Arcade Archives: Pinball

Another day, another Nintendo coin-op that’s damn-near identical to an NES launch counterpart that costs $7.99, which pretty much only nets you the same game that’ll inevitably be ported to Switch Online for free. Joy. Today, it’s 1983’s Pinball by Satoru Iwata of all people. And it’s not good at all. It’s horrible. It’s one of Nintendo’s worst published games.

But Mario has a very brief cameo in it, so Nintendo fanboys of the past convinced themselves it was awesome. That’s par for the course on those Nintendo black box releases. Imagine if he’d made an appearance in Urban Champion. It wouldn’t have the unjust reputation as the worst game Nintendo ever made. While we’re on the subject, Pinball somehow managed to not be that either despite busted physics and some of the the most cheating gameplay ever. Of all time.

I see London. I see France. Pauline ain’t wearing underpants!

You can tell Pinball wasn’t made by someone with a deep understanding of what makes real pinball work. A lot of people describe the pastime as “controlled chaos.” But I grew up in a house with pinball machines (specifically the Williams classics Firepower and Black Knight, both from 1980 and both by the legendary Steve Ritchie, both of which my Dad bought in the mid 80s before I was even born. I got two things from my father: a love of pinball and a predisposition to high blood pressure. Thanks Daddy). Pinball, when played at its top level, is anything but chaos. With enough time and patience, anyone can clock a table, learning every angle, skill shot, and the risk/reward factors of each target. Pinball is a very precise sport. Yes, sport. Fuck you. If curling, golf, or League of Legends are sports, so is pinball. And pinball, which is one of the great joys of my life, has only recently been successfully recreated digitally. It took gaming less time to figure out proper online play than it did to get digital pinball right.

This isn’t the snobbish “real pinball is the only pinball” hot air that you get from a many silver ball enthusiasts. A lot of people don’t have the money you need to truly get into it. A decent pin will typically run you $1,500 – $2,500 minimum, $4,000 for iconic tables, going as high as $10,000 for legendary tables. And that’s not even considering the amount of work you need to put into them to clean and maintain them. Turning pinball from a hobby to a passion is very expensive. The majority of people who do buck up and buy a table end up not liking it as much as they imagined they would. That’s why I like video pinball’s potential. If you don’t fall completely in love with the experience, you’re only out a couple bucks. As opposed to thousands.

And, in 1983, this is probably as close to looking like a real table as video pins got. But it’s also not pinball in the sense that you can play it like a real machine. You can’t, because you simply can’t clock Nintendo Pinball. For starters, the ball is alive and always vibrating. Because it’s always having a seizure, even if you hold the ball with a flipper to set up a shot, you can’t control what trajectory it’ll take or how the ball will react upon hitting walls and surfaces. It’s completely random and never consistent from one shot to the next. Nintendo Pinball’s reality lives up to the greatest misconception of real pinball: it’s governed by random chance. The ball also does weird things like somehow retaining inertia that it should have lost when you grab the ball for a tee shot. And the plunger is not easy to use either since there’s no analog way to fire it off. Probably 49 shots out of 50 had me getting the in one of the 500 point lanes instead of the 1,000 point one. Which also tells me that the game does more than just rely on its limited physics to dictate the ball’s path. It must be doing something more to pull the ball away from targets. Simple random chance odds tell me that the ball should be able to go down the center chute one out of three times, instead of once every fifty shots. So something is not on the up-and-up with Pinball. Other parts of the game make this even more clear.

Those slots where the cards are became the most maddening aspect of the game. Because the ball is so erratic and doesn’t have consistent weight or gravity, even if I slowed it down so that it should drop into one of the slots, it’d inevitably suddenly become a high-density rubber ball and bounce off. Also, this almost always happened to the left, leading me to believe there’s invisible suction that draws the ball away from targets.

It also doesn’t help that the table layout isn’t very good. The game is split into two screens. The upper one contains a slot machine that you activate by going down one chute. The numbers don’t stop on their own, and instead you must hit a moving target when it’s hovering above the reel that’s spinning. In over ten hours spent on this game, I only successfully pulled this off three times. This mostly owes to the upper level having three ways for players to be sent down to the lower level: the drain (the gap between the flippers), a portal that fires you past targets on the lower level, and finally a outlane on the left side. This outlane I genuinely believe is rigged with some kind of suction. It has to be. Too many times the ball bounced into it when it had none of the required moment to even come close to the opening, let alone go through it. Inevitably, if the ball even came near the entrance to it, it was like crossing the event horizon of a black hole: no escape.

And then you have the lower level, where the majority of available points are (if you’re playing the five minute caravan mode, getting points in the upper level is so slow you practically have to let the ball fall down to it). Here, there’s five slots that reveal playing cards. Get all five cards revealed and you get a drain stopper and score points. You can also enter a bonus room here. This is where Mario shows up, and it’s possibly the most busted aspect of the game. Ironically, the BONUS room ruined my best runs of the five-minute mode because sometimes the ball’s momentum would just stop on a dime and it would proceed to very, very slowly roll towards a drain. It could eat up thirty seconds by itself. In the NES/Famicom version of Pinball, my understanding is you’re not guaranteed to be able to enter the bonus room. In the arcade version, you enter it every time you hit the portal to it. Assuming you’re actually trying to score points in it, you must reflect a ball with a paddle similar to Breakout. Mario holds the paddle, thus earning the game acclaim from slobbering Nintendo fanboys the world over. If you successfully do this, Pauline will fall from her holding chamber. You must then catch her and deliver her to an exit (which again, she walks VERY slowly to). If you successfully pull this off, you only get 5,000 points. It’s such a little amount of points for such a high-degree difficulty challenge. But, far too often, the ball will launch in a way where it’s unplayable from the start. And, since you only get the points earned in it after losing your last ball, it’s not desirable to enter this room at all in the Arcade Archives Caravan Mode. Even killing yourself to get those earned points isn’t worth it, because it takes forever for them to be added to your real score. Why is everything about Pinball so slow? Pinball ain’t slow!

This is NOT exactly the NES version. In it, the flippers apparently don’t disappear as often, the physics are altered, and you have to unlock being able to successfully enter the bonus room. I guess. I have no means to play it. I suspect it’ll be coming to Switch Online soon. But the disappearing flippers becomes insanely annoying. They’re still there. You just can’t see them. You can cheat like I did and mark where the optimal spot on the screen they are.

In fairness, this bonus room wasn’t designed around a special mode of the game being surgically grafted to it 36 years later. But that doesn’t excuse why the bonus room is so miserable to begin with. Or why knocking down all the drop targets makes your flippers invisible. What in all the fuck is that? Why invisible? Why is the scoring balance so off? Why are the high degree difficulty shots in the upper level worth so little points, while the relatively easy to hit bumpers on the lower level worth so much? High scoring is as simple as getting the ball trapped in a cycle in them, having them knock around, and up through the card slots. I posted the fifth highest score in Caravan Mode’s global leaderboard doing this. It’s pretty much the only way you can do it. I also finished 28th in Hi-Score mode, where you must play with the machine’s default options. So nobody can accuse me of disliking Pinball because I sucked at it. I’m high up on all three global leaderboards.

Especially the normal mode, where high scores count no matter what options you use. I kept all the default options but gave myself five lives instead of three. And then I posted the second highest score ever recorded on the Arcade Archives Pinball original mode global leaderboard: 843,020. A pretty amazing achievement.

Too bad it’s fake.

To my credit, the game kept cheating me. What’s good for the goose..

Yep, I cheated. It’s a bullshit score that I achieved by exploiting an absolutely galling oversight on developer Hamster’s part. Anyone can beat if they have enough time and patience, skill level be damned.

Here’s how I did it. Pay attention Hamster: I’m about to close a loophole in your games for you. You’re welcome.

Unlike Hi-Score and Caravan Modes, where pausing the game to the menu forfeits your score and session, original mode allows you to access a menu, where changing anything but the game’s dip switch options keeps your current session alive. Included in this is a Save State Interrupt feature. For most emulators, Save State Interrupt should only work to save a game if you need to power down the platform you’re on. When you resume the session, it erases the save state. Hamster forgot the erase part. Erasing the state only happens when you game over. Using the save state, I could quit to the game’s main menu if I died or the ball wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I would just replay sections bit by bit, creating a new state every 10,000 or so points and dropping balls occasionally to make it look like it was a believable score, finally laying my ball down once I cleared the 2nd place score to make it look realistic. In reality, I considered taking the top spot (which is over two-million points, significantly higher than the next highest scores) but it took me hours just to get to second using this trickery.

