Adventure in the Tower of Flight

Update: Adventure in the Tower of Flight is now $9.99

Ugh, what an unwieldy name. It flows about as well as a small creek overrun by giant-sized mutant beavers. Which, actually that sounds like a bad ass idea for a game. Perhaps a tower defense title? It’s all yours, indies. I hate harping on names, but Adventure in the Tower of Flight has “in the” and “of” in it. “Adventure” and “Tower” are also gaming staples, making the title that more forgettable. It’s not just a title that rolls off the tongue about as well as a sugar cube (which is both sticky and cube shaped and thus rolls poorly), but it’s generic and bland. And that’s a shame because Tower of Flight is a decent game that doesn’t seem to be finding its audience. I posted screencaps with smart-assed captions on my Twitter feed while I was playing it and was besieged with questions about this nifty looking NES tribute that I was playing. Nobody had heard of it. Everyone wondered how they could have missed it. Maybe it’s because it just sounds like it’ll be a bad game, or boring. I don’t think you can legally speak the title out-loud while operating heavy machinery. Names are important, and indies often seem to give less than top consideration for this. It would be like opening a restaurant and naming the place Spitty’s. Who gives a shit how good the ribs are at a place called Spitty’s?

Classic gaming call-backs are abundant in Tower of Flight. The bats here behave almost exactly like those annoying Medusa heads from Castlevania. Which you'll note is something nobody has ever wanted to see in any game, ever. Why do people paying tribute to these classics insist on using the worst parts of games? Granted, everyone remembers those parts, but still..

Classic gaming call-backs are abundant in Tower of Flight. The bats here behave almost exactly like those annoying Medusa heads from Castlevania. Which you’ll note is something nobody has ever wanted to see in any game, ever. Why do people paying tribute to these classics insist on using the worst parts of games? Granted, everyone remembers those parts, but still..

AitToF (It doesn’t even abbreviate good!) isn’t a bad game at all. I found it to be a decent neo-retro platformer that you’ll get a few hours out of (and more levels are coming soon!) and forget about soon after finishing. They’re enjoyable hours though. Think of Tower of Flight (Christ, even a shorter version of the name sucks) as a linear Zeldavania, with a heavy emphasis on Zelda looks and a Castlevania feel, with a small helping of Kirby mixed in. There’s a thin plot about trying to reach the top of a tower, but it feels tacked on and needless. The hook is instead of a standard 2D jumping mechanic, you have the ability to fly for a short distance. That’s the Kirby part. Think of it as Kirby if the flying mechanic had a limitation to it. You gain a couple special moves along the way, upgrade your sword, gain extra hearts, fight a few bosses, and that’s pretty much it. You certainly don’t want to mistake this for a Metroidvania. Tower of Flight is mostly linear, with few opportunities to deviate from the set path.

This is a tough one for me to review. There’s not a whole lot to talk about, because every aspect of the game is average. Graphics? Very convincing in an 80s sort of way, but average. The level design? Mostly without fault, but average. Enemies? Too limited in variety, and whats here is average. Controls? Maybe slightly above average, though I hated having to manually map everything to my Xbox One pad. Maybe that’s what Tower of Flight aimed for. A decent, convincing 80s NES tribute that plays it safe. Hey, kudos for pulling it off. And I’m sure NES fans will like it a lot more than I did. I just wish it had messed with the formula a little more. I guess that Tower of Flight could seamlessly pass for an undiscovered NES game is remarkable enough, but after games like Shovel Knight, Super Win, and Axiom Verge, I’m too spoiled to get too excited by a game that simply feels like a game from a different era.

The only art in the game that made me cringe. This boss looks like the unholy off spring of Kang and or Kodos and a Hungry-Hungry Hippo.

The only art in the game that made me cringe. This boss looks like the unholy offspring of Kang and/or Kodos and a Hungry-Hungry Hippo.

Actually, there’s one thing that bugged me enough to mention. There’s a town section with a fetch quest stuck in the middle of this game that feels insanely out-of-place. Not only does it channel the giant mutant beavers and break the flow of the game, but it’s mechanically a little broken. The game’s engine makes it so that when you go through a door, it locks behind you. Thus, navigating is a tack-like pain in the ass (measured by amount of pain, not by the size of the source of pain). I think the developer’s goal was to make the town a puzzle or maze of sorts, where you had to figure out which doors led to which parts of the town. Both myself and the only other person I talked to who has actually played the game simply kept making loops until we stumbled on the douchebag who completed the fetch quest. It was boring, it was clunky, and it was pointless. I honestly have no idea what the developer was thinking. At least it was short, I guess. But  even admitting that section is short feels like telling a condemned prisoner “It’ll be over with quickly.” Not all that comforting.

