Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap

I love making my readers feel old. There’s something satisfying on a primal level about sending them to their bathrooms to cry and check their hairlines when I mention things like how I was only ten-years-old when the Sega Dreamcast released in North America. In that spirit, here’s me reviewing a remake of Wonder Boy III, a game which released for the Sega Master System in July, 1989. Do you know what else released in July of 1989?

Me.

Into the world.

From my mother’s vagina.

Yep, you’re old. I’m not. Suck it.

Of course, it’s kind of bizarre that I’m reviewing a game that was, at the time of its original release, clearly not an indie. It was a major tent-pole console exclusive. Sega’s answer to Super Mario 3. Not only am I reviewing it, but I’m counting it as an indie game. For my new readers, I have a rule: for the rare non-indies that I cover here (South Park: Stick of Truth, The Simpsons Arcade Game, or Peggle 2 among others), win or lose, I don’t count them towards the IGC Leaderboard’s percentile rankings. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap will count, and spoiler alert, I’m giving it my Seal of Approval. But wait, you say: how can a major first-party game (it was published by Sega for the Master System) that was their best weapon in their war against Nintendo before the Genesis possibly be an indie today?

I’ve been doing Indie Gamer Chick for six years. I’ve reviewed over 550 games. I was, and probably still am, the defacto face of an entire indie gaming platform (rest in peace, XBLIG). If anyone would know what exactly makes a game “indie” or not, it would be me. But the truth is, I would have an easier time defining the meaning of life than defining an indie. (By the way, the meaning of life is that cream cheese mixed with powdered sugar makes a delicious frosting. Everything else is meaningless.) At one point, the gang at Zen Studios protested that I denied their Chick-Approved genre-smörgåsbord Castlestorm a spot on the Leaderboard on the basis that they made video-pinball games using the Star Wars IP. Star Wars clearly is not and never would be considered an indie game, and I felt at the time any studio big enough or reputable enough to be selected to develop for that license shouldn’t be considered for indie status. Zen Studios challenged that and convinced me otherwise. So while their work with the Star Wars IP wouldn’t qualify, Castlestorm certainly did.

I often complain about action-adventure indies that forget to make the hero “blink” long enough after taking damage. That’s not an issue with Wonder Boy. Actually, it goes to the other extreme: sometimes you blink so long it could take as long as a minute before you stop being juggled by enemies and regain the ability to, you know, move and fight back. But at least you’re not taking damage during that shit. This is the final boss, and I spent more time recoiling from damage during it than actually fighting it. Look closely to the right of it and you can see me stun-locked.

Which brings us to Wonder Boy III’s remake. The new one, not the old one. Uh, yea, in case you didn’t know, it’s already been remade once. Because of ambiguous rights issues that practically require a flow-chart (the original Wonder Boy was remade as Adventure Island for the NES and THAT spawned a completely different series, making it the Power Rangers of video games), Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap was released a year after the SMS version on the Turbo Grafx 16 (PC Engine in Japan) under the name “Dragon’s Curse.” This is the version I bought on Wii Virtual Console in 2007, so I was already familiar with it. And I quite liked it back then. I mean, the controls were so slippery that it felt like someone had buttered the floor, and this was also around the time my epilepsy developed and I had to look away from the screen quite a bit. But still, really nice game. As someone who grew up in the PlayStation era, it was one of my favorite lost classics the Virtual Console allowed me to rediscover.

This remake is actually reverse-engineered from the SMS original. So, yea, it’s a $20 ROM hack. Only there’s never been a ROM hack like this. The guys at Lizardcube painted absolutely gorgeous facades over the original graphics. While I’m fairly sure that all the original collision boxes were retained, the effort is so admirable and so striking that you have to tip your hat to them. You can switch back and forth between the original graphics and the 2017 remake on the fly, and sometimes I found myself doing it just so I could be gobsmacked by how much work they put into it. Here’s what the game looked like in 1989.

And here’s the exact same shot, only with the 2017 graphics.

Wow.

Of course, being a ROM hack that aspires to faithfully recreate the original means all the warts are along for the ride. Wonder Boy has terrible platforming controls. Floaty, loose, laggy at times. The weird thing is, the developers did fix a few things, including the most obvious flaw. In the original game, you needed to acquire and equip a sword to break some of the stone blocks. Pausing the game to equip this killed the pace and was just tedious busy-work, especially when you acquire a sword that lets you create breakable blocks that you then have to switch back-and-forth with. Even for its time, it’s such an obviously stupid design choice that it’s astonishing it took nearly thirty years for someone to fix it. In the remake, they’ve eliminated the block-busting sword. Instead, the stone breaking thingy is a charm that, once you have it, is always equipped regardless of what sword you’re using. But besides adjustable difficulty (very welcome since the bad controls made the original a maddening experience), the block-breaking issue is the only major fix. It’s like a dermatologist saying “well, you’ve got a lot of moles, but we’re only going to remove the one on your nose. Because it’s cancerous. And also, we’re going to need you to pay in cash from now on.”

