That Dragon, Cancer

That Dragon, Cancer is not the most technically solid game. The mechanics can be clunky, the next thing you’re supposed to click can be unclear, a driving section literally controlled worse than the time I played Pole Position at a pizzeria with a broken steering wheel (how is that even possible?), a section framed like a retro arcade game has extraordinarily ugly hand-drawn art instead of pixel graphics (EDIT: Which I just found out were drawn by Ryan Green’s surviving children. Well fuck, I now feel like I’m just about the worst person ever. I’m grateful Ryan found humor in it, and hey, with all the dosh he’s making here, he can afford to buy them art lessons! I stand by my point that it should have had pixel art though). the character models make the game look like it could be an origin story for Silent Hill’s monsters, and I’m pretty sure if you hung your porch swing like this, your insurance would cancel on you.

Perhaps this is to set up for a sequel, where you grieve for a family member who died from an unsafely hung porch swing.

Perhaps this is to set up for a sequel, where you grieve for a family member who died from an unsafely hung porch swing. Given the success of this, they have to start thinking “franchise” somewhere.

Really, nothing I said above can’t be applied to any other point and click game, except the steering part (which lasts roughly a minute and has no fail condition) and maybe the graphics in general being ugly. A lot of the criticism being pointed at That Dragon, Cancer has to do with it getting a “free pass” on technical flaws because the game is the true story of a family who lost their child to brain cancer. I’m not, just like I didn’t excuse it for Walking Dead or Wolf Among Us. Games I enjoyed despite technical flaws. But That Dragon, Cancer is not presented or sold as a technical show piece, just as those games also aren’t. They’re story-driven experiences that use video games as the delivery method. Some of those I like (Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us) and others I loath (The Beginner’s Guide, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture).

Of course, what makes That Dragon different is that it is based on real people. In this case the Green family, who lost their beautiful son Joel to brain cancer in 2014. Many indie devs have used their real life experiences as the driving force for their creative endeavors, but this one is different. It aspires to present you the emotional journey as it happened. The ride you’re taken on is not a pleasant one, and every fleeting moment of joy is quickly (sometimes startlingly) replaced with feelings of emptiness, helplessness, disconnect, apprehension, fear, anger, loneliness, and most crushingly of all, that terrible feeling that you might just want it to be over with. For better or worse, it’s all here, and it’s more authentic than you can possibly imagine. While the imagery can be surreal, the emotions are always real. For that reason, many people don’t want to play it. It’s just too heavy.

A duck? Ducks don't get cancer. They choke.

A duck? Ducks don’t get cancer. They choke.

But, what impresses me a great deal about That Dragon, Cancer, is the dignity. Nobody would have faulted the Green family for turning the story into a fluff piece where the characters behave the way they wish they had. Where they stood steadfast and strong at all times, their faith never wavering. Gaming is escapism, after all. Story telling is too. It would have been easy to tell a story of a family so confident in their faith and so full of love and family unity that a little thing like cancer couldn’t break them. Maybe even have the Life of Pi style reveal at the end where you learn that the person relaying the story admits they told it the other way because it was simply easier to live with. Hell, I don’t think That Dragon would have been any less moving or critically acclaimed if it had gone that route.

But it didn’t.

The blow is not softened here. At all. Cancer sucks. Learning your child is terminal sucks. Watching them die sucks. It’s going to cause you to feel things that are unspeakable. You’ll feel lost, and you’ll feel hope, and you’ll realize that life goes on, and sometimes that will feel okay, and sometimes it won’t. That Dragon, Cancer is unflinching, and unkind, because that’s what cancer is. It doesn’t push an agenda. It doesn’t present the Greens as some exceptional family. Some people are walking away from That Dragon with hope, though most of that I got from the fact that they’re still standing. I questioned myself whether I would be, given their circumstances. That they could make it makes me hopeful.

The most common question I’ve gotten about the game is the “religious angle.” I don’t feel there is one. That would suggest That Dragon, Cancer pushes a message that “through faith you will overcome all.” It doesn’t. Not even close. Religion factors into the narrative because religion is legitimately a part of the family’s life. The father even questions not only his faith but the nature of his deity. You know, sort of like any person in their right mind would given the circumstances. This is not a religious game. It’s a game about a religious family. It even ends noting that their prayers were not answered, and it doesn’t really try to spin that. While their faith remains strong, it doesn’t tell people they only made it through prayer and church. In fact, I was left believing the family themselves sometimes question how they made it at all. There is no ultimate message here, except that your life will be changed, in some form, and while you can come to peace with that, a full understanding of it is likely unobtainable. That they told THAT story with such class and dignity is one of the most remarkable things I’ve experienced in any medium.

This happens in my office every time I drink too much Gatorade.

This happens in my office every time I drink too much Gatorade.