Of course, for fans of that era, you really didn’t need this review at all. The only information of relevance I can provide such fans is that the game works fine and is an authentic NES style game. It was made for children of the 80s, not a smart assed millennial. I have no doubt that Adventure of the Tower of Flight hit all the marks it needed to for its target audience to walk away very satisfied. This is a quality game with true craftsmanship displayed. I just hope the developer mixes it up a little next time. Take some risks. I usually try to end reviews with a joke, but for this review, I’ll instead end with a thought: There are a lot of games that can do the “Like an NES game” thing. But only truly inspired can make people say “like an NES game, but..”

tower logoAdventure in the Tower of Flight was developed by Pixel Barrage Entertainment, Inc.
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$14.99 (probably too much) admits that the indie scene is likely to be picturing a different kind of giant mutant beavers than me in the making of this review.

Adventure in the Tower of Flight is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter opens with a screen warning that it doesn’t “hold your hand.” So many games make this claim anymore that it’s starting to come across as kind of snotty and condescending. Ethan Carter’s lack of hand holding isn’t in the difficulty sense, like Bloodborne or 1001 Spikes. You can’t die, and there are no real stakes besides extending the delay of the unfolding story. Instead, it doesn’t hold your hands in the sense that you’re given no instructions at all. No tutorial, no hints what the game’s primary mechanics are, or what your end goal is. So, in my first attempt at playing Ethan Carter, I ended up missing the first four of ten “puzzles.” The fifth one is neither a puzzle nor possible to miss (I think). The first one I actually stumbled upon and solved was the sixth one. Of ten. This is the kind of not-hand-holding that a sadistic swimming instructor with a growing body count would believe in.

Ethan Carter is an aimless wandering simulator that occasionally gets interrupted by an interesting plot. I’ve never been into Lovecraftian type of horror, so when I found the story to be good, I was a bit surprised. However, I missed nearly the first half of it, so I decided I would break a personal rule of mine. I try to avoid using walk-throughs when I review games. Now, I had stumbled upon a couple of the puzzles, but I didn’t realize they were puzzles or would unlock the plot. The game doesn’t imply any of that. When I solved the graveyard sequence, I decided to just start over from the beginning and have someone send me a list of the general locations of the puzzles. Just having that list and the knowledge that there were puzzles to complete totally changed my enjoyment of the game. It was okay. Okay is better than “God I’m bored out of my fucking skull.

Ethan 2

Needs more Grim Grinning Ghosts.

I hate doing this with any game, because it’s 2015 and nobody should give a shit about graphics anymore unless they are mind-blowingly awesome. I don’t know if the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is quite that good, but it’s probably the most gorgeous indie up to this point. To put it in perspective, my mother walked into the room while I was making my way through a forested area and asked what movie we were watching. Movie. Until she said that, I hadn’t stopped to appreciate how damn good-looking Vanishing of Ethan Carter is. Now, that story wouldn’t have happened if I was in many of the areas of the game, especially ones that take place in a mine, or ones where there’s rushing water. The cave section looks like any other cavern level in a first-person game, and rushing water has that creepy uncanny valley effect, slightly life-like but undeniably off. Probably the most off-putting thing about the presentation is you don’t feel even close to a real person. You feel like a camera hovering six above the ground. The lack of humanity in the player-character made it nearly impossible to ever feel immersed. Which is a shame because the world created is photo-realistic at times and that kind of goes to waste.

I’ll go spoiler-free on the plot as much as possible. It’s pretty obvious early on that some kind of twist ending was coming, but Ethan Carter still manged to fool me with it while still feeling like I wasn’t cheated by the context. It wasn’t like Braid’s “deep” twist ending where, spoiler alert on a game eight years old: the main character of Braid was part of the Manhattan Project and felt guilty for creating nuclear weapons, with the world of Braid being his escapism to alleviate his guilt. Yea. I haven’t met a person yet who didn’t blurt out “where in the fuck did that come from?” when they experienced that ending. But Braid is popular and pretentious allegories pulled out of thin air are all the rage in Indieland, so I expected Ethan Carter to end on one. It didn’t. The ending was satisfactory in a Twilight Zone sort of way and felt real. I guess you can’t ask for anything more.


Not that the story doesn’t occasionally devolve into raving lunacy. The most random happening involved an encounter with an astronaut. I think it was meant to be a jump scare when it first appeared, but it was so random that all I could do was laugh. This eventually led to a section where I was floating through space in a scene I swear was ripped straight from that God awful piece of shit movie Contact. Even after finishing Ethan Carter, I’m not entirely sure what the point of that part was. The studio behind this game is named Astronauts, so maybe this was meant to be an in-joke for them. Another failed attempt at scares occurred in the cave area, where you’re being stalked by a ghost while searching a maze for five dead bodies. I wasn’t aware that this was considered the most terrifying section of the game by most people due to “jump scares” that happen during it. This is because I found all five dead bodies and solved the puzzle in it without ever having the ghost catch me. In fact, I only caught a glimpse of it once and heard it two other times. Given that Ethan Carter’s form of horror is based more on atmosphere and characterization, I’m surprised it would even try to do jump scares. I think I enjoyed the experience more than others did as a result. Jump scares are something anyone can cause with a plastic bag full of air and a floor that doesn’t squeak when you try to sneak up behind someone. Lowbrow and easy. Creeping people out with an unnerving atmosphere takes skill, and Ethan Carter pulls it off.

