Dragon’s Lair Trilogy v Sega Genesis Classics (IGC Retro Bowl I)

Welcome to the first IGC Retro Bowl. Here’s the idea: two classic game collections will be pitted head-to-head with each other in a variety of categories. Whichever game wins the most wins and moves on to face the next challenger. The loser takes their seat somewhere on the IGC Retro Board, which is like the Leaderboard but for Retro Collections instead of indies. That’s coming soon.

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, this is the first feature in IGC history where I’m not paying for every game featured. These are not indie games, and I really can’t justify buying games that were not remotely aimed at me. Some of these were supplied by fans who wanted me to experience (or suffer) through the games of their childhood. Others have been supplied by the companies themselves. I’ve also bought a few for myself and will continue to buy others if this feature takes off.

What collections to look forward to for IGC Retro Bowl? Here’s what I already have for it, and I expect to get more:

  • Rare Replay
  • Midway Origins
  • SNK 40th Anniversary Collection
  • NES Classic Edition
  • SNES Classic Edition
  • Capcom Arcade Cabinet
  • Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle
  • Atari Flashback Classics (Switch version)
  • Mega Man Legacy Collection
  • Mega Man Legacy Collection 2
  • Disney Afternoon
  • Namco Museum Arcade Pac

And of course, today’s contenders..

IN THIS CORNER
Dragon’s Lair Trilogy
$19.99 for Nintendo Switch
3 arcade games released between 1983 – 1991
Game supplied by a fan.

IN THE OTHER CORNER
Sega Genesis Classics
$29.99 for Switch, PlayStation 4, & Xbox One
53 console games released between 1988 – 1997 (51 on Switch)
Game supplied by Sega.

I hate FMV games. I’m getting that chiseled on my tombstone. Dragon’s Lair wasn’t the first FMV game. Funny enough, Sega barely beat them to the market with Astron Belt, even though work on it was done much sooner than Dragon’s Lair. But while Astron Belt bombed so badly that you’ve probably never heard of it, Dragon’s Lair went on to become a bonafide legend. It’s still fondly remembered today. I had barely played it at all before a fan bought it for me for this feature and really didn’t understand it. But, I go into every game with as open a mind as humanly possible, and this was no exception.

As for the Genesis, it had NOTHING to do with my childhood. My father insisted he did own a Genesis, and eventually we did find one in the attic. It had two games (Altered Beast and Super Monaco GP) and looked like it had barely been touched. My gaming upbringing really didn’t begin until the PlayStation 1 in 1996. Funny enough, the oldest game released in this set came out in North America a year after I got my PS1. Anyway, I’m known for shitting on Sega games, Sonic especially. So imagine my surprise when Sega actually sent me a code (initially from my friend/surrogate little brother Jon). When I finally spoke to them, I was fully open that I wasn’t the biggest fan. But they were smart enough to know that it didn’t matter if I was. Once my fans saw I was playing the set, they’d find out it existed at all and rush out to buy it. And they did. Sega’s message to me was essentially “sock it to us.” Which is pretty much what happened. And my older readers responded by buying the set OUT OF SPITE for me. Sega: they’re smart cookies.

And so, for our first every IGC Retro Bowl, we’re going to pit these two collections featuring games I have no nostalgia for against each other. Which will soar and which will sink?

Yea, this is a tremendous waste of time. Dragon’s Lair has about as much chance as no-armed golfer using his mouth to swing the club at Augusta. But work with me here.

PRESENTATION

Sega Genesis Classics’ menu is themed like a typical 90s child’s bedroom. Well, an idealized, borderline fantasy one. It’s too clean, among other things. Games are displayed on a wooden rack. You can move the games you enjoy into their own section, which is a nice feature. Selecting games sees them inserted into the Genesis. You can even eject the carts afterwards. There’s a huge variety of options to run the emulation too. Of course, it kind of sucks that sometimes the emulator shits the bed, especially displaying text in games like the Phantasy Star and Shining Force titles.

I questioned on Twitter whether children of the 90s really would have a record player. Most people said yea, they would. I still find that hard to believe but they insist. Guess it’s true.

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy has a much fewer options. You can display the games with or without an arcade cabinet. You can turn on and off the movements guides. Turning them off is something only the most sadomasochistic person would ever consider. But really, the most noteworthy aspect is how bad figuring out what’s highlighted on the menus can be. Take a look here and tell me which of the two options is selected?

Believe it or not, CONTINUE is what’s selected right now. I have no clue why they decided to make the duller color the cursor, but they did. And that combines with other issues. There’s no language options, which is weird because you’re watching a movie. I mean, sorta. And while the extra features are nice (more on them later), you can’t skip to different parts of the interview, nor can you rewind or fast forward. You either watch it all at once or not at all. Lame.
Edge: Sega Genesis Classics

HISTORIC IMPORTANCE

Dragon’s Lair is slightly more than a weird anomaly. In 1983, it received the largest order for units in the history of the Chicago Coin convention. It shattered every previous record, by some accounts securing more orders than all other games at the show combined. That order was for $10,000,000. That’s in 1983 dollars, or over $30,000,000 in today’s dollar. For an arcade game. Granted, Dragon’s Lair cost between 3 to 5 times as much as other games did, but still, it’s pretty noteworthy. And that investment did pay off for arcade operators. Arcades were starting to decline, but Dragon’s Lair brought players back and kept them there. Even being the first upright game to charge $0.50 a play didn’t deter gamers.

