Super Mario Bros. 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are some exceptions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Job the Leprechaun

Job the Leprechaun takes me back. It’s exactly the type of small, unassuming game I used to crank out four or five reviews a week for back when I launched Indie Gamer Chick in 2011. A quick, forty-level platformer that isn’t quite retro-authentic, but close enough to be titillating. Not that I have high expectations for such games. I always try to keep that shit in check. But stuff like Job catches my attention on marketplace pages. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll actually play the game. It turns out I bought Job the Leprechaun on Steam way back in 2015 and just never got around to playing it. In a completely unrelated story, I have limited-edition candy bars as old as this blog in my desk drawer that I swear I bought with the intent of eating, but I wouldn’t now because they’re old and moldy.

Oh shit, segue into what’s happening recently on Switch..

You can see why I’d want to at least play Job. It has a very old school, single-roomed NES quality about it. I didn’t even grow up in that era, but I have more faith in indies based on those for absolutely no reason. It’s so weird.

Nintendo’s latest console has recently become a dumping ground for significantly older indies that never found their audience originally. Now, I’m all about helping smaller games find their audience. It’s why I created #IndieSelect. But the issue is there’s now so many new games hitting the Switch every day that it’s getting tougher to stand out in the increasingly crowded field. There’s a gold rush feel to the whole thing, and I get it. No console’s primary marketplace has been more accessible to developers as Switch is now. And no console has been this popular or had this enthusiastic of digital buyers in the modern indie game era as the Switch currently has. Devs are bringing their full catalogs to Switch because it just seems like they have a better chance to finally make it.

And they probably do. Let me make that clear.

But, maybe, just maybe, developers should refine their older libraries before these re-releases.

Job the Leprechaun is a good example of this. It’s pretty much a direct port of the Steam game from what I can tell. That would have been fine if the PC version from four years ago was so good that there wasn’t much to improve. But that’s not the case at all. Job is extraordinary in its blandness. It’s not horrible by any stretch. You hop around, smacking baddies with your hat while trying to collect all the shamrocks in a level to open up an exit. It’s a simple, beginner’s type of indie that is both uninspired and inoffensive. There’s forty levels that you can probably knock-out in an hour, give or take.

But, here’s the thing: Job the Leprechaun has a lot of stuff wrong with it. The controls are too loose. Levels that require you to transition from ladders to platforms are frustrating because I was constantly slipping off the ladders. Job’s stages have a tight time limit, sometimes without items that give you extra seconds, and fumbling with the ladders more than once are likely to leave you losing a life by running out of time. In fact, as far as I can remember I’ve never played a platformer that I died more as a result of timing-out. Well, except Plug Me, which is designed specifically around that. There’s jumping “puzzles” and the margin of error allowed by the timer is so thin that it’s almost unfair. There’s also limited lives and limited continues. Use up all your continues and you get to start all the way back at level 1-1. Allow me to get Irish for a second: fuck that.

I made the text green. That’s Irish, right?

The problems with the timer are compounded by levels that force players to wait for things, like the moving platforms or an EXTREMELY slow-moving cow that you use like a trampoline. If you’re going to have such a short timer, it’s not exactly fair to include slow-moving gameplay necessities. It’s just not!

And that whole starting over shit sucks because you’re not 100% assured the lives you’ll lose will be your fault. Sometimes the game shits the bed and doesn’t work the way it was supposed to. I played one stage with an odd platform that seemed to vibrate. I didn’t get what was up with that, but I was able to beat the stage regardless of it. Later in the game, another vibrating platform showed up, and I realized what was going on: the game was glitching out and the platform, which is supposed to move left and right, had somehow gotten stuck and wasn’t moving. And this time, it did cost me a life because the stage was unbeatable as a result. This combines with weird collision detection (the hat weapon felt flimsy and unreliable, to the point that I wanted to avoid directly confronting enemies if possible) and floaty jumping controls to make me really dislike Job. Playing it felt akin to being Job. In the biblical sense.