This might sound weird, but I found That Dragon, Cancer to be insightful above all else. Statistically speaking, we’re all going to have experiences losing someone to cancer, and it’s never pretty. But, there’s something about watching someone lose their child that strikes us in a way that’s almost primal. When it happens, we all say the same thing: “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Now, I think I can to a small degree. That’s the mark of a wonderful storyteller: that they can make you imagine the unimaginable. That’s why I’ll never forget That Dragon, Cancer. It articulates an experience even those who live through what the Greens did seem to struggle to put into words. You’ll cry, and you’ll hug your loved ones, and you might even wish you had never played it. But you’ll never forget it. And that counts for something.

headerThat Dragon, Cancer was developed by Numinous Games
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$14.99 said “fuck cancer” in the making of this review.

That Dragon, Cancer is Chick Approved. I’ve decided not to rank it on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. It just didn’t seem right, since I don’t feel I can quantify the value of a game like this over games that are not real life experiences. That Dragon, Cancer is very good. I highly recommend this game.

 

Speaking of watching something slowly rot away while loved ones watch helplessly, guess who in part staked this game?

Speaking of watching something slowly rot away while loved ones watch helplessly, guess who in part staked this game?

 

Zero Punctuation: Hatfall – Hatters Gonna Hat Edition

Two game critics were important inspirations for me when I started Indie Gamer Chick. One was Jim Sterling, whom I became friends with when he stumbled upon my Indie Ego editorial. The other was Yahtzee Croshaw, who is playing hard to get. I found both of them to be insightful, uncompromising, and hilarious. I hold both in high esteem. They’re what a game critic should be: informative but entertaining, and just egotistical enough to be adorable without obnoxiousness.

Someone pass me the vaseline.

Really adorable. Someone pass me the vaseline.

Both also moonlight in game development itself. Jim is a critically acclaimed voice actor. Yahtzee has made a series of free-to-play indies that inspired his Yahtzee persona. Given that I just reviewed a game Jim acted in, the hugely disappointing Volume, I figured I should check out my other idol’s work. Low and behold, he just happened to have two games release on Steam. One of them is a survival horror game, a genre typically as compatible with my epilepsy as a housefly is with a rolled up copy of the New York Times. So I chose Hatfall, the Zero Punctuation-based game. It’s actually a mobile game converted to Steam with a few upgrades. Which actually makes me wonder how dull the mobile version must be. Butter knife dull? David Attenborough documentary on the history of butter knives dull? BluRay special edition audio commentary on the David Attenborough documentary on the history of butter knives with special guest Ben Stein dull?

The core game is you move left and right catching hats one at a time. The further you make it, the more stick-figure lookalikes crowd the screen, forcing you to quickly figure out which one is you before the hat hits the ground. Sometimes the game also drops deadly projectiles in addition to hats, and it takes a little bit of practice to be able to tell the difference. Stages fly by quickly, eventually spawning a wizard event that has an additional effects challenge that earns you a present if you complete it. Presents open up mini-games. And that’s about it.

You'll want to play this minigame over and over again when you're trying to slay the evil hat God. Or just don't buy the game. Because it sucks.

You’ll want to play this minigame over and over again when you’re trying to slay the evil hat God. Or just don’t buy the game. Because it sucks.

Call me crazy, but I sort of figured a game based on Zero Punctuation would be more satirical of gaming. I also figured it would involve some sort of fast-talking commentary by Yahtzee himself. But nope, there’s none. My family was elated. “Oh, so we won’t have to hear that awful man’s voice that sounds like the Micro Machine Man did twenty years in the Tower of London for doing terrible things with cattle? Oh um, what a shame, Cathy” they said while high-fiving each-other between toasts of champagne. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only voice overs from Yahtzee are two words. Sometimes he says “WRONG!” and other times he says “noooice!” That’s it, unless I missed something. The running gag of misspelled words in the background continues from his reviews, but none of them are funny without the context of his commentary. All the humor is limited to the minigames, which have a couple of laugh-out-loud gags in them, especially one based around insurance fraud. Maybe because of the Zero Punctuation title I was expecting a more scathing and self-aware satire on games and gaming culture, like the Beginners Guide if it was narrated by a fast-talking, British-born Australian psychopath. Hatfall is just sort of lazy. This feels like a game Yahtzee would shit on himself if he hadn’t made it.

Hey look, an almost satire on one niche aspect of the gaming scene: anime dating sims. Except that scene is such a parody onto itself that it's really not funny here.

Hey look, an almost satire on one niche aspect of the gaming scene: anime dating sims. That’s topical, right? Except that scene is such a parody onto itself that it’s really not funny here.

