Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap

I love making my readers feel old. There’s something satisfying on a primal level about sending them to their bathrooms to cry and check their hairlines when I mention things like how I was only ten-years-old when the Sega Dreamcast released in North America. In that spirit, here’s me reviewing a remake of Wonder Boy III, a game which released for the Sega Master System in July, 1989. Do you know what else released in July of 1989?

Me.

Into the world.

From my mother’s vagina.

Yep, you’re old. I’m not. Suck it.

Of course, it’s kind of bizarre that I’m reviewing a game that was, at the time of its original release, clearly not an indie. It was a major tent-pole console exclusive. Sega’s answer to Super Mario 3. Not only am I reviewing it, but I’m counting it as an indie game. For my new readers, I have a rule: for the rare non-indies that I cover here (South Park: Stick of Truth, The Simpsons Arcade Game, or Peggle 2 among others), win or lose, I don’t count them towards the IGC Leaderboard’s percentile rankings. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap will count, and spoiler alert, I’m giving it my Seal of Approval. But wait, you say: how can a major first-party game (it was published by Sega for the Master System) that was their best weapon in their war against Nintendo before the Genesis possibly be an indie today?

I’ve been doing Indie Gamer Chick for six years. I’ve reviewed over 550 games. I was, and probably still am, the defacto face of an entire indie gaming platform (rest in peace, XBLIG). If anyone would know what exactly makes a game “indie” or not, it would be me. But the truth is, I would have an easier time defining the meaning of life than defining an indie. (By the way, the meaning of life is that cream cheese mixed with powdered sugar makes a delicious frosting. Everything else is meaningless.) At one point, the gang at Zen Studios protested that I denied their Chick-Approved genre-smörgåsbord Castlestorm a spot on the Leaderboard on the basis that they made video-pinball games using the Star Wars IP. Star Wars clearly is not and never would be considered an indie game, and I felt at the time any studio big enough or reputable enough to be selected to develop for that license shouldn’t be considered for indie status. Zen Studios challenged that and convinced me otherwise. So while their work with the Star Wars IP wouldn’t qualify, Castlestorm certainly did.

I often complain about action-adventure indies that forget to make the hero “blink” long enough after taking damage. That’s not an issue with Wonder Boy. Actually, it goes to the other extreme: sometimes you blink so long it could take as long as a minute before you stop being juggled by enemies and regain the ability to, you know, move and fight back. But at least you’re not taking damage during that shit. This is the final boss, and I spent more time recoiling from damage during it than actually fighting it. Look closely to the right of it and you can see me stun-locked.

Which brings us to Wonder Boy III’s remake. The new one, not the old one. Uh, yea, in case you didn’t know, it’s already been remade once. Because of ambiguous rights issues that practically require a flow-chart (the original Wonder Boy was remade as Adventure Island for the NES and THAT spawned a completely different series, making it the Power Rangers of video games), Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap was released a year after the SMS version on the Turbo Grafx 16 (PC Engine in Japan) under the name “Dragon’s Curse.” This is the version I bought on Wii Virtual Console in 2007, so I was already familiar with it. And I quite liked it back then. I mean, the controls were so slippery that it felt like someone had buttered the floor, and this was also around the time my epilepsy developed and I had to look away from the screen quite a bit. But still, really nice game. As someone who grew up in the PlayStation era, it was one of my favorite lost classics the Virtual Console allowed me to rediscover.

This remake is actually reverse-engineered from the SMS original. So, yea, it’s a $20 ROM hack. Only there’s never been a ROM hack like this. The guys at Lizardcube painted absolutely gorgeous facades over the original graphics. While I’m fairly sure that all the original collision boxes were retained, the effort is so admirable and so striking that you have to tip your hat to them. You can switch back and forth between the original graphics and the 2017 remake on the fly, and sometimes I found myself doing it just so I could be gobsmacked by how much work they put into it. Here’s what the game looked like in 1989.

And here’s the exact same shot, only with the 2017 graphics.

Wow.

Of course, being a ROM hack that aspires to faithfully recreate the original means all the warts are along for the ride. Wonder Boy has terrible platforming controls. Floaty, loose, laggy at times. The weird thing is, the developers did fix a few things, including the most obvious flaw. In the original game, you needed to acquire and equip a sword to break some of the stone blocks. Pausing the game to equip this killed the pace and was just tedious busy-work, especially when you acquire a sword that lets you create breakable blocks that you then have to switch back-and-forth with. Even for its time, it’s such an obviously stupid design choice that it’s astonishing it took nearly thirty years for someone to fix it. In the remake, they’ve eliminated the block-busting sword. Instead, the stone breaking thingy is a charm that, once you have it, is always equipped regardless of what sword you’re using. But besides adjustable difficulty (very welcome since the bad controls made the original a maddening experience), the block-breaking issue is the only major fix. It’s like a dermatologist saying “well, you’ve got a lot of moles, but we’re only going to remove the one on your nose. Because it’s cancerous. And also, we’re going to need you to pay in cash from now on.”