They should've sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful. I had no idea.

They should’ve sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful. I had no idea.


The writing is not bad at all. The cut scenes have pretty decent voice acting. Ethan Carter does almost nothing wrong in terms of plot and storytelling. It’s the method of delivery that I feel doesn’t serve players properly. It goes back to the “hand holding” thing. What is so wrong with pointing players in a direction? Shadow of the Colossus is similar to Ethan Carter in the sense that you have a vast open world with specific areas you need to discover. You’re not told how to discover them, or what to expect when you get there. You hold your sword up and it points the direction, and that’s it. Nobody would accuse that of being an example of hand-holding. So that opening “we don’t hold hands” bit almost feels accusatory against players. “Oh, you didn’t find the stuff we obscurely hid? What, you expect directions? What kind of pussy-whipped casual gamer are you?”

Maybe the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a glorified tech-demo, as some of my readers on Twitter suggested. While there are a couple creative puzzles, most of them come down to finding items and returning them to their locations. A few times you’ll be required to look at a few different dioramas and place them in sequential order. If the puzzle design had matched the art quality, Ethan Carter would have been something very special. I do reject the notion that Ethan Carter is an “experience” more than a game. It’s a game, and a perfectly fine one. I don’t think it will withstand the test of time, or be particularly memorable. As technology gets better and games that look like this become more common place, its relevance will fade. Ultimately, I did enjoy it when I played it “my way”, with general instructions to the locations of the ten puzzles. Others enjoyed it without those, liking the sense of discovery. Others still got sick aimlessly wandering around without any clue what they were doing and quit. I can’t help but wonder if Ethan Carter would have benefited greatly by giving players two options: to play the game with or without direction. If they had done that, all discussion of the game would have been centered around its merits instead of its abstraction. Ethan Carter can stand on its own merits. It’s a quality game, even if it’s so militantly against holding hands that it comes across like a six-year-old afraid of catching cooties.

Ethan logoThe Vanishing of Ethan Carter was developed by Astronauts
Point of Sale: PlayStation 4, Steam

igc_approved1$19.99 walked away from Ethan Carter feelings like her eyeballs were gently massaged by the graceful hands of God himself in the making of this review.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Plague Inc.: Evolved

It’s been over two years since I tackled Plague Inc. on iPhone. You’ll want to read that review to get my thoughts on the gameplay of Plague Inc, since I won’t be discussing it much in this review. Cliff notes: I quite liked it. Not only was it a fast-paced, fun little simulator, but the look my family had when I would excitedly declare “HOORAH! I JUST KILLED ALL OF HUMANITY!” was priceless. A bit of quiet terror mixed with cautious horror. To compound it, I would triumphantly pump my fist and then make some kind of statement like “I can’t wait to be President someday!” But, I have to admit that while making my parents contemplate whether that one night 26 years ago when their condom failed might someday bring about the end of the world is pretty enjoyable, Plague Inc. didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. It’s not a bad game at all. It’s just so sterile in its presentation and minimalistic in its play mechanics that it didn’t lend itself to “owning” me, like Clicker Heroes or even OMG Zombies did.

Plague Inc. has since “evolved” onto PC, via Steam. It’s a perfectly fine game. Of course it is. It was perfectly fine already. But, like visitors to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, I’m apparently too dense to see any evidence of evolution. There is a free Planet of the Apes tie-in that doesn’t need to be unlocked, but it’s just a barely-modified version of the game’s zombie mode. Otherwise, the same stages and unlockables are present. Maybe the “evolved” part is specific to the graphics. They’re more detailed, sure, but this is one of the few games that really doesn’t benefit at all from a more fancy presentation. Compare the following two screens. Here’s from the iPhone version circa 2013.
Plague 1
And this is from the Steam version, today.
Plague 2
It looks okay. So this should be a really easy review for me, because that’s the only change I could spot.

And that change comes at a cost of $15. That’s $14 more than the mobile version. That’s the most absurd price hike for what you actually get I’ve ever seen in gaming. While it technically meets my criteria to win my seal of approval, I couldn’t possibly recommend it over the cheaper but nearly identical-for-now mobile versions. I can’t even recommend it at this time for the $11.24 I paid for it when it was on sale in June. On the off-chance you don’t own an iOS or Android enabled device, I would still probably recommend waiting for a sale, or until the game exits its current Early Access build. New features that might justify the price hike, such as Multiplayer, still haven’t arrived well over a year after the game released (which could be as much as $6.99, not including future expansions that the game’s FAQ implies will be free to Evolved owners, maybe). All that’s left is scenario creator, which I have to admit, didn’t really hold that much interest to me. Plague Inc. Evolved is fun, make no mistake. But it’ll be equally as fun when it’s out of early access.