I can’t really blame the developers on some of the more glaring issues with the original. But, because they clearly recognized that some aspects of the game hadn’t aged gracefully, I can’t give them a pass on them either. While the concept of switching between different animal forms was, and still is, inspired, Wonder Boy III didn’t use the idea to its fullest. The level design varies from decent to atrocious. Each animal-form is acquired by completing a dungeon. The mouse’s dungeon is repeating a series of identical zig-zag rooms on the left side of a giant pyramid, then dropping to the bottom of it and doing a repeating series of identical zig-zag rooms from the right side of a giant pyramid. Click the link. See that? Repeat that six trillion times, or at least it feels that long. Only the enemies might change, but otherwise it’s exhausting in its dullness. But that’s not even the worst level! The lion’s stage is series of flat rooms without platforms or puzzles or anything but ninjas (random). It’s incredibly lazy and uninspired. It feels like the original developers just gave up or lost their will, or surrendered to writer’s block. I don’t know the story on it, but Wonder Boy III came out after Super Mario 2, a milestone title in the realm of level design. Even for its time, these stages are the rice cake of game design: better than tofu and edible, but certain to leave you wanting something more. It’s a stripped-down Metroidvania, and it shows its age.

The lion’s animal power is being able to swing its sword in a top-to-bottom slashing motion, allowing you to break blocks above you. So the lion’s power is awareness that “up” is a thing.

Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Grinding up money is fun (assuming you don’t outright cheat the game by opening a treasure chest in the town, returning to the title screen and going back to the now full-again chest, which I, ahem, most certainly would not do, cough), the different animals are a blast, and the variety of weapons is nifty. I just wish instead of doing an artistic upgrade, they had just remade the whole game with new levels and new dungeons. In fact, LizardStation did add new dungeons called “The Unknown”, but they’re hidden and I didn’t find any in the three hours it took me to finish. I only discovered them because the final one unlocks after the credits and features you playing as the human Wonder Boy (or, optionally, Wonder Girl, which changes nothing but allows the game to be listed under the “female protagonist” tag on Steam, a tag which in no way feels like it’s mostly used as a cynical way of monetizing political correctness and equality. No sir or ma’am) and shows you where’s it’s located. There’s one of these new “Unknown” dungeons for each animal form, but I didn’t know they even existed when I played through it, let alone where they were hidden at. I tried to play the Human dungeon but literally the first screen was so poorly designed, requiring precision movement from a game infamous for shitty controls that I immediately lost interest in trying more. It felt like one of those, well, ROM-hacks.

When I first started playing it, I told Indie Gamer Team that this felt like a fan project that got noticed by the IP holders and made legitimate. As it turns out, that’s what 2017’s remake of Wonder Boy III actually is. That’s really cool. When we think of the nature of what makes something indie or not, something like The Dragon’s Trap doesn’t make things easier for us. It’s a fascinating anomaly that both suits and defies nearly every label. A former marquee console headliner that went on to become one of the most unsung indie gems three decades later. Just, weird. While I liked it, and I would love to see more remakes along these lines, I would have preferred Lizardbox fix the control issues and the stuff that actually matters to gameplay over painting over the problems, even though they were very good at painting. It would be like buying a 2017 Porsche 911 that has the option to transform instantly into the original 1964 Porsche 911. That would be fucking sweet, right? But what if it turned out the car’s specs, no matter which version of the Porsche it looked like, were the 1964 model’s, with the only modern concession being a CD player instead of a radio? I’m not sure that’s something most people would want. Hell, maybe not even fans of the original would want it. It’s why I have to give the nod to DuckTales Remastered as the better remake. It remembered that it had a chance to right every wrong, not just the really obvious stuff. Whereas DuckTales was a trip down memory lane for retro gamers but still modern and slick (granted over-produced to the point of annoyance), I don’t think Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap 2017 will be that for gamers of all ages. I showed it to my Godfather’s 10-year-old grandson C.J. and it didn’t hold his attention. His father said “it would have probably made a good rental from the video store back in the day.”

Then C.J. asked “what’s a video store?”

What’s a video store? Why you little twerp, a video store is a place that people used to go to..

OH GOD, IT’S HAPPENING TO ME TOO NOW!

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap was developed by Lizardcube
Point of Sale: Steam, PS4, Xbox One, Switch

$19.99 just won a $100 bet that she could work in the phrase “from my mother’s vagina” seamlessly into a review in the making of this review. Pay up, Dad!

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Debate if should be eligible in the comments.

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SteamWorld Dig 2

Full disclosure: I met some of the people working behind the scenes at Image & Form in 2013, and over the last four years it’s grown to be one of the studios in Indieland that I admire the most. It’s safe to say that I consider their lead developer, Brjánn Sigurgeirsson, to be a good friend. I love to shoot the shit with Brjánn and debate on a wide range of game design topics. Brjánn and his team are a really remarkable group of developers.