I can’t really blame the developers on some of the more glaring issues with the original. But, because they clearly recognized that some aspects of the game hadn’t aged gracefully, I can’t give them a pass on them either. While the concept of switching between different animal forms was, and still is, inspired, Wonder Boy III didn’t use the idea to its fullest. The level design varies from decent to atrocious. Each animal-form is acquired by completing a dungeon. The mouse’s dungeon is repeating a series of identical zig-zag rooms on the left side of a giant pyramid, then dropping to the bottom of it and doing a repeating series of identical zig-zag rooms from the right side of a giant pyramid. Click the link. See that? Repeat that six trillion times, or at least it feels that long. Only the enemies might change, but otherwise it’s exhausting in its dullness. But that’s not even the worst level! The lion’s stage is series of flat rooms without platforms or puzzles or anything but ninjas (random). It’s incredibly lazy and uninspired. It feels like the original developers just gave up or lost their will, or surrendered to writer’s block. I don’t know the story on it, but Wonder Boy III came out after Super Mario 2, a milestone title in the realm of level design. Even for its time, these stages are the rice cake of game design: better than tofu and edible, but certain to leave you wanting something more. It’s a stripped-down Metroidvania, and it shows its age.

The lion’s animal power is being able to swing its sword in a top-to-bottom slashing motion, allowing you to break blocks above you. So the lion’s power is awareness that “up” is a thing.

Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Grinding up money is fun (assuming you don’t outright cheat the game by opening a treasure chest in the town, returning to the title screen and going back to the now full-again chest, which I, ahem, most certainly would not do, cough), the different animals are a blast, and the variety of weapons is nifty. I just wish instead of doing an artistic upgrade, they had just remade the whole game with new levels and new dungeons. In fact, LizardStation did add new dungeons called “The Unknown”, but they’re hidden and I didn’t find any in the three hours it took me to finish. I only discovered them because the final one unlocks after the credits and features you playing as the human Wonder Boy (or, optionally, Wonder Girl, which changes nothing but allows the game to be listed under the “female protagonist” tag on Steam, a tag which in no way feels like it’s mostly used as a cynical way of monetizing political correctness and equality. No sir or ma’am) and shows you where’s it’s located. There’s one of these new “Unknown” dungeons for each animal form, but I didn’t know they even existed when I played through it, let alone where they were hidden at. I tried to play the Human dungeon but literally the first screen was so poorly designed, requiring precision movement from a game infamous for shitty controls that I immediately lost interest in trying more. It felt like one of those, well, ROM-hacks.

When I first started playing it, I told Indie Gamer Team that this felt like a fan project that got noticed by the IP holders and made legitimate. As it turns out, that’s what 2017’s remake of Wonder Boy III actually is. That’s really cool. When we think of the nature of what makes something indie or not, something like The Dragon’s Trap doesn’t make things easier for us. It’s a fascinating anomaly that both suits and defies nearly every label. A former marquee console headliner that went on to become one of the most unsung indie gems three decades later. Just, weird. While I liked it, and I would love to see more remakes along these lines, I would have preferred Lizardbox fix the control issues and the stuff that actually matters to gameplay over painting over the problems, even though they were very good at painting. It would be like buying a 2017 Porsche 911 that has the option to transform instantly into the original 1964 Porsche 911. That would be fucking sweet, right? But what if it turned out the car’s specs, no matter which version of the Porsche it looked like, were the 1964 model’s, with the only modern concession being a CD player instead of a radio? I’m not sure that’s something most people would want. Hell, maybe not even fans of the original would want it. It’s why I have to give the nod to DuckTales Remastered as the better remake. It remembered that it had a chance to right every wrong, not just the really obvious stuff. Whereas DuckTales was a trip down memory lane for retro gamers but still modern and slick (granted over-produced to the point of annoyance), I don’t think Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap 2017 will be that for gamers of all ages. I showed it to my Godfather’s 10-year-old grandson C.J. and it didn’t hold his attention. His father said “it would have probably made a good rental from the video store back in the day.”

Then C.J. asked “what’s a video store?”

What’s a video store? Why you little twerp, a video store is a place that people used to go to..

OH GOD, IT’S HAPPENING TO ME TOO NOW!

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap was developed by Lizardcube
Point of Sale: Steam, PS4, Xbox One, Switch

$19.99 just won a $100 bet that she could work in the phrase “from my mother’s vagina” seamlessly into a review in the making of this review. Pay up, Dad!

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Debate if should be eligible in the comments.

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Cuphead

♪♪ Well Cuphead released to Indieland,

And gaming fans thought it was nice,

They figured no one would bad review it, and they turned to Cathy Vice,

CAAAATHY VICE!

Aaaaand now her hands ache, like stabbed by knives

And her timeline fills her with dread

If her review should proceed but Cuphead don’t succeeeeeeddd..

Welllllllll..

Xbox fans will take her head! ♪♪

Mom?

So yea, here I am, reviewing 2017’s indie game of the year. Oh, the year isn’t even over yet. But let’s face it, Cuphead was fated to win universal accolades and more nominations than Meryl Streep regardless of quality the minute it debuted. Which, actually that’s exactly like Meryl Streep, come to think of it.