I know, I know. I once again didn’t realize I was playing a game in early access and now am bitching that it’s not finished. What can I say? I keep forgetting that early access is only fun when you’re talking about cats and dogs. Because kittens and puppies are awesome and cute. Unfinished indies are just fucking aggravating, and they don’t need to chew up your shoes and piss on your couch to accomplish that. Well, look at the bright side: if I told people I was playing a post apocalyptic bubble popping simulator on my phone, I would be dismissed as a typical “casual” gamer. All hail the PC master race!

headerPlague Inc.: Evolved was developed by Ndemic Creations
Point of Sale: Steam
$11.24 (normal price $14.99) welcomes our new brain worm overlords in the making of this review.

igc_approved1Plague Inc.: Evolved is Chick-Approved, sorta. My rule for earning my seal of approval is to enjoy a game. I did, so it wins it. I’ll give it a more hearty endorsement when the game is finished if the multiplayer is fun. Also, Plague Inc.: Evolved will share a spot on the IGC Leaderboard with its mobile version.


Two things annoy me about NOT A HERO, this month’s (well, technically last month’s) challenge from Indie Riot. First off is the all-caps name, which implies that you’re supposed to scream it out. “What are you doing, Cathy?” “NOT A HERO!” “What are you screaming?” “NOT A HERO!” “Um, yea Cathy, we sort of figured that out when after you pissed yourself when that spider crawled on the wall ten feet in front of you.” More annoying is NOT A HERO has an insane amount of potential, and although it can be really fun, it’s nowhere near as good as it could be.

NOT A HERO feels a lot like a mid-late 80s coin-op action title. Not any game in particular (though I did get some Elevator Action vibes from it) but one that would blend in mechanically from that era. Of course, it also has the required-for-indieness gratuitous violence that used to be awesome but is now expected and bordering on passé. And I say that both as a fan of violence and a practitioner of it, much to the dismay of my boyfriend, who is sick of having the whip marks washed out with rubbing alcohol. My point is, I think your average gamer is too desensitized by this point. The novelty of a violent 8-bit game wears off faster than a sneeze. And not the kind of sneeze where you have to roll up a piece of tissue into a spear and wiggle it around your nose to make yourself sneeze, because sometimes that takes a quite a while.

I laughed, then I cringed, then I laughed some more.

I laughed, then I cringed, then I laughed some more.

Which is not to say the violence in NOT A HERO isn’t awesome. There’s one point where you have to lead Bunnylord (the rabbit-man thing calling the shots) through a level to meet with a guy who responded to his peace-offering by decapitating the cake he presented him, because quirk. When you get the mayor to him, he starts to beat him in a way that’s funny and satisfying. Then it goes on too long and becomes awkward, like the game is trying too hard. THEN it goes on even longer, to the point that it starts being funny again. I love gags like that when they work, because it’s so rare when one is pulled off correctly. While the humor is hit-and-miss, when it works it’s amusing in a way many games with the retro-paint job often fail to grasp. NOT A HERO misses more than hits, but the hits are genuinely funny.

Nobody can accuse NOT A HERO of lacking personality. Or restraint. The humor can be very funny and the violence can be very spectacular. But, as a game, NOT A HERO struggles quite a bit. First off, the cover-based shooting mechanics quickly become boring. Enemies take cover, poke out and shoot. Getting enough quality shots off slows the pace down far too much. The game has a ton of different weapons, so why does the action feel so samey with every new floor of enemies and every new mission objective? Even worse, I can’t imagine a single player making it through the game without giving up on shoot-outs altogether and using the tackle / finishing-move option to dispatch nearly every enemy. It’s faster paced, relatively easy to pull off, and ultimately more satisfying. There’s probably a blowjob joke in there somewhere but after an hour of trying, I couldn’t find it. Anyway, the action initially sounds fine, but when the best option for dealing with the mechanics is to do the stuff that allows you to clear it as fast as possible, you might want to consider if a mistake was made along the line.

And then you hit the parts where you have to wonder if enough play-testing was done. The absolute worst part of NOT A HERO is jumping out windows, which in later stages becomes essential to clearing stages. Some objectives require puzzle-like planning and strategy, so it gets especially annoying to reach the end of a long stage and die because you intend to hop out a window and crash through the one directly below it only to fall to your death for the fifth mother fucking time. When exiting a window, you’ll often want to go through the window below you, but instead the game will launch you straight forward in a free-fall to the death. Even trying to heel-toe it at the base of a window doesn’t work all that great, because you’ll just end up dashing back into the room you just tried to exit. Mind you, many objectives in the game are based around a tight time limit, so having to fight a control mechanic that succeeds and fails almost seemingly at random takes the joy and fairness out. It was as if NOT A HERO was trying to bring the Hokey Pokey back, only it’s more like the Brokey-Croaky. You try to inch out the window, inch back in, and inch back out, do the brokey-croaky as your character falls, that’s when you start to pout.

Imagine your character doing the Goofy "YAAAAAHOOHOOWEEEE" noise as they fall to their death. At least that makes it somewhat tolerable.