But being friends with me doesn’t mean a developer gets a free pass to my heart. Actually, in a lot of ways it’s worse for them. It means I have a direct line to them when stuff about their work annoys me. There’s a developer named David Walton that did a game called Wyv & Keep. It was originally on XBLIG but after monkeying around with it for a couple of hours I realized it wasn’t ready for prime time. So did he, pulling it from the marketplace and saving it for Steam. Eventually it found its way there, but when I fired it up I realized the map system was unsatisfactory. At this point I, to put it delicately, blew a fucking gasket and got him on the horn to cuss him out for over an hour. And mind you, I didn’t even write the review for the game. And this is my friend. You developers who think I’m a little overly harsh, hey, it could be worse. You could be on my Christmas Card list.

I was all set to ask which member of Image & Form was going to volunteer to be sent to the gulag for re-education as punishment for water levels, but those are kept thankfully small. Aww nuts.

When I first fired up SteamWorld Dig 2 and started gawking at the graphics, my social media followers were taken back. “Um, yea Cathy, they changed the style. Where’ve you been?” Well, I’ve been here. But that doesn’t mean I have to watch trailers for games. Trailers are about creating awareness and, most importantly, hype.

Hype.

You know, that thing that game critics shouldn’t get for games. Because it’s not our fucking jobs. I know that you’re probably accustomed to critics behaving like cheerleaders or salesmen. Some of them will have small complaints about games but choose not to include them in their, sarcastic airquotes, “reviews” because they’re afraid that might hurt the game’s sales. Hopefully you realize that’s not the way things are supposed to be. Critics are supposed to evaluate, not talk you into a purchase.

Sure, some trailers are unavoidable. Over the last five years it’s been hard to not catch trailers for Cuphead (yes you pushy fuckers, I’m reviewing it next). But when Brjánn told me they were sequelizing SteamWorld Dig, I told them “great, let me know when it’s out.” They might be my friends, but I have responsibilities as a game critic. I already liked SteamWorld Dig. I already liked SteamWorld Heist. It’s safe to say my enjoyment of their previous efforts already moved my expectations for their future games past neutral. It’s thus my responsibility to make as much effort as possible to not further engage in activities that might contribute to further expectations. Such as watching trailers. Or getting blown by them. That’s one you might want to write down, Gamespot.

So why did this end up, as of this writing, #4 on the IGC Leaderboard? A big decider for it not competing with Axiom Verge (and it didn’t, not even close) was there wasn’t enough new stuff when you backtracked. Every time I ran back to a previous section in Axiom Verge, it seemed like there were several new items I was only able to reach with the latest items I had picked up in the previous stage. In SteamWorld Dig 2, such instances are rare. And even when I did find new hidden sections, it was far more common that I could have accessed them the first time around and simply missed them. Lesson learned: if you’re making a Metroidvania, backtracking should be every bit as fun and exciting as fronttracking. Wait, is fronttracking a thing?

So yeah, I wasn’t aware that they updated the graphics style. Which is nice. Hey, I can actually tell the different robots apart now. That puts them one-up on Michael Bay if nothing else. I also wasn’t aware that my chief complaint about Dig and Heist had been addressed: ditching the randomized levels. Now, I’m not a total hater of the idea procedural generation. But the type of genres it lends itself to tend to be faster-paced. Spelunky, for example, would not be as good or memorable if it had hand-made stages. Among other things, what would I be able to blame for my complete and total ineptitude at it? A gypsy curse? I’ve blamed my height on that, my epilepsy, the 2016 NBA Finals, and Red Dead Redemption 2’s delay. Really, that dog just ain’t hunting anymore.

And while randomized levels aren’t always a good idea for fast paced action-platformers (looking at you, Cloudberry Kingdom), at least the claim that it adds “endless replay value” is something a developer can slap on a marketing blurb without their pants catching fire. And my friends at Image & Form know something about that, presumably while putting out each-other’s eyes with noses of incrementally increasing lengths, the big liars. They claimed with a straight face that the previous SteamWorld games “were never the same game twice.” Well, that’s true in the sense that no game of solitaire is the same game twice either. Really, it’s the same fucking game everyone else is playing, only the stages are determined by the invisible computer lottery. Cute novelty, don’t get me wrong. But in the process Image & Form gave up something. No, not their soul. I’m pretty sure Nintendo got that in 2013 when Dig released on 3DS. No, what I’m talking about is they lost a certain elegance of design.

Let’s face it, the adventure games that stick with us the most tend to do so not because of characters or plot or items or weapons or bosses or soundtracks or any other universal gaming variable. Level design is the X factor. A game can be good but not remotely memorable, and it comes down to the level design being less than spectacular. It’s why people talk about Ocarina of Time to this day, but the mechanically evolved Twilight Princess barely makes the discussion. It’s why I enjoyed my time with SteamWorld Heist, but my brain had deleted the reasons why about ten seconds after I finished my review. Because it’s a game that created really good parameters to be shuffled about randomly by the AI, and did so probably better than any game ever had done so, but that’s still not as good as finely designed hand-crafted stages. For all the flaws we humans have, we’re still more creative than computers. Take comfort in that the next time IBM is laying waste to dorks on Jeopardy!