So yea, for those of you who already have formed an opinion and are fishing the internets for people who don’t share your opinion to hate-hoo, no, I didn’t like Cuphead. Oh I wanted to. Trust me, I like my windows. The thought of them having bricks thrown through them has me positively distraught. But I have two options: I can lie to my readers and say I liked something that I didn’t. That seems like a bad way for a critic to have integrity. My second option is to admit that I didn’t think Cuphead was fun. My father has an expression: sometimes you have to eat shit and learn to like the taste of it. Which, granted that could apply to forcing myself to play Cuphead until I like it. But, in this case the shit I’ll be eating is the mountains of it I expect from Xbox fanboys emotionally invested in the success and accolades in a game that they need to be universally praised because if it isn’t that means they can’t rub it in the face of PS4 or Switch owners because they base their self-esteem on owning the “best” console.

Speaking of integrity, no, I didn’t finish Cuphead. I did beat all the bosses through the first three stages. That I could play it at all is a fucking miracle. As people know, I suffer from photosensitive epilepsy. And literally every stage and every boss in the game opens with something that is my specific trigger. Thankfully, we quickly discovered I could just look away when each section started, though that means I had to wait nearly a full second before I could get in and start shooting. If people need an excuse as to why I didn’t like it and the old chestnut “she just sucks at games” seems tired, you can blame my utter failure at Cuphead on that one fraction of a second longer I had to wait over everyone else. I’m sure that made all the difference.

It would seem most people use the heat-seeking bullets (pictured) with the spread gun. Which was my first instinct too. Huh, maybe I am slightly wired for shit like this.

But seriously, the hook here is that you have to fight a series of bosses, with all the actual levels being optional. You gotta give the Cuphead guys credit: they know their audience. Contra is one of the most beloved 8-bit era games, but I have never once heard a single fan of it fondly reminisce about its level design. Most of them bring up how the final boss was a giant heart (if that’s the case, I wonder what part of the body this thing is supposed to be?). So why bother with the levels at all? There’s six normal levels in Cuphead that are treated like afterthoughts. That’s kind of a shame because, like the bosses, there’s genuine inspiration behind them. Unlike the bosses, they don’t seem designed specifically to generate an absurd body count. I’m guessing that’s why they don’t offer a nerfed version of them when you enter them, which the boss fights do. You do need to complete the stages to be able to get upgrades. For a game so fixated on bosses (seriously, the developers wanted to set a Guinness World Record for most bosses in a shooter. I’m guessing they got it, along with “game with the most forced finger amputations.” In your face knifey-finger game!), it seems weird that you don’t earn any upgrades through beating the entire point of the game.

So yea, the bosses. There’s a ton. They can be quite clever in their design. The issue is they’re so insanely difficult to beat that unless you’re wired for this particular genre, you’re going to be spending a lot of time making incremental progress only to die and start over. There’s no checkpoints, so every failure takes you to the start of the battle. There is an option to play a “simplified” version of each boss, which is how I ended up beating everything through the first three stages. But, if you don’t beat each boss on normal difficulty, you don’t get access to the final area of the game, which is basically just more bosses. I didn’t get access to it. I wanted to, and I tried really hard. I was able to beat the first world’s bosses on normal difficulty. The bosses after that? I spent nearly an hour on this one..

Seen here beating the nerfed version of it after another dozen or so failed attempts.

And about twenty times in a row I died at the very end of the fight. Some people say “the point isn’t to be entertained or having fun while you’re playing Cuphead. It’s the sense of accomplishment you get when you finally do win. All the anger and all the frustration is washed away then.” Accomplishments are not entertainment. If I had lost my virginity and then had an encounter with Jason Voorhees and survived, yea, that would be an accomplishment and I’d probably have felt good about myself. The thing is, I know I’ll just end up having to survive him again and again and again. After a while, it becomes less an accomplishment and more a war of fucking attrition. And that’s how Cuphead feels. By time I gave up, I’d put over seven-and-a-half hours into it. My hands were killing me (take my word for it: map the shooting to one of the triggers, do not leave it on the X button if you value your hands), I had a pounding headache, and I was being told by the game that I had played it wrong and had to go back and do it the right way.

I can’t stress this enough: Cuphead is fucking gorgeous to gawk at. We’re used to games looking good these days, so I don’t think the average gamer appreciates the degree-of-difficulty in getting a video game to look just like a 1930s Fleischer Studios short. It’s insane how uncanny it is, and that’s commendable. I mean, it’s weird they went to all that effort but the cut-scenes unfold as a series of still images with text instead of, you know, a cartoon. It’s also kind of jarring how they chose a shooter of all things to fit into this art style. A Zack & Wiki style puzzle-adventure seems like it would have made more sense since those old 30s cartoon shorts were based around slapstick and visual gags. Here, the bullets don’t even look like they match the art style. They’re bright and look like they were overlaid on top of the hand-drawn animation, giving the whole experience a strange Dragon’s Lair-ish vibe. But even with those nits, Cuphead is probably the best looking indie game ever. I just wish it had been something that aspired to be fun, instead of difficult to the point of inaccessibility.

And this is where I stopped. Call me a pussified quitter all you want. By time I got here, my hands were hurting so bad that I asked myself what was I trying to prove? I hadn’t liked anything about actually playing Cuphead up to this point, and probably lost relationships after attempting to play it in co-op. It’s been 24 hours since I put it down and my hands legitimately still hurt. If I wanted that from a game, I’d buy a PainStation.