In a set based on an anomaly, Space Ace is itself an anomaly. Of the three, I think it has the best story and best animation. It certainly has the highest potential to become a property with actual value today. Besides, it’s about emasculating a dude-bro. I heard that’s topical today.

For a few months at least. What Dragon’s Lair really did was attract a crowd to arcades so they could check out the latest titles from other manufacturers. Dragon’s Lair was neat to watch, but players quickly caught on that it wasn’t really interactive. You had no control over Dirk the Daring and once the novelty wore off, so did Dragon Lair’s use. It didn’t help the machines were prone to breaking down. No game from its era displayed “out of order” signs more than Dragon’s Lair. When Space Ace came along, the boom was even briefer. Funny enough, Dragon’s Lair was so uncommon by 1991 that Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp also very briefly caused an arcade resurgence. And once again, the same thing happened: fans quickly caught on that it was a horrible game and moved on to other things. Still, people do remember it for reasons other than being shitty, and that counts for something. I had a gamer from that era tell me that Dragon’s Lair was like a bright, beautiful shooting star. Look away for even a second and you miss it completely, but everyone who saw it will never forget it.

But the historical significance of Dragon’s Lair pales in comparison to the Genesis. They’re polar opposites in terms of their trajectories. Dragon’s Lair made a major impact immediately and then fizzled out quickly. The Genny arrived with little fanfare and support. Gamers of the time wanted to wait on the next new Nintendo console. But then an incredible marketing campaign (Genesis Does What NintenDon’t), an aggressive free-game for early adopters program, competitive pricing and the arrival of Sonic T. Hedgehog turned around the fortunes of the console. By time the SNES launched, the Genesis was legitimate competition for it, and that carried on for the entire generation. The Master System flopped. The Saturn flopped. The Dreamcast, regretfully, flopped. Sega still carries clout and reverence to this day, and the main reason for that is the Genesis.
Major Edge: Sega Genesis Classics

 

Oh my God, Genny fans will hate me for this: I actually liked Toejam & Earl 2 more than the original, which I didn’t like at all. I think the idea for TJ&E was great and this was a case of being ahead of its time. “The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak” type of deal based on the limitations of the Genesis. That’s why I’m excited for the upcoming reboot. It’s going to be what the original wanted to be and wasn’t.

BEST AND WORST GAMES

I blitzed through all fifty-one games in the Switch port of Genny Classics over a two-day period. Twenty of those games got a more in-depth look from me afterwards. But during that initial blitz, only one of the games had me so sucked in that I couldn’t put it down until the credits rolled. That game was Gunstar Heroes. I’d heard the stories of course, but most titles from that era that carry the legend of John Henry’s hammer never live up to their towering reputation. With Gunstar, I was so awed by the marvelous gameplay that I literally started to cry in euphoric elation. It was so fun. I couldn’t believe a game that good was in a collection that had so underwhelmed me up to that point. Not only does it hold up today, but it should be studied by all game design students. It drops all the bullshit and focuses on fun, tight shooting gameplay. It’s one of the 25 best games ever made, and the best Genesis exclusive from its generation. It’s probably worth $29.99 on its own.

Sometimes the legends live up to their reputation.

As for the stinkers, over half the set has games that couldn’t withstand the test of time, but, nothing really stands out as abysmal. Except Sonic Spinball, which was never good for its day. Riddled with slowdown and technical issues (no surprise, it was made in only two months in order to replace Sonic 3 for a Happy Meal tie-in), the game is almost unplayable. Even then, Sonic Spinball has more gameplay at its worst moment than any of the three games in Dragon’s Lair Trilogy has. FMV games are limited in their capabilities, but I can’t let that be an excuse for just how crushingly unfun these relics are. Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp probably plays the best of the collection. It’s more clear which direction you’re supposed to press, which is something you can’t say about a few rooms in Dragon’s Lair or especially Space Ace. I preferred Space Ace to Dragon’s Lair 1 because it has a little more going on with the energize concept, but none of these anti-classics are really all that playable. Plus, they’re so prohibitively difficult that I think the average gamer will never put more than five minutes at most into any one of the three games even if they want to. They’re putrid.
Major Edge: Sega Genesis Classics

 

Dragon’s Lair II was co-written by an author whose initials are L.S.D. if you catch my drift.

EXTRAS

Hey, congratulations Dragon’s Lair Trilogy! You didn’t get shutout! Due to licensing issues, the Genny collection couldn’t include things a true museum-style collection probably ought to, like the iconic Genesis advertising. I can understand that. What I can’t understand is why things like concept art or interviews weren’t included. You do get online play and leaderboards, but I found the co-op to be laggy. There’s also “challenges” on the Switch version which stand-in for achievements from other ports. It’s a low-effort affair, with the best “special” feature being alternate region versions of games like Streets of Rage that differ sometimes in small ways and sometimes in huge ways. It’s a nice touch, one that a lot of my fans were shocked but very happy to learn about.

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy has a few bonuses. There’s a twenty-minute or so interview with Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and Rick Dyer. It’s not long, but there’s some nice info in it, including plans for a line of thirty (!) FMV games, none of which materialized. An unproduced concept, The Sea Beast and Barnacle Bill, was going to be inspired by vintage Popeye cartoons and even had a promotional flyer made. But, nah, a game based on golden age animation would never succeed.

There’s also the animatics for part of a deleted stage (complete with voice acting) from Dragon’s Lair II, attract screens, and the ability to watch the complete movies without playing them. Those tell you everything you really need to know about Dragon’s Lair: that the best extra feature is the ability to not play the game.
Major Edge: Dragon’s Lair Trilogy

 

The dude in the middle did all the work and got none of the credit. Then he went bankrupt trying to push a Laserdisc-based console. No happy endings here, anyone.