As often as you’re forced to return to the town to cash in your loot and buy upgrades, there really should have been more to it.

The Image & Form guys had to hear me bitch about this for years. The thing is, I fucking knew they were capable of better. And with SteamWorld Dig 2, they proved me right. Every section is hand-designed and I’m completely blown away by how well it was done. It’s been about a week since I finished it and I’m still marveling at the expansive, labyrinth-like worlds and the cleverly designed rooms found therein. This is spectacular level design, the best ever seen in anything that can be considered part of the mining game craze. Now granted, mining is merely the framing device. Dig 2 is a Metroidvania that replaces whips or guns with an axe. But every single nook and cranny of the setting is polished to a mirror-shine. It makes exploration such a joy. Hell, it makes grinding a joy. Grinding. That thing that makes lesser games feel more like second jobs that you have to pay for. In over fifteen hours, I never once felt bored. I never once felt lost. Sure, there were times I was fairly certain I had managed to access areas I wasn’t actually supposed to be able to be in yet but that’s fine. Even the most tasty meals leave you belching, right?

So yea, I guess I need to offer kudos to Image & Form on the whole level design malarkey. But when I get their attention I’d probably ask them why the variety of enemies leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a striking lack of variety, which each world only featuring a very small handful of enemies. Some are cool, don’t get me wrong. Many of them can be used to chip away at the surrounding environment to help with the mining, and most are worked into at least one puzzle at some point. But come on, Image & Form! You’re creative people! Surely you can come up with more than this! Hell, maybe you should devote your now defunct randomization software towards making more baddies for your games. You might as well get some use out of it.

Come to think of it, I never once was killed by a single enemy or boss, with one exception. There’s a section where, with no warning, SteamWorld Dig 2 went off its medication and suddenly became a survival horror game. It was jarring, it was unexpected, it was legitimately frightening, and it was fucking awesome. Suddenly, I went from carefully plotting my pathway to running for dear life. Well, after I paused the game to change myself, that is. I figured this was the climax of the game, but then the section ended and those enemies never showed their faces again. The fuck? What the hell was that? Maybe they were fans of the Smooth Criminal music video, where everything just stops for a minute for absolutely no fucking reason, only this wasn’t stupid. But otherwise, I found the bosses and enemies to be mostly toothless, even on the normal difficulty setting.

Oh, I died. Quite a few times actually. But I owed that to my own carelessness. I was crushed by more rocks Giles Corey and became so paranoid about it that my left thumb developed a small twitch in anticipation of more to come. Of course, the occasional environmental death was offset by the dozens of times that entire sections of enemies would kill themselves before I even saw them on my screen. At one point, I scooped up over 20 (!) pieces of ore off the ground that presumably had been blown out of walls by enemies that blew themselves up before I had a chance to fight them. I would like to think they saw me coming and decided to die with dignity rather than be humbled by me and my mad skills. Stop laughing.

I caught word that one of the reasons Image & Form moved away from randomized levels was me, be it my reviews of their work or the numerous handfuls of solidified poo I threw through their windows. A lot of people don’t understand why, if I love certain games, am I so critical of them? Ain’t I worried that my critiques might turn more people off than they turn on? Well, no. Because my job isn’t to convince anyone to buy a game. It’s to share my opinions and let you, the reader, decide if that sounds like something you want to buy. If you have to be talked into it, I doubt any one writer will be enough to sway you one way or another. Love the site or hate it, there’s a reason why Rotten Tomatoes is so big.

So when I say that SteamWorld Dig 2 is a really great game with amazing level design, not enough enemies, and is easier than stubbing your toe in a house of mirrors after the power goes out, really, is anyone choosing to buy the game based on that? Probably not. The dirty little secret of game reviews is that most people who read them already know what they think about games and are either looking for different takes than their own opinion, or looking for affirmation that their opinion is shared by others. But in Indieland, reviews are more than just food for thought. Many developers use them as a guidepost for what they can do to improve. That’s why a critic should hold nothing back. Because any developer worth their salt strives to get better, no matter how much acclaim or awards they get. Look at Image & Form. Two games that won universal praise, and yet, they yearn for more. And that’s why I value my relationship with them. Not because they care what I, as Cathy Vice: fan of their work, can say nice about their projects. It’s what I say as Indie Gamer Chick: Game Critic, that they can do better, that catches their attention. I’ve spent four years spamming their inboxes telling them all the many, many ways they’ve fucked up their stuff and should have known better. Who knows, maybe they’re better today because of it.