Go ahead and say I suck at games. It’s the fallback insult for every single person who disagrees with one of my reviews. “You didn’t like Hotline Miami because you sucked at it. You didn’t like Cuphead because you sucked at it. Just stick with Call of Duty you casualtard!” You’re right, I did suck at Cuphead. I also sucked at Spelunky, Kingdom, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, and countless other indies I’ve loved. If a game required me to be good at it to enjoy it, my list of recommended games would be shorter than Mitt Romney’s bar tab. The problem with Cuphead is I didn’t find it fun. I found it tedious and maddening. I hate saying “it’s just not for me” because that sounds wishy-washy, but it’s just not for me. I don’t think not finishing it means I’m not qualified to say why I don’t like it. There was once this guy who ate an airplane. For real. His name was Michel Lotito, and he ate a lot of weird shit. He set a pretty high standard for what a person is willing to swallow in the process. Saying I’m not qualified to review Cuphead is like saying every food critic who hasn’t eaten an airplane isn’t qualified to review food. You’ll excuse me if I find that way of thinking, ahem, tough to swallow.

Sorry.

Cuphead was developed by StudioMDHR Entertainment
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Steam

$19.99 noted that only 4.32% of Cuphead owners apparently have finished all the bosses on the first three stages regardless of what difficulty they chose in the making of this review. Well I finished all those bosses and got the achievement for it. In fact, only 12.51% have the achievement for beating all the bosses in the second world, and less-than-half of all owners (42.73% to be exact) have even finished the first world’s bosses. Kinda strange, given how angry Xbox fanboys are about any remotely critical opinions of Cuphead, that so few people who own it have actually made any progress and are instead screaming at people who did beat all those bosses because they didn’t have fun doing it. But I’m sure they’ve loved and relished every minute spent with it and it’s just a total coincidence the majority of owners apparently can’t pretend they’re having a good enough time to force themselves to get past even the first world. Fucking GAME OF THE YEAR, AMIRIGHT!

 

Christ, if I suck at games, I hate to think of how bad at them the other 95% who didn’t get this must be.

 

SteamWorld Dig 2

Full disclosure: I met some of the people working behind the scenes at Image & Form in 2013, and over the last four years it’s grown to be one of the studios in Indieland that I admire the most. It’s safe to say that I consider their lead developer, Brjánn Sigurgeirsson, to be a good friend. I love to shoot the shit with Brjánn and debate on a wide range of game design topics. Brjánn and his team are a really remarkable group of developers.

But being friends with me doesn’t mean a developer gets a free pass to my heart. Actually, in a lot of ways it’s worse for them. It means I have a direct line to them when stuff about their work annoys me. There’s a developer named David Walton that did a game called Wyv & Keep. It was originally on XBLIG but after monkeying around with it for a couple of hours I realized it wasn’t ready for prime time. So did he, pulling it from the marketplace and saving it for Steam. Eventually it found its way there, but when I fired it up I realized the map system was unsatisfactory. At this point I, to put it delicately, blew a fucking gasket and got him on the horn to cuss him out for over an hour. And mind you, I didn’t even write the review for the game. And this is my friend. You developers who think I’m a little overly harsh, hey, it could be worse. You could be on my Christmas Card list.

I was all set to ask which member of Image & Form was going to volunteer to be sent to the gulag for re-education as punishment for water levels, but those are kept thankfully small. Aww nuts.

When I first fired up SteamWorld Dig 2 and started gawking at the graphics, my social media followers were taken back. “Um, yea Cathy, they changed the style. Where’ve you been?” Well, I’ve been here. But that doesn’t mean I have to watch trailers for games. Trailers are about creating awareness and, most importantly, hype.

Hype.

You know, that thing that game critics shouldn’t get for games. Because it’s not our fucking jobs. I know that you’re probably accustomed to critics behaving like cheerleaders or salesmen. Some of them will have small complaints about games but choose not to include them in their, sarcastic airquotes, “reviews” because they’re afraid that might hurt the game’s sales. Hopefully you realize that’s not the way things are supposed to be. Critics are supposed to evaluate, not talk you into a purchase.

Sure, some trailers are unavoidable. Over the last five years it’s been hard to not catch trailers for Cuphead (yes you pushy fuckers, I’m reviewing it next). But when Brjánn told me they were sequelizing SteamWorld Dig, I told them “great, let me know when it’s out.” They might be my friends, but I have responsibilities as a game critic. I already liked SteamWorld Dig. I already liked SteamWorld Heist. It’s safe to say my enjoyment of their previous efforts already moved my expectations for their future games past neutral. It’s thus my responsibility to make as much effort as possible to not further engage in activities that might contribute to further expectations. Such as watching trailers. Or getting blown by them. That’s one you might want to write down, Gamespot.

So why did this end up, as of this writing, #4 on the IGC Leaderboard? A big decider for it not competing with Axiom Verge (and it didn’t, not even close) was there wasn’t enough new stuff when you backtracked. Every time I ran back to a previous section in Axiom Verge, it seemed like there were several new items I was only able to reach with the latest items I had picked up in the previous stage. In SteamWorld Dig 2, such instances are rare. And even when I did find new hidden sections, it was far more common that I could have accessed them the first time around and simply missed them. Lesson learned: if you’re making a Metroidvania, backtracking should be every bit as fun and exciting as fronttracking. Wait, is fronttracking a thing?

