaps a “readme” file in the style of an old-school instruction manual would be a good addition. Such a file would avoid clutter on screen but still tell players what they need to know, along with adding a little flourish of vintage beat-‘em-up style.
Roller Riot is immediately eye-catching with its pastel twist on the cyberpunk palette. CB and the city’s soft pinks and blues are a nice contrast to the hard, primary colors of the bad guys. Character movements are smooth and highly readable: Each enemy has a clear tell before they swing, keeping the gameplay fair even when the screen is flooded with opponents. The chill techno background music is enjoyable, but I would have liked it to change a bit more frequently, as it only changes when the player passes wave five and does not vary for later waves. A music shift with each background change would heighten the feeling of progression for the game’s later stages.
For arcade lovers, Roller Riot is a perfect five-minute distraction. Tight controls and beautifully balanced gameplay make this beat-‘em-up the perfect option for idle hands.
Next week we will be playing Burn Me Twice, an investigation game set in the time of medieval witch trials. The game can be downloaded from Steam. If you would like to share your thoughts, discussions will be happening in the Discord server.