And this is what developers really need to avoid when porting your older games to Switch. I’m not singling out developer Herrero Games, who seems like a nice dude. A lot of developers are porting their previous work to Switch with minimum effort or polish. But in the case of Job, the game is four-years-old, and according to user reviews on Steam, a lot of the stuff I’ve been bringing up is stuff that’s been troubling the game all along. So why not put more development time before bringing it out for the most hungry, rabid, word-of-mouth spreading user base indies have seen on consoles? It’s not like we’re talking about an all-time classic that has to be ported exactly as it was before. You know, “for the fans.” As of this writing, it’s only had 32 user-reviews on Steam. In four years. There’s no valid reason to not give it a few months of extra development time and polish. Even if you’re only able to eliminate a couple of the issues, it allows you to say “I’ve grown as a developer, check out the progress I’ve made.” Especially when there is a good game in here somewhere.

Challenge yourselves, Switch developers. Because there is an audience waiting for you. But you do have to earn them. And if your games didn’t find an audience the first time around, take a long, hard look at your work and ask “what can I do to make this better for my customers?” Maybe you’re the victim or bad luck or rotten timing. It happens. Just ask Beyond Good & Evil. But maybe your work was just flawed enough to prevent it from getting that all-important word-of-mouth. Just because it didn’t happen before doesn’t mean it won’t happen now. But make sure when that game hits the market that it’s the best it can be. If you don’t, it’s unlikely you’ll find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Job the Leprechaun was developed by Herrero Games
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$2.99 wants to get me Lucky Charms in the making of this review.

In fairness, Job the Leprechaun was also on Wii U. So basically this is its console debut 😛

Seriously Herrero Games: make a sequel, right every wrong, and make me eat crow. I believe in you.

SpellKeeper

There’s plenty of “place tiles on grid” games out there. SpellKeeper is just the latest one, and to be frank, it’s not particularly special. Which is not to say it sucks or anything. If you’re into puzzlers, it’s perfectly fine. Then again, with puzzle games nothing I say besides whether it works or not matters. If I say it works, puzzle fans buy it. If I say it’s broken, they don’t. Non-puzzle fans will never be swayed to give the genre a try. That’s just how it is. Yet, I keep reviewing them, because I love this genre. But it’s hard to go into full Indie Gamer Chick mode and really pick apart games like this. There’s not really all that much to pick apart. I feel like a food critic who has to do an entire review of an Olive Garden based on the bread sticks.

Credit where it’s due to SpellKeeper: the graphics are clean and beautiful. For some reason I couldn’t get the board game Pretty Pretty Princess that I forced my parents to play a LOT of in my youth out of my head while playing this. And by “youth” I mean we stopped playing around the time I was 28. Hey, that’s younger than I am now. It still counts!

For SpellKeeper the concept is to place tiles called “spells” on a grid that guide a source light to crystal cocoons that open up into butterflies. The old “reflect the light” mechanic has been done a zillion times before, most memorably in Zelda: Wind Waker. Hey, the classics are classics for a reason: they work. And SpellKeeper works and is pretty fun. But having played tons grid puzzlers, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re the simplest of all logic-based brain-benders. Once you get a feel for reverse-engineering the levels, you should be able to breeze through most stages with minimum resistance. Often you can do this just by even the simplest of monkeying-around with the various tiles you have until the final move becomes self-evident. From there, you just sort of work backwards. I used this to solve 80% of the puzzles I finished in SpellKeeper in under a minute. Your mileage may vary, but as far as puzzle games go, this one was one of the easier ones I’ve dealt with. But hey, it is genuinely well done, fun, and who doesn’t like butterflies? I mean, I don’t. They’re glorified moths we’ve decided are less gross or annoying because their wings are pretty. Ladybugs get away with this too. Spiders could really learn a lesson from them. If they’d just put on a little makeup they’d be on the receiving end of significantly less rolled-up newspapers. Something nice looking, you know? A red splotch shaped like an hourglass isn’t enough. In fact, that just sort of makes you look like a serial killer.

Where was I?

It’s worth noting that I play a *lot* of puzzle games and so you might actually find SpellKeeper harder than I did. My fans on Twitter who got copies via #IndieSelect seemed to find it challenging.