So yeah, I wasn’t aware that they updated the graphics style. Which is nice. Hey, I can actually tell the different robots apart now. That puts them one-up on Michael Bay if nothing else. I also wasn’t aware that my chief complaint about Dig and Heist had been addressed: ditching the randomized levels. Now, I’m not a total hater of the idea procedural generation. But the type of genres it lends itself to tend to be faster-paced. Spelunky, for example, would not be as good or memorable if it had hand-made stages. Among other things, what would I be able to blame for my complete and total ineptitude at it? A gypsy curse? I’ve blamed my height on that, my epilepsy, the 2016 NBA Finals, and Red Dead Redemption 2’s delay. Really, that dog just ain’t hunting anymore.

And while randomized levels aren’t always a good idea for fast paced action-platformers (looking at you, Cloudberry Kingdom), at least the claim that it adds “endless replay value” is something a developer can slap on a marketing blurb without their pants catching fire. And my friends at Image & Form know something about that, presumably while putting out each-other’s eyes with noses of incrementally increasing lengths, the big liars. They claimed with a straight face that the previous SteamWorld games “were never the same game twice.” Well, that’s true in the sense that no game of solitaire is the same game twice either. Really, it’s the same fucking game everyone else is playing, only the stages are determined by the invisible computer lottery. Cute novelty, don’t get me wrong. But in the process Image & Form gave up something. No, not their soul. I’m pretty sure Nintendo got that in 2013 when Dig released on 3DS. No, what I’m talking about is they lost a certain elegance of design.

Let’s face it, the adventure games that stick with us the most tend to do so not because of characters or plot or items or weapons or bosses or soundtracks or any other universal gaming variable. Level design is the X factor. A game can be good but not remotely memorable, and it comes down to the level design being less than spectacular. It’s why people talk about Ocarina of Time to this day, but the mechanically evolved Twilight Princess barely makes the discussion. It’s why I enjoyed my time with SteamWorld Heist, but my brain had deleted the reasons why about ten seconds after I finished my review. Because it’s a game that created really good parameters to be shuffled about randomly by the AI, and did so probably better than any game ever had done so, but that’s still not as good as finely designed hand-crafted stages. For all the flaws we humans have, we’re still more creative than computers. Take comfort in that the next time IBM is laying waste to dorks on Jeopardy!

As often as you’re forced to return to the town to cash in your loot and buy upgrades, there really should have been more to it.

The Image & Form guys had to hear me bitch about this for years. The thing is, I fucking knew they were capable of better. And with SteamWorld Dig 2, they proved me right. Every section is hand-designed and I’m completely blown away by how well it was done. It’s been about a week since I finished it and I’m still marveling at the expansive, labyrinth-like worlds and the cleverly designed rooms found therein. This is spectacular level design, the best ever seen in anything that can be considered part of the mining game craze. Now granted, mining is merely the framing device. Dig 2 is a Metroidvania that replaces whips or guns with an axe. But every single nook and cranny of the setting is polished to a mirror-shine. It makes exploration such a joy. Hell, it makes grinding a joy. Grinding. That thing that makes lesser games feel more like second jobs that you have to pay for. In over fifteen hours, I never once felt bored. I never once felt lost. Sure, there were times I was fairly certain I had managed to access areas I wasn’t actually supposed to be able to be in yet but that’s fine. Even the most tasty meals leave you belching, right?

So yea, I guess I need to offer kudos to Image & Form on the whole level design malarkey. But when I get their attention I’d probably ask them why the variety of enemies leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a striking lack of variety, which each world only featuring a very small handful of enemies. Some are cool, don’t get me wrong. Many of them can be used to chip away at the surrounding environment to help with the mining, and most are worked into at least one puzzle at some point. But come on, Image & Form! You’re creative people! Surely you can come up with more than this! Hell, maybe you should devote your now defunct randomization software towards making more baddies for your games. You might as well get some use out of it.

Come to think of it, I never once was killed by a single enemy or boss, with one exception. There’s a section where, with no warning, SteamWorld Dig 2 went off its medication and suddenly became a survival horror game. It was jarring, it was unexpected, it was legitimately frightening, and it was fucking awesome. Suddenly, I went from carefully plotting my pathway to running for dear life. Well, after I paused the game to change myself, that is. I figured this was the climax of the game, but then the section ended and those enemies never showed their faces again. The fuck? What the hell was that? Maybe they were fans of the Smooth Criminal music video, where everything just stops for a minute for absolutely no fucking reason, only this wasn’t stupid. But otherwise, I found the bosses and enemies to be mostly toothless, even on the normal difficulty setting.

Oh, I died. Quite a few times actually. But I owed that to my own carelessness. I was crushed by more rocks Giles Corey and became so paranoid about it that my left thumb developed a small twitch in anticipation of more to come. Of course, the occasional environmental death was offset by the dozens of times that entire sections of enemies would kill themselves before I even saw them on my screen. At one point, I scooped up over 20 (!) pieces of ore off the ground that presumably had been blown out of walls by enemies that blew themselves up before I had a chance to fight them. I would like to think they saw me coming and decided to die with dignity rather than be humbled by me and my mad skills. Stop laughing.

