Project Smallbot is a 2D platforming side-scroller of a shooter that has an old school MS-DOS vibe. You play as Smallbot, a limbless robot that hovers using what looks like a giant coal beneath. With a giant white head, a red body and that coil, Smallbot looks almost like a light bulb that has come to life. The premise is simple, you need to find artifacts in different lands and it follows all of the typical tropes. There’s a subterranean level, an ice land, a space space station and several above ground areas. With that in mind, the game amounts to going from the beginning of a level to the end and touching the object to complete the level before you blast off in your rocket ship to the next level. Each level has you avoiding all sorts of crazy obstacles like spikes, rotating batons and paroling enemies.
Controls are simple and there’s even a skipable first level so you can learn them. You’ve got movement left and right, a jump and a shoot feature that lets you stream a line of bullets as fast as you can press that P key. There’s no native 360 controller support, so I highly recommend third party software, otherwise you’re stuck with the A, D, spacebar and P keys. Even if I bound controls to my 360 controller, you still need to use a mouse for the menus. Smallbot comes equipped with a double jump that comes in handy a lot of the time. Stomping on certain enemies such as blow birds will spring your character high in the sky as a third jump.
Even though you have a gun that’s the equivalent to a bigger, faster version of Megaman’s pea shooter I can’t call it a run’n gun game, because the focus seems more on the platforming than shooting. Its definitely a difficult game, but just as difficult on a controller as it is a keyboard. You have a small health meter, but things like spikes and whirling batons amount to one hit deaths. Lucky for everyone, there are checkpoints that you’ll need to touch in order to restart there. Enemies will damage you, but there’s no invincibility so the longer you stay overlapped with an enemy the greater chance you have to die. There are of course batteries to recharge your health, but death is so common that these batteries felt useless when I’d actually get them.
After a suggestion, there is now an easy mode that grants you unlimited lives. Otherwise on hard mode you have five lives from start to finish and that was just far too painful for me to endure. I was good enough to speed through the first subterranean level, but anything after that because needlessly difficult. Precision jumps needed beneath spinning batons over spikes. Like all games, you’ll just get better the more you play it. For anyone that needs a real challenge, there’s always “Smallbot Challenge Mode” that gives you a mere one life.
One thing that the game has going for it is the need to stay moving. There are plenty of times where the floor is falling just behind you, spikes are falling and jagged enemies are shooting up from bottomless pits. Its move or die. There are even a few areas where the falling spikes become cheap, such as jumping over a spike raising from the floor only to have a spike fall from the ceiling, but if you continue right you’ll get based by a floating mace, so you’ll need to jump left where a jagged enemies shoots from a pit. Then you land on the ground, think your safe and a spike falls from the sky. That’s what Project Smallbot has in store for you, but it never feels torturous like true torture platformers. I feel like I can live long enough and survive where the game is still fun to play.
Project Smallbot doesn’t have the most accurate hit detection, but its something you’ll get used to and compensate for. Its nothing that will come out of no where, its just always there. It never becomes frustrating except timing issues having to walk precisely between a five pronged rotating baton. Unlimited lives makes it much more forgiving, but on hard mode, it would cost hours returning to that point time and time again.
There are a few different enemies, blue birds that fly in circles. Green ooze monsters. Other creatures that shoot their red eyeballs out, which then hover left and right. Those aren’t what’s dangerous though. Grey robots that fall apart when you shoot them. Black maces that blend in with the background on some levels. These maces will stop bullets, but I’m sure someone can make it through the game without firing a shot. There are no boss fights, because again, you’re just there to get to the exit.
Everything in the game is so big that its almost stretched to a low resolution. There are small standard spikes and then there are giant spikes stretched so much they become giant pixels. Its pretty obvious. In fact there are several backgrounds that don’t stretch down to the pits they’re over. In time that can be fixed and updated. I don’t think that great graphics would help the MS-DOS charm that this game has, but improving the graphics would certainly improve the experience.
Another notable thing is the moving platforms toward the last quarter of the game don’t move you with them. Instead, you’ll need to follow them. Its easy enough to compensate for, it just feels unconventional not having them carry you.
Toward the end, the levels get crazy with a lot of movement at once. Spinning batons, spikes coming out of the ground, black smashers, giant red springboards and electrical volts jaggedly drawn into the scene. It might be a little crazy just to see let alone play through. It just feels like everything all at once.
After all is said and done, you’re rewarded with a congratulations screen along with teased that there are golden objects that you’ll need to find in secret levels for the good ending. While it is enticing for any game to have hidden levels, I didn’t feel like there was any element of exploration. Although a few levels I saw what looked like an extra walkway.
As for the music, it feels like its from that old school early 90s DOS era as well. The sounds are pretty high pitched, but not screeching, it still makes for good tunes. I’d say one of the highlights of the game for such a limited musical scope.
If you want an old school style game with a MS-DOS feel then Project Smallbot is for you. Just be prepared for a challenge even on easy mode. its not something insurmountable, but it’ll whittle away your unlimited lives.
I would also like to thank Lightning Man for giving me a copy of the game.