Vice Versus: Cuphead Diary (Day 2)

In Vice Versus, I’ll be returning to games I never previously beat. I will play them one hour at most a day until I’ve reached my goal. For Cuphead, that goal is to get the contracts for all the bosses, then defeat King Dice and The Devil. I’m keeping a daily diary of this project. The following is done out of the Indie Gamer Chick character.

My Cuphead journey got off to a pretty decent start. I made a lot more progress on day one than I figured I would. Of course, I pretty much only cleared out the two easiest bosses. The ones that I never struggled all that much with the first time around. Now, all that was left for Inkwell Isle I were bosses that I needed dozens of attempts to get the contracts for during my original Cuphead session. And once I get past these, I move on to Inkwell II, where I’ve not gotten any of the contracts. Ever. Today felt like my last attempt to get “study” in before the test begins. And it didn’t start so good.

I decided to start against Ribby and Croaks because I’d struggled the most with them during my first play-session with Cuphead back in 2017. And last year, while working on my Cuphead re-review, I publicly failed to put them away while streaming my playtime. It seemed like these guys would be ideal to get in practice time. And then I actually started playing, and it was like a splash of ice water to the face. My struggles to get the timing of the parry down are still apparent. Actually, for the first ten minutes my timing wasn’t there at all. I also somehow, in my research, didn’t realize that the fireballs Ribby shoots during phase 1 change the order of which one you can parry on. A complete failure to prepare on my part.

Regardless, clearing the first two phases was no issue for me. The final phase, however, I failed, failed, failed. The frogs merge to form a giant slot machine that has three primary attack patterns. The one that specifically screwed me was the Bison pattern, which features spiked platforms that have fire shooting either above or below it. I could (mostly) get the timing for the Tiger and Snake patterns. For the Bison, I took more damage hitting the sides of the platforms than I did from the fire. This is a world-one boss, and if this is a harbinger for things to come, I’m screwed. Several times in a row I got just seconds away from victory, more than once with more than a single hit-point left, only to squander it. It was genuinely heart-wrenching to see how bad I was croaking.. I mean choking.

And then, something that didn’t affect me at all during my first day started to mess with my game: nerves. Even if I could keep myself calm during the first two phases, inevitably that hot-cold nerve moment hit as soon as the animation of the frogs merging to form the slot machine began. My hands started sweating, which really didn’t help considering that they were already starting to cramp up as well. Mistakes started to pile up over and over. Soon, I was taking damage even during the Snake pattern, which I had previously found to be the most tolerable. Hell, I even took damage from one of the coins being launched at me, which is probably the easiest projectile to dodge in the entire fight.

I was coming so close to winning and coming up short, replay after replay. There was one run specifically that I was so disgusted with myself after dying that I forgot to save the replay. I had made it through phase one in what had to have been close to a world record time, hitting all the parries along the way. Then, during the second phase, I’d somehow timed the damage in such a way where Croaks (the one that becomes a giant fan) was stun-locked while Ribby went into his attack animation. This meant I’d caused enough damage to end phase 2 just a split second after Ribby began his attack. All the damage from here would carry over to the third and final phase: the slot machine. And I had all three hit points. Not only would I be on track to have less attack waves for the final phase but I might set a time actual Cuphead experts would find impressive. I was actually calm too. That was the weird part. Maybe I would have played better if the nerves were flowing, because during the very first attack pattern, which was Snake, my BEST ONE, I got three-quarters of the way through the attack before mistiming a jump and taking damage, then immediately took another hit on the very last platform of the attack. I was so stunned and knocked out of my senses by this that I ended up jumping right into one of the easy to dodge coins the slot machine spits out before you can open it up for attack. Dead again, with a meter showing me that I was probably less than one second work of bullets away from winning. I felt like I was going to throw-up.


What an absolute disaster. I probably should have taken a break, because following that, the next few runs had me making mistakes in phases 1 and 2 far worse than I had been making earlier. Before I knew it, over half the time I allotted for myself for this project (one hour of actual playtime at most per day) was gone. The clock element that I added myself just made things worse. I realized that there’s probably going to be days where I won’t make any progress at all. That’s a thought so sickening that I might change the rules so that I can keep playing after an hour if I haven’t beaten the boss I started on for the day. This was a world one boss and I couldn’t get past it.

