Nostalgia has always been a difficult topic to talk about in the space of video games, because everyone is nostalgic for different things. Some people grew up with 8-bit systems and cartridges, where others have always used discs and joysticks. But despite that fact, there has been a large market for games that call back to a simpler time. Games like Shovel Knight, that deliberately use elements from classic video games from days of yore, have seen a massive surge in popularity in recent years. But this year, a game came out that took an entirely different approach to its usage of nostalgia, and managed to do it perfectly. That game is Action Henk, a momentum-based platformer made by Dutch studio RageSquid.
What Action Henk really, truly gets right is that while nostalgia can definitely be an important aspect of a game, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the main selling point. Now, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with basing an entire game around the idea of nostalgia. There are plenty of great games, like Retro City Rampage, and the aforementioned Shovel Knight. But I must admit that it’s refreshing to see a game that chooses to have nostalgia be an important theme, but not necessarily the absolute most important thing.
There is a feeling of genuine love radiating from Action Henk, which is most apparent in the game’s aesthetic. The characters are all stylized action figures, with exaggerated poses and facial expressions. It calls to mind the likes of He-Man and GI Joe, with their brightly colored and absurdly proportioned characters. The levels themselves are constructed out of basic wooden building blocks and orange race car tracks, which were a mainstay of the stereotypical 80’s children’s bedroom. The background is littered with objects like Thunderbirds and Super Nintendos as specific examples of the developers’ fondly remembered childhood. Lastly, falling off the stage doesn’t just make you lose for no reason, you lose because the floor is lava.
In short, the aesthetic of the game is absolutely dripping with the specific brand of nostalgia that was the most important to the developers. But as well as it all works, it’s ultimately the garnish to an already delicious dish. Because behind all of that lies a game that is genuinely fun to play. It hits a great sweet spot of challenging level design and super tight controls that makes it an absolute joy to play. The quick reload times and bouncy music ensure that it never becomes frustrating, despite the many, MANY times you’ll end up resetting the level.
To me, the most important thing that Action Henk does right is realize that nostalgia should be the frosting, not the entire cake. If the nostalgic element is removed from Action Henk, the game would definitely be worse off for it, but the gameplay is strong enough that it can still stand on its own. Action Henk gets a lot of things right, which all come together to make a damn fine game. It’s fun, fast, skillful, and even a little competitive. Go pick it up.