It’s absolutely fucking insane that Hamster didn’t think of this, and it puts a taint on every previous Arcade Archives release. I went back and checked them. All the ones I own have this exploit in their original modes. And yea, I feel bad about it (my apologies to everyone with real scores I beat out making this point). That’s why I put effort towards posting impressive real scores in the other two modes. But, ultimately, even my fifth play finish in Caravan Mode was via dumb luck. My ball at one point got stuck in a cycle in the middle of the bumpers and went through the queen’s slot a dozen times in a row. I also managed to avoid the bonus room and the ball, for literally the only time the entire time I was playing, seemed to bounce in my favor. But when my best accomplishment is based on dumb luck, it sort of mutes the point of being one of the top five scorers ever, does it not?

I’m going to guess the top score isn’t legit either. Looking back, all the Arcade Archives titles have massive gaps in the top scores. You can tell which ones are real and which ones aren’t just by noting those gaps and at which point on the list scores start to cluster closer together. This is also why the scores in Hi-Score Mode and Caravan Modes tend to be closer together. Still, I can’t believe the Vs. Super Mario score is legit. Meanwhile, I cheesed Kid Niki’s global board too in another way (that review is coming up).

So yea, I hated Pinball too. And I’m not even willing to give it kudos for ambition for its era. It’s a horrible layout. The scoring is all out of wack and not balanced to factor in risk/reward, it has a busted bonus room, and it’s almost entirely based on luck. It’s more pachinko than pinball, and since this was made for a primarily Japanese audience, that’s probably by design. I hate to bring back this old chestnut, but I’m sort of forced to: gaming has come a long ways. But the Atari 2600’s Video Pinball from 1980 did predictable, reliable physics better than this warped version of pinball on a more advanced platform three years after-the-fact did. I have to believe Nintendo’s version could have done it too and simply didn’t. Pinball isn’t the worst early Nintendo game. But it is maybe the most broken. We exist in a world that has Ice Climber, so that’s saying something.

Arcade Archives: Pinball (despite this being a Vs. System game, it’s not called “Vs. Pinball”) was developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 studied under Rosie Ruiz in the making of this review.

A fan purchased this game for me. All indie games reviewed at this blog are purchased by me. Retro AAA games I accept fan donations on. I matched the purchase price of this with a contribution to the Epilepsy Foundation. And then I blistered my thumb playing it. Also, I think Iwata haunted my Switch.

High Noon Revolver

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a fan of Capcom’s SonSon or SNK’s Psycho Soldier. So, how’d I end up with an indie tribute to them? Well, I base my purchases for Indie Gamer Chick on cover art, theme, and one screen shot. I didn’t realize I was buying a game that would start behind the eight ball with me. But, I’d like to think I’m professional and fair. So hear me out..

High Noon Revolver is one of 2019’s worst indies.

I put a lot of time into it, and couldn’t make it past the first level. Despite not being a fan the source material, I consider myself a relatively skilled gamer and I should have been able to make SOME progress. For those that don’t know the concept, the idea is you’re in an auto-scrolling, three-lane shooter where you dodge bullets, shoot enemies, and collect coins or hearts. Coins can be spent to buy temporary (as in they last until you die) item upgrades during breaks in the action. But what upgrades you get to choose from is determined at random. So is whether or not enemies drop coins. I’ve played rounds where almost every enemy dropped one, and ones where none of them did. Success and failure in High Noon Revolver is governed by RNG luck more than any amount of skill. You’ll take damage from fast enemies spawning behind you in a way you can’t possible hope to avoid. You’ll take damage from heat-seeking flying enemies that can spawn directly above you if you’re in the top channel. Ones that also have the advantage of the player character having a, shall we say, slightly generous collision box. People call me a crybaby for complaining about “gotcha” stuff in games, and I don’t get it. What is FUN about just dying at random? If you have no chance to avoid it, it’s really not a game, is it?

I never got past the first boss. Even once when I had six full hearts and longer invincibility from taking damage, I came just shy of getting it half-way down on its life. It’s spongy, it cakes the entire screen in shit that tries to kill you, AND enemies spawn while you battle it. Some of them, like the guys in the mine carts you see, drop bombs that give you even more shit to dodge. This shit isn’t fun. it’s a war of attrition. This was the best I did at it, getting it about 3/4 of the way dead before I finally died when the mine cart guys started spamming the screen with bombs and my only option was to jump into them and get killed or stand still and die from a heat-seeking missile.

And staying in the center channel isn’t really an option. There’s a character that can fire a shotgun in three directions, but you have to be in the exact right spot to hit the channels above and below you. The screen scrolls fast and you’re almost always dodging bullets or enemies. Some of the enemies have shields. Some of them apparently poison you (and the poison effect is so subtle that I didn’t even realize it was happening). It took me around an hour of the most miserable play time imaginable to unlock my first character. Now mind you, the first two starting characters are balanced. The first unlocked character has more life and a weapon with bullets that pierce all enemies (except shelled ones). That sounds fine, but it’s another sign that no consideration was seemingly given about balance while High Noon Revolver was being developed.

I wouldn’t have been so angry if not for the fact that there’s some hope for fun to be found here. Some of the items are truly nifty, like ones that cause enemies to spray bullets out upon being shot, which can possibly set-off a chain reaction. But getting to use the good ones is rare (I played for hours yesterday and today and only got to use that once the entire time). The fun stuff is just too hard to acquire, and it seems that the game becomes its most dickish when you have a potentially great loadout. Most of the items are not all that useful. Why would I need to buy an upgrade that shoots all the way across the screen when my gun already does that? But that becomes an option. The one thing High Noon Revolver does that feels like it’s “smart” is if you have less than 10 coins when you open a chest during a break in the action, you get coins from it instead of options to buy stuff. But literally everything else is done badly. The sniper rifle is the most fun to use, but it’s slow and clunky unless you get to increase its bullet size or eliminate the recoil. The dash move is useless and gets you killed more than it helps. Sometimes it seems like the game drops one heart after another and sometimes it doesn’t seem to drop them at all. Really, it feels like this was meant to be an actual 80s arcade game designed specifically to limit playtime.

These guys look like the blue shells from Mario Kart, but they’re so much cheaper. You get no warning if enemies are coming from the left of the screen, but often that side of the screen is the only place you can safely stand. This is one of the cheatiest games I’ve played as IGC.

And you get no help for the most part. You move too slow to avoid the enemies in too many situations, and sometimes and there’s not enough room to maneuver in a safe way at all. Especially with birds. You’ll wish you had a way to wipe the screen of them. And then you see the bombs, and you get excited. But, in fact, High Noon Revolver has the most pointless, useless bombs in action gaming history. You start each round with a few, and enemies can drop them. But, when you activate them, they don’t clear out the enemies on-screen. As far as I can tell, they don’t damage the actual enemies at all. They only remove enemy projectiles. Which sounds valuable in a game like this, where the whole screen can be cluttered with bullets. BUT, when I’d need to activate them, I’d take damage anyway from the projectiles if they were too close. You really have to fire them off before the projectiles are a real danger. What’s the point of even having them? It’d be like the “break glass in case of emergency” axes only worked if you think there’s a fire. I literally can’t believe the game botched bombs. The easiest, most cliched mechanic in action-arcade games and it still managed to fuck them up. It’s kind of incredible.

I think a big problem is the screen’s scrolling speed. I mean, there’s a LOT of problems with High Noon Revolver. But I think a lot of the balance would be better if you had more time to defend yourself. Those shell enemies shoot in eight directions, but if they spawn during the scroll, they won’t open themselves up to attack until they’ve reached the middle of the screen. By that point, you have other shit to deal with. And, unless your bullets pierce the shells, they act as shields for all other enemies behind them. High Noon Revolver is cheap in the literal sense at $3, but it’s cheap in the other, whiny way.

I literally can’t think of anything nice to say to balance this review. But, then again, the developer didn’t consider balance, so why should I? Even the presentation I find obnoxious because it seems like all the effort was put into making the game look good. I was posting one thirty-second clip after another showing how mind-numblingly unfair High Noon Revolver was and people reading completely missed how angry I was because it looks fun. But it’s not. High Noon Revolver feels like a freemium, pay-to-win game that forgot to add all the pay-to-win stuff. It’s hard to describe, except to say it feels like it’s cheating. More concerned with screwing players over than letting us have fun. Some people genuinely like insanely hard games. But, I’m of the opinion that a game based entirely on luck is only “hard” in the same way winning the jackpot in the lottery is “hard.” It’s luck. Luck isn’t difficulty. It’s just not! If a meteorite crashed through my house and killed my entire family but me, nobody would congratulate me on conquering the meteorite. I didn’t! It just missed me! I got lucky! So why would anyone say differently about video games based on luck? I don’t get it. All High Noon Revolver is a $3 die-a-lot game, and good for it. I like my games fun, and there, it’s firing blanks.