If I wasn’t free to do that,  I wouldn’t want to be friends with them. But I am, and I’m grateful for that. And my readers deserve to know that and weigh that against my opinions.

End of disclosure.

So yea, SteamWorld Dig 2 is pretty good.

SteamWorld Dig 2 was developed by Image & Form
Point of Sale: Steam, Switch, PlayStation 4/Vita

$19.99 noted that this is one of those awkward sequels so good it sends the original plummeting several spots down the Leaderboard despite having done nothing wrong in the making of this review. In this case, it would have been in the #11 position but fell to #21 by its sequel being that much better and consequently the original being harder to recommend now.

Review copies of SteamWorld Dig 2 were provided for PS4 and Steam. On September 26, 2017, Cathy purchased a copy of SteamWorld Dig 2 to assure she had paid for a copy. All games reviewed at IndieGamerChick.com are paid for out-of-pocket. For more on this policy, check the FAQ.

SteamWorld Dig 2 is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Shephy

I can’t believe Shephy is a honest-to-God contender for the worst game I’ve ever reviewed. It makes no sense. It’s a harder-version of Solitaire with sheep, so I should have liked it. I mean, I like playing with myself.

Um, let me clarify that statement. I like playing with myself with sheep.

I mean, I like the idea of playing with myself with sheep.

No wait, I mean to say while helping breed sheep.

With each other, not with me.

I don’t think this is coming out right.

So yea, Spephy is based on a 2013 physical card game that is allegedly popular in Japan. I was tempted to buy a physical copy to compare for this review, until I saw how much is being charged for it on Amazon. Nearly fifty-fucking-bucks! Outrageous. Anyway, I say allegedly popular because it’s actually not a very good game, mechanically speaking. Think of it as a cross between Solitaire and a punisher. You start with one sheep card and are dealt five “event” cards. Event cards either help you to multiply your sheep or force you to kill or downgrade the ones already in “the field.” Over the course of the game, you have to combine the cards in the seven-cell “field” into higher ranking cards. You have three rounds to eventually get a single 1,000-rank sheep card onto the play-field.

And it has to be the 1,000 rank card. If you run out of rounds and have seven 300-rank sheep cards (the second-highest card you can get), you’ve lost the game even though you actually have 2,100 sheep represented on the play field. Even though the point is you’re supposed to be competing against a rival herd of sheep that reaches exactly 1,000 after you’ve played round three. So you can get a higher number sheep in your flock and still lose to a lesser amount of sheep based on bullshit rules. Fuck that. We already have that in America. We call it “The Electoral College.”

Let’s face it: most people are going to see this picture and buy the game based on it. Hell, *I* bought it based on this pic. At least I have reviewing the game as an excuse. What’s yours?

Dumb concept and design is sort of the order of the day. There’s a card you can get that forces you to destroy seven different sheep cards on the play-field. The play-field which is exactly seven cells large and can’t get bigger. So yea, there’s a game over card. You must play every card in every round. There’s three exceptions to this: there’s meteor card that kills three of the cells’ worth of sheep, but it’s removed from the game after its first use. There’s a sheepdog card that allows you to discard any card in your hand. Finally, there’s a card that lets you remove any card in your hand from the rest of the game so that it doesn’t show up in later rounds. That sounds great, until you remember that there’s a card that is an instant loss. So, no matter what, you have to use one of the two discard cards on it, and since the sheepdog card is only delaying dealing it for another round, the only logical thing you can do is wait to draw the “remove from the game” card and apply it to it. It’s a prime example of why everything is wrong with Shephy: it’s just not a thoughtful, tightly designed game.

And there’s far too many over-powered negative event cards to overcome. In about 25% of the games I played, my opening draw of five cards either was dead on arrival because no matter what card I played, my lone sheep would die, or I had one card I could play just to get to the next card and then I was dead. Twenty-five percent! That’s a lot of stillborn games over the course of the ten hours I put into this. Yea, sometimes you can have that happen in Solitaire as well, but only 0.25% of Solitaire games are unplayable and 8.5% to 18% are unwinnable. Now yes, there’s a running gag with me where I have remarkably bad luck when relying on random-chance in games I review, but even considering that, being dead with no possible opportunity to use strategy at least once out of every four games is kind of shit deal. And stuff like the instant-death card only serves to emphasize how little consideration strategy or complex game theory factored into the design of Shephy. The same problems apply to the positive cards. There’s one card that allows you to select one of the sheep cards in the field and place three sheep cards one-rank lower than the chosen card into empty cells. There’s then a card that allows you to replace existing sheep with ones a rank higher than their current one, excluding all sheep of the highest rank you have. So, if you have a 10-ranked sheep, you’ll get three 3-ranked sheep, which you can then turn into three 10-ranked sheep. These two cards were made for each other, to the point that using them together is basically the only plausible strategy for them.

Yea, I figured out the world belonged to sheep when I found out how popular Twilight was. By the way, Shephy’s tutorial is the worst I’ve ever seen for a physical-game-to-video-game adaption. I had far more questions by time I was done with it than answers.

