Adventures of Lolo, Aesop’s Garden, and Crystal Hunters
May 4, 2012 11 Comments
Update: Crystal Hunters is now 80 Microsoft Points.
For the first time, I’m doing a multi-review with games from different developers. This is because both of today’s titles, Aesop’s Garden and Crystal Hunters, are new takes on a classic NES game called The Adventures of Lolo, a game 82 days older than me. It actually was released on the Wii’s Virtual Console back in 2007, but I was in the middle of a World of Warcraft bender that year and missed it. I’ve dealt with a lot of clones over the last month, and my attempt at playing a game that I had no reference point on (Boulder Dash clone Gems N Rocks) left me feeling a bit weird. Yes, I do believe a game should be able to stand on its own, but if a game sets out to pay tribute to a classic, you should also measure it against the original. Was True Grit a fantastic movie because it was a remake, or in spite of it? Would anyone have known how truly awful Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes was without the Charlton Heston original? Would New Coke have caught on if people didn’t have the classic formula to compare it to?
In that spirit, let’s compare these three games.
All three games are action-logic puzzlers where you must collect a set number of things in a room that open an exit. In Lolo, it’s hearts. In Aesop, it’s weeds. In Crystal Hunters, it’s crystals. In Lolo and Crystal, the items are in plain sight, and it’s up to you to figure out how to safely reach them. In Aesop, the weeds have not yet sprouted. You have to first turn on a sprinkler. This is because the rival of the main character wanted to ruin his chances of winning some kind of gardening contest, so he went around planting weeds. Good lord, that’s spiteful. I mean, it could have been more so. The guy could have salted the ground so that nothing would ever grow back. Besides that, there’s 50 levels in this game, so how big exactly is this plot of property that Aesop has? It’s hard to feel bad for the guy when he owns so much land that you can almost call it a kingdom. At least it beats “guy just wants to get a lot of crystals” or “monster kidnaps girlfriend, presumably so he can fuck her.” What do all these evil monsters want with princesses? With all the inbreeding that takes place among royalty, they can’t be THAT good in the sack.
Lolo and its offspring play like more actiony-versions of Sokoban, the crate-shoving puzzle genre that has been reviewed a few times here at Indie Gamer Chick with titles such as Puzzled Rabbit or HACOTAMA. The difference in these games are the addition of enemies, firepower, and environment-based puzzles. In Lolo, there’s a handful of enemies that are all carefully integrated into each level. Some of them chase you, some of them shoot fireballs at you, and others remain stationary but kill you if you cross their path. These are called “Medusas” and they are also found in both Aesop’s Garden and Crystal Hunters, albeit as scarecrows and evil treasure-chest-things that zap you like you’re a Nazi watching the opening of the Ark of the Convenient.
In Lolo, you often have to use enemies to your advantage. In some rooms, the hearts you collect give you two shots. If you shoot an enemy, it turns into an egg for a few moments. You can then shove it into place and use it as a block, or push it in the water and use it as a temporary bridge. If you shoot an enemy a second time, it dies, but it will respawn. In other rooms, you might collect the ability to create a bridge or smash a rock. Aesop’s Garden has a feature similar to the hammer. At the halfway point in the game, carrots are introduced to summon hungry rabbits that destroy all walls in whatever line you’re standing in.
Both Lolo and Aesop’s Garden rely much more on trial and error than Crystal Hunters. In that game, crystals that give you shots are red instead of blue. In Lolo, only some hearts give you shots, and there is nothing that distinguishes them from normal hearts. In Aesop, you’re never sure where exactly weeds will sprout up. It’s never too annoying, and both games allow you to commit suicide with the select button if you fuck up. If you die in Crystal, it doesn’t take you back to the beginning of the stage, but rather to the last point you were safe, which is a cool feature. It would have come in handy in Lolo and Aesop for sure. Fuck ups there usually resulted in me dropping cyanide. Lame. If I was the hero in a puzzle game and I had to kill myself, I would totally go with seppuku.
This is where all three games stumble, as the control is not so smooth in any title. It’s never bad enough to be a deal breaker, but it will lead to some very aggravating moments. Lolo probably plays the best, which is appropriate given that it’s the only game that was made by professionals. Still, the controls in it felt a little loose. Whether I was using a standard Wii remote or the classic controller, I would often push blocks one half-space too far, necessitating a suicide. This led to me heel-toeing it one tap of the D-Pad at a time whenever I moved a block around. This wasn’t always an option. If you’re moving an egg, you only have a few seconds before it hatches and whatever enemy you’re pushing is frozen in place. Or maybe you’re being chased that by an enemy. Or both. In the later stages, the game demands precision movement from a controller that is anything but precise.