Worst of all is the game isn’t remotely fun to play. Progress is slow. Items are too expensive. Scoring is low and grindy. There’s a multiplier you get at random from the wizard that could either double the points you get the next game or earn you another life during your next round. These only serve to make every round you play without those items feel like a slow waste of your time. You have to go to the game’s achievement page in Steam to view leaderboards (I currently rank #30 globally, which as far as embarrassing achievements go ranks up there with the time I watched the entire season of Power Rangers Samurai without getting up to use the bathroom). This is a shitty, shitty game. One that is occasionally funny, but not funny enough (especially when the awful Rondo stuff starts) to justify spending real money on it. There’s an old saying: never meet your heroes. For aspiring game critics, add to that “and especially never play your heroes’ games. Ever.” Well fuck, so much for the wedding. We could have made beautiful, horrible children together, Yahtzee.

Zero logoZero Punctuation: Hatfall – Hatters Gonna Hat Edition was developed by this asshole.
Point of Sale: Steam

$3.99 (normally $4.99) asked why, if he could make looking at Mega Man cover art so funny I nearly choked on my own tears, how come he couldn’t make this funny in the making of this review?

Downwell

No, I don’t hate punishers. I’m actually quite fond of them, when they’re done right. Where the point isn’t a high body count or angering the player with tedious trial and ERROR gameplay, but rather the possibility that, yes, the odds are against you, but you might live. Downwell mostly does it right. The idea is you’re falling down a  randomized well. You have guns. Shoot the shit in your way so that you can fall further. You fall,  you shoot. That’s less complex than “avoid missing ball for high score.” Which I always found confusing anyway. If the ball is missing, shouldn’t it be particularly easy to avoid it? Wait. Ohhhh, yea, I get it now. That makes more sense.

Where was I?

Downwell is a lot of fun. I played the Steam version with an Xbox One controller and I thought it worked just fine. I never felt the controls screwed me into taking damage. I never felt my actions werent responsive. In a game like this, you can’t ask for better. There’s a nice variety of weapons and unlockable colors schemes and modes, and the random nature lends itself to addiction potential like a schedule II drug. This is a really good game.

Like, really good. Go buy it now before I talk you out of it.

Like, really good. Go buy it now before I talk you out of it.

But..

The thing with procedurally generated games is that luck of the draw will always factor in to some degree. There’s two ways players can tackle the stages in Downwell. You can ignore finesse in favor of gunning your way to the bottom of the well. It’s not pretty but it’ll get the job done. The other way is to focus on racking up combos, and that’s where luck will factor in. The level lottery won’t always generate a layout that lends itself to high combos. Additionally, the random upgrades you can select from at the end of each stage, plus the random selection of guns, won’t always play to your favor. This is one of the reasons why I wish procedurally generated games with online leaderboards didn’t just list the top scores, but the next four highest scores achieved by those players. I want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt the people on top of the boards are genuinely skilled or if they got an extremely favorable layout one time. Otherwise, it would be like comparing the salaries of a blue-collar lumberjack with a Powerball jackpot winner and asking the lumberjack “Why aren’t you as successful as the jackpot winner?” Showing each player’s next four high scores, or their average high over the last 20 games, would minimize that.

I just became the latest in a long line of women to feel disappointment when they realize that it's Shia LaBeouf on top of them.

I just became the latest in a long line of women to feel disappointment when they realize that it’s Shia LaBeouf on top of them.

And this is unquestionably a factor in Downwell. My highest combos (which are, frankly, not that noteworthy) came on stages that lent themselves to the combos better. Enemy placement, breakable block placement, relatively straight paths, the right guns, and the right upgrades. I put about 10 hours into Downwell, enough time to realize just how rare optimal conditions can be. Yes, being lucky is never enough, because it takes skill to take advantage of being lucky. Still, I wish the game were smarter about how it generates stages. While it never saps the fun out of, it can be frustrating to attempt combos and then hit randomly generated roadblocks that average or even above-average skilled players couldn’t reasonably be expected to clear. Never mind that some of the guns are dog shit. I’m looking at you, Nobby and Burst. There were times where I was trying to make progress, down to my last tick of health, and chose not to take those guns even though I would have gained health and presumably bought myself some extra time.

I loved the laser. Probably doesn't lend itself well to combos, but it was heavy in FUCK YOU potential.

I loved the laser. Probably doesn’t lend itself well to combos, but it was heavy in FUCK YOU potential.

I still love Downwell quite a bit. It’s one of those throwbacks that mimics white-knuckle action of Golden Age arcade titles, but in a way that feels fresh and modern. Because of epilepsy concerns, I couldn’t finish Downwell. The last boss is apparently quite spongy and strobes when taking damage, making it off-limits for me to try. Disappointing to some degree, though my family was probably rejoicing that I wouldn’t lose weeks of productivity to it like I did Spelunky or Shutshimi before it. But, it doesn’t matter that I couldn’t finish it. I had a lot of fun right up until I had to quit. I think that’s what separates games like Downwell from other punishers: fun in the face of failure. It never feels tedious. It never feels like you’re being trolled. It’s exhilarating to be down to your final health point, barely dodge death, and make it to the end of a stage. Downwell isn’t fun because you die a lot. It’s fun because sometimes you survive, all on your own, and not through trial-and-error. Sadistic, but fun, like playing poker with Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.

downwell logoDownwell was developed by Moppin
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$2.99 said IT’S MOPPIN TIME! like a douche in the making of this review. Sorry.