I actually do have a few things to moan about, and not that fun bedroom type of moan. The interface is moderately clunky. You use the control stick to move the cursor, but you have to use the D-pad to point some of the tiles in the direction you want to use them. The left trigger cycles through the tiles you can use. For whatever reason, it never felt natural to me and I was constantly fumbling with it. And there’s a few stages with multiple-outs, which is a personal puzzle pet peeve developers productively pass-over perpetually. Hell, at least twice I finished stages without using all the tiles in my inventory. I like my logic puzzlers tightly designed and having several solutions is the complete opposite of tight (unless the game is based around that, which SpellKeeper isn’t). It led to situations where know I was beating levels in ways the developer never envisioned. And for some reason, when that happens I always picture developers screaming at me in Boss Hogg’s voice like he’s threatening to get the Dukes. No joke. And now you will too. You’re welcome.

Later in the game, SpellKeeper adds “moths” that are already hatched but turn back into cocoons if the light touches them. God, I wish that’s how it worked in real life. I’d make them so much easier to hit with a shoe.

But, by far the worst part of SpellKeeper is how many tutorial-feeling levels there are. When new mechanics are introduced, which happens in all four “worlds” of the game, you can count on the first few rooms using new titles being completely toothless. It seems like these are here to help players get the hang of new tile-types. That would be a fine, perfectly logical design choice. Except for the fact that there are tutorials besides the stages I’m talking about! When you start a new world, it opens with a few tutorial rooms. And then those finish and the next few rooms are like the world’s most embarrassing preschool. It’s a common mistake puzzle makers do. Have a little faith in your audience, puzzle developers! This isn’t a super-intense platformer or a white-knuckle rescue mission in a shooter. It’s a fucking puzzler. We buy them with expectations of having our grey matter put through the wringer. You don’t have to build-in rest periods for us. It’s not like baseball where there’s so much non-stop action that they had to create the seventh inning stretch just to assure players don’t die from exhaustion after strenuously standing around doing nothing but grabbing their crotches and spitting for the last two hours.

And that’s especially true of puzzle games, which are at their very best when you only play one or two levels per a session. Games like SpellKeeper have their place, but I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of marathoning through them. I like a puzzler I can open up when I know I don’t have enough time to invest in a game that requires a lot of attention. Where I can put ten minutes into it, knock out a few stages, and then turn off my device feeling perfectly content and satisfied. If I’ve got a short time frame to work with, maybe I can open up Mario Odyssey and have enough time to grab a new moon. But I don’t know it. But with a game like SpellKeeper, I know my session will end with progress being made. That is a puzzler at its most idealized. SpellKeeper good for that. But it should be great for that, and it’s not. There’s just too much downtime with relatively weak stages. To be fair, if you enjoy the genre you’ll never be bored playing SpellKeeper and a lot of its puzzles offer real challenges. That’s why SpellKeeper has won my seal of approval. But far too many of the levels outside the tutorials would embarrass my niece, who just turned six and will appreciate the shout-out here. Happy Birthday, Angela. Yes, you’re right, that game with the butterflies was fucking easy.

SpellKeeper was developed by Silesia Games
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam, App Store, Google Play

$5.99 put snuck away innocently while their niece got her mouth washed out with soap in the making of this review.

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

A review copy of SpellKeeper was provided to Indie Gamer Chick. On April 2, a copy of SpellKeeper was purchased by Cathy. All games reviewed at Indie Gamer Chick are paid for out-of-pocket by Indie Gamer Chick. For more on this policy, read the FAQ.

You Heartless Bastards: OMG Zombies

YOU HEARTLESS BASTARDS!

How can you call yourself a gamer while forsaking any genre of games?

It’s something everyone encounters in their gaming life: elitists who claim that certain games aren’t real games. If it’s by Popcap, it’s not a real game. If it’s something your Mom plays on a phone, it’s not a real game. Personally, I think it reeks of snobbery, but what do I know? Especially when the line is so blurry these days. Can someone explain to me why Bejeweled is not a real game while Tetris is? Is it because you first played Tetris on your NES and not your phone or Facebook? I’m trying to figure out where the line that separates a casual game from a non-casual game is, but it’s a bit fuzzy.

The thing is, does it even matter? Isn’t a game a game?

