Adventures of Lolo, Aesop’s Garden, and Crystal Hunters

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.

Concept

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.

Aesop’s Garden

Game Play

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.

Adventures of Lolo

Playability

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.

Puzzle Design

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.

Crystal Hunters

Conclusion

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!

Aesop’s Garden was developed by Excalibur Studios

Crystal Hunters was developed by DreamRoot Studios

The Adventures of Lolo was developed by HAL Laboratory

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.

The Simpsons Arcade Game

Bart’s shirt is the wrong color. Sideshow Bob helps him instead of tries to kill him. 99.9% of all the characters established in the canon don’t show up. All the enemies are completely generic characters. None of the bosses outside of Mr. Burns and Smithers are from the TV series. The whole game is just a reskinned version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that some guys at Konami probably threw together in a weekend. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the best Simpsons game ever. Only it’s not. It fucking sucks, but you should already know that.

And yes, I’m aware that the wrestler guy that’s the first boss was actually from the episode where Bart tries to jump Springfield Gorge on his skateboard. The bear doesn’t count, because it’s actually just one of the generic guys in a bear suit. I’m also aware that the game originally came out in 1991 and that I shouldn’t be so nit-picky about those things. To that I say this: fuck you. The Simpsons Arcade Game is a fossil that should have been left in the tar pits of non-release obscurity.

Remember that episode where the family started brawling with quintuplet accountants riding teacups?

Don’t look at me that way. I’m not attacking your childhood or raping your memories.  That’s a George Lucas move. I’m not even saying the Simpsons was a bad game for back in the day. Hey, it was either play the Simpsons Arcade or, like, go outside and exercise or something. Psssh, what kind of loser would do that?

What I am saying is maybe those memories are better left where they are. The Simpsons Arcade Game, much like Ninja Turtles or X-Men, has not exactly aged well. Let’s face it, it’s a relic. And not one of those good, Sean Connery type ones. As much as the concept of it baffles me, I can almost understand going back and playing stuff like Final Fantasy VII for the twentieth time. I think there should be mandatory castration for anyone who does so (not that they’ll ever actually use those parts, but you can never be too cautious), but I can almost understand it. But an arcade brawler that was, quite frankly, a lazily produced reskin of an existing game designed to sucker lunch money out of children?  Why would you want to go back and play that?

And yet, since the announcement of it a few weeks ago, teenagers of the early 90s are going gaga. I had never actually played the Simpsons Arcade Game, outside of one attempt at a Pizza Hut when I was like six years old. The joystick was broken and I couldn’t move to the right, which is one of only two requirements the game actually has. I got my quarter back and thought nothing of it until I heard the announcement. I planned to ignore it, but it came free with a Playstation Plus account and I’ve never turned down a chance to troll you retro nerds before, so why start now?

I think the appeal in the Simpsons Arcade Game is the same as Sonic CD: it was the “lost game” in the series. It never got a home console port due to some licensing issues and thus it became a legend. As teenagers grew older and their minds became more polluted with various drugs, alcohol, children of their own, and all the Simpsons gaming crapola that has come out since then, those memories of the Simpsons Arcade Game became pretty fuckin’ sweet.

Remember that episode where the Simpsons dropped acid and fought a giant bowling ball?

I promise you, the Simpsons Arcade Game is not as good as you remember it. I know this because I’ve yet to hear a single person tell me that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Reshelled was as good as they remember it. And at least that one had updated its graphics. They couldn’t even bother with that here. This is a lazy port of a lazy game, and you can tell it was produced early in the show’s run. The character models are way off, the voices are off, and the game is forced to use so many generic characters because the cast of millions the show currently uses wasn’t established yet.

So here’s a wild idea: if they had the rights to make this game, why couldn’t they have produced an updated port to go with it? Leave the original game intact so that people could see how horrible it is, and then throw them something newer, using all the crazy space-age technology that leprechauns have given us over the last twenty years?

Actually, EA did a port of the Simpsons Arcade Game for iOS. I have it, and I tried to play through it, but it’s fucking impossible. This is mostly due to the fact that it uses one of those God-awful fake joysticks-and-button layouts that is about as accurate as a dart player that injected his hands with Novocaine. But imagine if they had ported that over to consoles. I mean, that game actually has characters from the series. You fight Chief Wiggum, Mayor Quimby, and various other fan favorites. It might not be the exact same game as your childhood fantasy, but it actually might be better. You know, if you could control it.