High Noon Revolver was developed by Mike Studios
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$2.49 (normally $2.99) hung it high in the making of this review.

StarTropics

I’m rushing through all the games included with a Switch Online subscription, along with other NES games available on current consoles via other classic gaming collections, trying to get the Indie Gamer Chick Retroboards ready for launch (coming this Fall!). I usually post what games are the ones I’m about to hit-up during my NES play sessions. And then, when everyone saw that I was about to play StarTropics, it got an usual amount of hype and anxiety. Which took me by surprise, because StarTropics is such a non-entity in Nintendo history. It’s literally the only Nintendo-published franchise that has no representation in the Smash Bros series. Not a single cameo, trophy, sticker.. nothing. Maybe because it never came out in Japan and Smash Bros is supposed to be a tribute to Japanese games. I don’t know. I do know that, based on what I’ve seen from my fans (who tend to skew 7 to 10 years older than me), it is remembered. That should count for something.

It doesn’t, apparently. Frankly, I’m surprised Nintendo has even thought to include StarTropics in Switch Online, or the NES Classic for that matter. Maybe it was an afterthought. Given that the Switch Online port doesn’t include the “dip the note in water” instruction book mechanic that reveals you’re supposed to give the R.O.B. that pilots your submarine the code 747 to get past Chapter 4, it probably was an afterthought. And that’s a shame, because there’s some very fun gameplay in StarTropics. And a whole lot of bullshit and downtime, but hey, it’s free!

Hey, this place sucks-cola! You’re boring-cola! Go fuck yourself-cola!

StarTropics is one of the most give and take games I’ve ever played. It has a very indie feel to it, with lots of pop-culture references, or NPCs being given quirky speaking ticks (adding “cola” to the end of a lot of names and sentences for no fucking reason), and awful pacing issues. Action areas are buffered by sloggy top-down RPG style talking, and this is where the game is almost entirely ruined. It’s such a chore. You don’t open up the first action section of the game until you talk to every single, solitary member of the intro village. Which wouldn’t be bad if they had anything relevant to say. They don’t. It’s busy work for the sake busy work. If it was done for immersion, talk about a fail. It’d be like saying I couldn’t play a round of golf at the country club until I’ve talked to everyone in the dining hall, pro shop, gym, and swimming pool first. The world doesn’t work that way. StarTropics does, because it’s the absolute stupidest good game ever made.

Which is not to say it’s always stupid. It has some clever boss fights that are more than “smack enemy until dead” encounters. Here, you have to activate two buttons that drop this fire god thingy into water. Why a fire god thingy would place its lair above its only weakness is beyond me. Okay, fine, maybe it’s always stupid.

And that sense of busy work never ends. In the third chapter, you have to once again to talk every boring villager, then make your way through a bush maze to the bottom of the village to talk to a chief, then make your way through the bush maze and to the top of the building the same chief is in, go up a stair case, talk to his comatose daughter who literally only says “Zzzz” before going back through the bush maze and out a different exit. BUSY WORK!

In the fifth level, you have to talk to everyone in a village, including a chief, to unlock a parrot. Then you have to walk all the way to the left of the map to find the parrot who will tell you that it won’t talk with you until you bring it a gift. Then you have to get into your submarine, where the R.O.B. the Robot tells you that they’re looking for your uncle and he’ll let you know if they get a hit. Then you have to go all the way south on the map, then east and submerge in your sub, which will take you to another island, where you pass a giant pipe organ that you can’t get past even if you know the right tune because you haven’t triggered the event that allows it yet. You have to make your way through a maze to find a worm to give to the parrot. You then have to go back to your sub, where AGAIN the ROB the Robot tells you that they’re looking for your uncle and he’ll let you know if they get a hit. Then you have to go south again, submerge in your sub, then go back up north to the island you started the level on and give the worm to the parrot. The parrot then tells you what keys you have to press on pipe organ to open up the action stage for the chapter. You then have to go back to your sub, where ONCE AGAIN the ROB the Robot tells you that they’re looking for your uncle and he’ll let you know if they get a hit. You then have to go south and east and submerge AGAIN in the same spot, then go to the island north of you and into the place with the pipe organ, where you now can press the keys and it’ll actually work. Finally, this opens up the action area for the chapter.

BUSY WORK!!

So much busy work that I’m surprised California schools don’t make StarTropics part of their ciriculum.

You can suck my asshole, Chapter 5, you miserable fucking slog.

It completely killed the mood of the game for me. Instead of feeling a sense of excitement and anticipation about the Indiana Jones-like adventure that awaited me every new action section, I felt a sense of relief that I was given a break from the boring RPG stuff. And that’s where StarTropics really fails. The RPG stuff is among the worst I’ve ever played. The writing is embarrassing. The NPCs are not remotely interesting (No, I don’t give a shit who won Miss Cola in a village with a population of eleven. IS THERE EVEN ANOTHER CHICK ON THIS ISLAND BESIDES THE 103 YEAR OLD? DID SHE EVEN COMPETE AGAINST YOU? You fucking won by default!) It’s BORING! But the action stuff is not among the best ever, which throws off the balance so much. I can’t tell if the action stuff is interrupting what the director thought was a brilliant RPG or if the RPG stuff was added to pad out the action. The two gameplay elements do not mix well at all.

And then there’s the action, which is based on grids and features some of the strangest movement ever. It feels clunky and never intuitive. Then again, I also had StarTropics 2: Zoda’s Revenge for the Wii Virtual Console, which kept the same basic idea but eliminated the grid stuff and found it to be practically unplayable. Maybe they were onto something here. But the issue is that too much of the “puzzle solving” is limited to slowly hopping around on different tiles hoping to spawn buttons that will open up the next room. It gets tedious. And then there’s times where you open up a new room and walk into it, only to find out it’s an insta-kill death pit. OR, even worse, you go up a staircase and it takes you out of the fucking stage and forces you to start it over again. A mechanic I officially nominate as the worst “gotcha” in gaming history. I can’t imagine playing this without the Switch’s Infinity Gauntlet-like rewind feature. I’d say it’s beneath the quality of StarTropics, but then again, read what you have to do to simply open up the action section of chapter five. Clearly Genyo Takeda had a busy work fetish and his main focus was coming up with as many ways as possible to create it for players. I literally can’t believe this is the same guy who was responsible for my beloved Punch-Out!! games. This shit feels beneath him.

With some older games, you can spot the exact moment that everyone creatively gave up and then broke out the cocaine. With StarTropics, that moment is easier to spot than most.

Reading back all the above, I realize it must sound like I hated StarTropics. I didn’t. All the above is frustration, because the level design (besides the gotcha shit) is really well done, and the combat is truly fantastic. Using a yoyo (now ROM-hacked into being called an “Island Star” because Yoyo is a trademarked term) to smack enemies works. It feels like it has weight to it, and I’m all about combat that feels like actual damage is being registered. There’s also a ton of items, a huge variety of enemies, and some of the most entertaining boss fights from the NES era. It mostly made the RPG slog worth slogging through. And then the game totally shits the bed by having the final two chapters turn into a generic space adventure. Hell, Zoda, the final boss and the titular character of the sequel, you don’t even learn the existence about until the very last action stage of the game. Having my island-hopping tropical adventure devolve into a dull affair featuring space aliens and ray guns was just the final punch in the gut for what is the most inconsistent NES game ever made. That’s what gives it that indie feel. It’s like nobody was ever there to tell anyone involved “maybe drop the 30 minute long RPG runaround stuff” or “maybe we shouldn’t do aliens.” It’s a great game without an editor, and hence it becomes merely okay.

The reveal of the whole game being about aliens would be quite the twist. That is, if that wasn’t spoiled by a single throw-away line earlier in the game. And here, seeing Zoda morph into this giant alien piranha thing would have been a heart-pounding final twist to the final boss fight. That is, if you the game hadn’t showed the morph about fifteen minutes earlier when you beat Zoda’s first form.

And that sucks, because there’s a masterpiece buried somewhere in this dumpster fire. A game that can be one of the most boring shit-sandwiches in gaming at its worst, yet still feels fresh when you’re actually fighting monsters and hoping around tiles. Perhaps because no game ever has felt like StarTropics. Not even its sequel. It’s almost thirty-years old and still feels like it has new ideas to bring to the table. I’d love to Nintendo give this to an indie developer with a pedigree and let them try to revive the series for modern audiences, only with sharp writing and less gotcha bullshit. Sadly, StarTropics has never had the chance to live up to its potential. That it can’t even get a passing reference in Smash Bros, a game that has EVERYTHING Nintendo in it, really tells you how much faith Nintendo has for the franchise. It’s dead. And it’s unlikely to come back. Well, at least beyond re-releasing it every few years. I mean, they’re not going to not re-release it. It’s Nintendo! That’s what they do!