I look at a title like OMG Zombies and I wonder why so many gamers shun it. Despite its ultra-simple premise and relatively short play-time (at least to beat it once, I put 180+ hours into it on Steam when it became my veg-out, relax game), it’s just so god-damned fun. Watching a single shot cause a chain-reaction that spreads across the screen is akin to the excitement of lighting a fuse for the most expensive, over-bloated firework you can legally purchase. It’s a spectacle. OMG Zombies isn’t really challenging or “puzzling” in the traditional gaming sense. If you sensibly buy upgrades, levels should be insanely easy. I can honestly say I’ve had more difficulty opening blister-packaging than I’ve ever had with any level in OMG Zombies.

A never before seen picture from the legendary “Malice at the Palace” brawl between the Pacers and Pistons.

But it’s not supposed to be challenging. This is a time waster. It’s a tarted-up toy. The game mechanics are just there because they had to be there. Because of the medium. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a video game, or even a great video game. Because OMG Zombies is great. Make no mistake about it. You’re not going to experience a more cathartic, satisfying casual game that asks for so little time investment anytime soon on your Switch or Vita or PC.

And yet, it hasn’t sold well. My previous reviews of it aren’t among the most popular 250 reviews I’ve done. It’s a complete non-entity. I’ve handed out probably around two-hundred free copies over the last four years on Twitter through my #IndieSelect program, yet every single time I re-introduce it, people are like “oh, hey, hello, what’s this?” There’s no awareness or recognition for it anywhere. And it’s so damn fun. Everyone who plays it seems to like it. And developer Laughing Jackal has hardly just sat on the game. In my last review, I noted that the one major knock I had on it was the painful waiting period for the zombies to shamble into position for an optimal chain-reaction. Guess what? They added a fast-forward feature! AND IT WORKS! The version out now for Switch is essentially the perfect version of a ninety-minute game that I voluntarily sank over 180 hours into once before. Jeez.

How could you heartless bastards let OMG Zombies bomb? Surely you could have spared five bucks somewhere along the line for the ultimate pick-up-and-play game. It’s gory. It makes icky, borderline nauseating noises as the zombies start to explode in unison. It seems like the type of game that would be popular these days. But, OMG Zombies isn’t a game to a large population of gamers. And I’m guessing it has nothing to do with being an indie game. Yes, there’s some people who piss and moan about indies and throw a bitch-fit every time Games with Gold or PlayStation Plus announces their monthly freebie lineup includes a couple indies. Fuck them. But, those that shun indies can’t be swayed anyway. This is directed at those who think casual games are just for Moms or elderly people or kids wasting time on cell phones: you’re wrong. Casual games can be fun. They are worth your time.

I totally forgot that if you touch the screen, you can zoom in.

Yes, OMG is a casual game. Anyone could play it. It takes zero skill. You’ll clear levels by dumb, stupid luck. I’ve gotten 100% on levels were I was certain my first shot was wasted, only to see the disgusting domino effect begin to take hold. It’s not going to validate your existence by proving you have mad skills, thus making up for all your inadequacies in life. If you play and enjoy OMG Zombies, you’ll still have a shitty job and be on the bottom of your totem pole of friends and your dick will still be pathetically small. But, you’ll have fun, so cares? That’s why we play games, right? Not every game has to somehow leave you feeling accomplished. Besides, with as much rancid, horrible shit we as gamers buy and play, I think just knowing that I found a fun game is accomplishment enough, casual or otherwise.

OMG Zombies was developed by Laughing Jackal
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Vita (as OMG HD Zombies), Steam

$1.24 (normally $4.99) said the game would have sold better with a name like “The Popping Dead” in the making of this review.

OMG Zombies is Chick-Approved and just jumped a few spots up the IGC Leaderboard from its previous ranking. What can I say? That fast-forward function was sweet.

Iron Crypticle

The guys at Tikipod clearly know what they’re doing when it comes to freshening-up moldy oldies. Hot off the heels of my infuriating time with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, my next game in my Backlog from Hell was another revival of a long-lost game. Here, Iron Cryticle is a tribute to Smash TV, which isn’t exactly a classic that withstands the test of time. I got it for Xbox Live Arcade in the late 2000s and was not a fan at all. The game show theme was inspired, but the actual gameplay was overly long and very bland. During my #IGCRetroBlitz (the # is part of the name) for Midway Arcade Origins back in January, Smash TV was part of the lineup and I was reminded just how awful it was. Rooms that seemed to last forever. Uninteresting weapons. Bosses so spongy that players might be better off just hanging out and waiting to see if they’ll die of natural causes. It’s a terrible game, and if not for the game show gimmick, nobody would remember it today. Want proof? Ever play Total Carnage? No? Well it’s the sequel to Smash TV and it doesn’t have the game show theme. Told you.