Downwell is Chick Approved (it’s been a while, cue the music) and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Press X to Not Die

I hate FMV games, so I can’t pretend I went into Press X to Not Die completely neutral. They’re something that had novelty appeal before my time. Novelty being the key word here. I can’t believe anyone would reminisce about the glory days of Dragon’s Lair, a title with so little gameplay that you don’t even need a game console to play it on BluRay these days. And, unlike pretty much any other obsolete game format, I can’t put myself in the mindset where anyone would rather play it today than anything else. Saying “I would rather play Space Ace than any modern crap” is just as stupid sounding to me as it would be hearing someone say “I would rather just switch back and forth between the main menu and the chapter select DVD menus than actually watch the movie.” A dull choice for boring people.

But, if you’re going to do an FMV game today, taking the piss out of it seems like a good way to go. The genre certainly lends itself to satire, on account of its legacy reading like the obituary page. A hilarious idea for a game would be a suicidal game executive trying to destroy his own company by ordering the creation of a new FMV game, so that they can go bankrupt and secure their plot in gaming’s graveyard next to Cinematronics, American Laser Games, and the Sega CD. All yours, whoever wants to actually make a satire. Press X to Not Die really doesn’t do satire too well, nor is it a satire of FMV games. It just names stuff you’ve heard of and swipes running gags from other, funnier people. Even the name itself is taken from a Zero Punctuation running gag, I guess the mindset being “if it’s funny when the fast talking British-born Australian psychopath says it, it’ll be just as funny when done by our terrible actors in front of a cheap video camera.” Comedy for lazy cynics. Hey, did you know Team Edward versus Team Jacob is a thing? You did? You’re supposed to LOL, because that’s the joke!

I too have heard of these movies. Excuse me, my sides seem to be splitting.

I too have heard of these movies. Excuse me, my sides seem to be splitting.

Maybe one or two gags over the course of thirty minutes work. I guess the player-character’s hand gestures that mock first-person games are funny for like two seconds. There was exactly one line of dialog that made me laugh. When encountering a zombie, the girl who tags along with you uses kung-fu to take it out. You exclaim “you know Kung-Fu?” She pauses and says “Apparently.”

Maybe I told it wrong.

When it’s not relying on references for humor (remember how the final zombie in Zombieland was a clown! You do? Well look, our final zombie is a clown too! That’s somehow funny, right?), Press X to Not Die relies on dialog trees to, well, set up further references disguised as humor. “This is just like that M. Night Shyamalan movie!” Ha, because his movies are bad, so that’s funny. Oh and look, the last dialog option is the Little Mermaid. Oh snap, that’s not an M. Night Shyamalan movie, so that’s funny too, because I too have heard that Shyamalan is a hack director and I too know he didn’t direct the Little Mermaid.

Oh, did you not laugh? Don’t worry. Press X to Not Die’s repeats that joke a second time, just to make sure. This is the first game I’ve ever played that feels saturated in flop sweat.

Naming pop-culture stuff without any set-ups or punch-lines is both hilarious and so easy that I don’t know why anyone bothers putting in effort anymore. Frankly, I’m surprised people can read the directory at Comic Con without choking on their own fits of laughter and dying. “5PM: Superman panel. Ha, I’ve heard of Superman! 6PM: Doctor Who retrospective. Oh my God, Doctor Who! I know about that! That’s FUCKING HILARIOUS! 7:PM: Star Wars anniversary panel. Oh God oh God, Star Wars! I know about Star Wars too! Ahahahaha gag gurgling noise bleh!

Oh, and those “gag” answers in the dialog trees usually cue up the women in the game looking at you like you’re a moron and saying nothing. Really, that’s the payoff to them. Guy says something stupid, and character looks at you like this.

Lulz? Please tell me this is lulz.

Lulz? Please tell me this is lulz.

Nope, that’s not funny. Maybe you should try it again.

Sassy female characters looking at men in disgust for saying something dumb. That's something funny people do, right?

Sassy female characters looking at men in disgust for saying something dumb. That’s something funny people do, right?

No, sorry, still nothing. Maybe you should have said “hey, remember Alvin and the Chipmunks?” or something.

As for the game itself, for an FMV game it’s surprisingly lacking in FMVish stuff to do. A few quick time events, some of which are oh-so-“fun” button-mashing sequences, though there’s often a lot of downtime between the sequences. Just a whole lot of nothing to do, the barest minimum of a concept executed as quickly as possible. It’s awful, one of the worst games I’ve ever played.