OVER FORTY MINUTES LATER I finally made a breakthrough. My nerves were pretty much shot and my hands were now actively starting to hurt. But, on my nineteenth attempt, I beat Clip Joint Calamity, and had a perfect score too.

This whole battle really reinforced to me the problem with Cuphead. The time investment I had to make to get this contract and the anguish I felt playing it wasn’t worth the end result. I kept playing it because I simply HAD to beat this boss in order to get its contract so I can eventually be given access to the final level of the game. If I had switched to “simple mode” I’d won on my first attempt. Yes, I got a sense of relief, but gaming should be more than a sense of relief I think. I do admit, I was a little proud that the round that I finally won on ended with two straight waves of the toughest attack pattern for me and I still finished with a perfect score. But no, I don’t feel better for having beaten it. I feel stupid for having taken so long to do so.

And then this happened. On my very first attempt, I took down Cagney Carnation. Going into Vice Versus, I figured there was a chance I might have one or two “eye of the tiger” moments and get a perfect score on bosses, at least early in the game. I also had planned to beat the Forest Follies stage on my first attempt and knew with the Seeker gun I could do it. But this? It was so unexpected that I literally started screaming in elation. It was 3AM. I woke up the entire house. Fireball and Laika, my dogs, hid under the bed while I jumped around the room. This is not a joke. I was so happy.

Let me make something clear: the joy I felt in taking down Floral Fury without losing a life in no way negates all the suffering I had just been through with Clip Joint Calamity, or all the misery yet to come. But for one shining moment, Cuphead made me feel like a superhero. Even if, according to a couple of Cuphead experts, I can partially thank incredibly lucky RNG from the attack patterns Cagney used. I’m NEVER lucky with RNG, so if that’s the case, I’ll take it. Also, this was hardly a perfect boss fight. I forgot to switch guns more than once, and as a result I wasn’t doing damage when I should have been. I still won the fight, but I should have won it sooner than I did. I need to work on that.

I’m not a shmup person. The only one I’ve ever put significant time into was Ikaruga on the GameCube when I was 13 (surprise, I did beat it). In my post-epilepsy life, it’s the genre that poses the most risk to me. Consequently, it was these stages I struggled the most on, even in simple mode, during my first few Cuphead play-sessions. Even Hilda here took me over an hour to get the contract for the first time. The infamous dragon boss put up less of a fight than these stages did. I had about 15 minutes of playtime left and didn’t expect a victory before time was up. Then, on my first run, I got to phase three. I didn’t expect that.

In both of my first two attempts, I got to phase three only to die due to the UFOs. In my third run, I took damage against a tornado I should have been able to avoid, then botched the timing of using the super bomb while Hilda was in the animation to change into the moon, taking me down to my last health. I figured I was toast and decided I’d use the life to try and get the timing of the UFOs down. It didn’t work out that way, because I ended up getting it right and scoring a knockout using a missile. It took me over an hour to get the contract the first time around. On this day, it took me three attempts. Not bad.

I still had a couple of minutes left but decided to call it quits. I had planned to need three to four days for Inkwell Isle I. Instead, I got all five contracts and all the coins in the run & guns in just two days. Of course, I’d already accomplished everything up to this point before. The real challenge begins now. I’ve not gotten a single contract from any boss in Inkwell II or III. I don’t think I got the practice I needed in, but there’s no turning back now.

Super Mario Bros. 2

I have a reputation for being “anti-Nintendo” and “anti-Retro.” Neither is true. The reality is Nintendo was as important to my gaming upbringing as it was to any slobbering fanboy. The Nintendo 64 I got on my 9th birthday in July, 1998 is what solidified gaming as my passion. I think that’s a bit profound, especially given that it wasn’t the first game console I wanted for an important holiday. The first time I asked for anything gaming related, it was the original PlayStation over a year earlier. I loved my PlayStation, but I didn’t truly love gaming until Nintendo became part of my life. What a hater I am.

As for retro-gaming, fine, I’ve probably earned the “anti” perception, even if it’s not true of me. But, in my defense, I’m 29-years-old. I grew up in the 32 bit/64 bit era. The games of the past were just old games to me, nothing more. By time I took interest in gaming’s history, I had developed epilepsy. Those older games relied heavily on strobe effects, which is my specific trigger. But, that really has nothing to do with my opinions on classic games. It’s more about how people from generations before me tend to put them on a pedestal based not on gameplay merit but on what the titles meant to their childhood. It’s something my generation doesn’t really do. Then again, I grew up in the early 3D era. It was a time full of games destined to age as badly as Lindsay Lohan.

Before we continue, shout out to Nintendo. They removed the dangerous strobe effects from the games in the Switch Online NES library. Now, when you die in Zelda II, the screen turns pink instead of trying to give players a seizure as punishment for not surviving their shitty, unplayable, prohibitively difficult Zelda sequel. Why pink you ask? Well, I can explain. You see, when you’re making love to your husband and then hear the horrifying sound of a “snap” commonly associated with a broken condom, you have to pee on a stick to find out whether or not you have to pay a visit to Dr. Coathanger. If the strip on the stick turns pink instead of blue, it means you’re not pregnant. Not pregnant means no life. See, it makes perfect sense!

I’ve always done my best to separate games I consider the best ever with games that are my personal favorites. I would never argue that WarioWare Inc.: Mega MicroGame$ for the Game Boy Advance is the best game of all-time. It’s not. If pinned into a corner, I’d probably say Tetris or Portal have to be up there because I can literally find no fault with them and they happen to be insanely fun. I think the drama mostly comes from people who truly believe that their childhood favorites like Super Mario 1 or the original Legend of Zelda are still the best games of all time and have never been topped. Which is just absurd. They’ve been topped many times. What hasn’t been topped is the blood-dopamine levels your per-pebesecant body generated when you played these for the first time. Your adult body isn’t even capable of naturally creating that much dopamine now. Hence, no game can ever match-up to how those games made you feel. I’m not making that up. That’s the actual science behind it. Well, unless you’re self-aware enough to realize that gaming is better now than it was during your childhood. For all the bitching we do about microtransactions and pay-to-win or too much DLC, gaming today is better than it was then. There is something for everyone now, at affordable prices to boot.

Take a deep breath, classic gamers: it’s alright for some of your childhood favorites to have aged badly. Almost all of mine did! Crash Bandicoot? Unplayable today. My entire 3D Nintendo 64 library? How did I never notice how shitty this frame rate was? Like seriously, who replaced my copy of Goldeneye, a game that gave me hundreds of hours of top-rate multiplayer mayhem with this slow, buggy, low-frame-rate, unbalanced biowaste dumpster fire?

Oh wait, nobody did. Goldeneye was cutting-edge back then. That’s why we never noticed. Games didn’t get more advanced at the time. They’re way more advanced now. That’s why those technical hitches stick out so much more today.

While playing Kid Icarus on Switch Online, I triggered slowdown as the result of having too many characters on-screen no less than five times during the first stage alone. To hell with “true to the originals” emulation. Can’t they patch this shit out?

Here’s the thing about the test of time: it’s gaming’s most unfair testing standard. Developers of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, or 2010s mostly didn’t have it in mind. They wanted to sell product and make money then. Most major, tentole releases were based on the tastes and trends of the moment. It’s our industry’s version of a pop quiz. Nobody prepares for it, and yet we should have all known it was coming eventually.

Here’s another thing about the test of time: it’s gaming’s most cruel testing standard. You can factor in historical context or popularity or importance to culture all you want. It won’t change a single thing about how good a game is today.

One more thing about the test of time: whether you like it or not, it does exist and surviving it should be rare. It wouldn’t be special otherwise. And really, the vast majority of games don’t do it. Some games that are considered all-timers are just plain not fun today. It’s a major issue for retro gamers to come to terms with: that their childhood favorites aren’t fun anymore.

I don’t really think Super Mario 1 is fun at all. The same exact formula has been done better so many times. I didn’t like New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS either, and I got that the day it came out. I thought it was really boring. But I’d much rather play that installment in the franchise than the 1985 Super Mario. It controls better, has more stuff to do, has better level design, more replay value, and just is better on its own merit than Super Mario Bros. 1. It’s not even close, really. For those 80s gamers reading this and feeling their blood pressure spiking, I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s true. Old games were not made to be good thirty years later. Yes, it’s unfair to think they could hold up, but it’s downright delusional to think they should hold up.

Here’s one that retro fans SWEAR holds up. Well, change that. They swear Tecmo SUPER Bowl holds up. But we won’t see that one again anytime soon because it costs something like two trillion dollars to license the term “Super Bowl.” That’s why so many people call it “The Big Game” in advertising or other works. But, let’s face it, “Tecmo Big Game” sounds lame as fuck. My suggestion: Tecmo can just change the S to a D and re-release it on Switch online. Seriously, would anyone care if they called it “Tecmo Duper Bowl” instead. Wait.. really? You would? It’s literally the same game with a different name. Oh wait, I forgot you retro types lose your shit over having Mr. Dream in Punch-Out!! instead of Mike Tyson.

But there are some exceptions.

Take Super Mario Bros. 2. It’s still, to this day, my favorite 2D Mario game. Kind of. You see, up until this last week, I’d never played the NES port of it. I first played it in 2001 when a steroided up version of it, Super Mario Advance, was a launch title for the Game Boy Advance. And really, that version of it is the version that I hold up as my personal favorite 2D installment in the Mario franchise. Now cue the inevitable know-it-all fanboys who want to show off how deeply knowledgeable they are by pointing out that it’s not a real Mario game. Yes, yes, we all know about Doki Doki Panic. Yes, we all know there’s a different Super Mario 2 in Japan. Well, Japan sent the real Super Mario 2 to Nintendo of America. NOA said “this sucks, give us a better game.” Case closed: US Super Mario 2 is the real Super Mario 2. You fanboys can have your unplayable, anti-fun ROM hack of Mario 1. It’s all yours.

Super Mario 2 is a genuine gaming rarity: it’s every bit as fun today as it was in 1988. No matter your gaming background. No matter what order you play the Mario series in. Age does not factor in at all. Maybe the port you play does matter, but having just played the vastly inferior NES version, a major step backwards from the remake I played when I was 12, yeah, no, it’s still fun regardless. Besides, Mario Advance is actually just as much a port itself from the Mario 2 in Super Mario All-Stars. And ideas like having more hidden stuff or the bosses taunting you was borrowed from BS Super Mario USA Power Challenge, a game for the Super Famicom Satellaview. Have a look.

The step backwards from Mario Advance to Mario 2 isn’t merely graphical. There’s no score. There’s no super coins to find. There’s no Yoshi eggs. Instead of a Robo-Birdo for the boss of the World 3, it’s just a pallet-swapped Mouser (in fact, Doki Doki has a third Mouser as the boss of world 5 instead of Clawgrip the crab). The most consequential change is if you die on a stage, you’re committed to using the character you just failed with instead of getting to re-pick. That’s brutal. I had buyer’s remorse selecting Luigi in level 5 – 1, but I was stuck. And finally, you can actually see the reels of the slot machines and use timing to win the lives. In the NES version it really is just luck. But using the Switch Online platform, I didn’t need luck. Just save states. I’m guessing that strategy wouldn’t work at a real casino. “Uh.. hey guys. Pause. Load state. I want to try that hand again. Let’s start at the flop. I checked when I should have raised. Give everyone the same hands as before. Now remember everyone, pretend like what just happened after the flop didn’t happen. Why are you calling security?”

There’s no point in doing a traditional review of Super Mario Bros. 2. It’s older than I am. It’s gotten its feedback. But, I’ve been a bit obsessed with it as of late. It seemed like a game that defied conventional wisdom. It should have aged as badly as every other NES game, because it has a lot wrong with it. There’s blind jumps that are completely unfair. Luigi is grossly over-powered to the point that you can bypass large sections of stages just by using his charge jump. Peach is nearly as bad, though at the cost of her being significantly slower at picking things up. A running Luigi jump clears as many blocks. A big part of why these balance issues exist is because Doki Doki Panic didn’t have a run button. Levels weren’t designed around running jumps. That’s why you can circumvent large sections of the game. So why did they add such a feature? Because you could hold B to run in Super Mario 1, and they wanted at least one mechanic from the original Super Mario Bros to carry over to the not-sequel that became the sequel. B-Running was chosen, and in doing so, they inadvertently nerfed nearly half the game.

The flash from the bombs is gone in Super Mario 2 as well. Thankfully when I tweeted about this the majority of classic gaming fans were happy for me and didn’t go all Star Wars fandom “rape my childhood” for Nintendo having done a couple very minor graphical changes that most non-epileptics didn’t like anyway. I think one person complained about the “slippery slope” of changing graphics in a game that came into existence by changing a previous game’s graphics.

And yet, Mario 2 is still a masterpiece. I’m writing these words over thirty-years after the game released in the United States. How the fuck did Mario 2 escape Father Time? I spent over a week studying the levels and the history of the game. I talked with fans who were around at the time it came out. For most Mario fans, Mario World is the one they still hold in the highest esteem, with Mario 3 close by it and Mario 2 left completely in the dust. And I get that. Mario 1 was probably the game that made them want an NES in the first place, and Mario 3 was the first direct-sequel to it. It took the franchise back its roots with question mark blocks, power-ups, end-goals at the end of levels instead of killing a Birdo and walking through the door. It’s what they wanted Mario 2 to be. Mario World doesn’t have as wide a variety of power-ups, but it makes up for that with (mostly) superior level-design, better innovations (Yoshi and the idea of having an item on reserve), and better balancing.

I’m not hating on Mario 3 or Mario World like I do Mario 1. In fact, I’d put them in the pantheon on platformers. They’re so good that it’s a no-brainer, really. But both have felt the ravages of time a lot more than Mario 2 has. Mario 3 has a lot of cheap design, under-utilizes some of the more fun power-ups (especially the Hammer Bros. suit), and most damning: a few of the worlds are actively boring (especially world 2, the desert) or just plain crappy (world 6, where the ice stages are). Mario World is a lot better, but also gets interrupted somewhat frequently with more basic, bland stages that feel like filler. And I think the auto-scrolling areas of both Mario 3 & World can go fuck themselves. With the exception of one incredibly cheap blind fall in Mario 2, its flaws have a lot less impact. It didn’t just age better. It practically didn’t age at all.

Of all the memorable moments in Super Mario 2, this is my personal favorite. It was just so unexpected. “Holy shit, the door is trying to kill me now!” My personal choice for the best surprise boss fight in gaming history.

And I know why: because it was never done again. The original Mario formula has had multiple chances to be re-worked. Super Mario 3, World, New Super Mario, and so forth. Not to mention the countless games that Super Mario 1 inspired. On the other hand, Mario 2 was pretty much never done again. The closest any game apparently ever came to it was an unlicensed game based on Bible characters for the NES. Sure, it was remade, but that’s different from being completely rebuilt. We’ve seen lots of games built on the foundation Mario 1 poured. But, thirty years later, there’s still only one Mario 2. It never got a direct sequel. Its primary mechanics never carried over to another major game. It defies aging on the basis of never having been attempted again. And that’s strange, because we’re talking about one of the single most important games ever made. Even StarTropics got a sequel, for fuck’s sake. Kid Icarus got a couple! Excitebike got a 3D remake! Mario 2 outsold them all combined and was still a one-off. Some of its characters became Mario staples, but its gameplay never resurfaced again. Even though almost everyone likes it, if not loves it. Weird.

So actually, Mario 2 is even more exceptional than you first realized. Think about it: the NES was scorching hot in 1988, when it released. Fans were clamoring for the sequel to Super Mario Bros. As popular as the NES was, it wasn’t quite solidified yet. For all the world knew, it was a brief resurgence of an otherwise passed fad: video games. If Mario 2 had sucked, or had outright bombed, it absolutely could have cooled Nintendo’s jets and put a grinding halt to their momentum.

And then gamers get Mario 2, and it’s so fucking weird. A complete departure from the original. No question mark blocks. No fire flowers. No Goombas or Koopas or Bowser or any enemies from Mario 1. No flagpole. No killing enemies by jumping on them. The coins work completely different and aren’t just scattered around stages. Everything is built around picking up and throwing stuff, with only a few cursory nods to the original, like the star or the mushroom. It’s a Mario game in name only, with westerners mostly oblivious to its origins as a reskinning of a completely unrelated game based on mascots for a glorified Japanese state fair being put on by a television station.

You kill Wart by feeding him vegetables. He hates vegetables. Which is why he placed a fucking vegetable generator in his throne room. Like, seriously, have we considered he never returned because he’s too dumb to sign the contract?

Everyone knows the story of Nintendo risking everything when they launched the NES in North America, offering an insane no-risk deal to stores in order to get them to carry the console. That move deserves the recognition it gets, but I wonder why nobody looks at Super Mario Bros. 2 in the same light. Because it certainly was a huge risk for Nintendo. If fans had rejected Super Mario 2, imagine what a catastrophe it would have been. Especially considering that Zelda II: The Adventure of Link released around the same time and was an even more polarizing departure from the original game in its series. Early Nintendo adopters could very easily have decided that Nintendo wasn’t giving them the type of games they were asking for and moved on to other things. It seems absurd now, but it was definitely on the table back then.

Thankfully, Super Mario 2 was so good on its own merit that it continued to sell even after word-of-mouth that it was nothing like Super Mario 1 had a chance to take hold. Ten million copies on the NES were sold. You don’t get sales like that on name value alone. And Super Mario 2 as an entity onto itself was so viable that a remake of it was chosen to be the Mario launch game for the Game Boy Advance. It was thirteen years later. Thirteen! Thirteen years ago today, George W. Bush was still President and nobody knew who Barack Obama was. That’s how fast the world changes, and yet, Super Mario 2, thirteen years-old, was still good enough to be a flagship launch game for a major platform. I’d never argue against Super Mario Bros. being the reason there was so many Nintendo Entertainment Systems in households in the 80s. But in major way, Super Mario Bros. 2 is what assured there would continue to be Nintendo devices in American households into the 90s and beyond. Yes, it’s the “weird one” in the series. But it’s the one that I most tip my hat to. Against all odds, it holds up better than any “real” Mario game. To paraphrase an old adage: man fears time. But time fears Super Mario 2.

Super Mario Bros. 2 was developed by Nintendo
Free to Play with a Switch Online Subscription

Interested in Super Mario Bros 2? Boss Fight Books has a book detailing its history by Jon Irwin. Check it out here for $4.99.

indie-gamer-chick-approvedSuper Mario Bros 2. is Chick-Approved, but as a non-indie is not ranked on the IGC 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.

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.

Read more of this post

Ask the Chick (Issue #2)

It’s the eve of the first #DiscoverIndies Friday. No biggie, just the culmination of my entire Indie Gamer Chick career. I’ve puked roughly seven times today.

So let’s get to the questions.

Any Kingdom Hearts game. The second one especially was so top-heavy in its own mythology and the first game ended in a cliffhanger, so I was kind of stunned that the sequel had closure. Yet, having played through most games in the series, I still can’t fully explain what exactly the goal of the Heartless was. It’s just nonsensical tripe. But the gameplay is fun and Sora is relatable.

Indie games? Limbo’s ending left me shaking my head wondering how so many people read so much into it when it’s kept so deliberately abstract. I liked playing Limbo, and that sequence with the spider is a first-ballot candidate in the Opening Level Hall of Fame, but ending left me wondering what the point was.

If you mean linear, story-based games and separate play-sessions (I made 200+ runs through Dead Cells but that was over one month-long binge), I’ve played all the way through Shadow of the Colossus four times. The first play-through was probably an all-time top five games experience for me. It was incredible. Every subsequent time, not so much. The flaws started to stick out more and more. I recently played the PS4 remake and I still think it’s an all-timer, but there’s a lot of questionable decisions and some of the bosses are very underwhelming to the point that they feel more like they were a “we gotta make deadline” inclusions more than being included on merit. There’s two in the game that are barely bigger than the horse, for fuck’s sake.

I don’t replay a ton of games. There’s so many games out there and every single replay is time I’m spending not playing something new to me. I look at my gaming existence as an ongoing quest to play the best game I’ll ever play in my life. I’m 29-years-old, and I hope I haven’t already played that game. But if I keep playing the same games over and over again, it will limit the time I have to find that game. I’ve met people who have proudly told me they play Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VII once a month, EVERY MONTH, and always will because they know 100% for sure they’ll never ever ever ever play a better game. To me, that’s a sign of insecurity. I want to find a game I’ll like more than my favorite game ever, because that game obviously must be spectacular.

The biggest? Yes. The best? I think it gave up that title sometime in 2017. It’s just too damn much work now to sift through new releases. It’s maddening how fast games release on Steam, with no curation. I know people are fans of achievements and Steam cards, but games that exist only to exploit those, have no effort behind them, and only serve to dump 300+ achievements on players in as little time as possible are like a form of cancer that’s rendered shopping on the platform an excruciating experience. PlayStation 4 is just as bad with shit like Emerald Shores or Unknown City. Games that have made some very talented developers who can’t get listing physically ill. Right now, the market I like the most is Xbox One’s. It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t feel like a dumping ground. Every platform needs reform, but Xbox needs it the least.

But, my little birds tell me that reform is coming to Steam and PlayStation 4 in 2019, and talks of making sure Switch doesn’t go too far off the rails are taking place. Wish I could go into details but everything is preliminary right now. This stuff doesn’t happen overnight, everyone.

As far as taking Steam’s spot, a 90%+ market share is tough to crack. I used to be of the belief that you would have to chip away at it one tiny chunk at a time, but obviously I was wrong about that. Every market that’s gone that route has failed. I can admit when I’m wrong, and I was wrong about this. So really. If someone is going to shake up the landscape, they’re probably going to need such a momentous send-off that it immediately takes a 10% or better chunk. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but trust me, that would be unprecedented.

Can it be done?

No, it can’t be. Prove me wrong, competitors. I’m rooting for you.

The Super NES. I have most of the classic mini consoles and tons of compilations of classic games, and the SNES lineup is the best top-to-bottom with the fewest stinkers. Games for the SNES just plain aged better than NES, N64, Genesis, or PlayStation One games. The worst game in the collection, Star Fox 2, was a game so horrible Nintendo shit-canned it twice in two different eras before finally sticking it on the SNES Classic as a tacky promotional gimmick. I’ve been doing this IGC Retro Blitz thing for a month now and the best classic game collection, and it’s not even close really, is the SNES Classic. Just the lineup of it alone could probably get me through the next decade if that’s all I had to play. But if you throw in the rest of the SNES lineup, I’d be able to make it for life.

I look at something like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes more like a board game than a video game. It’s actually really clever and when I finally put enough time into it for a full review, I can’t imagine it won’t be on the IGC Leaderboard Top 10. I also like what it represents: that making a game doesn’t begin and end with a series of 1s and 0s. That you can take it outside the box and create a simple, coherent, insanely fun title that isn’t limited to just a screen.

Otherwise, it depends on what you mean by “media.” Does Amiibo count? Skylanders? You know who would have been all over that kind of shit once upon a time? Young me. I would absolutely have been someone who pestered their parents for the latest Amiibos or Lego Dimensions sets. I only currently own one Amiibo, and it’s a still-boxed Shovel Knight I got from a friend at Nintendo as a gift. Adult-me just doesn’t have the time to bother with that stuff. I want to just sit down and play games. Young me? My parents would have been screaming at me 24/7 because they’d been stepping on them constantly.