Crypticle’s got spongy bosses, but only “barely to the point of annoying” spongy. Not “we soak-up firepower to such a degree that you have to wonder if the developers really just had contempt for you” spongy.

But, people do remember Smash TV, and twin-stick shooters are a perfectly fine genre. The failure of Smash TV to hold up is based around the fact that it was designed specifically to rob quarters from bored teenagers in the early 90s. But the idea of a twin-stick shooter with a series of single-screen rooms, branching paths, waves of enemies, bonus rooms, and tons of pick-ups is solid. Tikipod and co-developer Confused Pelican (who is presumably not Alvin Gentry) had a perfectly good road map to make the ultimate Smash TV tribute. Actually, the means to improve the formula are self-evident. Just remove the quarter-thievery objective and focus on a great experience for players. And they’ve done it.

The biggest hurdle Confused Pelitiki had was keeping the experience fresh. In Smash TV, even the first room overstays its welcome. For Iron Crypticle, gameplay is sped up and rooms are shorter and offer a lot more variety than just relying on enemies and landmines for the challenge. Rooms have different themes with pros and cons depending on if you want to rack up points or stockpile weapons. There are online leaderboards, so points might matter to you. There’s a lot more going on than just moving towards bonus rooms like there is in Smash TV.

By the power of Grayskull!

It helps that the enemies are more varied and that you can unlock more guns and more power-ups with each play-through. There are magic spells you can save up to clear out enemies. There’s a dash move to aid in escaping tight jams. There’s a satisfying variety of guns that spawn with relative frequency. Hell, they even threw in a Bubble Bobble-style letter-collecting thingy where if you spell B-O-N-U-S you clear a room automatically and get tons of goodies. They even went the extra mile and made collecting points more fun by having them stack for bonus multipliers. It’s like Tiki-elican did forensic analysis on the carcass of Smash TV and said “why is part boring and what can we do to unboringfy it?” Smash TV had two players. Iron Crypticle has four. Smash TV lacked in variety. Crypticle breaks up the levels with shops or arcades where you can earn bonus points playing a very decent side-scrolling platformer called Castle Crushers. If Iron Crypticle had a game show theme, it’d been exactly the Smash TV update that people have wanted for thirty-years now.

It’s not perfect. I really hate that, even on easy mode, you’re limited to five continues and once they’re gone, it’s back to the beginning with you. Shouldn’t that type of game-over condition be reserved for higher difficulty levels and people who are looking to challenge themselves? I think so. Even on easy, Iron Crypticle isn’t a slouch, especially when playing by yourself. You can buy extra credits in the stores but they’re relatively expensive and you’ll probably have to skip on upgrading your stats to be able to afford them. Crypticle gets teeth late in the game and I wasn’t able to finish the primary quest. Usually this is a deal breaker for me. I mean, I lost my shit when Cuphead gated me out of the final bosses even though I accomplished more than over 90% of other Cuphead players. Surely that should apply here? Especially when Tikipod whispered to me what happens after the final boss and I ended up giving them a black eye just for THINKING of doing what they apparently did.

Okay, I wish the game wasn’t so darkly lit, and I wish some traps stood out a bit more. I lost track of how many times I took damage because I just didn’t notice I was moving next to something deadly.

Well, it probably would have killed the game. Maybe even should have killed the game. But once you play Iron Crypticle once, you unlock a “bonus mode” that’s just one single “endless” room. Kill waves of enemies, reach the second wave, etc, etc. It basically turns Medieval Smash TV into Medieval Robotron 2084. But here’s the nutty part: I actually like this mode more than the normal mode. It’s pure, scoring-driven, white-knuckle action. All the cool weapons and upgrades from the normal mode thrown into a single-roomed non-stop killathon. I loved it. And, even better, you can still unlock new items and weapons in this mode that become available in all modes. That is such an inspired decision, and it changes the dynamic of the game completely since Endless mode is no longer just a tacked-on time waster. And that, my friends, is what puts Iron Crypticle over-the-top and makes it one of the best action indie games I’ve ever played.