Aesop’s Garden is even worse. The controls feel very loose, which is partially to blame on the crappy D-Pad of the Xbox. Using the stick is no use, because it doesn’t have proper analog control. I have the silver, transforming D-Pad and even it wasn’t satisfactory. This led to multiple instances of steering off from a straight line and into the path of a scarecrow, shoving blocks to far, or in boss fights, steering myself right into the path of a projectile. It never felt quite right, and that did hurt the game.
Crystal Hunters is hurt by the game’s lack of movement parameters. In Lolo and Aesop, you move one half-space at a time, using the background to guide you. In Crystal Hunters, it’s not always clear how far you’re moving, because the game doesn’t have a “grid” feel to it like the other two do. The background doesn’t draw out spaces for you, so you’re kind of left to your own judgement, which can often be unreliable. I ended up going back to the heel-toe method of block shoving, but like Lolo, that’s not always an option here either. Sometimes enemies will be chasing you, or sometimes you’ll be moving a tree-stump and have to rush it to the spot it belongs in before it puts its roots down. In the later stages, this can be maddening. The lack of parameters also gets annoying as more Wind Waker-like light beam reflecting puzzles are incorporated, all of which require nothing short of perfect movement from an imperfect control scheme.
If there was one word I could use to describe all three games, it would be “smart.” In the case of Lolo, it’s a game made by Hal studios, the guys who later went on to make the Kirby series, Earthbound, and Smash Bros. They obviously have their shit together. Aesop’s Garden and Crystal Hunters were developed by amateur game designers, so you wouldn’t expect such a degree of sophistication from them. Then again, I wouldn’t have expected that from games like Alien Jelly or Escape Goat either. It never fails to surprise me how clever some Xbox Live Indie Game developers can be. Both games have absolutely stellar puzzle design, so much so that it actually rivals the game that inspired them. At times, they can feel a bit sprawling, especially Crystal Hunters, but it never feels like busy work. The only game I can toss a complaint at is Aesop’s Garden, which throws boss fights into the mix that are annoying, given the crappy control scheme.
What I love best about any puzzle game is that “ta da!” moment where, after staring at the screen for ten minutes, you finally figure out the solution. The difficulty of all three games here ramps up as you go along (something that Indie Gamer Chick favorite Escape Goat doesn’t do), which leads to many of those moments. I crave those like a junkie craves smack. They top an awesome headshot in a shooter, a come-from-behind victory in a sports game, or a leveling-up victory in an RPG. For my money, nothing else in gaming tops that feeling of achievement.
I know a lot of readers come here for the spectacle of a bad game getting trashed by me. I realize this wasn’t my funniest of reviews, but don’t worry, I’m sure a crappy zombie game can’t be too far off in the distance. If you come here looking to read about good games, I’ve got three right here for you. At 22 years of age, I missed the NES era and never had a chance to play Lolo. If you’re around my age, you probably missed it too. Or maybe you were one of those weird families that owned a Sega Master System instead of an NES. Either way, it’s worth your $5. For fans of the game already out there, don’t go back and replay it. Nothing about it has changed in the 23 years since its release. But, there are two brand new Xbox Live Indie Games that will satisfy your Lolo-cravings. Both Aesop’s Garden and Crystal Hunters are what you’re looking for, and they’re a bargain and $3 a pop. Yea, I probably could nit-pick them a little more. Like how Crystal Hunters has a completely needless time-system tacked on, presumably to add replay value. Why did they even bother? The fun in these games comes from solving a puzzle and moving on to the next. Once it’s solved, it’s done. You don’t expect replay from crossword puzzle books, so why should you expect replay from a logic puzzle in a video game? Just finish it and be happy. Yea, the controls are crippled, but you feel like a genius, so who cares? It’s just like being Stephen Hawking!
500 Wii Points (Adventures of Lolo) and 240 Microsoft Points apiece (Aesop’s Garden and Crystal Hunters) had to remind Kairi that getting frustrated and banging her head the coffee table was probably not the best way to keep the amount of brain cells needed to play these games in the making of this review.