StarTropics was developed by Nintendo
Free to play with a Switch Online Subscription

StarTropics is Chick-Approved and soon to be ranked on the IGC NES Retroboard

Save me Mr Tako: Tasukete Tako-San and Pirate Pop Plus

I didn’t grow up with an original Game Boy, and only had a Game Boy Pocket because I wanted to dive into the Pokemon craze right away and had gullible parents unaware that Game Boy Color would be arriving two months after Red & Blue hit the US. To say I have zero nostalgia for the platform would be an understatement. Especially when my primary reason for wanting to own a Game Boy in the first place was a series that’s had roughly two-kajillion sequels with essentially the same gameplay but better writing since then. And frankly, I was never a big fan of the watershed titles for the platform. I’ve played all the Mario Lands. I had Link’s Awakening DX on Game Boy Color. They were what they were, but I wasn’t a fan. Really, the only stand-out to me was Donkey Kong ’94, and that was by virtue of it not having a console-counterpart. If you had asked 10-year-old me what was the worst game I owned in 1999, there’s a good chance I would have answered Donkey Kong Land. Mind you, I had Bubsy 3D.

That’s no joke, by the way. I asked Santa Claus for a PlayStation 1 for Christmas of 1996 because I got hooked on playing Crash Bandicoot while playing a PS kiosk. A few months later, it was time for me to pick out my first non-Christmas-gift game for my first ever console. This is what I chose. With encouragement from my parents, who thought it looked “easy for a little girl.” So my parents were condescending, had horrible taste in games, AND were sexist. On the plus side, I think the seeds for Indie Gamer Chick were planted that week. I really do.

Until recently, while I believe my “anti-Nintendo” reputation was a bum rap, it’s safe to say I really was anti-Game Boy. Following my re-evaluation of Donkey Kong ’94, along with my play sessions with Operation C and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, I’ll admit that portable gamers weren’t entirely hosed. But I also don’t get why anyone would want to make a game that looks and plays like a Game Boy game in the modern age. A severely limited system where even the best games had many compromises that had to be made in order to keep them portable. Don’t get me wrong: it is impressive when someone pulls off the mimicry without it feeling like they just colored a game in creamed spinach tones. Take both the games I’m reviewing today. They both feel very authentic, to the point that you can buy them as lost 1989 – 1995 titles for the platform that were just now unearthed. If seeing that off-putting color palette stokes those nostalgia fires, ignore this review. Both these games rise high enough that they should work for you. Well, that’s assuming you ignore the maddening difficulty of Mr Tako, but since so many blowhards from that era bitch about games today being too easy, I assume that’s you.

For everyone else, the question is: how good are these games on their own merit?

I want to be.. under the sea.. in a Octopus’s gar.. OH SHIT! NOBODY SAID THEY FORM ARMIES! RUN!

Save me Mr Tako is probably considered the best Game Boy-like ever. It’s super popular. And, yeah, it really does feel like something that could pass for an unreleased mid-90s Game Boy title. One of the ones that came out after developers figured out how to optimize it around the time Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 or Link’s Awakening hit.  It also offers alternate color palettes that I believe are based on ones offered by the Super Game Boy. The sound, the look, the cramped field of vision. It’s all here. For better and for worse. Picture “worse” here being carved into a series of Everest-sized mountains.

Mr Tako is one of the most baffling experiences of my IGC life, because everything is in place for a fun game. It has a quirky story about a brewing war between sentient octopi and humans. It has an absolute ton of power-ups to keep things fresh through-out. The storyline has you occasionally switch from playing as the titular Mr Tako to human characters to solve puzzles and beat levels. And Mr Tako is potentially one of the great indie mascots. He’s overflowing with charm and personality and is Pikachu-levels of adorable. And there’s a huge variety of levels and themes and enemies. Really, Save Me Mr Tako should be an indie platforming epic.

Look how happy Mr Tako is just to jump! I just want to pinch his little cheeks. Wait, do octopi have cheeks?

And I was just so bored playing it that I legitimately felt guilty. Like it was on me. That *I* was doing something wrong. And this is before the game totally shit the bed with some of the most cheap, unfair shit I’ve seen in years and one really bad oversight. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Save Me Mr Tako was developed by Christophe Galati ($4.99, normally $14.99 peed lavender ink in the making of this review). **NOTE: This review only covers the Nintendo Switch version. The Steam version is updated to fix many things complained about here. I didn’t like the base game and didn’t care to pay to start over a game I didn’t enjoy in the first place. But the Steam version might be better.

The one concession that Mr Tako offers that feels modern is offering 20 starting lives. As opposed to just doing away with lives. I mean seriously, if you’re going so far as to give players 20 lives, why do lives at all? Every other aspect feels married to being a Game Boy release. The levels are ambitious for 1991-93, but not for modern gaming. Just lots of jumping around. Trees. Nook-and-cranny exploration and searching. It feels like it’d be an incredible, critically acclaimed, game-of-the-year-on-its-platform contender. And it’s not just a typical hop-and-bop. Mr Tako can’t kill enemies. Instead, he hits them with ink and it stops them. While covered in ink, he can jump on them to reach higher platforms. All this framed with a relatively complex story that’s sort of like Wag the Dog, only with an army of Octopuses. Of course, the writing is married to being Game Boy-like as well. Very on-the-nose. Very to-the-point. The most basic writing style. I hate it when neo-retro games do that. The only one that’s really pulled it off is Shovel Knight, where at least the visuals did a little more.

For whatever reason, Mr Tako just never held my attention. I’d knock out a few stages, find something else to play, and dread reopening it thinking “oh God, I’m not liking this and everyone is going to be pissed at me.” Because I honestly couldn’t put my finger on why it wasn’t “doing it” for me. Maybe it was too simple? Maybe it was too basic of design. I don’t know. I did like one aspect of the platforming: when you’re just under being able to jump up on a ledge, the game automatically gives you a little boosty next to the edge of it to put you up and over the top on it. It’s actually nifty. Never seen a game do that. And that is the only aspect of the gameplay that really stood out to me in almost three hours. Now mind you, by time I threw in the towel, I was only 22% complete on the game. If anyone thinks I gave up too early, (1) if a game needs three hours and over 20% of its contents to “get to the good stuff” I say that game is an automatic failure and (2) by time I did quit, Mr Tako had absolutely cratered into a slog of frustration and madness that made me actively hate it.

The good people of the Exxon corporation would like to remind you that THIS SEAL IS HAPPY!

Mr Tako’s one-hit difficulty becomes intolerable when playing as anyone but the octopus. A human character with no means of defense who has twice as much surface-area for enemies and projectiles is just not as fun to play with in our zany cephalopod adventure. It creates such an unwelcome pacing issue in what is already a game that feels slow despite having relatively small stages. There’s fifty hats that grant Mr Tako powers, but most of the ones I’ve gotten so far aren’t fun to play with. And on top of all that, the current Switch build doesn’t pause the action when you open doorways by solving “puzzles” (which is as simple as pushing a gravestone). When the camera pans over to show you what you opened up, you can die, even though you’re not on the screen and have no means of defenes. It’s one of the worst oversights I’ve ever seen in a game. There’s actually a patch that’s been waiting to be applied for a long time, but the developer has no control over when it’ll go through. It’s apparently fixed on Steam, but it doesn’t change the fact that I had no fun up to the point I quit. Maybe the easy mode that’s included in the patch will fix that. I don’t know. I’ll need to try it again when that patch hits. I know one of the devs from Twitter. Nice guy. He knows to hit me up for his Second Chance with the Chick when it’s live.

By the point I quit, I burned 40 lives between only two levels, trying to get past crows and ghosts that buzz-bomb you. Often with limited room to actually dodge them. And then, when I’d actually got past them, I’d open up a pathway by shoving a gravestone over, only I’d somehow die before the camera reached the thing it was trying to show me I unlocked. I’m happy a patch is coming (maybe. Apparently, it’s been stuck in queue for months), but seriously, how did they miss THAT in play testing? Developers really need to remember to find people who don’t know how to play the games to do the testing. If they can’t find such a person, they need to pretend they don’t know themselves and play like a newb would. I run into shit like this far too often.

Really, I think I must just be bias against looking like a Game Boy game. Because I recently also bought a game called Pirate Pop Plus. Instead of opting for complexity, it feels more like one of those really simple early-generation GB titles like Alleyway or Balloon Kid. Inspired by the classic arcade game Pang (also known as Buster Bros. in many releases), you throw a harpoon up at bubbles, which split into progressively smaller bubbles. The twist in the formula is that a pirate shows up to randomly shift the gravity on you, causing the action to rotate around the play-field. It is a fresh twist that manages to play intuitively. I should have liked it given that I’ve enjoyed Pang in the past, and while the gravity stuff is unquestionably gimmicky, it does work.