WHAT IS MISSING THE LEAST?

My first exposure to Dragon’s Lair as a franchise came at the age of 13 with the release of Dragon’s Lair 3D: Return to the Lair for Xbox and GameCube (and PS2 if you were in Europe, though I heard it was broken on that platform). When I heard the term “Dragon’s Lair Trilogy”, I honestly thought the third game was going to be that, not Space Ace. It aspired to be what people always wanted to be able to do with the original game: actually play it. With the invention of cel-shaded graphics, it was now possible to take full control over Dirk. Return to the Lair did recreate all the famous set-pieces from the arcade original, and it looked very convincing. But, the game controlled miserably, had a terrible camera, and just still wasn’t very fun. Still, at least it’s a game and not a glorified string of DVD menus. Also missing are more gamey ports of Dragon’s Lair. Data East released one for the SNES. Absolute released Space Ace for the SNES. A Dragon’s Lair III was released on Amiga computers. There’s not even a mention of them here. While getting the rights to these games might have been prohibitive, it’s regretful that there’s nothing here but the three famous laser disc games. Then again, since all these games sucked (the NES Dragon’s Lair is famous for it’s horribleness), we really aren’t missing that much. Thayer’s Quest is probably the biggest omission. It was a conversion kit for Dragon’s Lair and I assume Rick Dyer has to own the rights to it. And at least that has something resembling gameplay and interactivity. But ultimately, nothing important is missing.

The same can’t be said for Sega Genesis Classics. The Genesis was defined by its sports games, but none of those are here. Nor are celebrity games like Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. None of the three Ecco the Dolphin games are included. Sonic & Knuckles isn’t included. Sonic *3* isn’t included (apparently due to music issues). Eternal Champions isn’t included. It’s not as if these are minor omissions. These are first party Sega games that helped define the platform. Maybe they would have bumped the cost of the set up and that’s why a better effort wasn’t made to secure the rights to them. To which I say: I think most Genesis fans would have paid $10 more to have them involved. It’s not a complete set without them. Even stranger: the Switch version specifically is missing the two Wonder Boy games PS4 and XB1 owners got. Bizarre.
Edge: Dragon’s Lair Trilogy

 

Jokes aside, this would probably KILL upon solo re-release today. Someone really should get on it.

PLAY VALUE TODAY

All games are a product of their time, so perhaps the test of time is an unreasonable one. That doesn’t make it any less real. I didn’t grow up in either set’s respective eras. Their play value to me has to exist without historic context. Under those terms, at least the a few of the Sega Genesis Classics hold up reasonable well and can stand on their own merits. Besides Gunstar Heroes, I think the average gamer will still be able to enjoy games like Sonic 1 and 2 (I literally can’t believe I just said that), Alien Solider, the Streets of Rage games, the Shining Force games, and at least two of the three Phantasy Star Games included. There’s something for everyone here. And if you’re a slobbering 90s fanboy, that precious nostalgia dopamine is bound to hit even for stuff that aged especially poorly. You’ll feel like a kid again. And probably act like one too when you read how much younger people hate your childhood favorites.

A priest wants to “investigate” a bunch of children “to make sure nobody is hurt.” Well, if that’s not timeless, I don’t know what is.

I don’t think the same can be said about Dragon’s Lair Trilogy. No matter how fond your memories of it are, playing these games today is the pits. Putting aside how beautiful Don Bluth’s animation is, they have to also hold up as video games, and they don’t at all. They basically didn’t from the moment they launched. They’re frustrating, quarter-snatching slogs. Even by the low standards of FMV games, badly designed too. I can’t tell you how many times the on-screen indicator was placed in a way where it wasn’t clear if you’re supposed to move one direction or another. It forces you to use a guide that was added to this set in order to know what you’re supposed to do. The greatest irony of Dragon’s Lair and its ilk is that excelling at playing them can only be done by paying as little attention to the artwork and the storylines as possible. Only when you ignore the only possible reason you’d want to play them can they be played well. And that, above all else, makes them some of the absolute worst games ever made.
Major Edge: Sega Genesis Classics

 

WINNER
SEGA GENESIS CLASSICS

And let’s face it: it wasn’t even a fair battle. I had never played Space Ace or Dragon’s Lair II before I got this set, but having spent five minutes previously with a BluRay of Dragon’s Lair, I sort of had. I’m not taking anything away from what these games accomplished. But it’s pretty telling that most of the fondest memories from Golden Agers are not of actually playing Dragon’s Lair itself, but watching others play it on a second monitor most cabinets came with. I’m sure the visuals were mindblowing for their time. It’s not their time anymore. It stopped being their time long ago. Really, did any game lose its relevance faster during that era than Dragon’s Lair?

Sega Genesis Classics is hardly a flawless set. The lack of extras, frequent emulation issues, laggy online play, and perplexing omissions frustrate for sure. But there are games here that have value today, in 2019. More than one. I think there’s even games that initially were shit on, like Sonic 3D Blast, that are actually better than anyone gave them credit for being. Genesis Does indeed.

kuso

Welp, so much for my pledge to update daily in 2019. I did make it a week, but then dealing with the stupid epilepsy thing, running the hugely popular and scene-changing #IndieSelect, working behind the scenes as a community advocate and advisor, creating a social-media movement to help under-the-radar games to be found and played, and oh yea, I have my own game collection coming out in 2019/2020 for all consoles. With my name on it and everything. Yea, things got busy. But, my passion will always be my work as a critic. And if you want to know why, look no further than this guy.