What I like best about Iron Crypticle is what it represents. It reminded me that many developers fundamentally get it. Pay tribute to the *spirit* of the original while revamping and modernizing everything you know it did wrong. It might not carry the same theme, but Crypticle feels like Smash TV, only a version of it fully-realized, fleshed-out, polished, and modern. It’s a throwback that nobody my age can possibly get bored with. One that even the most stuffy, hardliner retro fan has to concede does right by original. It succeeds as a tribute, and soars on its own merit. There is no better way to show how much the classic meant to your life than making a better game inspired by it. It sure beats getting a tattoo!

Iron Crypticle was developed by Tikipod & Confused Pelican
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

$3.99 (normally $9.99) recommended against using Joycons because they SUCK for twin-stick shooters in the making of this review.

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

 

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove

I consider Greg Johnson to be a friend. We’ve got a good rapport with each-other and I was one of the few who was positively gaga over Doki Doki Universe. Nobody bought Doki Doki. Hell, most fans of ToeJam & Earl don’t even know about it. It’s a lot like TJ&E, but it’s not exactly the same game the developmentally stunted among us played as children in 1991, and thus they had no interest in it. But, I like Greg and I like his team. So this wasn’t the most fun review for me to do. Consider this a trigger warning for all you old people who have ventured to my blog: the following review will, in no way, harm the memories of your childhood spent being a latchkey kid raised by a Sega Genesis. It’s perfectly reasonable and logical that I, an individual who was two-years-old when the original ToeJam & Earl came out, would not be swayed by nostalgia for a game that meant nothing to my childhood. And trust me, in the case of Back in the Groove, that nostalgia is absolutely necessary. You know how sometimes I wonder out-loud “who exactly was this game made for?” Not here. I know exactly who TJ&E: Back in the Groove was made for: fans of the original. And only fans of the original. I really feel like an uninvited party-crasher here.

I do like the idea of Back in the Groove and what it represents. Here’s a game from a franchise that failed over and over again to maintain or cultivate a substantial audience and claw its way out of cult-status. One where the fan base is rabid enough and starved enough that they can raise half-a-million via crowd-funding, but not on big enough to justify a revival on its own merit. There is a sect of snobs out there who believe Kickstarter should be reserved only for new developers bringing new ideas. Nuts to that, says I. In fact, I would say that Kickstarter is tailored specifically for these sort of comebacks, where the angry and demanding fan-bases can step up to the plate, pony-up their dosh in advance, and assume all the risk that a publisher would have to be off their rocker to take. ToeJam & Earl, dare I say, is quintessentially a crowd-funding project. Fans can buy the creators a truckload of shovels to dig up the corpse, tie electrodes it, blast it with lightning, and then admire the unholy abomination they brought back from the dead together.

Back in the Groove feels like a game that’s been in a coma since 1991, and consequently is oblivious to the whole concept of being “woke.” Tons of fat-shaming present. I’m not outraged or anything. It’s just sort of jarring to see a new game in 2019 not give a shit about political correctness. Earl can eat anything, even toxic food. Why? Because he’s the fat one. And, as we all know, conventional wisdom tells us fat people can and will eat anything. That’s how they got fat in the first place, right? It’s almost refreshing how out-of-fucks to give it is.

Credit where it’s due: Back in the Groove feels just like the Genesis original. For fans of series, that’s probably all they need. It’s best to think of Groove as a remake. You walk around sprawling randomly-generated maps looking for parts of your ship. Along the way you run away from enemies, engage in lots of item-hunting, and, if you’re me, ask yourself what all the fuss is about. ToeJam & Earl was certainly ahead of its time. It was released in 1991, years before games like Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie popularized adventurous collect-a-thons. But, besides a misguided Xbox release in 2002 that honestly wasn’t that bad, the series has been dormant ever since a 2D platform sequel that I personally liked more when I played both games as part of Sega Genesis Classics. Panic on Funkotron had a weird Dr. Seuss quality about it and felt like a polished product. 1991’s ToeJam & Earl felt like a proof of concept that hopefully someday would see its potential fully realized.