Also, neither Mr Tako nor Pirate Pop Plus allowed video capture on Switch. Which really sucks for them more than it does me because I post roughly six-thousand 30-second clips per Switch game during my play sessions, give or take. I might not have a million followers on Twitter, but the nearly 20K I do have buy a lot of games based on those videos. Indies are dependent on word of mouth, but with quick video capture options, they can also use show-and-tell too. You need every tool you can get, developers. Don’t cut your fans off from doing your marketing for you.

And yet, I was once again just sort of bored. There’s visibility issues (mostly owing to the backgrounds occasionally being too noisy) and the whole thing just looks and feels very old and tired. I normally don’t give a flip about visuals, but here, they don’t work. And I don’t think it’s just about having a limited four-color palette. Gyro Boss DX had one also. But there, the visuals are stark and clean. No matter what color scheme you’re using in Pirate Pop Plus, it’s still married to a Game Boy aesthetic not in service to the actual gameplay. And that’s a damn shame, because looking the way Pirate Pop Plus does really does take effort. It’s not like making your game look this way is a corner-cutting measure.

Bill Simmons often points out the weird, unique-to-basketball phenomena where traded NBA players look completely different in their new uniforms. When Shaquille O’Neal was dealt midway through the 2007-08 season from the Miami Heat to the Phoenix Suns, even though he was exactly the same player he had been just a few days before, Shaq suddenly looked fat and out of shape upon donning the Suns jersey. But nothing had changed besides putting on a new top. When Kwame Brown was traded from the Wizards to the Lakers, he looked amazing in the purple and gold, and for all we knew, he was going to breakout and prove he wasn’t one of the biggest busts ever. It didn’t happen, and why would it? He was still Kwame Brown! He sucked! But man, did he wear that Lakers outfit to perfection. Meanwhile, I watched Kevin Durant for three seasons on my Golden State Warriors, and while he played marvelously for us, something always looked horribly off. I think even the most diehard Dubnation member would concede it.

There’s tons of unlockables to keep players interested. But, no online leaderboards, which is the only thing with me proven to for-sure keep me going even with games I dislike.

Pirate Pop Plus was developed by Dadako ($3.56, normally $4.99, received an Angry Pirate once in the making of this review)

I can’t help but wonder if this also applies to video games. I recently played Contra Anniversary Collection. When I saw Operation C, and by “saw” I mean literally saw screenshots of it, I was bracing for the absolute worst. It used almost the same character models and lots of aspects of the game were simply black-and-white versions of gameplay elements lifted directly from Contra and Super C on the NES. But it just looked wrong. And guess what? It wasn’t at all. It was one of the best Game Boy games I ever played. One of the most faithful adaptions from the NES to the Game Boy I’ve experienced. And for the entire two hour play-session, my brain kept telling me “this can’t be happening. It just looks like it shouldn’t be possible!” At least my session with Operation C tells me that I’d recognize a good game when I play one. So I don’t actually think Save Me Mr Tako or Pirate Pop Plus are good. But then again, maybe if they looked different, I’d be willing to give them a little more rope. Besides to hang themselves with, I mean.

Whipseey and the Lost Atlas

I pre-ordered Whipseey and the Lost Atlas based on the cover art and one screen shot. It looked like it aspired to be an indie tribute to Kirby. Those don’t happen as often as you would think. Also, the preorder offered $0.50 off the purchase price. You guys really should only pre-order digital games if doing so nets you a discount. Otherwise, it’s not like the eShops will run out of copies. And then, on Tuesday morning the game unlocked and I started it. And right away, I could tell something was off. The scrolling didn’t feel smooth. The controls didn’t feel 100% responsive. Attacking was awkward and clumsy.

It only took me a minute to realize all these things. I genuinely try to review games and not their developers, but I do have to ask: if I realized this stuff was off that fast, why didn’t they realize it sooner? Like, before releasing it?

The shit thing is, Whipseey looks so good in screenshots. It’s a photogenic game. I bet it ends up a best seller by virtue of release date and how fun it SEEMS like it should be.

Whipseey is not good. And that’s a shame, because it sure seems like it could be fun. Despite looking like Kirby, most of the action borrows from entirely different games. Your primary attack is a whip that mechanically functions like original generation Castlevania games and only works straight in front of you. Sounds great. The problem is that it’s clunky to use, with a delay. It’s also not really suitable for mid-jump attacks, and that’s a big problem because the game is built largely around platforms and enemy placement that forces you to mid-air attack. Maybe if the button placement was different, it’d be easier to pull off. But Whipseey doesn’t offer button mapping. On Switch, B jumps, Y whips. I found it quite awkward switching between the two on a standard Joycon. None of the other buttons do anything. So why not offer mapping, or at the very least, some kind of dual button scheme?

On the plus side, the collision detection is absolute shit. It works against you, sure, but you can hit bosses and enemies sometimes without making contact. So there’s that.

See how far my whip is from making contact on this, the first boss? It’s almost a full character length from it. But, this landed. It caused damage. That’s how bad the collision detection can be. That’s fucking embarrassing. I guess to make up for this, the developer gave the boss an electrocution move that has no telegraphing. The first two bosses are genuinely some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Here’s a full video of that boss fight if you want to see me get credit for a few hits I completely whiffed. Also, who makes their first boss an underwater fight unless that’s the entire game’s theme? For fuck’s sake!

The combat is bad. The platforming is worse. Instead of Castlevania, think Donkey Kong Country 2 or 3. Whipseey has the ability to do a Dixie Kong-style helicopter glide, and that’d be great. But the game is filled with instakill spikes with less than accurate-feeling collision detection, instakill pits, and lots of enemy crowding. And the game seems to have a thing for putting something above your head, and a pit in front of you, so that you go to jump but the platform above you cuts off the angle and you fall into a pit. The jumping just feels off. The gravity too heavy, the angles tough to judge. It’s never intuitive. The helicopter thing or the parts where you swing from your whip would be fun if the physics were refined and smoothed out. They’re not, and consequently they’re just not fun.

I really don’t have that much to say about Whipseey. I wanted to quit multiple times while playing it, finally giving up on the last boss. There’s only five levels, none of which rise above bland in terms of design. Things really don’t start to get interesting until the fourth and fifth levels, which had potential to be a bit more than simply bland if all the mechanics had been given more development time. But that means you’re over 60% of the way through the game before the level design feels ambitious. Before that, it’s just enemies being placed in dickish positions, or stuff like hopping on enemies to clear pits. In other games, the “bounce across enemies to finish a section” can be a highlight (see Super Mario 2 with the fish). But for Whipseey, if you fail to make the jump, even if you manage to float back to the starting platform, you’re dead. The enemy never respawns, and despite the door you came from being RIGHT FUCKING THERE, you can’t enter it and then go back and try again. You have to throw yourself into the pit and try again.

Also, this guy moves back and forth. So it’s not like you have a stationary target to hit. It’s incredible how many things Whipseey manages to do wrong in only five levels.

It’s rare that I play a game where it feels nothing goes right, but that’s Whipseey. You get a free life if you collect 100 gems. You get gems from enemies. But, when you whip enemies, the gems don’t just drop. They go flying behind them. In a game based largely on pits. Guess where most of those gems end up? If you run out of lives, you have to start a level again. Guys, it’s time to get rid of lives systems. You’re not doing anything to help your platform game by adding busy work of replaying levels for the sake of “challenge.” Come up with something better. If you need to force players to replay entire stages as a punishment in order to make your game harder, you’re doing it wrong. And, if you’re afraid of pissing off the blowhard crowd that wants to be punished for poor play because privately getting spanked is their kink, make it optional. In Whipseey, there’s a menu for “options” but the only thing you can change is the sound. Bosses are all boring. Enemies are boring and often cheap. There’s only five levels. There’s no power-ups. There’s no twists. It runs out of ideas fast. There’s only one potentially memorable set-piece (set on a train) and it ends up playing quite poorly. I feel like a bitch for going off this much a first-time developer’s game. This really wasn’t a fun review for me to do, but to my credit, it wasn’t a very fun game I was playing.

I’m not actually going to complain about the length. Some might not want a game with five relatively normal sized levels for $6 though. If Whipseey had been just okay, I’d probably been fine with the length. If it’d been good, I probably wouldn’t have been. It wasn’t either of those things. I was happy to get to the end.

