Large structure in video game
Pros

Like most people in their 40s who have played games since they were young, I have fond memories of first-person shooters. "Wolfenstein 3D," "Doom," "Duke Nukem 3D," and so forth. I used to spend a lot of my time breezing through all those games — with invincibility and unlimited ammo cheats turned on because it was fun and I was a literal child — but I fell out of love with the genre after the ’90s heyday. This is likely because so many games after that tried to ground themselves in gritty, "realistic" visuals. So of course I fell in love with 2016’s "DOOM."

But what would these types of games be like if the industry didn’t shy away from colorful gore and over-the-top chaos? What if gaming technology improved, but the visual design stuck more closely with its pixelated roots by choice? What if someone who grew up with "Brutal Doom" (via Doom Wiki) and truly enjoyed it decided to make their own game one day?

The answer to all of those questions is Bounding Box Software’s "Prodeus."

I know this sounds hyperbolic but I don’t care: "Prodeus" doesn’t just appeal to me on a near-cellular level, it’s a game that’s re-invigorated my love of first-person shooters (intentionally unrealistic, ridiculous, bloody-as-heck first-person shooters) even more than "DOOM" did back in 2016. Not to disparage "DOOM" as it’s still one of my favorites, but "Prodeus" leans so hard into the Old School of all its features that I think I may appreciate it just a bit more.

What’s happening? Who cares?

Sinister looking portal

A story does technically exist in "Prodeus," and it’s even less bare-bones than a 90s-era shooter from id Software. You’re a space marine of a sort, aliens, dimensional rifts, go forth and shoot anything that moves. That’s about it.

Okay to be fair there is some story to be gleaned from the descriptions you’ll see on the level-select map, and you’ll occasionally find computer terminals with brief messages left on them, but this isn’t a game you play for the lore. You play it because you want to shoot aliens, zombies, (maybe even alien zombies?) in the face.

In my own experience, the most compelling force that drove me through each level was, simply, the enjoyment of getting through the level itself. I wanted to see what happened next, but only as it pertained to what weapons I might find or what challenges I might have to deal with. Like sightseeing, but with stacks of ammo and buckets of gore. Actually more like swimming pools of gore. Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Dispatching an enemy doesn’t simply create a pixelated corpse on the ground — it leaves a history of mayhem behind. You are, quite literally, painting the walls red (or other colors, depending on the creature). Most enemies can have limbs shot off, lose their noggins, or just straight-up explode like a beach ball filled with vital fluids. It’s completely ridiculous in the best way possible. So violent and squelchy that it’s basically a cartoon, and just as fun as it sounds. And actually kind of helpful as a way to tell if you’ve already been in a given area.

What’s new is old again

Bloody zombie missing an arm

It’s also practically impossible to talk about "Prodeus" without talking about the visuals. It looks like an FPS from the 90s, but if it were made today. The textures are blocky, the enemies are pixelated, and the animations carry a noticeably lower frame count than any modern offerings that aren’t also purposely trying to tap into a similar kind of nostalgia.

But layered on top of that simpler classic look is some spectacularly detailed lighting, loads of very effective blood splatter (on the walls, floor, ceiling, your weapons, your own visor, etc), and some noticeably less basic level deformation. Sure it’s nothing overtly ground-breaking (not that it needs to be), but the kinds of shooters "Prodeus" is so clearly homaging couldn’t really handle smooth environmental shifting, crumbling cliffs, falling shipping containers, and so on all that convincingly.

It also runs great, too — the one and only exception I’ve noticed so far is a very large, open level with outdoor rain effects. That thing chugged like a multiplayer deathmatch being played over a 14K modem. Though in this instance I’m willing to cut the game slack because it was a user-created level not found in the main campaign.

Oh yes, that’s right, "Prodeus" offers custom maps (and even full campaigns!). Unfortunately, the map creation tools are absent on the Switch version, but you can easily access and play what’s been uploaded. So once you finish the campaign (which can be played on multiple difficulties, and is full of secrets to find and records to break), there’s also a robust well of user-created maps to try your hand at.

Levels, levels, levels

Exploding enemy in Prodeus

Speaking of maps and levels and whatnot, the main campaign has a fair number available. It’s probably not going to take you weeks to get through it all if you blast through everything (figuratively and literally), but I’d say it’s roughly on par with a classic ’90s shooter campaign. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish there was more, of course. Especially since all of the levels aside from the relatively simple arena wave survival thing have been really fun to explore. And even then, the arena level was at least fun to blow stuff up in.

But I also really enjoy how "Prodeus" coaxes you to jump back in after you’ve beaten one — either from the campaign or on the user-created side. Every level (even custom ones) has a goal set for time, for killing 100% of the level’s enemies, and for finding all of the secrets that you can view from the level-select map. And campaign levels also include a number of ore pieces that are hidden throughout, which you can collect and use to buy and upgrade your gear. And you can eventually procure some additional traversal tools, so some secrets you may not have been able to reach your first time through will eventually become attainable when you try again later.

