Disclaimer: the code for this Wii U game was obtained for free, from a source that had obtained it for free from the developer.
Pitches must be strange things to deliver. How do you brilliantly explain and sell your game/film/TV show/novel/wevs in one or two sentences? For Elliot Quest, it must have been something like "What if Zelda II were an early Amiga game? And your main weapon was a bow?" It's an odd mash-up, to be sure, but the result is something pretty special.
You control Elliot, the titular bowman, in a [Don't do it! - Ed] race against time [Phew! - Ed] for a purpose that I'm not going to reveal. The game's story is told partly through flashbacks, and the reason you fight is not shared in-game for quite a while. It's a light touch narrative, with the character occasionally musing out loud to fill in the blanks as you pass through certain points in the world.
On first booting up Elliot Quest - after the initial green loading circle completes its torturous PowerPoint wheel wipe - you're struck by how similar to Zelda II it really is, simply from the look and feel. The music sounds like someone trying to recreate Zelda themes after not hearing them for a few years, too. When you emerge from the first side-scrolling level, you're on a top-down world map with monsters roaming. The big difference is your primary weapon, the bow. Arrows are affected by gravity: they arc gently to the ground instead of continuing off-screen like bullets. You're forced to think about positioning much more; the first of many hardships.
Fortunately you can level up alongside acquiring new kit. The list of available skills allows you to choose from shooting at a faster rate or, better, getting your health to regenerate from time to time. That's vital, as Elliot dies a lot. Enemies are plentiful and vicious, and our man is a fragile soul. Even as you pick up heart containers and protective gear, the difficulty curve is so carefully plotted that you're never allowed to feel safe. There's a surprising amount of enemy types, with their own patterns and weaknesses to find.
Speaking of 'find', Elliot Quest keeps playing it old-school with an almost complete lack of signposting. Important dungeons have a beam of sunlight shining on them until you beat the boss and collect a new power... but that's it. Be prepared to wander for ages/miles, or crack open the Interweb and look for a walkthrough (which I never did, never, no, not me, played through it without looking up anything at all... yeah). Fortunately, the game is always fun, even in the midst of vastly frustrating sections of powerful enemies. It demands to be played.
After all this praise, something must be wrong, right? Well, there is slowdown in busy sections. By now you've seen the screenshots and may have trouble believing what you've just read. It is true - I do wonder if it's an odd attempt to mimic the elderly games Elliot Quest loves so much. There are also very infrequent judders, where Elliot 'sticks' for a fraction of a second. These level up into him occasionally refusing to move left or right at all, which made me fear for the health of my GamePad (it's OK!) and caused the little blighter's death at least once. The final note in this cacophony is that it did crash the Wii U once.
Hey, listen - it comes down to this. How much you enjoy a game depends on how many of its flaws you're prepared to put up with. If you can see through the graphics (as it were), get past the lack of handholding and grit your teeth through its performance issues (no), then you'll become part of a very exclusive club. At the time of writing, Elliot Quest doesn't even have its own Wikipedia page - a downright shame and no mistake.
Final Verdict: In eShop terms, Guacamelee does the Metroid-like thing a little more joyfully, and Shovel Knight nails the retro aesthetic better. That we're mentioning Elliot Quest in the same breath as these games is testament to just how good it is. The score is not as stellar as we'd like because of its issues, but if this is a sign of things to come from the retro revival, bring it on.