Knights and Bikes, an ‘80s-inspired adventure game from the former Media Molecule vets at studio Foam Sword, makes its way to the Nintendo Switch eShop this week. A port to a new console doesn’t typically change the gameplay experience, but there’s something about just how naturally this game fits with the Switch’s ethos that makes its appearance on the platform worth a closer look.
Funded on Kickstarter in 2016, Knights and Bikes flaunts its inspirations proudly. The adventures of the two kids, Nessa and Demelza, are clearly meant to evoke 1980s films like The Goonies, and traveling around the mysterious Penfurzy Island is bolstered by an environmental aesthetic of wonder in a similar way to the team’s previous work on Tearaway and LittleBigPlanet.
That Knights and Bikes is a video game seems incidental. In its best moments, it isn’t about any sort of mechanical challenge, but rather the feelings it evokes. It’s already been adapted into two novels and is optioned for an animated series, and when you play, you immediately understand why so many want to share more stories in this world. The fundamental visuals themselves have both a charm and an overactive quality that set it apart, and the game heavily leans into them to create scenes that suggest intriguing things around every corner without explicitly depicting them.
It does try to be a video game, though, and it manages a fun interactivity that feels much less like its claimed inspiration of SNES-era action-RPGs and much more like the whimsical content tourism of, well, Tearaway. When it tries to be a difficult action game, its combat systems lack the precision to make that truly satisfying, and it seems like the team knows it because usually the pressure’s not there to tax them. It also pulls the classic Media Molecule move and stuffs collectibles under every little thing, making you feel like you’re getting stuff all the time but perhaps overdoing it when you’d rather push ahead in the story but your compulsions get the better of you. Overall, Knights and Bikes is best experienced with the childlike energy of Demelza, having fun just being in the world and delighting when the interactions are clever.
Technically, the Switch port of Knights and Bikes manages what you’d hope it to do, which is good given how important aesthetics are to the fun and how much it’d suffer if there were too many hiccups or sacrifices. This is often an issue with more ambitious indie games like this one, so it’s nice to see it make the transition well.
The game can be played by yourself, but it’s clear that the preferred way to play is a hyper-casual two-player co-op session. It’s this spirit that meshes so well with the Switch. Nintendo’s often-reinforced suggestion to hand a Joy-Con to a friend and play together typically results in a sub-optimal, uncomfortable experience with not enough buttons. Here, though, that spirit maps so well onto the dynamic of the in-game world that it feels like both benefit from the combination. It’s hard to take a game too seriously when you’re holding a tiny sideways controller, and that feeling keeps you in the headspace that Knights and Bikes wants.
If you are forced into playing the game solo, it does manage to remain at least somewhat enjoyable. You can switch between the two kids, and the AI driving the other does seem to do generally what you’d want it to do when you need it to cooperate. While each of the two characters has its strengths and weaknesses, it often feels most comfortable to be Nessa, since the narrative feels like it’s told with a level of awareness beyond what Demelza typically notices.