It’s a shame you can’t collect ore from user-made levels, but that was probably left out because people could "cheat" by creating simple ones with a ton of ore pieces sitting out in the open for easy farming.

Did I mention levels?

Custom Peach's Castle map

Seriously though, having such a large library of user-created levels (one that will presumably continue to grow over time) is fantastic. Even if the levels aren’t always as strong as the ones found in the campaign they’re still fun to play due to "Prodeus" itself being fun. This isn’t to say that the custom maps are bad. Far from it, in fact.

Everything I’ve tried so far (an admittedly small portion of the multitudes currently available) has been a good time. Whether it’s an overly-ambitious city-spanning adventure, a more challenge-oriented romp through a spooky mansion or a straight-up reproduction of Peach’s castle from "Mario 64" (yes, really), delving into user levels has been a joy so far. Granted I’ve been sticking to the more highly-rated stuff and haven’t tried anything lower than three stars yet, but that has more to do with there just being so dang much to sift through.

Not interested in playing campaign levels, or in playing solo? "Prodeus" also offers multiplayer by way of cooperative or 16-player competitive play. I haven’t tried either myself because I’m not really a fan of competitive online multiplayer and don’t like playing co-op with strangers (nobody else I know has this game for their Switch), so I can’t comment on how well or poorly either mode performs. But it’s there, so you have even more to entertain you if you aren’t interested in playing through levels on your own — or prefer to stick to player-versus-player combat.

Playing with (alternate) fire

Firing around a corner

The act of simply playing "Prodeus" feels great, too. The controls are responsive and just as snappy as I’d want them — even the platforming feels right, with any missed jumps being my own obvious fault. While I wasn’t a fan of mapping the, well, map to the B button (because I always tried to press it to jump), all it took was a quick trip to the options menu to change the input. Once I customized my controls slightly to make B the jump button instead, everything was practically perfect.

And those weapons! This might actually be my favorite all-around arsenal in any FPS I’ve ever played — including "Turok 2" with its grotesque Cerebral Bore. Everything is nice and punchy, but a lot of them have some very interesting (and often very fun) alternate fire capabilities. The pistol can pull double-duty with burst fire, the machine guns can fire a volley so fast it’ll turn most smaller enemies into a fine mist, the shotgun can charge up and perform a long-distance focused blast, and the plasma rifle equivalent can tag an enemy so that shots will track to them — even around corners.

Even the ammo scarcity (or ammo storage limits, really), which you’d think would be a source of frustration, is a really smart choice. By limiting the amount of ammo you can stockpile for each weapon type (for example, the pistol, machine guns, and chaingun all share the same kind of bullets), "Prodeus" both forces you to think tactically about the tools you use for a given situation and encourages switching between them constantly.

Though there are gripes to be had

Buying the Plasma Rifle at the shop

Despite all of the praise I’m heaping (and will continue to heap) on "Prodeus," I did encounter a couple of things that bothered me. There’s the performance I mentioned previously, of course, though I’ve yet to encounter anything like that in the main campaign. And the lack of a map editor is also a bummer, though I assume it was left out because using it with a controller would probably be a pain. Then again, the Switch does offer a touch screen in handheld mode…

Speaking of which, playing in handheld mode definitely has its drawbacks due to the smaller screen. Normally I’d chalk this up to being just a Switch hardware thing, but enemies with ranged attacks can be pretty effective from quite a distance, which means playing in handheld mode gives them a much bigger advantage because they can see and attack you much more effectively than you can to them.

Then there’s the shop. I don’t mind it! I’d go as far as saying I like it, even. I think it’s cool that you can collect items in levels to use to expand or upgrade your loadout. But actually using the shop is a bit too clunky for my liking. This is because it’s a separate level that you have to walk around in, which is a neat idea, but that also means you have to navigate to the shop from the map screen (which feels slow and annoying the farther out you get), and you have to wait for the shop level to load every time you want to visit and leave.

Prodeus (Switch) verdict

Painting the walls red

The best way I can think to sum up "Prodeus" is with its version of the Super Shotgun: Based on the name and the look, it’s clearly an homage to the double-barreled boomstick from classic shooters like "Doom." But this version has four barrels, so it can fire up to four times before reloading. And you can alt-fire all four barrels at the same time. And said alt-fire turns most basic enemies into a fine paste. And said paste will decorate any surface in close proximity — including your character.

It wears its inspiration like a two-story tall blinking neon sign on its sleeve, while also ratcheting the anarchy and goofiness up past 11. "Prodeus" is what ’90s-era shooters would have been if they were made today with the same approach and sensibilities, but with much more powerful technology under the surface.

This game is full of cartoonish bombast, bombastic violence, and zero regards for realism or telling a story. As far as I’m concerned it’s well worth the $24.99 asking price for the main campaign (and all of its replayability) alone, but when you factor in all of the user-made content it feels like a no-brainer. Even more so at the $19.99 sale price I managed to pick it up for.

This game is the best kind of mess, on purpose, and it wants you to make things even messier. Indulge it, won’t you?