The indie Game Boy game Powa! owes a lot to some of its cutesy 1990s portable forebears, particularly Nintendo’s Kirby’s Dream Land and Sunsoft’s Trip World. Those games were all pleasant romps that were basically made for kids, though Powa!‘s looks are deceiving, since it hides a much more challenging game underneath. The game is powered by ZGB, an engine for making homebrew Game Boy games.
The hero looks kinda like a yellow-tear shaped sack with eyes, legs, and a mouth, and its sole attack is the ability to blow short-range bubbles. The basic mechanics are fairly simple platformer stuff, with a handful of enemies that either roam back and forth, or shoot out projectiles. However, there’s no life meter, so a single hit will send you back to the beginning of the area.
Many tough indie games like Celeste or VVVVVV place judicious checkpoints and give unlimited tries to make its challenges, but Powa! is comparatively old school in that regard. It basically requires that you play through each level several times, memorizing where the obstacles are and knowing how to avoid them. In particular, it likes to hide falling stalactites just off screen, then wait for you to haplessly jump underneath so it can fall and kill you.
Not all of it falls under the “tough but fair” designation though particularly when being played on an actual Game Boy or modern retro console. There are a whole lot of pixel perfect jumps and tight situations that are just way too tough to determine when looking at a small screen. There’s a type of walking enemy that can be killed, but they look too similar to the rolling boulders, which can’t, making it far too easy to try to kill the unkillable and end up losing a life instead, further hammering in the need to learn the level layouts. The main character also can’t attack when jumping, which for the most part isn’t an issue, since the flying enemies can’t be killed anyway. But it also means that he can’t attack until his feet touch the ground, leaving him vulnerable to the many enemies that roam around on the platforms.
Most 8 and 16-bit games were tough in order to compensate for their short length, which is definitely the case with Powa!. Normal Mode has limited lives and only a handful of continues before you need to start over, too. An Easy Mode makes things slightly gentler by removing the time limit and giving you unlimited lives – given the nature of the game, it’s highly recommended to start here so you can learn the levels, then play Normal Mode to put those skills to the test. Since it’s not very long, there’s no save or password function, though a certain famous cheat code will unlock a stage select.
Like the game itself, the visuals are simple but cute. It will work on both regular Game Boy and Game Boy Color systems, with the colorization being subtly pleasant, avoiding the garishness that tended to afflict these games when they were originally released. The music is upbeat and catchy too.
If Powa! had been released in the Game Boy’s heyday, then this would’ve definitely been considered one of the harder games of the era. Still, it’s not impossible – the level of difficulty is at least in line with many Irem arcade games of the era, and at least the Easy Mode gives you some help. It’s a good time for those who are into old-school challenges, even though it lacks any unique gameplay or technical gimmicks.