Usually, I tend to review video-translations of physical games that were solid games to begin with. This is the first one I’ve played where the original game was so bad that it had almost zero chance of winning me over as a video game. For the digital port on Steam and Switch, extra modes were added that change the gameplay or the win/fail conditions. But, you’re still using the same base game, which was broken to begin with. The seven “stages” of the story mode somehow remove even more options for strategy or individualism. One of the stages tasks you with starting with a 1000-rank sheep and eventually making your way towards having a single 1-rank sheep on the field. Certain cards are eliminated from being part of this game, and the concept sounds alright. Well, actually, no. Because the game also eliminates the third round. There’s only two cards that allow you to get lower-ranked cards, and one card that can become a copy of any card. There’s seven sheep ranks. So, the actual means to get to the victory are already in place and unshakable: you have to use those 3 cards together over the 2 rounds. The only strategy is in keeping the cards that wipe out all the sheep from, well, wiping out all your sheep. But there’s almost no strategy involved in that. You’re at the mercy of just getting the cards in a specific order that will allow for the one and only one specific method of winning. That’s awful game design.

This is one of those rare games where I have nothing good to say about it. Even the user-interface is beyond atrocious. Show of hands, who here has played Solitaire? It’s a game responsible for millions, if not billions, of wasted productivity hours. And it got there by having a simple interface. Click the card you want, drag it over to the card you want to place it on. Shephy is based on Solitaire, so there’s no way they could screw up the controls, right? Wrong. You can’t do the most obvious thing, clicking the card you want, dragging it to the cell you want or the card you want to use it on. Oh no, you have to left-click the card you want, click the cell or card you want to apply it to, then press the up-arrow on the keyboard to make the move.

Are you fucking kidding me?

This is a pic of “Challenge Mode”, which is exactly like normal mode only the game doesn’t end once you have one of the 1000 rank cards. It ends after three rounds. There’s no online leader-boards, but now that I think about the highest you can possibly get is 7,000. I only played this mode once and my score was 5,006. I think I’m okay with that.

Oh, and while learning the game, you’ll want to know what each card does. But the text is really small, so  you’ll want to zoom in. That should be as easy as using the right-click on a card, right? Nope. You have to right-click a card, make sure it’s highlighted in blue (sometimes it doesn’t do it), and then press “V” on the keyboard. Why not just allow people to highlight a card with the left-click and then use the wheel or the right-click to zoom? So yea, they didn’t optimize it for PC play. It’s actually sort of remarkable how badly they botched what should have been the most self-evident control scheme they’ll ever encounter in their development careers. This isn’t a complex real-time-strategy game or some kind of stat-driven RPG where a complex series of button-commands are called for. It’s a crappy game of solitaire that has pictures of sheep humping on some of the cards. How the fuck do you screw that up?

So that’s Shephy. A terrible video game port of a terrible card game. The fact that there’s extra modes added or that the developers went above-and-beyond crafting a bat-shit insane story for this mess would normally be admirable, but here I find it sort of annoying. Why were they writing an elaborate story line to go along with this instead of optimizing it for PC? I can’t blame the video game developers on the game play mechanics, since those are what ultimately doomed Shephy, but there’s no excuse to not tailor the control scheme for use with a mouse. But, ultimately, gameplay is king. Shephy is at best frustrating. At worst, Shephy is as sleep-inducing as counting some sort of fluffy bovid animal.

Shephy was developed by Arc System Works
Point of Sale: Steam, Switch

$4.99 would have rather been spent on a video game adaption of Lamb Chop’s Play-Along in the making of this review.

Keeping this review (relatively) sheep-pun free is one of my proudest achievements. You’re welcome.

Switch It Up

No, I don’t hate Nintendo. There seems to be this perception among my fans and my critics that I’m overly critical on Nintendo. I’m not. If you’re a slobbering fanboy for the Big N operating under the delusion that Nintendo and you are besties because they played an important role in your pop-culture upbringing, anyone who is remotely critical of them comes across as too harsh. So if I say that I think the Wii U was a deeply flawed and ill-conceived console, or that having a controller remarkably similar to the one that was the final nail in THQ’s coffin was probably not a good idea, I come across as a total hater, at least in comparison to you. In reality, I am a fan of Nintendo. Fandom and obsession are not the same thing.

For example, I am obsessed with Power Rangers. A franchise designed for children with acting, writing, and special effects so cringe-worthy that my family and friends are all in danger of suffering Bell’s Palsy from being forced to watch it with me. When the teaser trailer for the big-budget Power Ranger movie hit, it was so horrible, so wretched, that I know my family was literally ashamed of me. It looked like a cheap parody trailer, a mix between Breakfast Club and Chronicle that looks and sounds nothing likethe source material, but there’s the faintest hint of the original show’s theme song riff just to make those truly obsessed fans squeal.

And I loved it.