I can’t even say everyone involved at least looked like they were having fun. The lead actress constantly has a look about her like she’s kicking herself for all the decisions that led her to being in this. The acting is bad, which I’m sure will be said was done intentionally so, because you know, the acting in FMV games of days gone by was bad. The thing is, those people were actually trying to be good, which is why it’s especially charming when they’re not. Trying to be bad isn’t funny. It’s just awkward unless you’re capable actors. When you’re just fucking around and shooting footage of you and your friends, none of whom are exactly up for Oscars to begin with, making an actual effort and failing would be cute and charming. When you try to be bad on purpose, you just come across like you don’t give a shit. Who wants to pay money to play the game by the people who didn’t even try? I don’t.

My apologies if they actually DID attempt decent acting. In which case…………… wow.

Press XPress X to Not Die was developed by All Seeing Eye Games
Point of Sale: Steam

$3.99 (too much) said these guys could use a seeing eye dog. See, that’s a joke in the making of this review.

To the Moon

I generally don’t like games made with RPG Maker and I really don’t like visual novels. So, it was a bit puzzling to me that To the Moon became one of the most requested reviews I ever had. Not requests from people on the fence about whether they should buy it or not. These are all requests from people who finished and wanted to know what I thought because of one plot element. So, I have to go heavy on the spoilers again. Before I get there, what did I think of To the Moon?

Great concept, good plot, annoying main characters, bad script, boring gameplay. In that order. I don’t recommend it for the same reason I didn’t recommend All the Bad Parts. Because, no matter how interesting or worthwhile a story is, when it’s put in a video game it has to be at least equally as interesting to make it unfold. At least in my books.

Alright, spoiler time.

So, yea, I probably got a lot of requests for this one because I’m autistic. My diagnosis is atypical, or “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified” or “PDD-NOS.” Which isn’t really used all that much anymore, but I don’t feel like going in for an updated diagnosis. Why bother? I’m at peace with myself and my life. We have a system in place to help me live with autism. It’s something I happen to live with. I do understand why people would be interested in what someone on the spectrum thinks of a game with autism as a central plot point, but really, all the worst parts of To the Moon have nothing to do with it.

They named the lighthouse "Anya" and filled it with bunnies. I have no words.

They named the lighthouse “Anya” and filled it with bunnies. I have no words.

To the Moon is a story about a widower on his death-bed who has paid a company to alter his memories and make his final wish “come true.” The autism thing comes from the fact that River, his wife, had Asperger Syndrome. Unless my memory is failing me, it never outright comes out and says that’s her diagnosis, but it does refer to the writings of Tony Attwood, who is one of the foremost experts on the condition. People who meet me and learn I have autism often assume that’s my diagnosis. It’s not, but PDD-NOS is so broad in an already haphazard diagnostic process that I could very well meet experts today who would call it that.

So the requests for To the Moon mostly come from people wondering if I felt the game depicted autism accurately. The answer to that is yes. River, the old dude’s deceased wife, is shown in flashbacks repeatedly making origami rabbits or having difficulty talking and expressing herself to others.  There’s even a scene where John and River go horseback riding as part of her equine therapy. Yes, that’s a real thing. Really, if you’re going to depict someone on the spectrum in a 2D not-a-game game, this is probably as good as you’re going to do.

Well, except this: before the not-a-reveal reveal of River’s condition, there are scenes where John is talking to friends and doctors about what’s wrong with River in hushed, ominous tones. I do my best to keep myself in the dark about story elements or gameplay mechanics at IGC, so I had never heard that one of the subjects of To the Moon was autism. So, before the not-a-reveal reveal where they name dropped Tony Attwood, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was River had. It didn’t help that all the characters used the pronoun game. “She has THAT?” “Yea, THAT!” What the fuck was “that?” She was obsessed with origami rabbits and the clocks in the house didn’t tick. That was all I had to go off of. Judging by the way the characters seemed frightened of what she had, I was thinking it was something either terminal or mentally degenerative. A brain tumor. Early-onset Alzheimer’s. Something that would have her friends and loved ones speaking in whispered tones as if they could shit their pants in terror at any moment.

Asperger Syndrome? Really? They were talking about her like they thought John might wake up with his bed on fire because River had Asperger Syndrome? Terrible handling of the plot. I assure you, people with autism don’t light your beds on fire because they have autism. They do it for the same reason anyone does: because it’s fun.

I wasn’t offended by it. Frankly, the writing in To the Moon is just horrible enough at times that nobody should be able to be that offended by it. Though I should point out that a friend of mine with Asperger Syndrome asked me to note that he didn’t like both the way other characters spoke of River’s Asperger Syndrome or the way one of the other characters, written to also be an Aspie, was just part of the “proud asshole with Asperger syndrome” media trope. The male scientist, Dr. Watts, has dialog like someone binge-watched Big Bang Theory and told the script writer “make him like that asshole named Sheldon.” Sheldon is held up as a poster child for Asperger Syndrome by Autism Speaks, but apparently many Aspies say he’s simply a lazy stereotype of the public perception of it. Noted.

