There are lots of doujin games over in Japan, most of them being known for their surprisingly high quality, even though the development teams are very small, if not just a single person. The same kind of thing exists over in the West, where they're usually known as "indie games." There's sort of a philosophical difference between the two: whereas indie games use their position to do something unique and original, Japanese doujin titles tend to emulate otherwise dead genres like 2D fighters, shooters and action games (which isn't to say the same thing doesn't occasionally happen in the West too).
From Europe comes the Noitu Love series. These two loving tributes to action games of past eras boast production values that rival some professional games. The Noitu Love ("evolution" spelled backwards) games are made by Joakim Sandberg, who's done a little bit of work in the professional game industry, including some of the spritework for Contra 4. He did almost all the work on the games himself in Multimedia Fusion - an incredibly impressive feat.
The first game of the series is a pretty standard platformer, with the gameplay, graphics and sounds based on 8-bit NES games, although the resolution and color palette slightly surpass the NES's limitations. The plot's about as cliché as you can get, even for the 8-bit days: In the far future, a mad scientist known as Darnacus Damnation unleashes a robot army onto a peaceful city. You, Noitu Love, one of the city peacekeepers, are sent out to stop the robots, save the town, and impress your coworker Lori.
There are only two action buttons: one for a punch attack, and the other for jumping. Hitting both buttons together will make Noitu do a spinning kick, which hits everyone around him but leaves him vulnerable for a second. The game controls pretty well, but the fact that Noitu stops for a split second can cause a small annoyance. One element that helps makes things a little less boring are the Evomatics, machines Noitu can use to change form. He can change into a monkey, which lets him move faster and jump higher, a bird, which lets him fly, and Brainy Noitu, which lets him activate control consoles and gives him a psychic shield attack.
Unfortunately Noitu Love is generally slow-paced and repetitive. There is not nearly enough platforming as there should be. You'll spend more time fighting off enemies in sealed rooms than exploring. Some of the level bosses are pretty interesting, like a Darn that attacks you with a long mechanical arm and an evil conductor you have to make attack you by stomping on his piano, but all the bosses tend to take way more damage than necessary.
There are seven levels, ranging from places like a building under construction, a graveyard, and an airship. The last level is the real highlight; you fight a giant robot piloted by Darnacus going inside it and heading to the final boss fight. There's also the standard boss rush before the last level, ending in a pretty tough fight with a robot clone of Lori built by Darnacus.
It's not too hard to reach the end on the easier difficulty, but Normal and beyond are much more challenging. While the games auto-saves between levels, it also keeps up with your current stock of lives, so if you run low near the end, it'll be a lot tougher to make it through. In 8-bit tradition, you can't get to the final level on the Easy difficulty. Easy ends with Lori's robot doppleganger mocking you.
Rewards for beating the game include a harder difficulty and a Boss Rush mode. While not quite as enjoyable as the games that inspired it, the first Noitu Love is free. The nonexistent price makes it easier to overlook its gameplay issues.
While the original game was clearly based on old 8-bit games from the 1980s, everything in the sequel is more like one of Treasure's 32/64-bit games, like Mischief Makers and Silhouette Mirage. The plot is slightly more detailed this time around: After 100 peaceful years since the original game, an army of Darns once again attacks the city (Darnacus Damnation, however, has never been seen again since he was defeated by Noitu). Not only that, but somehow buildings and people from different eras of time are starting to appear in the city. The robotic duplicate of Noitu's girlfriend from the original game is also running around, and she plays a pretty important role in the plot.
This sequel is almost a completely different game, and it's a lot more fun to play. As Xoda Rap, (that's "paradox backwards") one of the city's new peacekeepers, you're much more mobile and powerful than Noitu was. You use the WASD/arrow keys for movement, and the mouse to control a targetting cursor independently of your character. Clicking anywhere on the screen will make Xoda fly to that location, and repeated clicks will cause her to go into a flurry of chops and kicks. You can also throw energy balls and grab enemies with the left mouse button, although you probably won't be using these attacks quite as much. Right clicking on the screen brings up a shield that blocks some projectiles, and holding down the right mouse button and moving the mouse pulls off a few special moves.
The visuals are a big step up, looking much like a Saturn game. Joachim Sandberg's sprites have a pretty interesting style, especially the demented grins on the Darns. There is quite a variety of them too. Because enemies dress up differently depending on the time period you're in, you'll see priest Darns who call down lightning, pimp Darns who swing their oversized watches at you, and more. The music isn't much of an upgrade from the original's bleepy 8-bit songs, but the soundtrack is a little more memorable.
The pace has also been sped up quite a bit. There's hardly a moment where you're not moving forward or something's not happening around you, like running through a building trying to dodge a helicopter's shots, or trying to dodge missiles while falling down a clock tower. You even get to fly across the desert on a hoverboard in the fourth level. There you'll use a lightning cannon to draw and connect lines to enemies (a gimmick probably inspired by one of Joachim's other games, Chalk).
In true Treasure fashion, there are a ton of boss fights, a few more interesting than others. The real highlights are the ones at the end of the level. They've all got their own interesting gimmick and silly name, like "Mordecai Fluke" and "Sleeper Brakeman." One of the best bosses is a control program who attacks with different TV channels - whatever's on the screen will burst out of the screen to attack. There's also a secret boss in one level who you can only encounter on the higher difficulties.
The game is pretty easy on the lowest difficulty. Although you've got a limited stock of continues, the health pickups are so common and the boss patterns are so simple you probably won't die until near the end. The Hard difficulty is quite a bit tougher, even though it does away with the continue limit. The game's pretty short, though, at about seven levels which last for about 10 minutes each, and it would have been nice to see a Boss Rush mode like an original game.
This time the unlockables for beating the game include an extra hard difficulty and two secret characters: Dopplelori and Mr. Almond. Dopplelori, the robot double from the original game, is a lot more projectile-focused than Xoda; her laser locks onto multiple targets at once. Her story is a little shorter than Xoda's, but she gets a couple of different fights and a little extra plot information. Mr. Almond, Xoda's boss, has no actual way to attack, so you use the cursor to blast enemies and drag him to platforms he can't reach. Because your cursor can only shoot about 8 times before reloading, playing as him becomes kind of like a light-gun game mixed with a platformer.
Noitu Love 2 is a huge improvement on the original game in every way, and it's a great tribute to Treasure's best work. The game is even more impressive since only one guy created it. My only complaint is the game's short length, though it's certainly good enough to play through multiple times. You can buy it for $10 from Joachim's website - he even offers a pretty good sized demo, too.
Noitu Love was scheduled to come to the Nintendo Wii in 2010 as a downloadable WiiWare title courtesy of Golgoth Studios. Unfortunately as of April 2012 it's not been released and is likely cancelled.
As of 23 April 2012, it has been released on Steam though, priced 4.99 Euro. There is a free demo available.