Being obsessed, I came up with every possible excuse to justify its awfulness, and even as I type this, I feel I’m justified in it. “It’s Power Rangers, it’s supposed to be badly acted. It’s okay if it’s silly. It doesn’t need to make sense. Hey, doesn’t Rita look cool? Wow, I love how the morphing looks!” I’m twenty-seven-years-old, and I say this with no shame: I’m more excited by the Power Ranger movie than any person my age has any right to be. I honestly expect it to get a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but that doesn’t matter! I’m obsessed. That’s why, when the second, better trailer hit, I wasted no time rubbing it in the face of my boyfriend. Getting him to admit “it didn’t look bad” was perhaps the biggest victory of my life, even if he was trying to find the right words to break-up with me after I had to wipe tears from my eyes when Bryan Cranston said “it’s Morphin Time!” I mean, that’s Walter White! Saying “it’s Morphin Time!” Holy shit!

Brian would like to note that "doesn't look THAT" still means "looks bad" with the emphasis on "that." Yea, well, phooey on him.

Brian would like to note that “doesn’t look THAT bad” still means “looks bad” and that the emphasis is on “that.” Nuts to him.

Because of my epilepsy, I have to rent a theater to be able to watch a movie at cinemas. I usually get to do this twice a year, for my birthday in July and for Christmas. My family knows I won’t be able to wait for Power Rangers. I need to see it as soon as it comes out. I won’t be able to think straight until I do. I know it’s going to be shit. My heart sank when I saw the toy version of the film’s Megazord. It was so crappy looking that I could barely muster up the enthusiasm to finger myself over it.

So yea, I don’t just love Power Rangers. I am obsessed with Power Rangers. I don’t need to be convinced to see it. I was sold the moment it was announced.

I’m not that way with video games, even though they played a much bigger role in who I am as a person today. I am a fan of games and certain game companies. Obsession? That’s unhealthy. In 2015, I did two editorials on Shenmue III’s Kickstarter campaign. One defended the idea of a AAA using crowd funding to stake a high risk revival of a failed franchise, which is what a sequel to Shenmue is. The other said the actual pitch of the campaign was pretty bad. I got more anger over the article defending the campaign from Shenmue fans than I did the one that called it out for being a terrible pitch. Why? Because I noted that I wasn’t a fan of the series. I don’t get getting angry at something like that. Who cares if someone doesn’t like it? Shouldn’t all that matter to you be how much you like it?

Hey, remember how Vita became on of the biggest busts in gaming history due in no small part to necessary accessories like memory cards costing too much money? Well, this package here costs $79.99. That's a fairly big investment just to play multiplayer.

Hey, remember how Vita became one of the biggest busts in gaming history due in no small part to accessories like memory cards costing too much money? Well, this package here costs $79.99. That’s a fairly big investment just to play multiplayer, and you don’t even get the whole controller (the middle portion is sold separately for $29.99, bringing the total cost to $109.98). Buying just one costs $49.99. “But Cathy, Xbone and PS4 controllers cost $59.99!” Yea, but you get a whole controller for that, not half of one. EDIT: Excuse me, the non-charging center piece “grip” costs $14.99, meaning a complete setup is $94.98. Um, what a bargain?

Nintendo fans get that way too, though I noticed the oomph was taken out of their venom towards the end of the Wii U’s life cycle. When I got Star Fox Zero and said it sucked, it apparently didn’t ruin anyone’s life. But the explanation there was easy: Star Fox Zero fucking sucked. Even the most slobbery fanboys couldn’t believe how borderline-unplayable it was. But, it was the exception, not the norm. The truth is, the Wii U wasn’t horrible and gave us plenty of decent titles. It just looked like a barren wasteland compared to its rivals. Before release, third parties promised support that never arrived. Bayonetta 2 became the crown jewel that Nintendo waved around like a prized pig. Why Bayonetta 2? Of all the franchises Nintendo could have staked, why that one? Maybe the answer is that it’s all they could get. It reminds me of the 2010 NBA free agency season, where the New York Knicks had cleared insane amounts of cap space in hopes of landing LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, or some other prize. Who did they end up with? Amar’e Stoudemire. Bayonetta 2 was the Amar’e Stoudemire of gaming. A perfectly fine pick-up for your console, but nothing to get that excited over, nor are you going to win a lot of people over with it.

I’ve always felt that Nintendo landing Bayonetta 2 was more like settling for Bayonetta 2 after trying and failing to land something more mainstream and desirable, the same way the Knicks settled for Stoudemire.

If people think I’m gloating over Nintendo’s failures, I’ve got news for you: I owned a Wii U. I certainly didn’t want it to fail. Now that it’s basically dead, I can safely say I got my money’s worth. I enjoyed most of Nintendo’s first party stuff just fine, and hell, Splatoon and NES Remix alone were original enough for me to reflect positively overall on it. We got a couple decent new Mario games, a decent Donkey Kong Country game, a decent new Pikmin game, a fun little surprise in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (Toad got his own game, and disc release!), and so forth, and so forth.