This picture should not have been on To the Moon's marketplace page. This isn't even a real battle, nor are there any battles like this in the game. To the Moon is tagged on the Steam page as an RPG. This image implies that there might be traditional RPG battle mechanics in To the Moon, instead of it just being a visual novel. Like a steel-wool tipped dildo, it rubbed me the wrong way.

This picture should not have been on To the Moon’s marketplace page. This isn’t even a real battle, nor are there any battles like this in the game. To the Moon is tagged on the Steam page as an RPG and as an adventure, when it’s really a visual novel. This image implies that there might be traditional RPG battle mechanics in To the Moon, when there’s not. Like a steel-wool tipped dildo, it rubbed me the wrong way.

I wasn’t bothered by either the depiction or the inclusion of autism as a story plot. It wasn’t handled well, but really To the Moon doesn’t handle any story element well. One pivotal scene near the end of the game has Johnny’s twin brother, Joey, get run over by a car. This was supposed to be a heart-wrenching, traumatic moment. Except the writer of To the Moon botched how the character was introduced, and then went so over the top with killing him off that even I was starting to question whether this was a satire or not. It just appears to be a boy that looks kind of like the main character, who is playing soccer on the street when his mom backs over him with a car. But not before the game started doing dramatic cutaways, super-slow-motion started up, and the screen faded to black and white. It was FUCKING HILARIOUS. I started laughing to the point that my eyes became puffy with tears. Given the fact that Joey, Johnny’s twin brother, hadn’t been introduced as a plot element yet, this really should have been something that was heard but not seen.

That’s why To the Moon never fully had me. The concept is incredibly creative. Two people traveling through the psyche of a dying person to alter their memories so that they can die happy? Awesome. There’s an incredible movie or novel in there somewhere. Even the general plot of To the Moon is pretty good. The actual story structure, the unlikable player characters, and the script are where it fails. The scientists speak like stock characters in a bad sitcom. Non-stop sarcasm, pop-culture references, or digs at each-other. Their tone is at odds with a dramatic and urgent setting. Johnny is literally on his death-bed and can die at any moment, yet neither doctor has any sense of propriety or urgency to move forward finishing their work. There’s even cutaways where they’re screaming at each-other at a tense moment when it appears death could happen at any moment. I’ve never seen a game that had me from a concept and a plot point of view but lost me simply because the writing was so poor.

Speaking of steel wool tipped dildos rubbing people the wrong way..

Speaking of steel wool tipped dildos rubbing people the wrong way..

It reminded me of the Phantom Menace, which had a horribly mangled ending that cut between the dramatic final stand of a hero and a three-stooges routine starring a cartoon rabbit. The two tones were not compatible. That’s what the 4 to 6 hour grind of playing To the Moon is like. Where the fundamentals for a good story are all there. You even have a dramatic plot device, the pending death of Johnny, to give it a sense of dread and urgency. It should be great. But instead, the creator inserted two utterly unfunny, unlikable douchebags to shout sitcom quips at each-other for six fucking hours and it totally ruins the entire feel of the game. I hated To the Moon, and I hate that I hate it, because it should be awesome. It’s not. It’s boring and disconnected. I want to see this concept redone with restraint for the characterizations. More emphasis on the nature of memories and how they relate to happiness, and less stock characters who are “funny” because they’re making references to the same shows and movies I have seen. I know the writer has the talent to do that, because 50% of To the Moon is good. The other 50%? I just compared it to the Phantom Menace. That’s never a good thing.

To the Moon logoTo the Moon was developed Freebird Games
Point of Sale: Steam

$2.49 (normally $9.99) wondered if this is really the indie version of Heavy Rain. Think about it. Slow pace. Uneven tone. More visual novel than a game. Child getting run over by a car. Origami everywhere. Slog to make the story progress. Damnit, now I’m pissed that there was no scene where I get to make Watts cut his finger off in the making of this review.

There Was a Caveman

There Was a Caveman is one of the most remarkable games I’ve played for IGC. That doesn’t necessarily make it a good game. It’s a fairly bland platformer that is sort of a punisher, but kind of too easy to be that as well. There’s very limited genuine “challenge” here, since most things that kill you are of the out-of-nowhere, “ha, GOTCHA!” variety. If dodging an obstacle isn’t reasonable, all you’ve made is really just a tarted up version of Ralph Baer’s 1978 electronic game Simon. Memorize the location of one obstacle, die on the next, memorize the location of two obstacles, die on the next, memorize the location of three obstacles, etc, etc.

Now, for those calling me a Bristol Palin-sized-hypocrite because I made three ultra-hard Mario Maker stages, hey, guilty as charged. But I did have a point to them: it takes no talent or creativity to make such stages. I proved that myself. I did discover one thing when making those stages though: it’s very cathartic to create punisher stages. Like, I felt better about myself for all the times someone made fun of me as a kid. “Oh yea Becky, well let me add a few more fireball-spitting piranha-plants to this stage. NOW WHOSE SWEATER IS UGLY YOU BITCH??”