That’s not what Back in the Groove does. Combat, for instance. Back in the Groove, especially in later levels, spams the screen with enemies that move faster than you and take a LOT of health off (or steal the goodies you’ve collected). You get things like tomatoes or slingshots that you throw at enemies to fight back with. But, in order to call them up, you have to bring up a menu of all the “presents” you’ve collected. And the game doesn’t tell you what the presents you collected are. They’re labeled with question marks, and the only way to find out what they are is to either open them, thus using them, or find a character to pay a relatively large amount of resources to tell you what they are. You’re basically reliant on luck to be able to get the right present that allows you to fight back. Oh, and while you’re fumbling through menus hoping to find something defensive to use, the game doesn’t pause. The enemies are still coming at you. The ones that already moved faster than you and were at a major advantage to begin with. You can skip that and run, but in many levels the only means of escape is jumping into water. Water which will, itself, start to drain your health. Yeah. Combine this with the fact that the mystery presents might not help but themselves spawn even more enemies or bullshit to deal with, and you suddenly have a game that is just outright fucking with you.

Why is it like this? Because that’s what the original was like.

The fact that half the items will absolutely fuck you over is infuriating. Games are supposed to be fun, right? But at one point I opened three straight presents which, in order: spawned more enemies, put a giant neon sign above my head that drew the enemies to me, and then put a rain cloud above me that caused lightning to strike down upon me and warned me I couldn’t go back into the water to hide. Fucking really? I know the running gag with me is I have bad luck with RNG, but COME ON! How is this shit supposed to be fun?

When I complained about this, fans of the series were aghast. “How dare you complain that this unfair, clunky shit is unfair and clunky? That’s what we wanted! It’s what we paid to make!” And you know what? They’re right! This is exactly what they asked for. They wanted all the cheesy, crappy mechanics that made most people abandon the series decades ago to return intact and unaltered. They got their wish. Consequently, ToeJam & Earl is the perfect remake. It was shitty and borderline unplayable in 1991 and it’s shitty and borderline unplayable in 2019. Bravo.

And that makes it hard for me to discuss it. Sometimes I say a game wasn’t made for me, but this time it’s specifically true. I can’t remember a Kickstarter project that has been made just for one core set of gamers to this degree. Even Shenmue III looks like it aspires to evolve past its deeply-flawed origins. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove rejects progress and advancement. It plays and feels like an early 90s project that was too ambitious to work as desired, but hey, at least it’s ambitious. And if this were 1991, that would be fine. But it’s 2019, and it’s not. Bringing all the problems back, deliberately this time, would be like a family bragging about how webbed toes are passed through the generations like they were a priceless heirloom.

Take the levels. They’re randomly generated, so we shouldn’t expect too much. But there’s a very limited amount of set pieces. A normal grassland, a desert, a snowfield, and levels that are dark where you use a flashlight to see. I played through 19 levels and that was the extent of the variety. The themes repeated over and over again. Because the levels are randomly generated, they all feel samey and very, very bland no matter what the theme is. Sometimes the elevator would spawn in a screen that was absolutely saturated with enemies, like the men in black that zap you with a cattle-prod and steal all your presents. Or sometimes a level would begin with a screenful of enemies AND a hula-dancer that stun-locks you, because apparently you can’t resist doing the hula with her even if there are enemies chasing you and eating you right at that moment. I’d go so far as to say ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove has the worst randomly generated levels for this kind of game I’ve ever seen. They’re never interesting, which completely undermines the whole “never the same game twice” shit that random levels are supposed to assure. Who cares if it’s never the same twice when it’s dull at best to begin with?

Greg Johnson is a cool dude. One of the classiest acts in gaming. I was, and still am, a huge fan of Doki Doki Universe, his unsung magnum opus that never got is due. The weird thing for me is that ToeJam & Earl is one of the more remembered duos in gaming. Not Mario & Luigi level, but not obscure either. Yet, unless you play co-op, there’s no interplay with them at all. Meanwhile, Doki Doki Universe turned even the most stonehearted of owners into mush with the genuine and moving relationship between a robot and a sentient balloon. Because of that game, I know this one phoned it in. Over the course of Doki Doki, its stories are fleshed out, its characters get development and arcs, and we, the players, form a personal connection to them.