Adorable, isn’t he?

Doesn’t he look nice? His name is Fred Wood. And he is nice. At least outwardly. But Fred has a darkness about him. We know this because he made a sadistic punisher in 2014 that was littered with blind jumps and living or dying based on pure luck. And he called it “Love” because of course he did. Look at that dude. How can such a nice person make such a cruel game? It’d be like finding out Mother Teresa moonlighted as a taxidermist. One that didn’t wait for the animals to be dead first.

Anyway, I didn’t like Love. It didn’t win the IGC Seal of Approval. But it wasn’t as if I hated it. It had one of the most clever and innovative gameplay mechanics I’d seen up to that point: the ability to place checkpoints anytime. In my book, that’s a hall-of-fame innovation right up there with the ring system in Sonic or the mushrooms causing you to grow in Super Mario. I just didn’t like the unfair level design. For me personally, I want to know that when I die in a game, it’s my fault. I knew Fred was capable of better. So I wasn’t nice to Love and I challenged Fred to step it the fuck up.

He did.

That’s why I’m a game critic. The ones that listen and improve are what makes it worth it.

Levels feel more like a series of exhibits. It’s seriously one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever felt playing a game. It almost defies description, because the levels ARE levels, but they don’t feel like any levels from any game, ever.

Kuso (I absolutely refuse to call it “kuso” with a lowercase k) is the sequel to Love, and it’s one of those rare sequels that rights every wrong with the original. There wasn’t a single blind jump, or any moments where I needed luck to survive. Oh I got lucky a few times, but raw skills could have carried me to victory. I swear. Stop staring.

I suspect I’ll be pointing at Kuso for years to come as an example on how to properly make a punisher. And yeah, that has a lot to do with the fact that Kuso is overflowing with a wide variety of obstacle types, traps, platforms, and room concepts. It never gets old or boring. That stuff matters, but the biggest reason by far is Kuso has some of the most rock-solid play control any game in the genre has. It’s a breeze to control. Movement and jumping physics feel like they were fine-tuned in laboratory conditions. I try not to use the term “perfect” because I used to believe that perfection was unobtainable. But kuso controls perfectly. I can’t stress enough how important that is. If you think of any game as a guided sight-seeing tour, controls are the tour guide. A good one allows you to appreciate everything so much more. If you get a bad one, all you can think about is how much they suck, to the point that you stop paying attention and end up giving it a half-star rating on Yelp. You’d tip your Kuso tour guide. Every death you experience.. and it will be a lot.. will be on you. And you’ll know it.

I have no clue how it pulls this off, since really the stuff that kills you is often just redrawn/reskinned versions of stuff that already killed you, but each Kuso stage feels fresh from what came before it. At least until the last few levels that serve as a montage of all the shit you just got past.

Kuso’s stages are brief and usually focused on one or two types traps. It made me feel like I was running through a series of vignettes more than levels. A weird feeling for sure. Actually, that’s what makes Kuso stand out to me. It feels different from any other game I’ve played. It even looks like the type of game that doesn’t really exist that’d you’d see the charters on a sitcom or movie playing. It’s so stereotypical that it seems unreal. Which is bizarre because it looks and plays almost exactly like Love. But Love’s level design tended to go a little off-the-rails at times, like having to jump from an above platform blindly to one far below you that had a long line of spikes with one and only one safe spot that you didn’t know where it was until you hit it. Well that’s shit design because surviving your first time will come down to luck. It’s “gotcha” gameplay. There’s NO gotcha shit in Kuso. The craftsmanship of the levels, where every single portion of them feels like it was worked and reworked until it was both challenging but fair is exemplary.

There are some complaints. Kuso is the first ever game where I feel you respawn too fast. Often death is such a surprise that you respawn while still holding the direction you were moving when you got killed, leading to you spawning and walking off a ledge and to your death. I guarantee every player will experience at least a dozen “two deaths for the price of one” moments over the course of their first play-through. And even though Kuso is longer than Love in terms of stages, the levels feel a bit shorter. Fred, cool guy that he is, included a remake of Love with Kuso’s tighter controls in the Kuso package. You can even play all 16 of Love’s stages and Kuso’s 25 stages in a row if you wish, but I still don’t love Love. Kuso is the main reason to buy this one, but it falls just short of feeling like it’s the perfect length. It’s the classic issue I’ve had all my life: having guy’s things climax before I’m ready.

I often just straight-up didn’t lay down enough checkpoints. I can’t explain why, since I’m not a speed-runner or even a particularly skilled platform player. I just felt like the game was judging me every time I threw one down. Well, actually it DOES judge you on that once you’re finished. I got an F. Thanks so much, Kuso. There goes my self-esteem.

I must really not like punishers. Because Kuso is near perfect, and yet it doesn’t carry a higher ranking on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard that a game as good as it should. It has perfect controls and, with the clever checkpoint system, is as challenging as you want it to be. With this review, Kuso debuts #13 on the board. That means it’s the thirteenth best indie game I’ve ever reviewed, and this was review #583. That’s really high up there. It’s an astonishing moment in my site’s history. But it’s also weird that a game that I’ll be pointing at as near-flawless for probably the rest of my life doesn’t go higher. Maybe for me, Kuso is the limit of what a game like this can achieve. I don’t get why people like games with high user body-counts. I’ll never understand the appeal in it. But hey, fun is fun, right? And Kuso is really fun. But Kuso still feels like it’s more about the dying, and not the surviving. Perhaps in that sense, it’s one and only flaw that matters reveals itself. SEE! I TOLD YOU FUCKERS I DON’T HAVE THE PERSONALITY OF A DOMINATRIX!

kuso (goddamn people capitalize your titles) was developed by Fred Wood
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$0.99 (normally $4.99) cussed Kuso cautiously constantly in the making of this review.

kuso (grumble) is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

The Indie Gamer Chick Collection: Coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch

Well, this is something I never imagined in my wildest dreams.