Imagine your character doing the Goofy “YAAAAAHOOHOOWEEEE” noise as they fall to their death. At least that makes it somewhat tolerable.

If you think my hammering on this window thing seems petty and nit-picky, maybe you’re right. Especially when the rest of the play control isn’t that bad. I mean, other niggling little annoyances happen, like trying to slide out of danger but instead getting stuck in an animation where I’m capping someone with my finishing move and taking cheap damage as a result. But the window thing really sticks out to me because it’s such an essential part of the gameplay and there was no excuse for it to not be done better. Crashing through windows is a fun idea. I push my family out windows all the time and envy them as they roll off our roof and into our poison-oak bushes, because it just looks so damn exciting. And I like the concept and mission objectives for NOT A HERO a lot. The way levels are laid out makes some of them feel like surprisingly deep puzzles. I like puzzles, and it’s rare when a satisfying shooter has them. I’ll agree with other critics that the lack of variety in graphic design can be a bit exhausting, but I played NOT A HERO in shorter sessions, so it took the edge off that a little bit.

All those little control issues that pop up, one big one and several much smaller ones, make me think that NOT A HERO really could have used some more honest feedback from playtesters. To be clear, NOT A HERO is a lot of fun. Even exhilarating at times. That’s why I’m so annoyed by it. I hate games that don’t live up to their fullest potential. Clean up the play control and I think you would have the kind of indie that catches on like wildfire and goes down as something other games should aspire to be. Instead, NOT A HERO is simply a solid, fun title that people will enjoy for a few hours and forget about a week later. I could live with that if I was a cynic looking only for a temporary distraction. As someone who dreams of finding games that maximize their talent to the fullest, I really feel I have no choice here but to award NOT A HERO my seal of approval.

And then shoot it in the kneecap.

And then saw off its pinky fingers with a rusty hacksaw.

And then tie its testicles to a car battery and playfully zap it for a few hours.

And then dip cotton swabs in pepper spray and shove them in its ears.

And then take a smoke break because this torture shit is exhausting.

And then do the old thumb and screw method, because that always looked fun in the movies.

And then introduce it to my pet grizzly bear, Fluffy. Watch out, she’s horny.

And then load a buckshot with pellets of uranium 238 and take out the other knee.

And then make it drink Clamato, because fucking gross.

And then see how many times you can vivisection an arm using only a chainsaw.

Oh don’t get pissy with me, NOT A HERO. You started it!

Not a Hero logoNOT A HERO was developed by Roll7
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$12.99 is exploring the viability of running for office on a platform cleaning up the city using old ladies packing heat in the making of this review.

NOT A HERO is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Year Three Ends and Year Four Begins

For those of you that can’t stand my yearly mushy ritual, sorry. But I’m allowed to be a little sentimental once a year, ain’t I?

Tomorrow marks the fourth anniversary of Indie Gamer Chick. While this wasn’t my most prolific year, I feel I’ve done some of my best work over the last twelve months. Even if that’s not true of me, it’s certainly true of the indie development community. The Golden Age of Indie Games is here, and I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of it.

I haven’t exactly had the most consistent health this year, but things are looking up in a big way, so I’m playing more and more games again. A bigger problem with getting consistent reviews posted is I’m older and busy a lot more than when I started IGC. Frankly, I was 21 when this site opened. I turned 22 a few days later, but still, I was just a kid when I got into this. One that didn’t have a ton of friends and had no presence in the indie community. These days, my free time might go towards chatting with a group of developers over the direction of the indie scene, or advising a newcomer to the scene on how to best pitch their Kickstarter. Last year, I went four months between reviews in large part because I was operating a program I started on Twitter called #GamesMatter. I was really happy with how that went. I was able to help a lot of developers learn how to market their games on social media,and more importantly, believe in their ability to market themselves. To those developers who thanked me for my help, you did the tough part, making great games. Thank you. #GamesMatter lives on today under the capable hands of my friend Nelson, as I deeply missed focusing on writing and being a game critic. Thankfully, Nelson has an unmatched desire to help indies, and so I know #GamesMatter is safe in his hands. And, on a personal note, as much as I enjoyed working with indies, meeting Nelson was the best part of doing #GamesMatter. I love you Nelson, and thank you for keeping my project alive.

By the way, you can follow #GamesMatter on Twitter and bookmark the blog started for it.

I can’t possibly thank all my friends anymore. I have too many. But, of course, I have to thank Brian. Brian, I’ve got Indie Gamer Chick in large part because you never failed to laugh at my lame jokes. And you pushed me to stay with it, until IGC was a part of my life. You’re my best friend, and I love you with all my heart.

