Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness

I finally finished this game! Now I feel like I can talk about it.

First of all, I want to thank my good friend Ramona for suggesting this game - they advocated for it quite a bit when it first came out, but my dumb ass waited until it was on sale to pick it up. I should have gotten it right away! You can read their words on this game here:

Adventures On The Lonely Frontier

This game is remarkably hard to describe. It's sort of a tower defense game by way of Gauntlet and Dynasty Warriors. But sometimes it feels more like a top down brawler, which isn't really a thing that I'm aware of existing in the first place. It lives in this genre-less zone that most games are terrified of inhabiting, and I think it's kind of incredible.

The gist is that you, the Gotta Protectors, must defend the princess in her castle. The catch is that the castle is on rails, so each level it moves slowly forward until it reaches the enemy castle, at which point it starts...ramming the enemy castle. Until the enemy castle collapses.

It's a weird premise. It might be easier to just show you 30 seconds of this game:

Looks pretty simple (if overwhelming) from that video, right? Well, the graphics and hectic-but-straightforward combat belie a series of complex systems that underpin the rest of the game. Here are some examples:

  • There are 8 characters, each with something like 12 different skills to unlock. You can bring 3 characters, and each can use only 3 of their unlocked skills for the whole mission.
  • Each character has a special attack granted by the princess if she gets excited enough about your combo.
  • Every level has a secret action that will unlock an off-brand version of an NES cartridge. Most of these secrets aren't even hinted at - I have played this game for around 20 hours and maybe, maybe gotten 10% of them. Mostly through chance.
  • These cartridges (of which there are more than 900) each provide a special benefit, and can be leveled up to provide a second benefit. Each character can carry one cartridge.
  • Monsters sometimes spawn from outside the map, sometimes in the map itself, sometimes from Monster Spawners on the map that can be destroyed, sometimes from other monsters, sometimes launched in via trampolines that ride on the rails, sometimes dropped in by gigantic UFOs, etc.
  • You earn gold for killing monsters, but not from killing spawners. This should mean that you want to kill as many monsters as possible before killing the spawners, but I think they account for that by making earlier monsters much more valuable to kill.
  • Between maps, you will use the gold to level up your stats, skills, barricades, or the princess. herself Many skills change or improve significantly with leveling - some don't change at all.
  • Many characters can build barricades and/or turrets, which can also be upgraded for gold. Turrets don't upgrade in direct ways - they're usually more powerful the more you put in but they also have very different abilities. The most expensive turret might actually be the worst.
  • You can also carry gold home to unlock skills and strengthen the castle for your next mission.

Etc. etc. etc. Seriously the list just keeps going, it's kind of incredible. And each mechanic builds slowly until you have a map in your head of this very strange and sprawling play space. I found myself constantly revising my party composition, tactics, and techniques as I learned more and more about the game. 

Between missions you'll get cut scenes, "fan art" like the above, and random puns about meat. The pixel art in this game is gorgeous, beautifully mimicking the style of the NES but dropping all the limitations to just go for broke. The cut scenes are goofy and the humor is often juvenile in a way I enjoyed. 

And the sound design is impossible to not mention. Yuzo Koshiro (of Streets of Rage fame) composed the soundtrack and, if you get the DLC, ported it to eight different sound chips. So the original soundtrack is from a real Famicom, but you also get versions recorded on a Game Boy, WonderSwan, Super Famicom, PC88 and more. It's frankly incredible, and each version offers something a little different from the rest. 

Oh, also Yuzo Koshiro owns the whole dang company that makes this game.

I also really adore the extremely crunchy voice clips (mostly from the princess) - they sound perfect coming out of this NES styled game. But you can also turn off the crunchiness and just hear the original recordings if that bothers you! 

Since the game is centered around the Castle On Tracks gimmick, the map designs are extremely important. And lemme tell you, these maps are really good

Each map generally has multiple stops along the way, each of which will trigger new monsters to spawn, along with walls disappearing, new barricades and turrets appearing, and more. Generally, you'll have to kill all the monsters to continue, although sometimes the castle will continue trucking along as long as you keep the path clear.

Once you reach the enemy castle, all hell breaks loose. The monster count often overloads the counter in the upper right, resulting in "??" instead of a real number. Your job at that point is to defend the princess while she bashes the castle, whatever it takes. Once the castle is destroyed, all the monsters die and you move on!

Each mission has 4 maps, and you upgrade your numbers between each map, so there's a real nice rhythm to it. It takes anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes to complete 4 maps- my biggest criticism is not being able to temporarily save between maps, but it's not too bad given the Switch's great sleep mode.

Every map has its own gimmicks and wacky bullshit, and I cannot stress enough how well designed they are. There are so many ways they challenge you, and rarely does enacting the same exact strategy every time actually work. Especially in the late game, you'll have to come up with bespoke strategies on the fly for each map. It's so fucking good!!!

Some other things that I think it's important to mention about this game:

  • This game is not a roguelite despite every other indie game on the face of the planet seeming to be this
  • There are 4 difficulty levels, and they are essentially totally new maps for each. All the gimmicks and events are redesigned - it's not just a simple matter of making the enemies stronger
  • While you can upgrade certain things between missions, it's more like unlocking new possibilities rather than straight upgrades. Your stats don't just get better for the most part
  • The DLC contains even more maps, complete with their own stories and cutscenes. So far, it's been worth it, even though I haven't played through much of it
  • I haven't even touched on the fact that this game has 4 player co-op, both locally and online! I suspect the harder difficulties practically require this.

Honest to god it's one of my favorite games of all time now. I recommend it as highly as anything, at least to witness how strange and overwhelming it can all be. It's not without faults - sometimes the enemies bashing my character around make me very upset, some of the maps seem...maybe too hard, some of the humor is kinda juvenile in a bad way - but this game being the unique weird experience that it is makes up for all of that in my mind.

This game is generous. If you like it, then it has a lot to offer you, and it wants to keep giving. Go play it! If you do, let me know you bought it because I would love to know that I've helped sell just one copy of this game. That would make my day.