I’m proud to announce that the Indie Gamer Chick Collection will be published by Ratalaika Games on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One (and maybe Vita) in late 2019/early 2020. It will be a compilation of over a dozen of the most famous, most memorable, and the downright very best Xbox Live Indie Games from 2008 to 2016. This set will be the very definition of an indie hidden gem.

It’ll be a few months before we announce a lineup. I’m still in the early stages of sorting out which games are available to be considered for the set. But I now have enough available quality games to pool from that we can announce the development of this collection is officially underway. It’s happening.

I opened Indie Gamer Chick in July of 2011 as a review blog that would focus primarily on Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIGs). I never expected I would find an audience, never mind becoming such a prominent member of the XBLIG community. The talented developers of XNA adopted me. They elevated me to a higher level. Today, in 2019, I’ve got actual influence in gaming. Hundreds of contacts throughout the entire game industry. The creators of the games that defined my childhood sometimes reach out to me to tell me they’re fans of me. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, you know. There’s even people making unauthorized Indie Gamer Chick merchandise.

None of this happens if the XBLIG community didn’t support me. I owe everything to them.

I never took it for granted. I always was humbled and awestruck that they held me in such esteem. For that reason, I always looked to serve and elevate them as much as I could within the confines of my duty as a game critic. I worked to spread the word of the hard work and the limitations that XBLIGers had to deal with. I fought to get them better pricing and file-size flexibility, or better placement on the Xbox 360 dashboard. In 2013, I teamed with Indie Royale to create a bundle of PC ports of XBLIGs that many predicted doom and gloom for, but it succeeded. When the platform was in its dying days, I begged developers to preserve their work for generations yet to come. Even years after the closure of XBLIG, to many I’m still “that girl who reviews XBLIGs.” It’s a title I will always cherish.

I am honored and excited to have been given this one final opportunity to show the world what they missed when they overlooked Xbox Live Indie Games. The platform was known more for off-brand Minecraft (which succeeded because Minecraft hadn’t launched on consoles yet, people forget that) or massage apps or lazy avatar games. And that’s a tragedy, because no gaming platform ever had more diamonds in the rough than XBLIG. I want the Indie Gamer Chick Collection to be a monument to their talent and their dreams, too much of which went undiscovered and unrealized. And I relish this opportunity to once again serve the community that changed my life forever. It’s time to get to work.

Gris

The first level of Gris is a boring, frustrating, annoying slog that overstays its welcome. Gusts of wind hold you back and stunt your progress. You eventually get the ability to turn into a block so that you don’t get thrown backwards and have to wait for the wind to die down. By this point, it was already clear that Gris had more care given to it than your typical art-house symbolism title. The first time I messed around with the jump button, I felt a weight come off me when I realized “oh hey, they actually made sure jumping feels good. That’s a relief.” And then I got to the gusts of wind and was like “oh dear.” This just was not a well-designed section.

Fuck this stage. Fuck it in its ear with a rusty garden rake.

I led off the review talking about that, because if not for that level, Gris might have become the new #1 game on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. For the rest of this review, it’ll be the elephant in the room. The part where I think, god damn, was there nobody at Devolver Digital who could have taken the Gris team aside and said “you know, that first section really sucks. You should dump it or at least shorten it significantly”? For all the people who think I go too negative on games that I like, I wanted to get that part out-of-the-way. It’s literally the only major complaint I have about this: an absolute indie masterpiece.

Gris is ostensibly about mourning, with the main character going through the five stages of grief. But I’ve got to be honest: a lot of the symbolism was lost on me. And trust me, it’s not because I’m unfamiliar with loss. On Christmas morning in 2017, my service dog of eleven years passed away. I’m sure for some people they think “a dog? Seriously?” Yea, a dog. One that spent eleven straight years by my side. That saved my life multiple times. That made me realize my own capacity to love. You can’t just take that shit away from someone and not have it hurt. In Gris, mourning is symbolized by a loss of voice, and this is the one form of symbolism I can relate to. Because it’s hard to articulate exactly how much you’re hurting. It’s as if your voice has been taken. That part I connected with.

The statues and the returning of color to the world being part of the healing process? Not so much. In fact, I found humor in the idea. I’m sorry to anyone who gets offended by this, but the first color you return to the world of Gris (which is literally the French/Spanish word for “Grey”) is red. And it’s supposed to be this profound, first-step-in-recovery moment in the game. In reality? It totally looks like the girl just had her period.

I’m not joking.

Maybe they should have started with a different color.

Now, at this point in the game, the mourning aspect hadn’t been clear to me. I honestly wasn’t sure if the idea was supposed to be a demented adult version of Rainbow Brite menstruating color back into the world. Your mileage may very on how much the symbolism works for you. It really didn’t do a whole lot for me. I don’t feel any better about Cherry’s death than I did before. I’ve heard from some people who say Gris did help them feel better about a recent loss they experienced. I wish I was with them, but I’m not. So for me, Gris has to make it entirely on its gameplay merit.

And it does.

