Do you want to know a good trick for awakening your latent psychic powers? Just try punching some robots and maybe a missile or two. At least, that’s all it takes for ‘Psi Knuckle Joe’ to start flying and teleporting through the air, dodging razor blades and dashing through flames. Psi Knuckle is the newest freeware game from Bunaguchi and it’s not pulling any punches.
At first, Psi Knuckle Joe doesn’t seem like a particularly fun character to play as. He can duck, he can dash along the ground, he can throw a punch with about as much range as you’d expect for a punch, and that’s about it. Punching enemies fills up the ‘PSI Gauge’ by one unit per punch and punching an enemy while all five units of this gauge are full will make the gauge briefly flash; pressing the teleport button during this time will make Joe teleport to a different enemy and completely drains the gauge. Oh, and if you punch an enemy while in the air you float for a second and can get a second jump or an air dash. If this doesn’t sound particularly thrilling to you, you’re not alone as I wasn’t feeling all that fond of Psi Knuckle by the time I lost my last life halfway through the third of six stages. I really wish I had read the manual.
Let’s talk about why psychic punching powers and the color green are both really cool. Let’s talk about how Joe is not only able to punch robots and cyborgs, but also bullets, missiles, boomerangs, shurikens, and just about any other type of projectile. Or maybe we could talk about how the green aura which enshrouds Joe while he’s punching things makes him entirely invincible. Perhaps we can even discuss how dashing or jumping immediately after punching an enemy or projectile, both while on the ground or in the air, also gives Joe a green aura of invincibility so he rush through enemies and hazards completely unhindered. By the way, Joe’s teleport always picks the closest horizontally-aligned enemy and comes with an indicator so he can, for example, punch a missile to fill up the PSI Gauge, teleport to the ceiling-mounted missile launcher at the top of the screen and punch it until it explodes, perform an invincible ‘trance-dash’ (as the manual calls it) across the screen to reach and start punching yet another missile launcher without falling, and then once again utilize his already-refilled PSI Gauge to teleport to an enemy on the other side of a wall and punch it into dust. Yeah, it turns out that Psi Knuckle Joe might be a pretty great protagonist after all.
So few games outside of the fighting genre put such an emphasis upon speed, accuracy, and the utilization of invincibility frames as Psi Knuckle does, and fewer still pull it off so well, that it can be difficult to do the gameplay justice with words alone. This is a game which wants players to keep moving, to think of every enemy and every bullet as a tool to use for the sake of progression rather than as an obstacle. Joe’s own attack combo plays a large role in creating this constant sense of forward momentum as his first two punches are jabs, dealing one point of damage and generating one PSI Gauge unit, and any subsequent punches become straights, dealing two points of damage and generating two PSI Gauge units. This on its own may not seem like it matters much, but nearly every enemy in the game has four health, exactly enough to withstand a standard three-hit combo from Joe and to generate four of the five units needed to teleport. In other words, Joe is able to deplete his gauge by teleporting to an enemy, get most of it back after defeating this foe, and can then immediately teleport the next time he punches an enemy or projectile and repeat this process. Psi Knuckle even encourages players to focus on moving quickly and skillfully by keeping track of how long it takes someone to clear the game and how many hits they took along the way, but it does not keep track of enemies defeated via points or any other sort of measurement.
The combat and general gameplay mechanics may be great, but the stage design doesn’t slack off either. Each of the six stages is divided into three sections, each of which serves as a checkpoint and is marked by a screen transition, as well as a boss fight. Every stage feels distinct both aesthetically and in terms of its mechanics, such as Stage 3 mostly taking place on moving platforms above water in a cave while Stage 4 features a factory filled with flamethrowers and springs. There is a noticeable jump in difficulty between stages and even with three continues and four lives per continue it’s going to take most players several tries to clear the game. However, this difficulty never feels cheap or unfair; there are no pits or other forms of instant-death, every enemy and hazard in the game, including spikes, only takes off a single unit from Joe’s health bar, extra lives can be earned by destroying ten star blocks, and most stage sections contain at least one heart block, which restores two health when punched.
The best part about the level design is each stage feels like it’s designed to teach you something new without any blatant tutorials. The first stage in particular feels like a giant lesson on Psi Knuckle Joe’s capabilities with a small spike pit to dash over, a horizontal and vertical wall to teleport across, a brief vertical section which requires making use of a mid-air trance-jump, and even a string of enemies at the start which all die in one hit so you can see the teleport indicator gradually become more clear as the PSI Gauge increases. The lessons continue with Stage 2 featuring missile launchers on the ceiling which can quickly become a nightmare to deal with if you don’t learn to punch projectiles and the boss, Mad Doctor Fred, requires players to have mastered this particular skill in order to defeat him. Stage 3 requires plenty of teleportation and aerial dashing to reach platforms and to deal with enemies which attack from odd angles, Stage 4 requires you to constantly use the trance-dash and the trance-jump to move through hazards, Stage 5 frequently has you punching missiles in the air while on an elevator to avoid spikes or to have a chance at reaching ninjas before they can unleash deadly shuriken barrages, and Stage 6 features respawning enemies which force you to pay attention to just which enemy Joe can teleport to at any given time.
The challenges presented by each stage can initially seem insurmountably difficult compared to the challenges which came before them, and I personally managed to get a complete Game Over at least once in every stage from 3 through 6, yet this staggered difficulty ultimately grants a sense of empowerment; every time you reach a new stage you will learn new and more complicated ways in which to use Joe’s abilities and sections which ate up lives upon lives on the first attempt will often feel absurdly easy during future attempts. I may have gotten a Game Over on Stage 3 the first time I played Psi Knuckle, but by the time I beat the game I was able to make it through most of Stage 4 before losing even a single life. Psi Knuckle doesn’t empower players by giving them new abilities or by making arbitrary stats go up, it grants empowerment by allowing them to gradually discover new ways to use the skills they started with and that can be immensely satisfying.
There are a few remaining bits of polish which are worth mentioning. For those wondering about if you can get stuck by messing up a jump or teleport after destroying a required enemy, the answer is ‘no’ as some enemy types, such as Hover Pods, always respawn a few seconds after they are killed while any other enemy which is needed in order to reach a certain location or to safely bypass a hazard will also respawn even if that particular enemy type normally doesn’t and it will by marked by a unique coloration. Psi Knuckle also comes with an extensive browser-based manual, both in English and Japanese, and a built-in recording feature. Last, but not least, there is a Trial Mode feature where players can select to play through any section of a stage which they’ve already cleared or to fight bosses they’ve defeated; you won’t be able to access a section you haven’t reached the end of in the standard Arcade Mode, but it can still make for good practice and you even can get a rank for each section based on time and damage taken.
Psi Knuckle is a game which can take a little while to get used to, but the platforming and combat are astonishingly fluid and engaging once you figure out a few tricks, levels are varied and carefully balanced, and I can virtually guarantee that this is one game which I will be eager to replay for many years to come.