The problem is, while I had fun making those stages, I’m guessing they weren’t all that fun for most people playing them. Each has under a 2% completion rate (two of them are at under 1%). I also got sent dozens of extra hard stages and I really didn’t feel compelled to beat any of them. Really, if you’ve played one “get revenge on world” based-level, you’ve played them all.

What does any of this have to do with There Was a Caveman? Because what’s here has all the potential to be something better than it is. It looks fairly nice. The caveman theme is eye-catching and fun. But what really stood out to me was how it plays like the role-call of an all-star game of dick moves. Think of just about any unfair, annoying design choice a platformer can have in its level design and chances are it’s probably in here somewhere. Not over-done or anything. Just enough to be remarkable. And it also doesn’t really start to ramp-up until two very dull opening stages (hey, at least it scales!). If there was a dick-move platforming trope drinking game, you would die of alcohol poisoning before game’s end. Here’s some of the highlights.
2015-10-09_00013
Out of place shmup section, though this one moves really slow and doesn’t put up much of a challenge besides staying awake. Take a drink.

2015-10-09_00015
Underwater swimming stages complete with NES Ninja Turtle-like lethal seaweed (or possibly coral in this case). Take a drink.

2015-10-09_00017
Don’t forget the insanely tight squeezes you’re expected to make with the swimming controls. Take a drink.

2015-10-10_00002
Insta-kill acid buffered by spikes that you have to overcome using double jumps or air dashes that control just fine instead of perfect. Just fine sounds fine, but if just one time the controls seem to not respond, the game kind of screws you. A few times I’m almost certain I didn’t get the extra jump that I still should have had. Take a drink.

2015-10-10_00005
Stages in the dark except one little tiny circle showing you and a little bit of the level around you. Take a drink.

2015-10-10_00007
Stages in the dark except one little tiny circle showing you and a little bit of the level around you with an out-of-sight skeleton raining projectiles on you from above that you can’t possibly anticipate or reasonably be expected to dodge on your first attempt. Take a drink.

2015-10-10_00006
Stages in the dark except one little tiny circle showing you and a little bit of the level around you with an out-of-sight skeleton raining projectiles on you from above that you can’t possibly anticipate or reasonably be expected to dodge on your first attempt next to disappearing/reappearing platforms (the blue things in this pic) straight out of Mega Man with insta-kill spikes beneath them you DICK HEAD! Take a drink. Oh and not pictured: at the end of this section there was an enemy hidden in the grass on a platform you couldn’t see when you began the jump that you would inevitable bounce off of the first time and fall back to the start of this section. Dog food manufacturers who specialize in bully sticks don’t make dick moves this large. Take another drink.

2015-10-10_00008
Stages in the dark except one little tiny circle showing you and a little bit of the level around you where you have to make a blind leap-of-faith jump not knowing where a safe landing spot is, with insta-kill slime waiting for you if you miss, which of course you likely will at least once. Take a drink.

2015-10-10_00010

Stages in the dark except one little tiny circle showing you and a little bit of the level around you where you have to make a blind leap-of-faith jump not knowing where a safe landing spot is, with insta-kill slime waiting for you if you miss AND THEN putting the safe zone directly below the starting platform, which nobody in their right mind would ever have anticipated? Okay, now you’re just fucking trolling. Take a drink.

2015-10-10_00012
Stages in the dark except one little tiny circle showing you and a little bit of the level around you where you have to ride a slow-moving platform across an insta-kill river of slime while dodging slimeballs (as in balls made of slime, not lawyers. Sorry Reggie). Take a drink.

2015-10-11_00002
Ice stage. Take a drink.

2015-10-11_00003
Make it two drinks. Fucking ice stages.

2015-10-11_00006
Stage called “GUTS” that doesn’t feature an Aggro-Crag. This is more of a cock tease than a dick move, so no drink.

2015-10-11_00010
Auto-scrolling “falling” stage with very slippery controls and lots of insta-kill spikes scattered about. Take a drink.

CREX51AUcAAM0bL.jpg large
Hard to spot thanks to noisy background projectiles. Can you spot the projectile that causes damage to the player in this screenshot? Look closer.

Fuck this shit

Quick note: in motion, it’s slightly easier to spot the objects when they move. However, telling what is the deadly projectile and what isn’t that easy. I have to admit that I was initially dodging the other debris that turns out was non-lethal. While I appreciate a developer went out of his way to add some nice touches like the crumbling rocks, they look just like the other rocks and come from the same location, making it unclear if they’re to be avoided or not. So take a drink for that, and then take another drink for the other rock (the one that actually does hurt you) not standing out enough.