Gris is a truly special game as a game. And I think that’s getting lost in the discussion. People are obsessing over the gorgeous graphics, the pantheon-level soundtrack, and complex symbolism of the crushing sensation of being in mourning. All those things matter, but if Gris had been your typical artsy platformer, nobody would get to appreciate those things. Trust me, I’ve played a lot of games that aspire to be what Gris pulled off. They don’t do it because they rely on the visuals and the metaphors and forget that they’re supposed to be a video game as well. Gris never forgets what it is, and that’s to everyone’s benefit. It means we get to take in the whole of the experience without the distraction of that vision being horribly executed. Nobody will ever need to make up excuses for Gris because Gris is really fun to play. You know, like a game is supposed to be?

This is supposed to represent “depression” but all I could think of was “who left that banana peel there?”

Controls are a big part of that. Gris is rock-solid in every single aspect of movement. You feel one-to-one with the lead character. Even the clunky joycons of the Switch manage to cease to exist in your hands, allowing for total immersion in the game’s world. Based on my track record with art-house games, I wasn’t expecting that. That for me was the story of Gris from start to finish. My expectations based on the graphics and the concept were low. A swimming section happened and I cringed upon realizing I was in water. Around thirty-seconds later, I realized Gris had the best swimming controls maybe in the entire history of video games. Like.. huh.. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect to be rocketed up into the sky like Superman using butterflies that help you super jump, but I really didn’t expect it to control so naturally that I never once messed up any of those jumps. Gris might be the best controlling 2D platformer of its kind. Good controls don’t make a game, but bad controls absolutely will break your game. Gris figured this out, and because it did, we get to appreciate the level design. Aspiring indie devs: this is a game you’ll want to play while taking lots of notes.

If you think of Gris as a 2D version of thatgamecompany’s Journey, you’ll enter Gris with the right mindset. Having said that, I liked Gris more, and people who don’t like Journey at all are digging Gris a lot. That’s because it shows off a lot more creativity. The basic gameplay idea is you walk around collecting stars (Christ, even in indie art-house shit, it is always stars isn’t it?) to form constellations that help guide you to the next section of the game. There’s no fail conditions in Gris and no way of dying. This often ends up meaning “slow-paced and sloggy.” But, besides the first area, Gris is positively brisk and almost perfect in pacing. There were two instances where I realized I wasn’t on the right path, one of which was on me, and one of which I think is a split between being my fault and bad design: an underwater temple has a pathway that takes you to fish that you need to super-jump, which to me implies that you’re supposed to take the fish through that tunnel. But you’re not. As far as I can tell, there’s no reason for that tunnel to be there. Weird.

This is the part mentioned above. I thought I was supposed to take the fish through this extremely twist-and-turny pathway and jump from the right side of the screen up to that column, then hop from it to get to the star. Nope. Actually, you take the fish an entirely different route and get the star by falling from up above onto it. And it begs the question: why is there even a secret tunnel that takes you to the red fish hidden under the middle of the under the center of the underwater building? Because it serves no function. You can get to the red fish that give you the super-jump via a much-more straight forward means. If not for that, I’d never spent 30+ minutes trying to make that (seemingly impossible) jump. Also, can you even see the character in this screenshot? She’s there, I assure you, but visibility becomes an issue many times in Gris.

But otherwise, Gris really just kills it in terms of having some of the best uses of classic gaming conventions. There’s an underwater section. I hate those. But Gris has one of the best ones ever. There’s a section where you lead an NPC creature through a series of platforms. I hate those, but Gris has one of the best ones ever. There’s a section where you switch gravity and have to do everything upside-down on the ceiling. I hate those, but Gris has one of the best ones ever. It feels like the developers set out to take every single crappy gaming cliché and right the wrongs of them to show they can be done in a fun, fresh way. I’ve never seen a game that is this ambitious and yet still feels like it manages to overachieve.

If I want to get nit-picky.. and I sort of have to because, you know, that’s my job.. sometimes the camera pulls too far back and combines with the colors to completely wash out where you are on the screen. At least one time I got a star without even seeing where I was or how I got it. And there’s a section with a giant eel that feels like it could have been an intense, white-knuckle action beat.. but actually it’s a glorified cut-scene and you have as much control over the girl as you do the cars at the Autopia at Disneyland. And I’m not totally in love with the Gris character model, which has spindly appendages that reminded me of a Daddy Long Legs and kind of creeped me out a little bit.

The world has this Ico/Shadow of the Colossus architecture vibe to it and often gave me a wonderful sense of vertigo.

Otherwise, Gris is a masterpiece. I know I used that word already, and it’s a word I normally try to avoid using because it feels overplayed. But, there’s really no descriptor that fits Gris better. Masterpiece. The rest of the game speaks to how bad that first stage is. It just sets a really bad tone for the game. It’s the anti-Limbo. The first stage is the least memorable, and it’s all uphill from there, whereas for Limbo (another game that was about loss and symbolism.. maybe), everyone remembers the spider in the first act, and then it was all downhill from there. If there’s any justice, Gris, a better game that actually has symbolism that means something as opposed to being just pretentious, abstract garbage, will dethrone Limbo as the top artsy indie platformer in the minds of the public.

And when fans of the game spread the word of Gris, sure, talk about the graphics and the sound and the emotions.. but remember to tell people the game is really fun too. It’s the part of the equation nobody is talking about. And they probably should, because it’s the best part of Gris. It’s a tremendous video game, and isn’t that why we’re all here?

Gris was developed by Nomada Studio
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$16.99 asked “how fucking stupid are you Facebook?” in the making of this review.