Holy crap, four years! Not bad for someone who has, quote, “the attention span of a traffic light” (thanks Dad). But it’s not that surprising. I’ve loved games my whole life, and I’m a person who loves working with entrepreneurs. Indies are the entrepreneurs of gaming, and thus the indie scene allows my passions in life to converge. It’s why what was supposed to be a silly little blog done for the sake of having a hobby has become the thing I’m most proud of. While not every review gets to be positive, and I’m sure some of my reviews can be demoralizing for some developers, I would never want to discourage anyone from reaching for your gaming dreams. You all have limitless potential, and even when I don’t like your products, I admire your efforts. It sounds sappy, but it’s true. You’re all so inspirational to me. That’s why I aspire to do better for you. And that’s why you all have my eternal love and respect. It’s all yours. For keeps.

-Catherine, aka Indie Gamer Chick
June 30, 2015.

Shenmue III’s Pitch Just Plain Sucks

Put down your pitchforks and torches, Shenmue fans. I already defended the existence of Shenmue’s campaign and your participation in it. Check my previous blog post, or click this link. Although you’ll be angry that I didn’t like the original Shenmue, because it totally matters how others feel about stuff you love. Especially if there’s a voice in your head telling you that the thing you love isn’t really as good as you say it is but you can’t just make it shut up unless you convince everyone in the world to love the thing you love as much as you think you do or convince yourself and others that their opinion on the thing you love doesn’t matter. Deep breaths, please. I’m on your side. Kinda.

Anyway, Shenmue III’s pitch sucks. Or maybe it doesn’t, because maybe it’s not a pitch at all. As some of my readers joked, they didn’t even really need to make a pitch. They just needed to post a donation box and say “we’re making Shenmue III. Give us money.” Which is pretty much what they did. And yes, that was all they needed to do. Maybe this wasn’t a campaign so much as it was a telethon. But as someone who has spent the last few years encouraging indie developers to work harder on their Kickstarters so that their campaigns don’t come across as greedy cash grabs, I sort of have to point out the lack of effort displayed. Their pitch is weak, vague, lacks transparency, and has some truly obnoxious stretch goals. When indie developers present me with campaigns this bad, it usually results in me sending back dozens of pages of notes asking for changes, with swear words and insults scribbled between the margins.

Fun fact: Shenmue is the Japanese term for "Money Pit"

Fun fact: Shenmue is the Japanese term for “Money Pit”

Shenmue III’s campaign has no budget breakdown. When people ask for my advice on a campaign, this is the first thing I require. I want every cent accounted for. And it’s not just because those backing the game have a right to know (although they totally do have a right to know). It’s because it prepares those getting the money to be accountable for that money. The thing about money is, it doesn’t discriminate who gets to wield it. Once money is in your possession, you can spend it anyway you see fit. Sure, there might be consequences later down the road if you don’t use it the way you’re supposed to, but the money itself doesn’t stop you from doing so. A budget breakdown also doesn’t stop you, but having one shows a certain awareness of expectations. The more specific that breakdown is, the bigger a sign it is that consideration and maturity are possessed by the people asking for the money. It’s one of many things a campaign can do to show your money is safe with it.

Not only does Shenmue III skip this most important of steps, but they’re being cagey about who their partners are on this project, and what they are contributing. Sony we know about, though that wasn’t clear at the time the campaign launched. It’s probably not a stretch to think Sega is involved somewhere, even if they’re just collecting a royalty on the IP. Yu Suzuki isn’t answering, only saying that his studio has backers. Okay, who? How much? You’re asking strangers (and fans are still strangers) for money. They worked very hard for that money. They’re putting that money on the line for a game series with a pretty sordid history. Don’t they have a right to know where their money is going?

"So my agent says 'Kingdom Hearts? Pssh, do you want to be doing Mickey Mouse projects or do you want to be in a big-budget blockbuster?' And to think, I could have been Sora!"

“So my agent says ‘Kingdom Hearts? Pssh, do you want to be doing Mickey Mouse projects or do you want to be in a big-budget blockbuster?’ And to think, I could have been Sora!”

I don’t really understand the caginess. There’s not a single fan that backed Shenmue III who would walk away just because Sony is involved. If anything, the truly diehard among them are probably ready to jump on Team PlayStation 4, if they weren’t on board already. As for other backers, I’m sure it’s probably boring things like banks, venture capitalists, or displaced gaming executives. You know, the types of institutions any large-scale gaming start-up gets their capital from. But, why not say it? Why leave an air of suspicion, especially when you don’t stand to alienate a single, solitary potential backer?

I’ll make a single concession to this issue: Japanese business culture is vastly different from Western business culture. Cards are often played closer to the chest. Awareness of strategic partnerships sometimes never makes the financial pages. Laws about disclosures or accounting practices differ in ways each-other’s cultures don’t understand. It’s often even a little socially taboo to talk about things like bank loans. Fine. All of that is fine. As long as you don’t ask Westerners for crowd funding. You did, so none of those cultural differences matter.

Frankly, discussing other issues I have with the campaign is a bit overkill. They missed the single most important step. I would never endorse an indie campaign that didn’t include a budget breakdown. Shenmue III isn’t an indie, and I’m sure they know what they’re doing and have reasonable certainty the project will be completed on budget (whatever that is) and on time (December 2017, assuming there is no delays, which games of this scope typically do have). And no, my dislike for Shenmue as a game isn’t why this pitch irks me.