I caught word that one of the reasons Image & Form moved away from randomized levels was me, be it my reviews of their work or the numerous handfuls of solidified poo I threw through their windows. A lot of people don’t understand why, if I love certain games, am I so critical of them? Ain’t I worried that my critiques might turn more people off than they turn on? Well, no. Because my job isn’t to convince anyone to buy a game. It’s to share my opinions and let you, the reader, decide if that sounds like something you want to buy. If you have to be talked into it, I doubt any one writer will be enough to sway you one way or another. Love the site or hate it, there’s a reason why Rotten Tomatoes is so big.

So when I say that SteamWorld Dig 2 is a really great game with amazing level design, not enough enemies, and is easier than stubbing your toe in a house of mirrors after the power goes out, really, is anyone choosing to buy the game based on that? Probably not. The dirty little secret of game reviews is that most people who read them already know what they think about games and are either looking for different takes than their own opinion, or looking for affirmation that their opinion is shared by others. But in Indieland, reviews are more than just food for thought. Many developers use them as a guidepost for what they can do to improve. That’s why a critic should hold nothing back. Because any developer worth their salt strives to get better, no matter how much acclaim or awards they get. Look at Image & Form. Two games that won universal praise, and yet, they yearn for more. And that’s why I value my relationship with them. Not because they care what I, as Cathy Vice: fan of their work, can say nice about their projects. It’s what I say as Indie Gamer Chick: Game Critic, that they can do better, that catches their attention. I’ve spent four years spamming their inboxes telling them all the many, many ways they’ve fucked up their stuff and should have known better. Who knows, maybe they’re better today because of it.

If I wasn’t free to do that,  I wouldn’t want to be friends with them. But I am, and I’m grateful for that. And my readers deserve to know that and weigh that against my opinions.

End of disclosure.

So yea, SteamWorld Dig 2 is pretty good.

SteamWorld Dig 2 was developed by Image & Form
Point of Sale: Steam, Switch, PlayStation 4/Vita

$19.99 noted that this is one of those awkward sequels so good it sends the original plummeting several spots down the Leaderboard despite having done nothing wrong in the making of this review. In this case, it would have been in the #11 position but fell to #21 by its sequel being that much better and consequently the original being harder to recommend now.

Review copies of SteamWorld Dig 2 were provided for PS4 and Steam. On September 26, 2017, Cathy purchased a copy of SteamWorld Dig 2 to assure she had paid for a copy. All games reviewed at IndieGamerChick.com are paid for out-of-pocket. For more on this policy, check the FAQ.

SteamWorld Dig 2 is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Short Subject Saturdays: Dead Horizon

Dead Horizon is a light gun game without the gun. One that should probably take the average player around five minutes to finish. And it’s yet another free-to-play game that, despite a lifespan that would make a mayfly shake their head in pity, is probably worth at least a buck. In short summary.. really short since I don’t want to spend more time writing about this game then it took me to finish it.. you play as a farm girl who inadvertently finds herself as a legendary gunfighter. It has all the trimmings of a pretentious short-subject indie film, including the most cringe-inducing ending to any game I’ve played at Indie Gamer Chick with the possibly exception of the 4th Wall. This is a seriously weird game to review because it doesn’t even give you enough time to like or hate it. It ends before the point where the goo in my brain even begins to register stimuli. I guess I wish there were a few more stages, or something more difficult than lowering my mouse to the bottom of the screen and then raising it back up and clicking. And come to think of it, the game seemed really fickle about what constituted lowering the cursor and raising it back up. But otherwise it’s worth a look. Sorry if that doesn’t sound enthusiastic enough. It’s a five-minute long gunless light gun throwback. What do you want?

“Blood and Piss” isn’t just about passing Kidney Stones anymore!

But I wanted to review this because, as much as I hate to keep harping on this, the developer really should have thrown a buck on this. I met him when he asked me to review this and he seemed nice. He was probably a little perplexed that I was brow-beating him for not charging at least a dollar for Dead Horizon before even playing it. Seemed like an odd thing to bitch about, especially for a game I hadn’t even played. He told me he felt he couldn’t justify the price because of the length.

You know, when I was younger, there was a little miniature carousel at the grocery store my parents took me to. It cost $0.50 to sit on it for a minute. Pretty solid investment for a minute of overwhelming joy. I asked my Mom if she remembered watching me ride it. She said “well yeah, it was like three weeks ago. It was embarrassing, Cathy. You’re nearly 30. For God’s sake don’t tell anyone.” My point is, nobody in their right mind expects that small of an investment to be a permanent investment that they can hit up again and again and again and again and hang on I think we’re out of milk……………..

Right, point. Sorry I, uh, needed milk. I wasn’t riding the carousel again. The one with the pink unicorn. Ahem. Forgot to get cereal. No point in getting milk without cereal!

Resolution? Ha, what’s that?

Okay, so, look, $1 is NOT a permanent investment in entertainment. You spend $1 for delicious Mega Fruit Gum, or to ride the miniature carousel with the pink unicorn while it plays Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star, or to play whatever shitty modern arcade games your local big box happens to have near the checkout counters. Because literally every single person who has ever been into an arcade has spent at least $1 in their lifetimes playing games that lasted under five minutes. Nobody in their right minds expects that $1 to keep giving them jollies years later. So put a $1 on your games, indies. For real, this is getting annoying. You can look at the graphics or writing for Dead Horizon and see that actual fucking effort was put into it. There are people who are putting no effort into their games and making actual fucking money. It’s really annoying when someone who actually tries doesn’t make any money on something they deserve to make money on.