Or, even better, build an entirely new game modeled after the original arcade title, but replace all the generic baddies with random characters from the series that you fight only once, locations based on the series that actually look like they might have appeared on the series (Moe’s Tavern is a quarter-mile long casino. Who knew?), and add some modern twists. Use Castle Crashers as the basis for it. Leveling up, a variety of weapons, branched paths, hidden items, and so on, and so on. Why settle for something that was designed to steal your money as a child? Don’t you deserve better? Well, no. I suppose you don’t. If you actually gave away $10 for this piece of shit, ay caramba, there is no helping you.

The Simpsons Arcade Game was developed by Konami

Going off the math of how many free games and discounts I’ve gotten with my Playstation Plus account, approximately $0.38 was spent playing Teenage Reskinned Ninja Simpsons in the making of this review. TOO MUCH!

The Simpsons Arcade for iOS was developed by EA and costs $0.99. For God’s sake, do not buy it. 

Sonic CD

It’s been about a month since I blatantly trolled Sega fanboys and classic gaming enthusiasts by announcing my dislike for most things Sega.  While I admit that this was as about as transparent as attention whoring gets, I want it to be clear that I stand by and truly believe all that bullshit I said.  Every last line of it.  Classic games are not as good as you remember and Sega games suck balls in general.

But what really pissed people off was going after Sonic The Hedgehog.  By the way people reacted to me asserting that it was never a good series to begin with, you would have thought I had Mother Teresa’s corpse exhumed just so I could defecate on it.  I just can’t comprehend why this series is so treasured.  It kind of sucks.  I can’t even believe this would qualify as being good “back in the day.”  Put this up against stuff like Super Mario Bros. 3 or even the Alex Kidd games from Sega and it seems like such a step backwards.

Which is actually what they had in mind when they designed it.  It was supposed to be Mario For Dummies, where the directional pad and only one button were needed and you wouldn’t be able to die if you had at least one ring.  It kind of shows that Sega held its own customers in contempt.  So basically, Sonic only exists because Sega wanted a Mario like character but thought its own users were too stupid to play a Mario game, and that just makes the crusader-like attitude of its fanboys all the more hilarious.

So the fanboys didn’t like my hate piece too much.  Most of the comments were completely asinine statements like “name one game from that era that was better than Sonic The Hedgehog.”  I could have been a total wise ass and said “anything!” but once you’ve got the monkeys throwing out “best game ever” statements, you’ve pretty much already won the battle.  Like I said in my VolChaos review, I find the entire situation to be sad.  Here are guys who are now in their thirties and they’re declaring the best game they have ever played and will ever play is one that Santa Claus gave them when they were ten years old.  I’m only 22, and I sure as hell hope I haven’t already played the best game I will ever play.  That would be tragic.

Pictured: something not worth the hype.

Granted, my only experience with the Genesis era Sonic games comes from when I got Sonic Mega Collection as a Christmas gift.  I might have even been the same age as those fanboys when I first played those titles.  Of course, by this point it’s 2002 and I’ve already played much better games, including some really spectacular 2D Mario games that Nintendo had ported to the Game Boy Advance.  Hell, I played Sonic Advance, an original 2D Sonic game on the Game Boy Advance that I had a better time with than anything on Mega Collection.

“Oh, but there’s another Sonic 16-bit era game.  One that destroys all those that came before it” cried the fanboys.  Indeed.  It’s called Sonic CD, and it’s the best of all the Sonics.  It’s so good that Sega seemed to go out of its way to not include it anywhere.  I mean, listen to how a guy I respect, Xbox Live Indie Game guru and Armless Octopus founder Dave Voyles described it.

Sonic CD is another fine example. It took a lot of the elements which made Sonic 1 so good, and vastly grew them. The future / past scenario for example, still hasn’t been done in other games to my knowledge. Sure, the 3D parts sucked and controlled like garbage, but the rest of the game provided a lot of innovation for the industry.

Well, what do you know, Sonic CD came out on Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network this last week.  Since it was only $5, I figured what the hoo haw and gave it a whirl.  It makes me wonder what exactly Dave was even talking about.  What exactly was innovative about it?  It had an anime cut scene at the start?  Nah, that can’t be it.  What about the time travel gimmick?  Nah, games were already doing that too.

I got it!  It’s insanely easy.  Yes, I get it now.  Sonic CD was innovative because it introduced us to the era of the half-assed sequel.  Before Sonic CD came around, developers actually gave a shit when developing follow-ups to games.  And then this arrived, with its totally phoned in level design, boss fights that would embarrass the viewing audience of Yo Gabba Gabba, and levels where over half the game play is done automatically.  Developers took notice and said “wow, look at how amazingly shallow and empty this sequel is.  We didn’t know you could do that!”

