In truth, the maths of it all is a little unclear. 774 Deaths is comprised of 9 rooms, containing 33 stages and, while it’s entirely feasible that you’ll die in excess of 774 times while trying to clear them all, quite how Square-Enix arrived at that number is unknown.
Better understood are the sprites used to paint this brutal jewel of an iOS game, with characters plucked from the 8-bit Final Fantasy games and murderous levels built from Castlevania axes and circular saw bits. The feel of the game is decidedly Famicom-esque too, with sharp, unforgiving controls that place the full blame for each of those 774 deaths squarely at the reflexes of the player.
There’s something of the Super Meat Boy to the experience, although the levels are shorter, sharper and less diverse than in the XBLA classic. Your task in each of the 33 stages is to reach the exit door, and while the obstacles and threats remain pretty constant throughout the game, the manner in which you control your character changes up frequently.
In one stage you might be required to hold the iDevice vertically, using the accelerometer to steer your falling avatar, keeping him from the sidewalls, which are laced with razors. In another, you character auto-runs from left to right across a horizontal level, Mario-style, with a tap of the screen to leap over spike pits.
There are no instructions for how to play each stage and, inevitably, you’ll lose a couple of lives while feeling out the rules. But restarts are quickfire and moreish, and with each attempt you push farther into the level until, eventually, it’s conquered.
There’s no limit to the number of times you can restart a stage, but each time you use up a life, another number is added to your total number of failures, an obvious inversion of the usual countdown used in Famicom action games. The challenge, then, is to complete the 33 stages in as few lives as possible, a high score that will only be achieved on your second time through.
Games that wear their difficulty as a badge of honour can be tiresome, but 774 Deaths provides ample advancement to the player who perseveres, finding that elegant Japanese balance between punishment and progress.
It’s scrappy, cheaply-constructed and rough around the edges – indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a starter project given to some junior staff member at the Toyko-based game maker – but there’s an irresistible spark here, an honesty and purity of vision that draws you back onto its blades time and time again in search of victory.