Here we are, in 2017, and Nintendo is still the best maker of gaming software on the planet. But they’ve had that title my entire gaming life. That’s why when they release something pitiful like Wii Music or Star Fox Zero, it stands out so much more. Because they are too good to make stuff that bad. That’s why pursuing exclusives like Bayonetta 2 or No More Heroes baffles me so much. Third party support or not, the Wii U had the most high quality, low-risk exclusives in gaming.

Switching between the buttons and the stick with the full Joy-Con doesn't exactly look comfy. Maybe Nintendo saved money on its development by firing the person responsible for their controllers ergonomics. It also cracks me up that a company that is so militant against fans uploading videos of their software to social media would have any form of a capture button.

Switching between the buttons and the stick with the full Joy-Con doesn’t exactly look comfy. Maybe Nintendo saved money on its development by firing the person responsible for their controller ergonomics. It also cracks me up that a company that is so militant against fans uploading videos of their software to social media would have any form of a capture button.

So, why did the Wii U fail then? Because most gamers don’t want to be stuck with Nintendo-style games and nothing else. Even Nintendo fans don’t. That’s why they’re so excited to finally get their hands on Skyrim, a game that came out over five years and one full console generation ago. It’s something that’s not Nintendoish. Something big and exciting. Something Nintendo themselves would NEVER make. Something completely different to sink your teeth into between rounds of the latest remakes disguised as sequels of Mario Kart or Smash Bros.

The missing ingredient for Wii U wasn’t the stuff no other console owners could play, but the stuff all other console owners were playing.

Nintendo should already know this better than anyone else. In 1993, Mortal Kombat released on both the SNES and Genesis. At this point, Nintendo had Street Fighter II exclusively, and children of the 90s who chose the Super Nintendo over the Genesis had bragging rights. Then came Mortal Kombat, sanitized and lacking blood or fatalities on the SNES. Even though the Genesis controller didn’t have enough buttons to completely mimic the arcade experience, and even though the gore required a code to unlock it, it was a turning point in the Nintendo v Sega war. It bought the Genesis nearly two extra years of lifespan on its own.

Then came Mortal Kombat II. With blood intact, the SNES version far outsold the Genesis version when they sat side-by-side on the shelf.

That’s what the Switch needs. Not exclusives, but the same third-party software that Sony and Microsoft have. This alone would eliminate the dire perception problem that Nintendo has always had. The day consumers can go to a store on the release day of the latest Call of Duty or Madden or Battlefield and see a Nintendo port sitting alongside the PlayStation or Xbox, nearly indistinguishable from each-other, is the day Nintendo is finally back into the competition.

1-2-Switch looks like a perfectly fine tech demo pack-in. But it's not a pack-in. Utterly baffling to me. If it came with a controller, like Wii Play, then I could justified paying $50 for a tech demo.

1-2-Switch looks like a perfectly fine tech demo pack-in. But it’s not a pack-in. Utterly baffling to me. If it came with a controller, like Wii Play, then I could justified paying $50 for a tech demo.

Nintendo fans have told themselves for over a decade now that their favorite soulless corporation that targets its own fans on social media for uploading videos of them enjoying their products doesn’t need to compete. “People buy Nintendo consoles for Nintendo products.” Hell, even I’ve said that. But the Wii U had a relatively short life-cycle and never fully lived up to its potential. That’s because it costs money to experiment, and the risk of spending that money is lessened if the customer pool for the final product is big. One of my favorite mid-2000s titles was Katamari Damacy. There was nothing like it. It was weird, and quirky, and new, and different. But, if the PlayStation 2 hadn’t been a huge global success, Namco would never have taken it off the drawing board. If they had only had the Wii U’s base to draw from, it would have been too high risk to develop. Consoles can’t just appeal to the hardcore, never-say-die fans. There’s just not enough of them to move the amount of units a developer needs to be successful.

Will the Switch accomplish that? I don’t know. I’ve talked to a few directors at some major AAA studios. Some say it’s just powerful enough to port to. Some say it’s not. But here is an undeniable fact: Nintendo doesn’t have to do a whole lot to migrate its fans from one console to the next. They’re already sold. They were sold before the name was announced. They were sold before the controller was unveiled. They were sold before any software was shown. Much the same way that I’ll be there for Power Rangers day one, with a smile on my face, Nintendo fans need no convincing about the Switch. That has never been Nintendo’s problem. It’s everybody else. Having Call of Duty for Switch sit alongside Call of Duty for PlayStation and Xbox isn’t about convincing the diehards. It simply makes Switch a viable option. It enters it into the discussion, to buy or not to buy. Nintendo doesn’t need third-party exclusives. They just need third-party wide releases that look and feel close enough to their competition. Why waste energy trying to convince the skeptical with exclusives? They already have the best in gaming: their own first-party software.

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