I knew I would end up spending more than five minutes writing this review. Mother fucker!

Dead Horizon was developed by 14 Hours Productions (oh that name has got to be trolling)
Also annoying: free games deprive me of my price jokes. I’ve spent the last six years carefully crafting those price jokes into one of my most beloved running gags and you free indie games are fucking my schtick up. Anyway, get Dead Horizon on Steam here.

Oh, and it’s Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Space Cat!

Space Cat! is a tribute to Star Fox 64, and that’s fine. I love gaming tributes. But I’d be lying if I said the name didn’t crack me up on impact. Space Cat! If they sold cheap, off-brand games at dollar stores, you’d expect a knock-off of Star Fox 64 to be named Space Cat! sitting alongside such classic gaming luminaries as Legend of Zeltor, Pocketmen, Ronald the Hedgehog, or Mega Italian Bros.

Star Faux 64

Anyway, discount off-brand Star Fox 64 is free. Because of course it is. For some reason, a lot of the most eye-catching early XBLIG IIs are free. I can sort of understand the mindset behind this. XBLIG wasn’t exactly the most well received gaming platform ever. It’s funeral is set for this month and most gamers aren’t exactly weeping in their mourning suits over it. So what would you do if you were a launch game for a spiritual successor to a platform with a lower reputation than Itchy: the Poxxy Hooker? Well, you give away your stuff for free and hope that people remember you when you’re ready to actually make money, right?

Well, yea, about that..

Very few gamers pay that close of attention to who developed what. To get that consideration, you have to create something so universally acclaimed and successful that people will check in daily to see what you’re cooking up next. And, no offense to the people behind Space Cat!, but this is not going to be one of those games. It’s not great. It’s not even good. It’s okay. Okay is fine! Okay still means you’ll have a jolly good time while you’re playing it, warts and all, maybe even chuckle at the absurd lack of balance because, hey, at least you didn’t pay for it. Like, on one stage I upgraded a gun to its maximum strength, at which point I was clearing out entire waves of baddies with literally no effort. So overpowered was this gun that I completely missed seeing a boss spawn and fighting it. The gun beat it before I even realized there was a boss to fight. The stage just ended. If I hadn’t found out later that there was a boss on the fire stage, I never would have known I beat it. 19 years of playing video games and I can’t ever recall beating a boss before it spawned, so that’s sort of an achievement, right?

This is the over-powered gun I was talking about, which I nicknamed “Señor Gran Polla” because use of it will make up for ANY inadequacy.

Don’t get me wrong, it was fun in a “using a Game Shark to utterly FUBAR a game” type of way, only without the Game Shark. But when all was said and done, Space Cat, a game that can be completed in about fifteen minutes, left no lasting impression on me. It was too easy, too quick, and so unbalanced that I couldn’t even take a moment to appreciate how close this came to Star Fox mimicry. I mean, look at it. It’s Voxel fucking Star Fox! Cool! And yea, maybe the fast pace and lack of balance obscured other flaws, like the controls being floaty garbage. But still, it’s Voxel fucking Star Fox!

VOXEL. MOTHER FUCKING. STAR. FOX!

That might be the most awesome sentence I’ve typed in Indie Gamer Chick history. And it’s free! Do you have Windows 10 or an Xbox One? You can play it right now! Click here!

The truth is, despite being a fairly thoughtful, convincing Star Fox knock-off, there’s so many rough spots that I’m convinced the developers spent almost no-time refining it and dumped it onto XBLIG II once they had a playable build up. It feels unfinished.

So why the fuck is this free? Throw a buck on it. Because nobody is going to follow the career of the studio that created this. You’re not going to get attention or exposure from something like this. And while Space Cat! barely wins the Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval, it’s still a borderline-quality game that inadvertently devalues other Creators Collection launch titles. It’s going to be hard for other devs to convince gamers to spend money on a borderline-quality game when other borderline-quality titles are free. If you think that’s bullshit, just ask iOS developers. During #GamesMatter events, my team and I can literally not hand out free copies of high-quality, highly desirable paid-iOS games. For the majority of iOS gamers, it’s not even worth the time it takes to punch in the code. We don’t want XBLIG II to become that. The original XBLIG had enough problems, but even as the service was about to shut down, I still had a lot of anxious gamers lining up to grab copies of XBLIGs during the #GamesMatter XBLIG send-off. XBLIG II has far too many games that are free. And to the guys at Gersh Games LLC, don’t you think your time is worth money? Throw a buck on Space Cat! at least. It’s worth at least a buck. It’s what Itchy charges. Um, I’m guessing.

Space Cat! was developed by Gersh Games LLC
Free to play on Xbox One and Windows 10

Space Cat! is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

XBLIG invades IndieCade

This is the single greatest pleasure I’ve had in my entire Indie Gamer Chick existence. I am so proud to announce that Xbox Live Indie Games will be getting their own panel at this year’s IndieCade event. Farewell, Xbox Live Indie Games, 2008 – 2017: A Retrospective will take part October 6, 2017 at IndieCade in Los Angeles. Tickets to the event are available now.