ToeJam and Earl, on the other hand, get no development at all. Besides an opening cinematic that shows them to be so stupid that they’re practically mentally handicapped, they are defined entirely by their character models, not any writing or story or interaction with other characters. They’re aliens. They like music. They fart. But the thing is, after Doki Doki I know Mr. Johnson is capable of better than this. These aren’t characters. They’re cynical, lazy brand mascots designed to appeal specifically to children from 1991, at the height of Nickelodeon and Ninja Turtles. Again, I can’t help but wonder if the reason this game forgoes character development and an actual story is because the original didn’t have it. The only reason this bothers me above all else is I fucking know Greg is better. This shit is beneath him.

When I was whining about how the enemies are faster than me, the solution given to me by fans was “don’t pick Earl.” Yea, what was I thinking? Picking one of the main characters in a game that bears his name? Well, I’ll have you know I picked Earl because it seems like half the food you find is spoiled, which makes all the characters but Earl take damage and throw up. In my last run, I counted the rotten food v non-rotten food. It was 12 for fresh, and 14 for rotten. That’s just how this shit works. It seemed like most of the bushes I shook led to either spawning more enemies or dropping bowling balls on me.

So why isn’t Back in the Groove better? There’s so many buttons on game consoles today. Each of the major three platforms has two rows of shoulder buttons. Why not let players shuffle through the presents with the triggers while they’re trying to run from enemies? Because the original didn’t have that. Why does seemingly most of the shit you can uncover while searching the world turn out to be a trap? Because that’s how it was in the original. Why was almost no effort made to tighten the controls and make the exploration and combat more comfortable and responsive? So it would feel more like the original.

You know what? Why didn’t you fucking people just keep playing the original one? If you wanted to pretend that thirty years of design innovation or gameplay conventions didn’t spring into existence since ToeJam & Earl came out, why even bother asking for a remake, let alone raise $500,000 for one? So you can play the same game with fancier graphics? Wait, aren’t you the same generation that completely lost their shit when Lucasfilm added CG clutter to the original Star Wars movies? Will you make up your mind on what you want? Same old shit with a fresh coat of paint or a real sequel that fully realizes the potential of the game that was important to your childhood? The best remakes are ones that pay tribute to the spirit of the original while righting all the wrongs that were a result of technological limitations. Look at the Resident Evil 2 remake. Part of the reason for the fixed camera angles was to “direct” players and create more effective jump-scares, but the bigger reason was the technology wasn’t there to give players full control without too many compromises being made. By 2019, the tech was there and had been perfected for over a decade. Now imagine if fans said “that’s cool, but you better bring back the horrible fixed cameras, or else.”

I didn’t even realize that you had to talk to a guy in a carrot suit to level-up. That’s another issue: you can’t tell good things from bad things. Dude in a carrot suit = good. Hula dancer = bad. Update: you can tell because good characters have a very subtle sparkly effect. I double checked and yea, it’s there.

So, while I’m genuinely happy that ToeJam & Earl fans had their successful campaign and got exactly what they asked for (that’s not a joke, for all the bitching I’m doing, I’m always happy to see long-suffering gamers get their day in the sun), I question whether this is really what they should have asked for. If I had been a fan, I’d wanted to see the series catch on with gamers of all stripes, sell a ton of copies, and finally be here to stay. Isn’t that the best way to show your love for something? To want it to be successful? Not that I think ToeJam & Earl fans want it to fail. They clearly love the series. But they only want it to do well on their own terms. I’m sorry, but that’s not reasonable at all. Those are not the type of fans who should be catered to, Kickstarter or not. It’s no different from music fans who discover a band, fall in love with them, and brag about them to everyone. It’s their band. Until they get successful, have their albums go gold, and get big gigs. At that point, they’re sellouts, and you spend the rest of your days telling people how they used to be cool. No, you used to be cool. They’re still cool, mostly because they’re making more than just a small group of disloyal people happy. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove could have been a good game, but “fans” didn’t challenge Greg Johnson and the development team to bring the concept to its fullest potential. They wanted a remake. They got a remake. They’re happy with it.

And it assures ToeJam & Earl will always be just their thing, and theirs alone.

Well, they can have it.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove was developed by HumaNature Studios
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

$19.99 challenged Greg and crew to do DLC with *hand-designed* levels in the making of this review.

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.

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