All these little problems that add up to overall pretty terrible experience screams of a game that was rushed from conception to market as fast as could be done. NOTHING I’ve seen here leads me to believe developer Daniel A. Ramirez should quit. He clearly had a vision and saw it through to completion, and has a finished game that, when I saw it, I wanted it. And then I played it, and I wish he’d worked on it longer. If this had been given an extra spit-shine when the levels were done, with the rough edges smoothed out and less emphasis on dick-headed enemy placement, Whipseey and the Lost Atlas could have been a memorable indie romp. Instead it just feels like an unfinished prototype. But, it sure looks great in pictures. Big deal. So did Ryan Leaf.

Whipseey and the Lost Atlas was developed by Daniel A. Ramierez
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

$5.49 (normally $5.99) doesn’t do great with whip-based indie tributes in the making of this review.

Strikey Sisters

People, myself included, might look at pictures or clips of Strikey Sisters and assume it crosses Zelda-style adventures or RPG-style games with Arkanoid-inspired brick breaking. It doesn’t. There’s no permanent upgrades. You don’t level-up. You don’t unlock new items or abilities. The one Zeldaish mechanic is that the paddle is replaced by slashing at the ball with a sword, but that doesn’t mean the game is essentially Linkanoid. So, don’t let the facade of Strikey Sisters lull you into believing it’s deeper than it really is. This is a one-level-at-a-time, white-knuckle-action brick breaker. But a damn good one. The best brick breaker I’ve ever played, in fact, and one of 2019’s very best hidden indie gems. I just want to make sure people know what they’re getting with it. Like how I think people who take their first kitten home from a pet store should have their cars keyed, with the shop owner saying “this is going to be your couch from now on. You’re going to LOVE IT!”

Can we please phase out “lethal bubbles” in games? They’re only acceptable if they involve dinosaurs capturing enemies in them. Then popping them, which presumably kills baddies via some kind of drop in pressure. Like seriously, that’s how it works in Bubble Bobble, right? Enemies die via an extreme case of the bends?

Actually, Strikey Sisters is based on an obscure 1994 SNES game called Firestriker. I’d never even heard of it, though judging by the amount of people who pointed this out to me when I first started playing Sisters, it must have a cult following. That’s what I love about indie gaming: even the most seemingly forgotten games can be honored with a modern homage. One that presumably improves the mechanics of the original. Because I look at videos of Firestriker and can’t imagine it must have been as good as Strikey Sisters is. Then again, Strikey Sisters does a lot wrong too. Not since Dead Cells has an indie taken me on the type of ride it has. For every moment of jubilation, there was a moment or two of annoyance and rough design. But, as my “best brick breaker I’ve ever played” label already spoiled, not in a way that’s a deal breaker. The steps Strikey takes forward are larger strides than the relatively tiny steps it took backwards. It provided me with a unique way I can explore why Strikey Sisters worked for me while also underachieving.

STEP FORWARD: Strikey Sisters realizes the potential Arkanoid strived for and, in my opinion, failed to achieve in 1986. Arkanoid wanted to actionize the foundation laid by Breakout, providing paddle upgrades, unique brick layouts, and weapons. But Arkanoid’s gameplay was still slow. Enemies had no effect on the paddle. Items of actual value were rare (especially the highly desirable laser that lets you fire upon blocks and enemies). And the physics were married to that of Breakout’s. Arkanoid wasn’t an action game. It was always about the bricks.

Strikey Sisters is about the action, with the brick breaking being the framing device to deliver that action. There’s more enemies, and the enemies always drop items when killed. Almost all the items are useful to some degree in any given situation. DYA Games also confirmed to me they rigged the physics a bit so that the ball couldn’t get caught in repeating loops, like many brick breakers before it. Also, stages in Strikey don’t end when you smash the last brick. Instead, enemies constantly respawn until the last brick is broken, at which point the respawning stops and stages end when the last enemy is defeated. It’s a very clever mechanic that assures stages retain intensity even as the screen starts to clear, and finishing levels feels satisfying and cathartic.

STEP BACKWARDS: The action can be too intense at times. All enemies are wired to march closer to the the character (who functionally serves as the paddle). While this assures that even if your ball is caught in an unplayable trajectory, you won’t be stuck waiting forever to finish stages, it also results in some of the worst crowding I’ve seen in a brick breaker. Ultimately, this is still a brick breaker and your primary survival objective is to keep the ball in play. But as enemies close in, you have less room to play the ball. It often devolves the action into hacky-slashy button mashing just to clear the enemies out in front of you or batter the ball back and forth trying to keep it in play. I get that the enemies closing in 100% assures stages don’t overstay their welcome, but maybe some other solution was needed, like not having the enemies march towards you until all the bricks were cleared, or 90% of them, or something. I wanted to pepper spray the game at times for violating my space, but I’m not sure it would actually work. It’d probably void my warranty too.

The boss battles vary wildly in difficulty. It usually comes down to if their attacks involve crowding the paddle or not. I actually lost more lives attempting to use the Zelda-like charge shot and having the ball ricochet out of playable range than I did from direct attacks. Easily so. It’s not even close, really.

STEP FORWARD: You don’t even need the ball to clear out enemies or bricks. Because every enemy drops an item, and because enemies are designed to move closer to you, you’ll constantly have a chance at picking up items that can be shot at bricks or at further away enemies. It’s another example of a concept that Arkanoid invented being fully realized. Many brick breakers have items that can clear out blocks besides the ball. No game has as many chances to do it as Strikey Sisters. While it isn’t completely immune to what I call Last Mother Fuckin’ Brick Syndrome™, it never devolves into a slog trying to get that last brick or last enemy. Probably the smartest design choice was allowing you to attack enemies directly with your sword, without needing an item to do it. For all the times I’d whine about the bottom of the screen being clogged up, I’d just as often welcome enemies like they were coming to liberate me from the oppression of boredom.

STEP BACKWARDS: The ball’s physics can be downright wonky at times. Sometimes it can end up on a nearly 90° horizontal trajectory after bouncing off an enemy. Sometimes it’ll be bouncing one direction on a thin trajectory and then change directions bouncing off solid blocks for absolutely no reason. It’s especially bizarre because the collision detection is so unremarkable that it’s a non-factor, and yet I have to believe something very weird is happening with the detection for the ball to just abruptly change course. Also, compounding this is the occasional enemy or boss that can alter the course of the ball by doing a ground-pound, which I swear to Christ, always seemed to make the ball go flatly horizontal and thus breaking the game’s flow horribly.

Something that never occurred to me until just now: the sword never gets bigger. The surface area you can cover never grows at all. You never gain the ability to directly control the ball. Really, that type of stuff would’ve been the most obvious items to include and it’s ballsy that it wasn’t done. No pun intended.

STEP FORWARD: Those same wonky physics benefit the player just as often as they annoy, allowing you to clear out enemies that are crowding the paddle or unleash spells on blocks or enemies on the other side of the screen. It’s about 50/50 on the benefit/annoyance scale, really. And all the items feel powerful. Plus, you can use your charge shot to deflect enemy projectiles back at them, either killing them or breaking any bricks they hit. Some bosses feel like they’re built specifically around batting their own attack back at them. It never gets old, either. It’s always satisfying to return their fire. Well, at least when it hits.

STEP BACKWARDS: Strikey Sisters is deceptively difficult. I was playing the game on easy, with unlimited lives, and still had to replay levels and especially bosses all the time. Losing track of the ball is an occupational hazard, especially when enemies start to fire round projectiles roughly the size of the ball. Glowy ones, or fire ones (and the ball can turn into a fireball with the right item). You’re given a charge move with your sword straight out of Zelda, but you can’t use it on the ball if enemies are crowding because it’ll inevitably deflect out of play. And many enemies/bosses are capable of batting the ball back at you, meaning you often have to damage them from behind, and thus you’ll rely on lucky shots instead of skill shots to take them out. While no brick breaker has ever empowered players to the degree Strikey Sisters does, where you frequently end levels in an explosive, satisfying way, I also had moments of glory muted with the knowledge that I got really lucky. Luck factors in a bit too much.

Some of the levels are practically designed for the ball to get caught up in a shallow trajectory that all but removes it from the action. Also, there’s apparently no bonus or use for the coins besides needing to get X amount of them each stage to trigger the appearances of chests. There’s tons of unlockables like levels, artwork, cut scenes, etc that mostly unlock upon beating the game. Maybe the coins should have been used for a store that exclusively unlocks the bonus material. I’d cared a little more about getting them for something like that. By the end of the game, I put as much consideration into them as I did in bending over to pick up change on the sidewalk. By the way, my rule for that is “only for dimes or higher.” If I throw my back out, I think people in the emergency room would laugh at me if I said I did it stooping over to pick up a penny or a nickel. A dime, I feel, would be met with understanding nods and approval.