The 2008 launch of Xbox Live Indie Games (initially ‘Community Games’) represented a major step in the democratization of access to the console gaming audience. For the first time, individual creators had a route to getting their homebrew games onto the leading games console. How did this come about and who benefited the most? What were the stand-out games and where did the leading creators move on to? As Microsoft prepares to shut down the platform once and for all, this panel explores the highs and lows of the XBLIG ecosystem from its rocky beginnings through to maturity and conclusion.

I’ll have more details in the near future. Until then, check out IndieCade’s website and Twitter.

ERMO

I came *this* close to giving ERMO a bad review. And it had nothing to do with the gameplay. ERMO is the first of the XBLIG IIs to take advantage of streaming in-game advertising. And it does so in pretty-much the worst way possible. ERMO is a puzzler that’s basically a stripped-down, 2D Rubik’s Cube where you’re tasked to sort blocks so they line up properly in their assigned columns. It’s not the most thrilling premise and is better suited for mobile, but at least it’s another decent XBLIG II puzzler. They could have freshened it up by including Kinect support and calling it “Tickle-Me ERMO” if Microsoft would remember what Kinect is.

Got that? Good. Let’s talk about the Microsoft Modern Mouse.

Did you know it has a metal scroll wheel?

Well I knew it had a metal scroll wheel, because I was shown the fifteen-second advertisement for it roughly two-trillion times this weekend while playing, give or take a trillion. Once you run out of energy-points (and that will happen quick, since replaying stages costs ten of them), you’re forced to either watch an ad or take a game-over screen. Which actually only sets you back one puzzle or two at most, but still, it’s sort of annoying for a fairly simple puzzle game. For whatever reason, this weekend the only ad I got was for that fucking mouse. I came to hate it and dread it so much that I gave up on playing ERMO further. My plan for this review was to slowly start turning every three words to Microsoft Modern Mouse, until the entire review was nothing but Microsoft Modern Mouse. I wanted my fans to get a feel for the authentic ERMO experience I had this weekend.

Sorry, I can’t make this look any more exciting than this.

Well, thankfully I forgot to get screen caps of the actual game, because when I went back to get them, suddenly I was getting a few different ads. Which was nice, but then it started taking away the option of watching one of the ads if I messed up a puzzle twice. I thought “why couldn’t they just give me the option to pay for a premium build without any ads or bullshit?”

Well, actually ERMO did. It just never told me about it. On the main menu, you have to hit the right bumper once to call up an options menu (it doesn’t tell you that you can do this), then press the right bumper a second time to bring you to a page that allows you to purchase ad-free mode with (maybe) unlimited continues for $1.99. Oh for fuck’s sake, WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME THIS WHEN I WAS LOSING MY MIND LEARNING ABOUT HOW THE MICROSOFT MODERN MOUSE HAS A METAL SCROLL WHEEL FOR THE TWO DOZENTH TIME? I’ve never known a free-to-play game with a paid mode that doesn’t scream at you before every ad or forced break in the gameplay: “you can make the pain go away for the low-low price of X” until now. It’s like one of those bashful Girl Scouts that shows up at the door and gets all excited when you tell them you’ll take five boxes of cookies but then blushes and stammers when you ask them what the price is and try to hand them the money. ERMO, you’re the Girl Scout of indie games. I’m guessing that’s not what you were aiming for, so bravo.

Notice the little icons in the bottom-right corner. No labels to tell you how to access them, because this was clearly designed with touch-screens in mind and they didn’t optimize for Xbox One. Inexcusable, guys. I liked your game, but you are better than this.

I guess it’s fitting. Like Girl Scout Cookies, ERMO is perfectly palatable, if bland. Some of the levels are downright insulting in their simplicity, like the ones that require you to shuffle the blocks in a specific order that could very well be the easiest stages in any puzzler, ever. They might as well of made a video version of Simon Says with the most unenthusiastic caller imaginable. “Simon Says to, uh, do whatever you’re doing now I guess.” Throwing in levels with other ideas, like landmines that you can’t allow to line up with each-other, adds some challenge, but not nearly enough. The format for ERMO probably would lend itself to more mind-bending fare with the right level designers. As it stands, ERMO is about 50.0001% okay and 49.9999% boring. That technically wins it my seal of approval, which I’ll begrudgingly present it. But seriously, guys, optimize for the platform! No game in the history of forever has you open up the options menu with the right bumper. And why the hell doesn’t the game pop-out of the television like the girl in The Ring and beat you over the head with a baseball bat saying “you can make this stop for $1.99 anytime you cheap asshole!”?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go track down a Microsoft Modern Mouse. I’ve been craving one all weekend. No clue why. Maybe I’m the victim of subliminal advertising or something.

ERMO was developed by Nonostante Games
Point of Sale: Microsoft Store (because Xbox.com STILL doesn’t have links to Creators Club games)

$1.99 (or free with ads if you’re a masochist) is bummed that this ended up winning the IGC Seal of Approval because I had to give up my “should you play ERMO? Errrrrr, no” joke that would have killed in the making of this review.

ERMO is Chick-Approved by the skin of its teeth and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

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