"HA! Too bad Ryo, old chap. I get to be in a long-delayed third installment WITHOUT begging people off the street! LOSER! HA!"

“Too bad Ryo, old chap. I get to be in a long-delayed third installment WITHOUT begging people off the street! LOSER! HA!”

It’s because these industry veterans should be role models for indies. I knew this day was coming. The day where a major gaming property would be revived from the ashes by crowd funding. Imagine my disappointment when the game I genuinely thought should break this new ground phoned in their pitch. Shenmue III’s campaign is shamefully lazy, lacking thoughtfulness and/or the feel of a genuine need for money. As I pointed out in my previous editorial, Shenmue III clearly couldn’t exist outside of Kickstarter. So why does the language of those in charge of it make it seem like they’ve got significant backing already? Maybe they don’t. Maybe they’re going to raise additional capital through traditional channels, based on the success of this campaign. We don’t know. And we should.

Above all, I hope that Shenmue III’s glorified cash grab of a campaign doesn’t inspire a new wave of indie developers to just expect gamers to throw money at them. The salad days of indies getting away with campaigns like Shenmue III’s ended about a year and a half ago. As a community, we’ve grown up. Who knows? Maybe the mainstream gaming scene wasn’t paying as close of attention to what indies accomplished with crowd funding as I suspected. Maybe AAAs will go through the same trials and tribulations with crowd funding as you guys did over the last three years. Maybe it’ll take the AAA crowd funding scene just as long to adapt and expect better of their campaigns as the indie scene did. Shenmue III certainly won’t be the last AAA to have a Kickstarter campaign. Maybe that’s why, deep down, I’m happy the Shenmue III campaign exists. Because now, for the first time ever, I can genuinely say that my beloved indie scene is ahead of the curve as an industry.

Don’t Boo Shenmue III

Shenmue wasn’t for me. I was 11 when I got my greedy little hands on it. Maybe I was the wrong age, but I found it to be incredibly slow and boring. I never finished it as a kid. Around the time I turned 20, I gave it another look-over, but by that point gaming had come a long ways. Especially open-world games. No longer a technical marvel, Shenmue felt even more slow and clunky than it did when I was a kid. So, I have no horse in this race. Shenmue III doesn’t interest me in the slightest bit. But a lot of people were moved by the franchise. I know this because the amount of butt hurt they seem to feel when anyone can’t see how they could possibly enjoy such a plodding, badly written mess leaves them very angry. They also were pretty dang pissed when the game series abruptly ended and DEMANDED that Sega continue to lose money for their enjoyment. Fiscal responsibly? Pssh, who has time for that when you left us on a cliffhanger?

While Shenmue’s base might not get why Shenmue III could never happen before now, anyone with a sense of business did. Gaming is a business, remember. If a game can’t make money, the game shouldn’t be made. Shenmue as a franchise lost so much money that you could build a decent sized cottage out of the stacks of dollars they essentially torched while developing it. Whether fans want to admit it or not, Shenmue’s budget running amok is one of the most irresponsible financial decisions in gaming history. This at a time when Sega had failed to meet sales projections for the Dreamcast, lost millions in SegaNet, and was beginning to make inroads that would later lead to them becoming a third-party publisher. To put the volume of loss in context, getting World of Warcraft off the ground, game and online infrastructure, was done for half of what Sega spent developing and marketing Shenmue.

Shenmue’s existence wasn’t necessarily looked upon by Sega as a potential blockbuster franchise as much as a token of appreciation for the man behind it. Yu Suzuki had been a loyal soldier for Sega, and they wanted to reward him by giving him the funds to make his dream project a reality. Perhaps a gold watch would have been wiser. You can’t even use the “they hoped to make the money back in the long run” excuse. With a new generation of consoles looming and Moore’s Law in effect, there was no hope that the technology created for Shenmue would be viable (even with upgrades) in the window they needed it to be. They also needed unprecedented penetration rates for Shenmue, with no bumps along the road, along with all the hype and critical acclaim games accumulate. Shenmue was critically acclaimed, and the original did meet the penetration percentage Sega had hoped for. Here’s the problem: that penetration rate was for a user base that was significantly below Sega’s expectations. Frankly, Shenmue’s chances for success ended the day Sony announced the PS2 would have DVD playback, before the Dreamcast even made it to America. When people stopped anticipating Dreamcast and started to save for PlayStation 2, Shenmue’s fate was sealed, along with Sega’s. Had Sega chairman Isao Okawa not forgiven Sega’s considerable debt to him and returned all of his equity in Sega (totaling nearly $700,000,000 in US dollars) as a parting gift before passing away in early 2001, people probably would speak of Shenmue today in the same tone they reserve for THQ’s uDraw, or Atari’s E.T. Don’t shoot the messenger, Shenmue fans. It’s true.

The cash cow certainly didn't say "Shen-MOOOOOO!" on this one.