STEP FORWARD: All of that is done to keep Strikey Sisters at a fast-tempo. Let’s face it: brick breakers are, by nature, slow. Even 2009’s Shatter, probably the high-water mark for the genre up to this point, can be really sloggy at times. When the action slows down in Strikey Sisters, sometimes you welcome it just because you can fucking stop to breathe. Even the relatively tame early stages have players constantly doing stuff besides simply batting a ball back and forth. A brick breaker, at its worse, is just Pong designed for single-player. Which makes sense. Breakout was created because Nolan Bushnell mandated a single-player Pong. Great. But, gaming has come a long ways since Pong. It’s come all the way since Pong. Even your Arkanoids, your Shatters, or indie takes on the genre like Wizorb make the mistake of having their games be focused on knocking out the bricks. But we’ve done that shit for over forty years now. Strikey Sisters is the first brick breaker that figured out how to make the genre relevant to today’s gamers: move that shit to the background. It’s not what you do, but how you do it. Make the “doing it” part fun. It’s a brick breaker, but it’s an action game first. That’s so smart.

STEP BACKWARDS: There’s lots of annoying little things Strikey Sister does (or doesn’t do) that annoy the shit out of me. I got a 98% completion of the map, but I had no clue where the 2% I’m missing was at. Each brick you break drops a coin. Collecting X amount of coins in each stage spawns chests. One chest has a green emerald in it. The other has a card which you can throw at an enemy, capturing them Pokeball-style. Only, all that does is add them to your Bestiary. It would have been neat if you could have used those enemies. I think they probably planned something like that and had to abandon it, since there’s so much emphasis on the capture stuff that goes nowhere. Finally, some stages have a key that opens up extra-pathways on the map. Apparently I missed a single key that opened up one meaningless, inconsequential extra stage along the way. It took me a while to figure out which bare spot on the map I could probably access if I got a key. Now, I’m the proud owner of my first total 100% completion in a long time as part of a game I did for Indie Gamer Chick.

Booyah! Fucked this game up!

STEP FORWARD: Seriously, I can’t stress enough how much stuff is packed into this $10 game. You get an extensive “quest” that took me around six gameplay hours to finish. There’s a lot of stuff to collect, hidden levels to unlock, monsters to catalog (though you can semi-cheat the Bestiary by hitting a creature with a card and then quitting to the map without finishing the stage and it’ll still count). As if that’s not enough, upon beating the game there’s sixty bonus levels thrown into the menu just for shits and giggles. And you might actually not be burned out on Strikey Sisters by time those bonus levels come into play. That I actually wanted to get 100% of the map, emeralds, and enemies captured is so rare these days for me. But I couldn’t get enough of Strikey Sisters. It’s just plain fun. From start to finish. Every frustration, every moment of annoyance, completely trumped by how fun it is. This is a very good game.

For all the issues it has, everything just comes together so well. Hell, the game has deliberately badly acted 90s style voice overs. Seriously, it’s actually promoted as being “cheesy” in the game’s features on the official sales page for it. Being bad on purpose isn’t funny. It’s awkward. But the actual humor in the dialog with its cringey delivery does typically land. How? What the fuck? How did you not totally shit the bed, Strikey Sisters? You’re based on a Super Nintendo game nobody has even thought about in twenty-five years. You have terrible acting. You have a disjointed map that circumvents proper difficulty scaling. The action can become an unmanageable clutsterfuck of confusion and cheap deaths. All in a genre that should be so done-for that even the strongest smelling salts in the world couldn’t bring it out of its coma.

I should note that there’s a co-op mode. The issue is my playing partners are either not into indies or are unwilling to play most genres. BUT, I want to note that there’s two balls in co-op, and players take damage if either ball is missed. That’s a really bad design choice because the game gets insanely chaotic. There should have been two uniquely-colored balls and damage specific to the player the ball belongs to.

And yet, here we are. Strikey Sisters is one of the best indies I’ve ever played. Another wonderful 2019 Switch-console exclusive like Q-Yo Blaster that’s probably fated to plummet quickly into indie oblivion due to an uninspired name and unattractive box art. A game will inevitably be awarded my You Heartless Bastards Award (given to great games that nobody buys) because most people reading this will never give it a chance. But, for what it’s worth, I love you Strikey Sisters. Now figure out a way to sell a million copies so the titular sisters can make a cameo in Smash Bros. I want to see Marie talk shit on Solid Snake and get Elene throwing hands with Ness. Like, I need this in my life. Please.

Strikey Sisters was developed by DYA Games
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$7.99 (normally $9.99) said “the things we do for our pets” in the making of this review.

Strikey Sisters is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

IGC Retro Odyssey: Atari Flashback Classics (Switch)

For the IGC Retro Odyssey concept, I have members of Indie Gamer Team set a target for me, where if I find that many games in a retro compilation compelling enough to play further, the set wins my Seal of Approval. For Atari Flashback Classics, the target number was 50 out of 150, or 33.3%. The actual set finished with..

Fourteen approved. Or 9.3%.

Maybe that was to be expected. I cut my teeth in the PS1/N64 era of gaming. The two most important games of my rearing were Crash Bandicoot and Banjo-Kazooie. Comparatively, most Atari 2600 era games would barely qualify as mini-games even then. I’m sure my opinions on these relics will infuriate the generations that came before me, but remember: nothing bad I say here undoes the historical contributions of Atari or its games. If you genuinely enjoy playing these “classics” today, I’m happy for you. But these games need to be evaluated on their own merit, without historic context, because they’re commercially sold today to gamers of all ages. Games between 29 to 47 years old. Where even the newest commercially-released game (which came out after I was born, I had no idea such games existed for the 2600) is still a game developed for a console that came out in 1977. These games were never meant to still be fun forty-years later. The test of time isn’t fair, but it still happens anyway.

Hell, Atari Flashback Classics is LOADED with games that didn’t even get the test of the present. Maze Invaders is a cancelled arcade game where you play as a drunken Lolo and plays like a cross of Wizard of Wor and Ladybug. It’s terrible, but in an endearing way, like listening to elderly basketball players bitch about the three-point line.

Arcade games are a little more future proof, and that makes sense when you think about it. They’re not something you purchase for the sake of enjoying at home. They were made for route operators or arcade owners to generate ongoing revenue. Companies who made games that quickly went obsolete, ending the lifespan of what should be a long-term investment, would be unlikely to get further business from operators. So the games had to be fun enough to generate revenue for a couple years.

That shows with Atari Flashback Collection. Thirty-two of the titles included are coin-operated games. I liked six of them: Asteroids Deluxe, Black Widow, Lunar Lander, Pool Shark, Red Baron, and Space Duel. One of those, Pool Shark, I’ll admit was a guilty pleasure. The concept is beyond stupid: you play as a cue-ball, and you simply move around a pool table pocketing the other balls. That’s it. It’s so dumb, but it also made me giggle in just how desperate it is. Also, it’s sort of funny because growing up a little girl who had a pool table in her home, I used to “play pool” by just rolling the cue-ball at the other balls with no rhyme or reason besides trying to pocket them. That someone took THAT, a six-year-old’s version of billiards, and made it into a video game.. I can’t help but wonder if creator Michael Albaugh (who was with Atari from 1976 – 2000) had a similar experience to mine. I can’t argue with a straight face that Pool Shark is a good game, but I had fun with it. That’s all that should matter.

By the way, Pool Shark was a complete failure. Operators hated it. Very few units were ever made. I can’t imagine why.

Other games in the set should have been good, but were let-down by poor translations of their unique arcade control schemes. Crystal Castles is one of the better games to come out of the Pac-Man craze, but you can’t replace a trackball with the Switch touch-screen, or even the analog stick. It’s just not the same, and can’t hold a candle to the original. Even with adjustable controls, the bear moved like he had just taken a Belushi-sized speedball, which practically renders the game unplayable (I called it Crystal Meth Castles). Every trackball game suffers this fate. While playing the set, I realized the only way you could do a proper home-version on consoles is to do a bundle that includes replicas of the arcade controls. Which, by the way, would be worth the price. People who actually give a shit about historical accuracy (and I do) would pay the difference. Tempest isn’t Tempest without a turbo spinner. Missile Command isn’t Missile Command without a trackball (weirdly enough, the Atari 2600 port plays MUCH better and was one of eight home games I liked in the collection). In fact, in only one game with unique controls, Lunar Lander, did the touch-screen controls feel like they were a suitable replacement for the original. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe the games wouldn’t have stood up anyway. But at least they would have had a better chance. I know for a fact Crystal Castles is better than this, but my rule for IGC Retro Odyssey is I can only evaluate the games as they’re commercially available for modern platforms. The only version of Crystal Castles you can buy for consoles now is bear-ly playable. See what I did there?