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

My Dream Game

Well, I’m not quite ready to put my thoughts to pen and paper (or in this case, fingertips and keyboards) on Gris or Monster Boy yet, but I also promised that I’d update IGC daily in 2019. So how’s this for a change of pace: I’m often asked “what’s your dream game?” At first, the question caught me off-guard. My dream game? I’m honestly open to the idea of liking, even loving, any game. As far as I’m concerned, “best game I’ve played” is on the table for every single title I’ve played up until it does something to remove itself from the conversation. My dream game? Something I like more than my current all-time favorite: WarioWare Inc. I can’t imagine how much I’ll like that game, but it’ll be spectacular. I’m only 29-years-old and I think that game is somewhere in the horizon. I hope so. Frankly I’m sick of people looking me weird when I call WarioWare my favorite of all-time. They ask if I have ADHD.

But fine.. I’ll play along. What’s a game I’ve always wanted that never got made?

How about a sequel to Super Mario Bros. 2?

His hands say “turnip” but his eyes say “peyote.”

I mean the American version. You can’t mention it without some insufferably smug fanboys saying “OMG that’s not the real Super Mario 2 you fucking newb that’s really a game called Doki Doki Panic you fake gamer gurl you don’t know anything about games!” Yea yea. Here’s the thing: the real Super Mario 2 fucking sucks. It’s a ROM hack that Miyamoto and his crew must have been on their man-periods while making because it’s a maddening, frustrating, completely unfair piece of shit of a game. It makes Vs. Super Mario Bros look positively restrained, and that’s saying something.

The real real Super Mario 2 came out in Japan in 1987 and the US in 1988 and it’s truly an astonishing game. A landmark in level design so inspired that 30 years later I actually had to call out the Wonder Boy III indie remake/repainting for its blandness in that area. How could I not? The gauntlet had been thrown down, and with all the exploration and secrets of Super Mario 2 a full two years before Wonder Boy released (and a full two years before I was even born), it seems the benchmark had already been set. The really amazing thing? It holds up today. I first played it for the Game Boy Advance under the name Super Maro Advance at the age of twelve in 2001, when it was a full fourteen years old, and I loved it then. I still love it today. It’s my favorite 2D Mario. Mario 3 and Mario World aren’t even in the discussion for me.

The irony is I never used Mario when I played it. I’d use Toad for the first couple levels, stock up on coins for the slot machine, win a bunch of lives, then used Luigi to finish everything after that. Honestly, what fucking loser used Mario? He sucked in it.

How have we never gotten a sequel to THAT? And don’t say “Super Mario 3D World” because it’s not a sequel. It’s a really lazy 3D version of New Super Mario Bros. Just because you can play as Toad and Peach doesn’t make it essentially a direct follow-up to Mario 2. And honestly, I thought the new power-ups sucked. Cat Mario? Seriously? I honestly think most new Mario games begin as a game of Mad Libs.

Mario gets a (noun) BELL that turns him into (animal) CAT Mario, who can then (verb) CLIMB.

Yawn.

No, I want a sequel to Mario 2. I want completely off-the-wall, fever-dream enemies. I want horizon/vertical level design that aspires to raise the bar completely out of reach for other games. I want Wart.

Oh.. and I want it to be a Metroidvania.

Repeat after me: Super Mario 2 play mechanics.. but as a Metroidvania.

You can picture it, right?

If I could will a game into existence but it would cost me a year off my life, I’d have to really think about this one.

Mario has never done an actual Metroidvania, and if any one of his previous adventures would lend itself to one, it’d be Mario 2. Even single levels from it can feel like huge, vast open worlds. So let’s just take those settings, scrunch them together, add a few more new ones, tell the 4th world (the ice levels with the little runny snowmen things) we must have misplaced the invitation, and presto: you have a viable new series for Mario that can bring in dosh every few years. Not that Mario needs a new series. I mean, come on.. there’s a Mario basketball game. Basketball not exactly known as a sport that fat Italian plumbers excel at. Even better: it’s developed by Square-Enix. Because when you think video basketball, you think of the guys who make Final Fantasy, and you want to play as Mario.

So, will they ever do it? I don’t think so. Nintendo made a direct-sequel to Yoshi’s Island for the DS and it was so putrid that nobody talks about it.. or apparently even remembers it.. anymore. “Oh you mean Yoshi’s Story?” No, Yoshi’s Island DS, made by a company so awesome they no longer exist. They also made Blinx. Blinx sucked. This sucked worse.

Horrible. Just horrible. Artoon was one of the worst studios ever. They made Yoshi’s Topsy Turvy, a game that I felt was unplayable. Nintendo saw how they did on that and gave them another game with the franchise. Ugh.

What does that have to do with a Mario 2 Metroidvania, or a sequel to Mario 2 at all? Nintendo tends to get burned when they try to resurrect old ideas. It’s even happened already with Mario 2. It was the lowest-selling of the four Mario Advance titles. Maybe that’s the fate of Mario 2. To always be “the weird one” of the series. The “not a real Mario game” Mario game. I hope not, but here we are in 2019 and it’s still just that strange anomaly in the series. The one better known for bringing us Shy-Guys and Birdo and little more. Mouser? Triclyde? Fryguy? Clawgrip? Completely forgotten. Actually fun fact: Clawgrip isn’t in Doki Doki Panic. It’s an albino Mouser in the Japanese vers.. GODDAMNIT NOW I’M ONE OF THEM TOO!