The cash cow certainly didn’t say “Shen-MOOOOOO!” on this one.

Fast forward to 2015. Shenmue is long dormant, although fans of it never gave up on hope. Sega could never logically revive the series. Yu Suzuki certainly wanted to continue the story, but funding would have to come elsewhere, in a way where IP owners Sega would not have to put a single dime in the line of fire.

Enter Kickstarter.

Kickstarter, or crowd funding in general, is a life ring to defunct, high-risk franchises with followings that are loyal, if not legion. No franchise fits this bill quite like Shenmue. A financial loss leader that a business can’t be expected to put money towards, but whose fan base would. And has! $3.35 million dollars in just a few days as of this writing. If anything, I’m sort of surprised that it’s not higher. I predicted it would set records within just a few hours, grossly overestimating the size of the fanbase. Or, perhaps I underestimated the negative backlash against the idea of a AAA dipping its toes in crowd funding.

I expected some anger or those who wouldn’t understand, but nowhere near the scale I’ve seen on social media. I guess some feel that Kickstarter is the exclusive property of indie developers. This would probably be a good time to point out that most people who are backing Shenmue probably aren’t super likely to spend a lot of money on indie campaigns. Moreover, the notion that Shenmue fans are being duped into taking an unfair share of the risk while Suzuki and Sony are reaping the rewards is just silly. Fans of Shenmue aren’t taking a share of the risk. They’re taking all the risk. And they should. Again, this is a failed game series. They couldn’t even bring out a low-cost mobile version exclusively to Japan without having it fail. And yeah, maybe Shenmue would have done better if it had launched on PlayStation 2, or if Sega hadn’t sold the exclusive North American rights for Shenmue II to Microsoft (perplexing to this day, though to Sega’s credit, if you’re going to be financially stupid, be consistently financially stupid). Shenmue III wouldn’t exist if not for its fanbase’s eagerness to accept all the risk.

If you don’t believe me about Shenmue’s fanbase, just ask them. You can’t buy the kind of loyalty Shenmue has. It’s something you simply pick up along the way. I don’t think any of them cared about Sony’s partnership being undisclosed at the time the campaign started. If anything, said partnership is likely to cause any Shenmue loving PS4 holdouts to adopt the console. And as for some of the Shenmue fans not understanding that there’s a chance the game might get further delayed, OH COME ON! Just because they like an overrated, slow and clunky, poorly written, over-hyped, mediocre franchise doesn’t mean they’re morons. I think they probably grasp that something could go wrong at some point during development and delays could happen. Given that the average pledge is $80 as of this writing, I’m guessing they would be more than willing to wait until 2018 or later if needed. They seem slightly enthusiastic. And by slightly, I mean they’re probably pointing ICBMs at my house for saying a single negative word about this piece of shit game property as we speak.

Actually, I’m quite happy for Shenmue fans. How many fanbases get a second chance like this? Of course, with Kickstarter, now a lot of fans for properties that just didn’t make it could decide to step up and put their money towards reviving long-lost potential. During Ubisoft’s conference, fans on social media were convinced that, at any given time during the presentation, Beyond Good & Evil 2 could be unveiled. It didn’t happen, nor is it likely to happen as long as Ubisoft has to pay the bills. I liked Beyond Good & Evil, but to say it was a financial disappointment is an understatement. It received a wide release, got stellar critical marks across the board, won nearly every conceivable “most underrated and/or overlooked” game award (giving it a potential second wind months after release), and later received a digital re-release on next generation platforms. And it still didn’t sell. There’s no real reason why it didn’t. Sometimes quality products like this flop without explanation. Yes, a sequel did enter production, but it did so before the Xbox Live Arcade re-release. When that failed to grab an audience, I’m sure that signaled the end for Beyond Good & Evil as a viable franchise.

Unless they crowd fund it. So I pose this question to those angry that Shenmue III has invaded their Kickstarter space: would you back Beyond Good & Evil 2? Admit it, you would at least be tempted. Or, if you’re a Nintendo fan reading this, would you back a new 2D Kid Icarus? What about crowd funding doesn’t make it okay for financially stable AAAs to use it? If small but loyal fan-bases are rabid for revivals, let them pay with their hard-earned money to make those revivals a reality. For those who say Yu Suzuki isn’t taking any of the risk, I ask you to rethink that. The man took his share of the risk over fifteen years ago when Shenmue was being created. Ubisoft took their share of the risk a decade ago on Beyond Good & Evil. And those risks didn’t pay off. The difference between those risks and the risks gamers are taking a share of today? Gamers in general know what they’re getting into. They’re not putting their livelihoods in jeopardy. Collectively it might add up to millions, but individually, it’s a proportional and responsible share of risk. It’s a sign that gamers have matured with the industry. Shenmue III’s campaign is a milestone moment in game financing. It’s where gamers and AAAs game makers came together and said it’s our industry. It’s ironic that Shenmue fans get to test these waters. The franchise might not be with the times, but its fans sure are.


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