If Sonic games were created for people too stupid to play Mario, Sonic CD must have been created for the recently lobotomized.  Everything in it feels stripped down.  There’s fewer enemies, shorter levels, easier bosses, and almost no way to game over.  It took me all of one hour to finish it.  At which point, it gave me TWO achievements instead of one.  How sweet of it.  I guess the innovation is supposed to be how there are multiple versions of each level, because you can hit a sign post that says “past” or “future” and if you build up enough speed, you time travel to an altered version of the same stage.  I don’t know if this has any other effect on gameplay, and the game doesn’t tell you.  It was beneficial to me because I nearly had to quit in the middle of one stage due to the strobey effects.  I swear, as I was putting down the control, I bumped into one of those time travel sign posts, hit a bumper, and suddenly I was in the past, sans flashy lights.

Here’s the thing about that though: the fucking game did all that by itself.  I had already put the controller down.  That’s one of my biggest gripes with the Sonic games, that they do all the hard work for you.  The first Sonic game I ever played was in fact Sonic Adventure on the Sega Dreamcast.  Everyone who played it remembers the iconic scene in the first level of that game where you’re on a dock running from a killer whale.  When I was ten years old, that was, up to that point, the single coolest moment I had seen in a video game.  And it was cool, until you realized that the game had all kinds of moments where it takes the controller away from you and does all the fancy stuff automatically.

But isn’t that how Sonic games always have been?  In Sonic CD, you spend most of the levels doing nothing while the game has all the fun for you.  Half the time in the game is spent watching Sonic automatically coast off bumpers and through tubes at warp speed.  Granted, that’s enough to give the Sonic fanboys their jollies, but I thought this was supposed to be the Crème de la Crème of series.  Instead, it’s probably the worst.  Unless you count the Game Gear titles, which were pretty bad.

Here’s my theory: most people who had this fascination with Sonic CD never actually played it.  Probably because you needed a Sega CD to play it and their parents weren’t willing to spring the extra $300 for the attachment.  So Sonic CD became the unobtainable entry in the series.  The one that was so good it had to be put on the most expensive system on the market at the time.  It got some good press coverage, but the Sega CD was pretty much dead on arrival and by time you could afford it, the next wave of consoles were coming and all the copies of Sonic CD had already been long snatched up as soon as they hit the clearance rack.  It’s status as the lost Sonic game made it the stuff of legends.

Well, legends do tend to disappoint.  Sonic CD is bad even by the low standards of the series.  It’s everything that every other 2D Sonic has been: horrible play control, no actual platforming skills required, cheap deaths, and lots of watching the game do all the work for you.  Only this time, it’s insanely easy, to the point that it’s a little insulting.  Thankfully, it would seem even the Sonic fanboys are somewhat on my side with this one.  Within 24 hours of Sonic CD hitting the PS3 and Xbox 360 marketplaces, I saw plenty of Sonic aficionados sulkily tweet “not as good as I remember it” or “that was disappointing.”  Others are pissing and moaning because some stupid song got cut out of the game.  Which is funny to me because I always thought gaming was supposed to be about the gameplay, not the title song during the opening cut scene that most people were likely anxious to skip anyway.

It goes to show you that the older you get, the less kind reality is to your childhood memories.  Guys, Sonic CD didn’t get bad.  It was always bad.  They all were.  You’ve just played better games since it came out.  Every time I go back and play something I liked as a kid, the memories just don’t hold up.  It happened to me with Sonic Adventure, Tony Hawk, and Crash Bandicoot.  That’s why it’s best to live in the now.  Don’t go back looking for moldy oldies.  The best game you will ever play hopefully hasn’t come out yet, but you won’t know that unless you look to the future for it, and not the past.

Oh, and as a spoiler, it’s not Knuckles Chaotix either.  I realize now that Sonic CD finally has a wide release, everyone is going to say “okay, it sucked, but I totally remember Knuckles Chaotix on the 32X being the most awesome Sonic game ever!”  Wrong!  If Sega had any faith in that game they would have re-released it by now.  They haven’t for the same reason they dragged their feet with Sonic CD: it sucks, and they know it.  Deep down, you know it too.  I haven’t even played it and I know it.  Helen Keller knows it.  She might be blind and deaf, but when shit gets piled this thick for so long you can smell it coming a mile away.

Sonic CD was developed by Sega

400 Microsoft Points said “honestly, if Sega had released Bubsy the Bobcat and Sonic had been the generic lifeless mascot of some nameless game company, would you even have known the difference?” in the making of this review.

My friends at GameMarx are giving away over FIFTY Xbox Live Indie Games as part of a huge contest.  Click here for the Youtube announcement video, and then click here to enter.

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