The Difficulty Gateway

I usually say that I feel my reviews as Indie Gamer Chick represent the average gamer, but the truth is I’m probably above-average in skill-level for most genres. Some, like puzzlers, I chew through so easily that I usually hand games off to my family to make sure they’re not too easy for normies. But being a fairly hardcore gamer since the age of nine and being a game critic is a tough balancing act. One that doesn’t get discussed enough, because we’re all probably better at games than Fred and Ethel shopping for something on payday to kill a weekend with on their dusty Xbox One. When a game doesn’t have adjustable skill-levels, challenge is hard to quantify on your own. You’re playing the game based on decades of experience, and can only assume how others will take it. Even if you have friends or family to observe, it’s not like you’ve been studying them in a laboratory your entire life and can fully approximate the ceiling of their ability.

Of course, being a game critic, if I’m not being told that the only reason I didn’t like a game is because I wasn’t “objective enough”, the most common thing I’m told is that I just suck at games. I didn’t like Cuphead, ergo I suck at games. I didn’t like Hollow Knight, ergo I suck at games. I didn’t like Hotline Miami, ergo I suck at games.

Ah yes, Battletoads. A game so fondly remembered that it could go completely dormant for twenty years because it was so prohibitively difficult that very, very few would ever remember it as an all-time great.

I don’t think I suck at games. Maybe some games. Like fighting games aren’t my thing, and an early running gag at Indie Gamer Chick was me noting that I couldn’t ever get the hang of throwing a Dragon Punch with Ken or Ryu (I’m proud to report I can now, suck it Kris & Jesse). It doesn’t mean I don’t like fighting games though. I got Mortal Kombat XL for Christmas and took delight in violence so awesome that it would make even the most dead-inside grizzled veteran become physically ill. But something like Cuphead? I actually don’t think I was that bad at it. I got all the contracts (IE I beat all the bosses on the standard insanely crazy hard difficulty) for the first world and beat all the bosses on the lowest difficulty for the first three worlds, something nearly 90% of all Cuphead owners either couldn’t do or couldn’t be bothered to do. As for Hollow Knight, I’ve heard fans of the game tell me how hard a boss was that I downed without breaking a sweat. I wasn’t dying all that much while playing it and only once did I die without retrieving the shit I dropped, thus losing it.

By the way, I sucked at Spelunky. I really sucked at Kingdom. They’re both IGC all-timers. Trust me, if talent was required for me to enjoy something, I wouldn’t have any hobbies at all.

I’m not a fan of the notion that games are supposed to be hard to prevent undesirables from playing them, or any game. That the measure of a true gamer is being able to finish these hard games. What an absurd notion this is. It’s snobbery of the lowest order. For games like Cuphead, I’ve come up with the phrase “prohibitively difficult” to describe them. I think Cuphead crosses the line where even above-average players will be gated-off from large sections of content without any hope of ever being good enough to reach them. And for those who say “practice harder”, this isn’t an activity where increasing your skill level will lead to greater things in life. It’s a video game. I’m not going to put in eight hours of practice a day just so I can fight a giant animated stack of poker chips.

By the way, Cuphead wiki, this is based on Amarillo Slim. Only the Babe Ruth of Poker. “Duhhhh, we think it’s based on poker. You can tell by the chips.” Good lord, you people need to get out of the house sometime.

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to make their games. If you feel your dream project should only be able to be finished by 2% of all gamers, so be it. But, maybe you should consider telling your fans to stop calling those who can’t beat it a bunch of pussies. I’ve seen players far above my skill level who enjoy quality run-and-spray games walk away broken and shaken from Cuphead, wondering if their skills are depleting as they grow increasingly decrepit or if it’s the game. It’s the game.

And what’s the point of gating, anyway? Contra is an all-time classic, and one of my personal favorite NES games. It’s kind of a travesty that it wasn’t part of the NES Classic. Instead, we got inferior sequel Super C instead. Contra is hard, but it has the most famous means of overcoming that difficulty in the history of gaming: the Konami Code. If that wasn’t in the game, nobody would talk about Contra today. The Heart of Contra wouldn’t be one of the most legendary bosses of all time. It’d just be one of those NES games people say “cool, I remember it. It was hard” and then talk like blowhards about how games were better back in the day while reminiscing about all the titles they never got around to beating.

Has it ever been confirmed this is actually supposed to be a heart and not, you know, the Gonads of Contra?

So how is someone like me, an above average player, supposed to quantify the value of a game that didn’t just destroy me, but destroyed even better players I know? Indies are dependent on word of mouth, and “this game left me blistered and defeated” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement to your average gamer. A critic isn’t an asshole for telling people the game is too hard to recommend, nor are they a pussy. You’re who gated the game off. And for what? So a small percentage of players who will never help you move a single unit outside their clubhouse can have a secret handshake “we’re the only real gamers” crowing moment? If they tell you that you’re selling out for including adjustable difficulty, you tell them to pony up a few hundred thousand dollars so your kids can go to college. I’m sure they’ll get right on that.

Today Gamers #DiscoverIndies

Today is the first #DiscoverIndies Friday. The idea is, on the first Friday of every month in 2019, gamers from all walks of life should find a single indie game they’ve never heard of before, play it, and report back on it. The response so far as been incredible. Overwhelming really, and I wanted to share it with everyone!

Thank you to the entire gaming community for participating. I’ve been Indie Gamer Chick for 7 1/2 years and I’ve seen so many games that were wonderful but never found their audiences. We could never hope to lift all of them up, but if everyone participates once a month, we can rescue a lot of great titles from obscurity. #DiscoverIndies is an investment in our futures as gamers. And here’s what you came up with.

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