This is Red Baron, which does hold up relatively well. It’s not amazing or anything, but it was the game that convinced George Lucas to sign a deal with Atari. So there’s that.

This issue carries over to the Atari 2600 and 5200 games that used unique controllers. For the Atari 5200, forget about it. Every game included with it either controls poorly or is overall a shoddy release. The ports of Millipede and Asteroids were so bad that I was honestly embarrassed for the company. The company that basically no longer exists, but still, they were pretty fucking shameful. Take a look at the 2600 version of Millipede (which I didn’t like overall, but hey, it’s pretty Millipede-like in terms of gameplay if not graphics)..

And now compare that to the Atari 5200 port, made for a significantly more advanced console (and mind you, this game cost nearly $100 in 2019 dollars back in the day)..

Genuinely repulsive. Only the most shallow, vain ignoramus would trade good graphics for good gameplay. Then again, Atari was run by Ray Kassar..

As for the 2600, unfortunately some sacred all-time games didn’t exactly hold up today. Adventure is probably the most famous of the lot that I had to fail. Despite the set being able to “eliminate” the infamous Atari flicker, Adventure still has blinking issues. Additionally, sometimes the Dragon spawns in a way you can’t hope to run away from. Sometimes you can maroon items in a way where you can’t reach them. And it’s just plain dull compared to modern games that I can’t simply vanish the knowledge that they exist from my mind. Honestly, I think I would have been bored with Adventure even if I had been born back then. It’s just such a nothing game.

Duck Duck GOOSE, mother fucker!

Weirdly enough, two of the eight home console games I enjoyed in this set never actually came out. Both Saboteur (which almost got reskinned as A*Team) and Save Mary (by Tod Frye, programmer of the infamous dumpster fire Pac-Man 2600) had more going for them than a typical Atari game. Well, fine, Save Mary is another “glorified mini-game” type of deal, but it’s a cool one. A woman is in the bottom of a well that’s filling up with water. You have to drop boxes that she can stand on. It’s very clever. It’s also the Duke Nukem Forever of its time. It spent years in development (Frye was probably only part-time by then, and the game was developed by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell’s Axlon), underwent multiple renditions, and ultimately never was completed in its original state. Still, Bushnell himself apparently called it his favorite Atari 2600 game. Meanwhile, Saboteur is cut from the Yar’s Revenge cloth. At heart, it’s a simple shooter, but dressed up slightly better.

Speaking of Yars, it was my favorite home game in the set. It actually held up relatively well, although there’s only two screens. It’s the one and only game in the entire collection I wish had more going for it, because the concept had legs and I would have felt compelled to continue on its own gameplay merits. A home-brew sequel is included in the collection, but it’s really just a glorified ROM hack that moves the action to the center of the screen and feels like Yars’ Revenge as played through a fun-house mirror. Again, ignore the way its advertised as a completely unique game. It’s a ROM hack, and nothing more. There’s a few of those included. Adventure II is a ROM hack of Adventure. Haunted House (the first video game to ever give me a seizure, which happened when my father bought me an early version of the Atari Flashback plug-and-play as a novelty gift before I started IGC) gets a sequel called Return to Haunted House, which is another Adventure ROM hack. Meanwhile, other un-released games included are Combat Two (which is so bad that it’s practically broken) and the 2600 version of Tempest that isn’t even finished and looks like it takes place on Skeletor’s underwear.

I hated the almost the entire Atari experience, but I did learn some things. I learned that Atari’s reputation of having poor arcade translations is total bullshit. Space Invaders isn’t included (given that it was THE killer app that sold the system, come on AtGames: cut a fucking check to include it), but I’ve played the 2600 port and it’s very close to the arcade experience. Asteroids is in the set, and the 2600 version I liked more than the arcade version (others pointed out you can cheese it and not even try, which might be true but I didn’t really explore it). Missile Command is stripped down, simplified, and better on the 2600 than in the arcade version (that might owe to the crappy control translation for the arcade version). Granted, that’s not always the case. Home versions of Crystal Castles, Pong (which has invincible AI), and Warlords are disgraceful. But still, if I were a kid in the 80s who was into Centipede, I don’t think I’d hate the game I got for the Atari 2600 if that was my only home option.

Don’t let the 150 game count fool you though. A lot of the games are stuff nobody in their right mind could want to play today. Educational games like Basic Math, board games like Backgammon or Checkers, and lots of sports games pad out the game count. Some of them are neat as curios. I came very close to saying “yes” to a bizarre one-on-one baseball game called Home Run that was such a desperate, god-awful attempt at doing baseball early in the 2600’s life-cycle (before the file sizes crept up) that you can’t help but admire it. It’s actually kind of playable too. In a silly, I’m laughing at you and not with you type of way. On the flip side of that, there’s stuff like Golf or Miniature Golf, both of which I think would have to be on the list of worst games I’ve ever played in my entire life.

About ten years ago, my Dad bought me a MAME panel, fully-loaded, off Ebay. Seven buttons per a player. Authentic arcade parts. It’s very nice. And I bring that panel up because included on its surface is a turbo spinner that exists just to play Tempest. That’s how important that spinner is to the Tempest experience: an arcade panel that cost close to $1,000 has an interface just for it. (Well, it also works as a steering wheel too, and it’s not like I’ve played all 12,000+ games I have for MAME so there might be other spinner-based games). No amount of controller adjustments to the Switch Joycons or alternative controllers (I tried a Pro and GameCube controller) can make up for the speed-of-light accuracy of the turbo spinner.

Really, there’s easily under 100 games in the set that most people would actually want to at least experiment with. But experimenting is as far as you’ll probably make it. The legendary Swordquest games are included, and the comic books that the tie-in contest used are available, but the gameplay is so abstract and so anti-fun that you can completely understand how only a handful of gamers submitted the correct answers. Neat ideas, I guess, but the actual “gameplay” would boil down to variations of Avalanche or Frogger or other games that already existed. And the Frogger-like components in the Swordquest games were honestly the worst versions of Frogger I’ve ever played. The Swordquest games started as a sequel to Adventure, and not that I like Adventure, but at least it was its own thing instead of derivatives of other, better games.

That was the story for Atari Flashback Classics to me: lots of ambition (sometimes. Anyone that thinks they weren’t totally phoning it in with garbage like Basic Math or Slot Machine is so drunk on nostalgia they probably vomit out chunks of Punky Brewster), lots of imagination, but no means to see it out. A lot of Atari’s staff were handicapped by things like limited storage (every single KB cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in production posts) and a cut-throat work environment where programmers cliqued-up and rarely intermingled. So yea, I hated most of the games. But, that I actually liked eight of 2600 games is kind of a miracle. I wish I could recommend the set because no collection of classic games is closer to the modern indie can-do experience.

It says Spire. IT SAYS SPIRE! That gigantic, bejeweled sword is MINE!

But I can’t. The controller translations are garbage. There’s no bonus features unless you count unreleased games (which I’m not) or instruction books. There’s online leaderboards, but only for the arcade games, and online leaderboards for terrible games is like putting garnish on a plate of shit. And there’s a lot of missing games. Why isn’t Battlezone on this set? Why couldn’t they spring the extra money and include Activision games? I mean, this is a $40 game. That ain’t cheap, and these games have such limited play value that you need as many reasons to buy as possible. I’m guessing Activision’s 2600 games haven’t aged that much better than Atari ones, but I can’t know until I play them. The only third-party games included are M Network games, and they all aged badly too. Really, this set just feels incomplete and cheap. Not as cheap as Flashback is on Xbox One, where the same games are broken into three sets of fifty games each and will cost you $60 to get them all. But still, the only thing keeping this from being the worst set of classic games I’ve ever played is the fact that I own Dragon’s Lair Trilogy.

INDIE GAMER CHICK RETRO-APPROVED RANKINGS

Arcade
1. Lunar Lander
2. Space Duel
3. Black Widow
4. Red Baron
5. Asteroids Deluxe
6. Pool Shark

Atari 2600/5200
1. Yar’s Revenge
2. Save Mary
3. Fatal Run
4. Saboteur
5. Combat
6. Bowling
7. Asteroids (2600 version)
8. Missile Command (2600 version)

Total Games: 150
IGC Goal: 50
IGC Approved: 14
**SET FAILS**

Atari Flashback Classics was developed by AtGames
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$39.99 just lost points with the senior demographic in the making of this review.

The same game is $19.99 on Vita. Same collection. Switch Tax!! Ba na na na na na na na SWITCH TAX! Yes, I just sang the Batman 60s theme but replaced the words “Bat” and “Man” with “Switch” and “Tax.”

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