That’s just a sampling. Really, nothing here is terribly offensive or anything. It’s just boring, samey punisher-type stuff that’s been done to death with nothing particularly original. It looks fine. Better than fine in fact, other than the noisy background causing some visibility issues. And it controls fine. Occasionally clunky but better than average. It certainly stands out too. Again, no game I’ve played represents the kind of level designs that drive people like me nuts quite like There Was a Caveman. I wish I could say everything between the dickery was fun, but it’s really not. I like retro platformers, but this one is too much like a, um.. one of those prehistoric people.. name is escaping me at the moment.

headerThere Was a Caveman was developed by Nauris Amatnieks
Point of Sale: Steam

$6.29 (normally priced $6.99, aka TOO MUCH) said “ugh ugh I’m dying you idiot” in the making of this review. Gotta love me!

Gon’ E-Choo!

Gon’ E-Choo, with characters based on some web comic, is a tribute to the 1982 Nintendo arcade classic Popeye. And by tribute, I mean the type of tribute that usually ends with a star-struck fan appearing in front of a judge and being told not to come within 1,000 yards of their idol. I’ve played a lot of tribute games since starting IGC, and Gon’ E-Choo is by far the closest to the original without resorting directly to plagiarism that I’ve seen. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, if I knew nothing about this game or  Nintendo coin-op history and someone told me that Shigeru Miyamoto and Genyo Takeda had created an unreleased sequel to Popeye with the same core gameplay mechanics, only they lost the Popeye license so they had to use original characters, I would completely buy this as an authentic lost game. That could very well be the highest praise I’ve ever given a game.

No, shut up haters. I'm pretty sure they can't sue over this. Why would they if they could? It gives relevance to a game that has had literally no relevance for twenty-three years now. If anything, Nintendo should license THIS and release it as a first-party game.

No, shut up haters. I’m pretty sure they can’t sue over this. Why would they if they could? It gives relevance to a game that has had literally no relevance for twenty-three years now. If anything, Nintendo should license THIS and release it as a first-party game. Especially since it doesn’t seem likely they’ll pay the licensing fee to put Popeye on Virtual Console anytime soon.

Don’t mistake that for me saying Gon’ E-Choo is an astonishing, must play game. It’s not. Your enjoyment of it will be fully dependent on how nostalgic you are for those early 80s Nintendo games. The graphics and play control are spot-on, with only the sound effects coming very close but not-quite right at the whole mimicry thing. I’m a child of the PlayStation era that only knows Popeye through MAME. I liked it enough, but I wouldn’t exactly pay Virtual Console prices to own it if it ever got released on those platforms. Mechanically, Gon’ E-Choo plays out pretty much exactly like Popeye. Instead of hearts or music notes falling from the sky, paper airplanes do. Instead of being chased by Bluto, you’re being chased by a crocodile. Instead of the seahag throwing whatever at you, little electric sparks (or possibly bees, I couldn’t tell) come out of the sides. Instead of a can of spinach, its a can of soda. The stages are laid out different so as not to totally rip off Popeye, but otherwise, this is so close to the original that it’s creepy. I mean, impressive, don’t get me wrong, but creepy.

This whole virtual interface thing only served to annoy me. Eventually it will include Oculus Rift support, which I'll never be able to use. One of the keys to avoiding seizures if you have epilepsy is having proper distance from the screen, and Oculus Rift is essentially like strapping a monitor to your eyeballs.

This whole virtual interface thing only served to annoy me. Eventually it will include Oculus Rift support, which I’ll never be able to use. One of the keys to avoiding seizures if you have epilepsy is having proper distance from the screen, and Oculus Rift is essentially like strapping a monitor to your eyeballs.

There’s only three stages as far as I can tell, which start to repeat after you beat them. There’s a cabinet that you can look at, which is also sort of Nintendo coinopish, but not quite. There’s also online leaderboards, which is the only thing that offers replay value. My biggest complaint is that Gon’ E-Choo is so married to being a tribute that it didn’t bother to improve the biggest problems of those early 80s Nintendo games, IE having tighter play control and more stages. So what’s here is just alright for me. I can’t really complain too much, because I was not this game’s target audience. Even if I was, I think the game should only cost $1. That’s the typical price to play a coin-op today, and so that feels like a good price for what is, let’s face it, a glorified novelty experience. Because if Popeye never existed, Gon’ E-Choo! wouldn’t really appeal to anyone. Credit where it’s due, because it achieved what it aimed for, and it did so without burning its name into Miyamoto’s lawn. At least I hope it didn’t.

Gon logoGon’ E-Choo! was developed by Marc Ellis
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$1.69 (normally $1.99) have a father still bitching four years later that no indie dev has remade the 1978 Atari “classic” Fire Truck in the making of this review. Daddy, I played it. I don’t think it holds up as well as you probably think it will. Let it go.

Gon’ E-Choo! is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 425 other followers

%d bloggers like this: