Treasure Stack

I never really liked Wario’s Woods. When I was still fawning over NES Remix, the moment I realized the series was running out of steam is when the Wario’s Woods shit started during NES Remix 2. Now, considering that the Remix series turned chicken shit like Urban Champion, Clu Clu Land, Baseball, Tennis, and Ice Climber into chicken salad, that really gives you an idea just how bad Wario’s Woods is. It’s horrible. Cynical too. Nintendo had struck gold with Tetris but they didn’t own it and wanted a Tetris-like to call their own. They had Dr. Mario, which was a big hit for reasons I’ll never understand because Dr. Mario is fucking boring. Yoshi’s Cookie is fucking boring. And Wario’s Woods is clunky as all hell AND fucking boring. It’s the worst of that initial Trilogy of Not-Tetris. It was the second-to-last Nintendo-published NES game, with only StarTropics 2 coming out afterwards. Not exactly a riveting send-off for the console that made them famous. If you told me an indie developer would make the Wario’s Woods formula somewhat compelling, I’d say you must be high. But here we are: an indie tribute to one of the worst “major” puzzlers ever, and it’s not bad.

Treasure Stack isn’t great either. For those unfamiliar with the concept: multi-colored treasure chests rain down from the heavens into a well, two boxes at a time. You’re a little dude or dudette at the bottom of the well who has to platform around, grabbing and stacking the chests. Occasionally keys will come down with the treasures. If you match a key to the right color chest, it detonates the chest and all chests of the same color connected to it. The platforming guy/gal controls smoothly and has a grappling hook they can use to grab blocks from high up in the well and quickly bring them down to the base, which is what sets Stack apart from Woods. It’s clever and it works. And there’s special items that automatically clear blocks out. It sounds great, and it would be.. except the garbage blocks.

I’m guessing color-blind players will not enjoy this one as much.

I don’t know why the game needed garbage blocks. The formula for Treasure Stack wasn’t exactly something that lends itself to fast-paced action-puzzling. Without them, the game would still be difficult enough once the chests/keys start dropping faster. Especially since you’re left up to the whims of chance as to whether the game will generate the right color key you need to set-off the elaborate combo you’ve been preparing without having to rethink the whole thing if it doesn’t come fast enough. And even the keys you often can’t count on to be your salvation because I swear to God they constantly come down paired with a treasure chest of the same color, which means the key and the chest that are falling will detonate upon landing and thus you can’t do anything with them. It happened to me all the time and was annoying. They really should rig it so a chest and a key of the same color NEVER come out together. It would make the game ten-fold better. But really, the garbage is the big issue here. Everything about the garbage blocks saps the fun from Treasure Stack. The meter for triggering them fills up too fast. When they activate, they blanket the top spot of each column in the well. Just a couple of minutes into the game, the meter starts filling up quite fast, while the colored chests/keys rain down even faster. It’s just not reasonable to be able to keep up with them even if you had four hands and two brains. And I don’t have four hands.

Even worse is that death is instant if you reach the top of the well. A game like this really called for a Tetris Attack/Pokemon Puzzle League style grace-period where you have a couple of seconds to fix the problem before being declared KOed. You can have a relatively comfortable three-space gap from the top of the well and end up dead a moment later. Hell, I’ve had better conditions and not survived the next ten seconds. And because your character can only leap one block, recovery is next to impossible once you reach a certain point. By five minutes in, Treasure Stack’s action is so fast that it’s well beyond the point of reasonable management. If the blocks fell horizontally instead of being stacked on-top of each other, you’d have a lot more time and the stacks in the well wouldn’t become insurmountable instantly. Treasure Stack, more than any well-based puzzler I’ve ever encountered, feels like it’s designed specifically to smother you.

I can’t remember a well-based puzzler where you can go from feeling nice and relaxed to overwhelmed and defeated in such short order. And not in a good way, either. The tide turns so quickly that you can’t even process how you failed. It just sort of happens.

This probably makes it sound like I didn’t like Treasure Stack at all. And for solo play, I really didn’t. It just does too many core gameplay mistakes to be enjoyable. But Treasure Stack is designed with multiplayer in mind. There, the rules are a bit different and the game absolutely shines. Playing online, you get a lot less garbage blocks, and they only come as the result of your opponent racking up combos and other assorted puzzling shenanigans. I wish it were more clear which actions trigger more garbage blocks so I could try focusing on that. Sometimes I would set up very elaborate combos only to see but a single garbage block drop on my opponent. But still, the way multiplayer is oriented allows for Treasure Stack to be appreciated. You actually have time to experience the thrill of very elaborate combos, something I feel is next to impossible to pull off in solo play.

I won this match. It wasn’t quite the same thrill as winning at Tetris 99, but still, in your face person I beat.

I can’t help but wonder if Treasure Stack released a bit too early. Some fixes have already been done. I bought the game on Friday, and at that time there was no option to play another round of solo play. You had to go all the way back from the starting menu to get another game going. That’s already been fixed, less than a week later. But there’s a lot more patches coming. Maybe Treasure Stack needed a bit more cooking. Especially since the game is so dependent on online multiplayer. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, and players who are turned off by the initial batch of problems might not return after their first play session, thus hurting the game’s online player pool. This is the type of stuff developers should think about but don’t. I get that it must be an exciting and anxious moment to see your game on the marketplace, but if you’re multiplayer focused, remember that multiplayer indies die a miserable death if they can’t cultivate and maintain a sizeable user-base to support the game. If your title is buggy when it comes out, which is when you’ll get most of your sales, you’re handicapping your chances right out of the starting gate. I genuinely believe that Treasure Stack will be good as a solo game eventually, but as of this writing it wins my Seal of Approval strictly for the multiplayer, which is awesome. Whether it’ll ever succeed as a fun and frantic single-player experience is possible but not a certainty.

It’s hard to gauge potential in a game. When something is wrong, we know how much it hurts it, but we can’t know how much the fix of it will improve the overall experience. I do believe the foundation of something really good is here, but how good can it be? I don’t think Treasure Stack will ever have the cerebral elegance of Tetris, the white-knuckle action of Pokemon Puzzle League, or the combo-heavy frenziness of Puyo Puyo. It’s going to be somewhere between those even if it peaks. But, I would have guessed Wario’s Woods was beyond salvaging and that’s clearly not the case. It shows how inspired the development team is that they polished that turd to a golden shine. There’s something here with Treasure Stack. Multiplayer proves that. Get a four player local game going and you’re going to have a blast. There’s cross-play with online multiplayer, which as of this writing has a lively user base. Those modes make Treasure Stack worth a look. Single player might be awesome at some point, but right now it doesn’t, ahem, stack up.

Treasure Stack was developed by Pixelakes
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 noted “why aren’t there power-ups for the character? Stuff that lets him jump higher? Come on, if you’re going to have a platformer in your puzzler with jumping, you gotta have power-ups for the character!” in the making of this review.

Treasure Stack is Chick-Approved.. Christ, that’s five in a row, maybe I’m going soft.. and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Farm Together

I feel really bad for Farm Together. It was set to be my new zen-like gaming addiction. My substitute for Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, which I used to and play half-engaged while the other half of me thought about work stuff. And, for a few days at least, it was just that. Then Tetris 99 sunk its fangs into me and Farm Together fell completely off my radar. Granted, the two games have nothing in common besides their addictive, veg-out potential. Still, choosing Tetris 99 over Farm Together is like selecting your drug dealer based on which one has the most teeth.

Developed by XBLIG all-star studio Milkstone (whose game Little Racers STREET was featured in my 2013 Indie Royale bundle), Farm Together is a remake of their Xbox Live Indie Game it Avatar Farm. A glossier, more polished, souped-up version of it. It’s not so much a game as much as just a grind-for-the-sake-of-grinding time waster. But hey, those have a place in the big tent of gaming. Basically, you plant crops, wait a while, and then dig up those crops for slightly more resources than you put into planting them. Then you buy and unlock slightly more expensive crops that you plant, wait, and harvest for slightly more resources. Rinse and repeat about two-trillion times, and that’s Farm Together. There’s no real goal or end-game. You just plant, wait, and harvest. You can also buy cattle, birds, and fish that you feed, wait, and harvest. The wait times vary, but the basic concept never changes: place object, tend to object, harvest object. Sometimes the objects are permanent investments that you eventually make a profit on (the cattle, trees, the flowers, or fish). Sometimes they’re a one-time thing (most of the veggies). But the crux of game is grinding to get resources to grind more.

If they start singing, I’m packing my shit and getting out of here.

It’s a fucking grind, and nothing more. But, I kind of admire it. There’s no micro-transactions that speed up the wait times, which probably was very tempting to include because drooling addicts such as myself would have caved in and bought them. And because there’s no ultimate end-goal, you’re free to go about things at your own leisure. I focused on slowly getting permanent resources to blanket my farm. Trees are a permanent investment that will slowly result in a net-profit. Veggies are one-and-done. Flowers are also permanent but require constant watering to yield the best results. Raising animals seemed unbalanced and too expensive, so I avoided it unless it was related to a challenge in the game. I had no interest in watching them just stand around asking for food. I already feel like a monster for letting my Nintendog go 15 years unloved and unattended. OH GOD MUDDY, I’M SO SORRY!

It’s a simple, arcadey/mobiley setup, but one filled with gross limitations. For example, there’s no way to set up an irrigation system to tend to veggies and flowers. Or at least an efficient way. There’s a sprinkler you can purchase, but the sprinklers only tend to two squares. Mind you, your tractor services nine-squares at a time. And that sprinkler, instead of costing a reasonable resource to purchase, costs the relatively rare and valuable pink medals. Having to give those up just to be able to let two squares linger without needing to micro-manage them like the world’s fussiest baby is ridiculous. Given how much emphasis is given to decorative shit to purchase (which you usually spend diamonds on), why aren’t the sprinklers more cost efficient? Hell, they’re listed alongside the fencing items and are, as far as I can tell, the only thing in their category that actually does something besides sitting there. I didn’t even realize they were there at first.

Trees were my primary method of making money. They’re permanent, don’t require watering or any tending to, and some of them bear fruit multiple times during a “year cycle.” If you plan to be playing the game long, they’re the way to go because they’ll eventually be net-positive after a week or so with no effort required. All the crops “level-up” which basically just makes them give you more money. And hey, trees are pretty and they make air and stuff for us.

And that’s where Farm Together fails: it seems to want the grind to be the central focus and does nothing to take the edge off that. For me, one of those “ta-da!” moments in games like this is when you no longer need to grind. What limited options there are in Farm Together for that in theory work, but they’re too expensive and not efficient. I hired a farm hand. The section I marked him for barely clipped the edge of where I kept llamas. What did the farm hand do? Ffed the ffucking llamas. Over and over and over and over and over, completely draining my money. And maintaining him didn’t save me any time or money compared to just doing the work myself. As for the sprinklers, they do the job, but two squares for one medal is not remotely reasonable a price. Really, the sprinklers should cost diamonds, not medals. But that’s the story with Farm Together in general. It seems like whatever option would lead to the game being less tedious is the option that was declined in favor of enhancing the grind.

And there’s so much more missing. You can’t upgrade your tractor, and doing everything nine-squares at a time is too slow and clunky. You need to fill it up with gas, which thankfully doesn’t cost money. But it drains quickly, requiring you to dash back to the pumps every minute or so of harvesting. And the first pumps you get actually are too slow to fill back up themselves, which is a real kick in the ass for impatient types such as myself. Eventually you’ll get a gas station for 25 pink medals, but even a full tank won’t last you very long when you have a LOT of stuff to harvest (which you will because that’s, you know, the point of the fucking game) keeping you dashing back to the gas pumps like they have the only bathroom on the place and you just won a binge eating contest at Taco Bell.

And you never can get the tractor to do more than nine-squares at a time. Why not? I mean, it’s a game about farming. Give me a god-damned combine harvester as opposed to dry-humping my crops nine-squares at a time. Fine, maybe Farm Together aspired to be slow and grueling like real farming is. But I’m not sure that excuse flies. When you place an animal down, they will stay in the square you dropped them in. No fencing required. I wasn’t aware animals operated on the honor system like that. Certain types of crops that you can’t plant side-by-side in real life (such as tomatoes and sunflowers) can be done with no consequence here. You can put predatory fish in the same body of water as the shit they would normally eat with no apparent drawback. I think realism was thrown out the door. Farm Together doesn’t at all present itself as a farm simulator, so to hell with saying “real farming is hard work” and let me have more shortcuts.

I came to dread seeing those little water-needed symbols. Annoyingly, it sometimes rains in the game but the rain doesn’t actually water the plants. Apparently flowers are quite snooty about the water they drink. What am I using? Fiji Water or something?

Which brings us to the big hook. The one that I kept forgetting was the main selling point despite it being in the fucking title: online play. You can go to other farms to help harvest their crops for extra experience points. Whatever you dig up goes to their bank account instead of yours, and safeguards are in place to prevent abuse. My friend MJ was the one who couldn’t wait to get me playing this, but for me, I guess I’m weird because I wanted to take on the responsibility of harvesting all the stuff I planted myself. I mean, what’s the point of going to all the effort of planting the stuff if you’re not the one getting to see how much your own hard work paid off. If I set up a domino rally, I’m not inviting someone over to push the first block over. That shit was hard work! I want to be the one to do the fun part! Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people are enjoying visiting other farms. For me? When I saw the effort others made it make their farm look like a.. you know.. farm, I felt like a kid who just presented a formless clump of Legos to her mother and said “look, it’s a Transformer!” or something. One dude I visited basically made Seaworld, and here I was thinking my shit looked good because I finally smartened-up and started putting things in clumps of nine for even-harvesting with the useless tractor. I was so embarrassed that I never turned on the ability for others to visit my stuff. My farm wasn’t good-looking. Others have full resorts going. I just shoved shit wherever I could find room. Story of my life. I never was good at decorating cookies during Christmas, either. I just would slather on a large clump of frosting and eat it. That’s basically what I did here.

This dude had a full seaside resort thing going. My cleverness began and ended with me naming my farm “50 Shades of Hay.” And then it turned out there really was no particularly useful hay in the game and I felt like an idiot.

But, for all the bitching I’m doing, I’ll give Farm Together this: it’s cathartic. Farm Together is NOT a game. It’s a Slinky that you shuffle the coils back and forth from one hand to the other because it’s the only activity that’s keeping you from grabbing an automatic rifle, climbing a water tower and taking out the entire town. It’s bubble-wrap that you sit there, slack-jawed, popping one air-pocket at a time like a fucking psychopath. It’s the adult version of that children’s toy with the colored pegs and the hammer that you sit there smacking the pegs down, then turn the thing over and smack them on the other side. I don’t know what that’s called but it’s always my go-to gift for people I hate because their kid will make a lot of noise with it and drive them insane, which makes me happy because fuck them, am I right? What Farm Together is not is Sim City for rednecks. It’s a mobile-style resource grinder, like Clicker Heroes with a farmer’s tan. Those obviously have a place in gaming. That someone as jaded as me can easily lose themselves in something like this has to be indicative of something with merit, or at least I’d think so. And yea, maybe it’s a bit over-priced at $20 and the DLC is lame (it’s just accessories that change your appearance but otherwise accomplish nothing). And there is something undeniably satisfying about completing a mission in the game (which is just harvesting X amount of resources) or reaching the point where previously expensive items can be bought in bulk. I don’t know if I’d call it “fun” or “compelling” but it’s certainly endearing. When I thought I had enough playtime to do this review, I kept turning the game back on to get screenshots and inevitably would put another hour or two into work every time I did. That seems like it’s important to note. So yea, go ahead a try it. It’s dumb and it’s a bit lazy at times, but it’s a perfectly fine time-waster. Certainly better than bubble wrap.

Farm Together was developed by Milkstone Studios
Point of Sale: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 ♪♪ Farm Together.. right now.. over me ♪♪ in the making of this review.

Farm Together is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

*A friend purchased a copy of Farm Together for me. Because I chose to do a review of it, I purchased a second copy out of pocket. All games reviewed at IGC are paid for by me.

Tetris 99

I was born twenty days before the Game Boy released in the United States. I missed the whole national Tetris craze. Older fans are sickened by the fact that I’d never played the Game Boy Tetris until right before I wrote this sentence. Apparently I’m supposed to be nostalgic for a game that was shat out into the world the same month I was. My first experience with Tetris was a Disney-themed N64 game that was.. alright. It wasn’t no Pokemon Puzzle League, that’s for sure. It wasn’t even a Super Puzzle Fighter. Hell, there was a $10 PS1 drug store budget rack game called Puzzle Star Sweep that nobody remembers or talks about that I put a lot more time into. Probably the best $10 I ever spent on a game before modern indies became a thing.

You can still get Puzzle Star Sweep on PSN for your PlayStation 3, PSP and Vita. It’s the best well-puzzler you’ve never heard of.

I never understood the Tetris obsession. It seemed to come and go like the gaming version of disco. The way people spoke of it, they might as well have been describing events from the bronze age for as far in the distant-past as it seemed. And then when I was seventeen and in the middle of a ten-month, twenty-hour-a-day World of Warcraft bender, I got Tetris DS. It was the sole interruption of probably my worst gaming addiction. Which was sort of like giving a heroine addict methadone, really. It had fun theming (based around Nintendo properties) and I ended up running out my DS’s battery a few dozen times. I’d probably make my DS top 10 if I did such a list. But then Tetris sort of faded away for me. I later got it for PS3, but the thrill was gone. And the recent comeback to relevancy via Tetris Effect meant nothing for me because it’s not epilepsy-compatible. Also, the whole battle royale fad has not been my thing. If Tetris 99 hadn’t been free with my Switch Online subscription, I’d probably never bought it for a variety of reasons. Among them, the special effects are just flashy enough that I can only play it in portable-mode with the back-lighting turned all the way down. It’s not exactly convenient for me. Had I not been insanely bored the night it came out, it might have sat on my Switch, unplayed and unloved.

Here I am, 1,000 games and over seventy-six hours of gameplay later, left in awe. And probably legitimately addicted. My family has, without hyperbole, staged two interventions on my use of this game. Finally, I made a deal with them: let me play my thousandth game, and then I’ll delete it permanently and finish up this review. This review that I’ve been in the process of writing for seventeen days. Really, all I need to say is this: Tetris 99 is the killer app for Switch Online, and the best game on Nintendo Switch. Yep, better than Breath of the Wild or Mario Odyssey. It’s absolutely incredible. And, unlike a lot of battle royale games, you really do need to be good to finish high in the standings. It took me around 60 games to grab my first victory, but when it happened, I literally screamed myself hoarse. It helps that the win came on the heels of the greatest come-from-behind victory in the history of gaming. Well, at least for me.

I won that game. By time I erased Tetris 99 from my Switch, I’d won forty-six more times to go with it. Maybe my love of Tetris 99 has to do with the fact that I’m finally good at one of these fucking BR games. But really, it’s because the idea is just so good. Basically, all 99 players try to throw garbage blocks at each other by stringing together combos while throwing down doubles, triples, and Tetrises. And also doing these things called T-Spins that I never fully got the hang of. Probably the biggest weakness out of the box with Tetris 99 is there’s no instructions and players are left to figure out what exactly everything means on their own. Perhaps this was a nod of the head to those NES era douchebags that never stop bitching about how games back in their days didn’t “hold hands.” Then again, those same players keep coming to me asking how to play the game. Heh.

There really should have been an option to remove the flashy special effects. Not just for epilepsy but because, satisfying as it is to see the shots hit other players, it’s distracting. The same goes for the targets pointed at you. The lines should have been transparent. If a lot of players are on you, you can’t see the bottom of the well.

In a nutshell, Tetris 99 is exactly the same Tetris you grew up with. The seven primary shapes are all back with no newcomers. You move the blocks with the left D-Pad while using the analog sticks to target players to receive whatever garbage blocks you earn. Using the left stick, you can target specific players. But there’s 98 besides yourself and that process will be slow and clunky and should only be used late in the game, if at all. Like, don’t even look at the left-stick until you’ve made at least the top 15. Instead, focus on the right stick. It does a focused-target on one of four groups. Flicking up targets those closest to being knocked out of the game. Flicking left will hit a random person and is only really useful if you’re trying to fly under the radar or trying to shake-off those who are targeting you only because you’re attacking them. Flicking down targets people attacking you. You’ll want to use this one the most if you’re taking a defensive stance. It was my primary play-style. And flicking right will target players who have badges. And my apologies to Blazing Saddles, but you’ll need some stinkin’ badges.

Badges by far seem to confuse players the most. Here’s how they work: you collect a badge every time you knock a player out. If multiple players contributed to knocking the player out, they receive a half-badge. The more badges you have, the stronger your attack power, and the more garbage you send to your opponents. When a player carrying a ton of badges gets knocked out, the player who did it gets all the badges they collected plus one. The badge system was created to assure a player can’t coast under the radar and have any chance at winning during the end-game if they’ve not been aggressive at all. Winning without a single badge, which requires you to win by only knocking out the final player, is the rarest of victories, one that the player would have to be a virtual God among OF COURSE I’VE DONE IT!!

Also, just to be clear: badges do not carry over to the next match. But, I suspect that the auto-targeting at the start of each match might be in part based on how players did in the previous match. Perhaps the top-finishing person of the 99 gets all the targets. Over half my matches I finished in the top 10, and in a remarkably strange amount of matches, I would start with over 20 targets painted on me before the first block dropped. People on my timeline consistently said they’d never experienced anything like the sheer amount of targets I normally got. One time it was fifty-two bullseyes I had painted on me before the first block even started falling. Fifty-two! Usually when people want to throw that much garbage at me, I’m talking about Hollow Knight.

What I love most about Tetris 99 is that this relatively simple setup allows for diverse and complex strategies. You can play aggressively, but risk putting a target on yourself. You can fly under the radar until the herd thins out, but then you risk reaching the end game with no attack power (most of my 2nd – 4th place finishes were a result of this). Tetris was already a game that required quick-wits and improvisation, but Tetris 99 compounds that by having to train yourself to glance over at remaining opponents and quickly, accurately decide how to go about attacking or surviving. Games can swing wildly. I’ve gone from the bottom of my well and in firm control to dead in seconds just by one poorly timed mistake by myself that an opponent on their last rope capitalized on, and vice-versa. Now granted, I have a lot of friends and fans who put a lot of time and hundreds of rounds in Tetris 99 and couldn’t get a win, and I got 47 so I’m pretty proud of myself. But, I should have had a lot more, and I blew it. In 1,000 matches, I probably finished 2nd place over 100 times, easily. I was very much the Jerry West of Tetris 99.

I call this “getting Sarah Huckabeed.”

All is not well in Tetrisville. Besides the fact that the rules and attack patterns are not entirely clear, there some horrific glitches that stunt the game’s potential. One in particular can potentially block valid attacks. I preferred to take a defensive posture when I played, focusing on those attacking me. However, sometimes I’d knock-out players who were targeting me, only their target would remain painted on me for the remainder of the game. When using the “attackers” target, if nobody is attacking you, the game defaults to a random target if you manage to hit anything higher than a double. But, since the game believed I was still being targeted, those combos would go to waste since there wasn’t really a player to attack. This glitch has started happening constantly. Like, one out of every four matches. It forced me to move off my defensive stance and instead target random people, since taking an aggressive stance against badge-holders is a good way to get knocked out early. This glitch has been there from the start and there’s no word of a patch coming. It needs to be fixed. Like, now.

(Can you tell I focused on this just to have a Second Chance with the Chick excuse for Tetris 99 so I can play it more? Too obvious?)

Check the circled player who was KOed in 89th place on the right side of the screen. That target should have gone away. But, because of the glitch, the target stayed. If you don’t realize this is happening, you will waste a LOT of garbage blocks. This glitch is not a rarity. It constantly happens and it needs to be fixed.

Beyond that, my biggest complaint is the lack of advanced stats. Like, I’d really like an official number of how many times I finished in the top 10. I can’t tell you exactly how many games I finished 2nd place in, or how many games I won only holding three badges or whatever amount of badges. I would have liked more advanced stats on my scoring too. I had to do the math myself to figure out how many Tetrises I averaged per a match (I finished averaging eight Tetrises a match, off 73 total lines a match). But it would have been way neat if Tetris 99 told me how many lines I averaged per victory, along with how many doubles/triples/Tetrises I needed to achieve those. Besides seeing some absolutely bat shit videos of people who put my skills to shame, I have no clue where I really stood in the grand scheme of things. My ego could have been boosted (or severely wounded) with some online leaderboards. Or, maybe some extra modes. There’s no single-player options (though data-miners have allegedly found the spot for them), or an option to play “traditional” Tetris without the ability to hold blocks. As I neared the end of my time with Tetris 99, I wanted to see how good I really was at it by not holding blocks while the other 98 players presumably did. I did pretty good. I had one game where I finished 10th and another where I finished 2nd. Hell, now I regret the thousand-games promise. I really wanted to see if I could pull off winning without using the hold. This is going to eat at me.

Of all the pop-culture shit this effect could have reminded me of, the one that kept popping in my head was Mr. Destiny.

Anyway, Tetris 99 is awesome. It’s free if you have the subscription to Switch Online. If you don’t, Tetris 99 justifies the cost by itself so much better than the (very limited and not growing fast-enough) NES library you get does. A lot of people consider Tetris to be the best, more pure video game ever made. Tetris 99 is an imperfect spinoff of a perfect formula, but it’s also the most compelling online experience I’ve had since Rocket League. Above every other argument I can make, the best one is that I didn’t grow up with Tetris. It wasn’t important to gamers from my generation. And yet, here we are in 2019, and I’m telling the world that a Tetris game is the best reason to own a Nintendo platform. It’s one of the ten best games I’ve ever played. And, in all the years I’ve played online games, winning at Tetris 99 is by far the most exhilarating. That counts for something.

It might also be a Russian plot to destroy productivity. Let’s not rule this out.

Tetris 99 was developed by Arika
Free with a Nintendo Switch subscription

If you lost to, or beat, someone named Cathy, it was probably me.

Tetris 99 is Chick-Approved but is not an indie and ineligible for ranking on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Good thing probably. It’d be #1 if it were.

The Adventures of Elena Temple

The Indie Gamer Chick Paradox: not being nostalgic for older games, but being drawn to neo-retro games. It’s a strange phenomena, but one I’ve noticed in myself, especially lately. When browsing console or PC marketplaces, if a game is all pixel-arty in a convincing way, I’m much more likely to want to try it. I find that strange, because I’m not exactly telling kids about the glory days when all Mario needed was two buttons, a D-Pad, fireballs, and a flagpole at the end of each stage. Frankly, some of those type of gamers are kind of creepy. Like the ones who say they won’t let their kids play any modern games until they play the games of their childhood and learn to like them, or else. That’s not teaching your kids appreciation. That’s brainwashing. Really unnerving shit that turns what should be a beautiful event into something more like indoctrination into a cult.

Still, if I see something that looks like a lost older game that’s been rediscovered and released again for a new audience, it sticks out to me. The Adventure of Elena Temple takes that a step further: it’s presented to us like it really is a lost game from 1982. One that never found its audience because the hapless developer kept porting their work to generic, off-brand game consoles and personal computers nobody owned (like the Nintengo Some Toy or the Maple Computer, a Canadian Macintosh clone that sold 31 units), thus screwing themselves out ever getting recognition (or payment) for what is actually a decent little game.

I wish I was joking when I say I played XBLIGs that didn’t sell that well.

It’s a cute idea, but one that doesn’t factor into the gameplay at all besides changing the shading of the graphics. That’s a shame, because the meta-joke has legs and probably could have been worked into the concept. Like maybe each port of Elena is busted by era-specific limitations or something along those lines. What could have been a truly inspired gag becomes little more than flavor text for different color palettes of the same game. You can’t even change schemes on the fly. You have to exit out to the main menu, which is frankly inconvenient if you’re someone genuinely looking for what style is the most comfortable to use. And to be honest, because of the comedic framing with the dense creator getting conned into releasing on the wrong platforms, I actually thought each different graphics style was going to be a completely different map or even version of the game. They’re not. There is exactly one map and one map only for Elena Temple that plays the same no matter which version you use. That’s fine, but I wish it had been a bit less ambiguous. Sort of like my last home pregnancy test. It’s surprisingly difficult to interpret whether a tiny line is blue or not when you’re stressing over the effectiveness of condoms.

Also, I had to fixate on that stuff because I really don’t have very much to say about the actual content of Elena Temple. It’s fine. There’s only fifty rooms to explore and gameplay is kept very limited in order to stay true to the 1982-developed-game theme. Exploring is limited to hoping around on platforms, occasionally hitting a button or firing a gun to break jars or knock down walls. I asked myself why she had to shoot jars instead of, you know, just kicking them or picking them up and dropping them or anything really besides busting a cap in them? Who shoots a jar unless you’re a Branch Davidian or something? In fact, guns are the solution to almost everything in Elena Temple. It’s like the NRA’s wet dream. Nearly every puzzle requires shooting it, and sometimes I found myself shooting buttons I could have pressed, but you only get two bullets at a time. There’s refills scattered around the map, some of which respawn without having to leave the room and come back in it. It does work, but it never gets more involved than base-level puzzle elements. You can shoot enemies too, but there’s seriously only two types: snakes and bats, both of which can be plugged with a single bullet. It contributes to the consistent theme of Elena Temple: everything works but there’s not enough of it.

You can zoom in for a closer view if you wish, but then you can’t admire the off-brand equipment you’re playing the game on. Come to think of it, maybe Elena Temple is a scathing commentary on cheapskates buying generic brands. Fair enough, though my father insists that Soni televisions are just as good as the real thing.

To developer GrimTalin’s credit, everything that’s actually here is fun. Each room is over and done with so quickly that you don’t have time to ever get bored despite many of the rooms feeling kind of samey having very little in the way of actual content. It wouldn’t be out of the question for a first-timer to knock the game out in an under-an-hour with a 100% completion. It controls good enough to never be annoying. Jumping takes a bit to get the hang of, especially with the rooms being as claustrophobic as they are, but after ten minutes it becomes instinctive. There’s a few hidden secrets that shows the location of the eight diamonds you need to finish the game, or whether a room is finished (never found that one) or secret passages (never found that one either) but otherwise what you see is what you get. The framing device actually covers for the generic setting, traps, and enemies, which does work in the same way Microsoft claiming bugs are actually features does.

But, what’s here is actually so well made that I can’t help but think almost anyone will walk away feeling a bit unsatisfied. Elena Temple is one of those games that strives for authenticity, achieves it, and it’s not entirely to the game’s betterment. It’s too simple and too straight-forward and doesn’t have enough going for it. And clearly GrimTalin understands that gaming has come a long ways, because without the one modern concession it does make (unlimited lives and thus no game-overing), Elena Temple would have certainly been too frustrating. You know, like 99% of all the games it’s paying homage to. Maybe that’s as far as GrimTalin could take it without betraying the theme, but I don’t know. The most randomly strange thing I could “complain” about in the game is that the Elena character is perhaps too tall. Hear me out: she’s roughly 1/5 the size of the playfield, with the spikes, coins, snakes, etc being half-as-tall as she is. If she was shorter, along with things like the spikes and coins and traps and enemies being smaller, rooms could have been bigger and thus been made more elaborate. I don’t know why, but it’s something that was in the back of mind nearly my entire session with it. Or maybe I’m off my rocker and it just needed more rooms. Probably just more rooms would work. And enemies. And traps. And weapons. And.. really it just needed more.

This is what a sucker I am: I actually found a blue/yellow color scheme to be the easiest on my eyes, but played in the gross Game Boy mock-up because my fans liked the authenticity of it. That’s how it starts. Next thing you know I’ll be dancing on command.

But it doesn’t need more to be fun. Elena Temple already is fun. The stuff I’m suggesting is merely to push it to a higher level. And, while the stages are basic, they’re not exactly crap either. Elena Temple never bores, and is inexpensive enough that you don’t feel ripped-off by the length. Unlike some other shorter titles that have little in the way of innovation, like Sigi, it feels like what we do have here is fully fleshed out. Like a gourmet chef took bland ingredients and made something very delicious with them without resorting to seasoning or other culinary trickery. When I went to determine Elena’s leaderboard position, I was actually taken off guard by how high it ended up. So if I came across like I didn’t like it, it’s only because what was here was so good that I realized Catalin Marcu’s only sin was not aiming higher. Hardly a sin at all, really. What do you call something that is close to a sin but not? I was going to say “a blowjob”, but I looked into it and it turns out that actually is a sin. I didn’t know that! Well, my next confession on Sunday just got awkward.

The Adventures of Elena Temple was developed by GrimTalin
Point of Sale: Switch, Steam

$2.99 (normally $4.99, really $2.99 should be the permanent price) asked why explorers in all these games break the priceless antique vases instead of, you know, gathering them to donate them to a museum in the making of this review?

Elena Temple is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

TORIDAMA: Brave Challenge

It’s #DiscoverIndies Friday. But, while I’m the creator of the movement, it’s harder than it sounds for me to actually participate. I’m a game critic who purchases all the indies I review. That requires a lot of marketplace browsing. There’s not too many games I’ve missed. So I have to cruise closely towards new releases. And very, very early this morning, I found my hidden gem. It’s called TORIDAMA: Brave Challenge. It’s a cross between WarioWare and Chicken. Not in the bucket of fried sense, but as in, “how close can you come to dying without actually doing it?” I’m a chain smoker, recovering drug addict, and a video gamer that suffers from epilepsy who is currently running through older, flashier titles. Guys, this game was fucking made for me!

This seems slightly like jabbing the hornet’s nest with a stick.

For example, there’s a game literally based on Chicken with a car. There’s a car. There’s a cliff. You have to hit the break to stop the car as close to the cliff as possible without going over. It sums up the concept of Toridama best. Press button to not die, but come close enough to kick the Grim Reaper in the balls. Which probably should have been a game in it now that I think about it. There’s only nineteen total minigames in Toridama, but really, how many variations of this concept can you possibly squeeze out? As it turns out, not even nineteen. There’s an RPG style minigame where you have to stop a meter as close to the center of a bar as possible. Yes, you can choose to run away, but success requires you to keep trying the meter. It sort of betrays the theme, but really all the games are about timing stuff. Probably the one furthest away from the core concept requires you to cook meat using lava by tapping the button to keep yourself as close to the edge of the lava as possible over the course of ten seconds. Yea, you’re still kinda tempting death and testing your courage, but it doesn’t compare to a game based around waiting to open your parachute as close to the ground as possible. I.. uh.. wasn’t so good at that one.

To be clear: it’s a great theme for a game. It’s clever. But Toridama is relatively light on content and what games we do have wear thin quickly. And some of them are extremely fickle about what constitutes a failure or a pass. Each game has a maximum score of 9,999 points. But with some games, there’s apparently so thin a line between scoring in the 5K range, scoring the 10K, or failing that it feels less like skill and more like sheer luck. And that extends to the online leaderboard, which you land on via “Crazy Mode” that requires you to score 9,000K or more or to advance to the next game. The games are thrown at you in random order and I was fucked more than once over 200+ attempts at posting a big score on the board. Filling a Martini glass with “juice” (uh huh, nice way to dodge that T or M rating), getting it right to the lip and still only scoring in the 5K range? Seriously? Who fills that tall away? Alcoholics don’t. It means more booze you have to slurp from the table. Or the carpet.

TORIDAMA is apparently multiplayer-focused, but unless that’s ALL you use it for, you won’t find it fun.

Toridama starts you with a single player mode that fires three random games at players and rates how big or little a chicken you are. Its only purpose really is to unlock all the games and Crazy Mode. You’ll never want to touch it afterwards, since scoring three really good scores in a row is hard enough. You’ll regret not playing Crazy Mode since those can go towards your online score. And there’s a multiplayer mode, but it suffers the same fate so many games do: the person who owns the game will have a significant advantage over friends trying to compete. One that is probably insurmountable. I played against basically everyone in my family and never lost a single match. My family sucks, as evidenced by the fact that I’m part of it, but still, it’s telling that multiplayer is the focus of the package (2 Player mode being the first option in the menu) and yet the actual multiplayer mode really isn’t very fun.

As of this writing I’m #33 on the global leaderboard. While I wish I could brag about this, it really feels like the ordering of games lucked me into this spot. Still, top ranked American. Could be worse.

Now, take this whole review with a heaping spoonful of salt. I love WarioWare and I’m predisposed to enjoying any collection of microgames. And I did have fun with Toridama. But what’s here feels light on content and destined to get old quickly. It’s satisfying to stop a bomb just 0.03 seconds before it detonates. It is fun to let an alligator come this close to eating your face only to back away at the last possible moment. But Toridama is too random and not tightly enough designed to keep anyone focused on it. Which is ironic, since it counts on people with incredible short attention spans to be its audience in the first place. It took me two-and-a-half hours just to finish that this last paragraph!

TORIDAMA: Brave Challenge was developed by G-Mode
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$3.50 (normally $5) noted G-Mode found my G-Spot in the making of this review.

TORIDAMA is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Check out the latest reviews at Indie Gamer Team!

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Left-Right: The Mansion

I’ve played good ideas made badly, and dumb ideas made well. Left-Right: The Mansion is one of those heartbreaking “dumb idea made badly” type of games. Now I’ll be honest: I don’t even remember buying this. I apparently had a seizure afterwards. But going off the marketplace page, I expected one of those “escape room” type of games with puzzle elements. There’s nothing like that here. The idea is you’re given a left door and a right door. One of them leads to another room. One of them leads to a dead-end that forces you to the sequence of rooms over. That sounds fine, right?

I spent almost $4 on this 😦

Well, there’s actually no way to tell which door is the correct door and which one is the dead-end. 50-50 odds. A coin-flip. Pure luck. You can’t study the layout of the rooms for clues. There are none. There’s no use for power-of-deduction. It’s completely random chance. The gameplay comes from the fact that the correct order remains the same for each floor each play-session. So basically you’re playing the Ralph Baer classic Simon with only two options and without knowing what the next move is. Yea, this is one of the worst ideas for a game I’ve seen in over seven years.

I really don’t have that much to say about this one. I honestly think this wasn’t something designed for grown-ups. The very, very tame horror setting and the concept are more suitable for very young children. I tested this out on a few kids. Ones age 8 and upwards found Left-Right: The Mansion to be boring. The seven-year-old wanted to keep playing, and in fact just came in the room as I was typing this to ask if they could play more of it. Take that for what it’s worth. The issue is I can’t review from the perspective of a seven-year-old. I can only continue to behave like one. Left-Right: The Mansion is one of the worst games on Switch and no amount of infinite modes or “challenge modes” (really the same game with a time limit) help. It’s boring. Who would look at Simon and say “what this really needs is two less buttons and the element of random chance?” I made it about halfway through before finally surrendering to instead do anything else. Shampooing my carpets has never looked more exciting.

Left-Right: The Mansion was developed by Triple Boris
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$3.59 (normally priced $3.99, yea I even pre-ordered this, derp) noted the seven year old REALLY wants the Switch back so parents, this could very well raise your kids for you in the making of this review.

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.

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