My Dad is one of those older people that wants to be “hip” and “with it” and so when the media would hype the latest game console, in the time before I was around, he’d buy it and play with it for a few hours, and after that it’d only get used if they had guests come over. So when I was born, we actually had things like an NES and an SNES, but I never really got into them. My parents tell me the first game they remember me playing that I turned on and played by myself was Super Mario Kart, but I certainly wasn’t “hooked” by the experience. We had Zombies Ate my Neighbors and I remember playing it while hiding under the blankets. It’s not even a scary game, but five-year-old me probably thought it was.

When I was seven, my parents were shopping and there was a kiosk for PlayStation, and it had Crash Bandicoot. I started playing it, and it became the thing I wanted most for Christmas. That’s what made me truly interested in games. But the game that solidified gaming for me for life was Banjo-Kazooie. I played it on a kiosk again (hey, those things work game companies, you should bring them back!) and I really wanted it. And so on my 9th Birthday, July 11, 1998, my parents got me a Nintendo 64 with Banjo, and on that day I truly became a gamer. From that point onward, that’s all I wanted to do with all my free time.

In late June of 2011, the summer gaming drought was happening. I was browsing my Xbox 360 collection when I came across the game Breath of Death VII, which I had previously purchased. Brian asked me what it was. I told him “it’s an Xbox Live Indie Game. Anyone can make and publish games for Xbox and they go into a separate section of the store.” I hadn’t looked at those games in a long time, so I went to the XBLIG section of the market and there were TONS of games, many of which looked cool. I wanted to know which games were the good ones, but when I went to check reviews, we noticed that basically every site that covered XBLIGs gave every game a recommendation and said almost nothing critical about them.

My family had been pestering me that I needed a hobby, something creative, and suggested I take up blogging. Brian said “that’s it. That’s what you blog about. These Xbox indie games.” I opened Indie Gamer Chick on July 1, 2011, ten days before my 22nd birthday. By August 1, 2011, it was the most read XBLIG site in the world.

The funny part is, I definitely had no right to call myself “Indie Gamer Chick” at the time. I wasn’t an indie enthusiast. I hope in the seven-and-a-half years since, I’ve earned the name.

That anyone read me. When I cleared ten page views on the third day, we couldn’t believe it. But then the XBLIG development community found me and at first they were kind of mortified. I mean, my reviews weren’t very nice, and even with games I liked, I pointed out the flaws in them. Devs weren’t used to that. But, they ultimately embraced me, and I somehow became part of their community. That’s the part that shocked me. I never set out to be a community leader. It wasn’t something in the cards for me. That the community essentially chose me for that role? Humbling beyond belief. I hope I did right by them. I gave them everything I had. I miss them. I miss XBLIG.

Yes. I think we’re way overdue for this. But, after Hot Coffee, which could have been a fantastic chance for the game industry to, at long last, grow the fuck up, I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon. The biggest issue is getting distribution of course. Someone could try to make a truly adult-only game for a major console, but they’ll certainly get rejected for listing from any of the big three. If they did get approval, the game would almost certainly never get listing in their digital markets and be relegated to physical copies in adult fun-time stores.

The bigger question is “is there even a market for this?” There was a cottage industry of pornography games for the Atari 2600 that were about as erotic as your grandma in the shower, but only one of them sold “well” (50,000 units) and that’s because it became the center of a media storm that made it 10x more desirable to try from a counter-culture point of view. That game involved raping a bound-and-gagged Native American. Something tells me that wouldn’t fly today.

But a well-made game that involves graphic depictions of sex? Something classy? It’s basically impossible to gauge because there’s no precedent for it on consoles. It would be a huge risk to whoever undertook the production of it. I believe there’s no reason to not have thing already be a thing in gaming, but whether it ever will happen? Honestly, I can’t see it because there’s just too many barriers of entry. The big chastity belt of gaming.

Bad controls for platformers for me. I’ve always been of the belief that good controls don’t make a game, but bad controls will absolutely break a game. As for RPGs, ones where grinding isn’t fun. Some people believe that, by definition, grinding has to be a chore. I’ve never believed that. I’ve played plenty of games where the act of grinding up resources can be every bit as fun as opening up the storyline.

%d bloggers like this: