Gyro Boss DX

When I started Indie Gamer Chick on July 1, 2011, the site focused on Xbox Live Indie Games. While there were a few ambitious concepts, most of the games I covered early-on here tended to be small, simple titles that cost 80 Microsoft Points. That’s approximately $1 for the uninitiated. While I’ve since started to cover larger games, over-achieving bite-sized cheapies hold a special place in my heart. Where in my heart the special place is located I’m not sure. Probably somewhere by my cholesterol dam. Also, I want to point out that while I registered the site on July 1, the first review didn’t go up until July 2. So this totally counts as my 8th anniversary review. Or 7th anniversary for you technical kill-joys out there who point out you don’t celebrate your 1st wedding anniversary on the day you’re married. Yea? Well, I beat Cuphead so suck my asshole.

Huge props to Chequered Ink for including the option to tone down intense visual effects for the photosensitive among us. That was very uncommon when I started Indie Gamer Chick eight years ago this week. Now, I see it all the time. And it still warms my heart to see it.

People on my timeline are saying Gyro Boss DX is based on Gyruss, a terrible 1983 arcade shooter by Konami. Because, you see, it has G-Y-R as the first few letters, just like Gyruss. It might be based on that, in the same way Texas Chainsaw Massacre is based on Ed Gein (because, you see, they both involve murders where the killers did weird things with the bodies, but that would mean I’m based on Ed Gein too and my parents say I’m actually based on too much rum and the pharmacy being out of birth control pills) but it sure looks more like Atari’s vector-graphics classic Tempest to me. Of course, both those games involve shooting and in Gyro Boss DX the only shooting is being done at you. And you have to dodge it by spinning around the outside of a cylinder. That’s where my (much more accurate) Tempest comparison comes from.

So yea, the titular Gyro Boss shoots a variety of bullets and other attacks at you, and you dodge that. That’s the entirety of the game. Well, as far as I can tell. I put over an hour of playtime into it, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you remember that rounds end as soon as a bullet grazes you. Or, in my case, flying straight into a bullet because my mind wanders for 1/10th of a second. Maybe there’s an end-game where you shoot back. I don’t know. I wasn’t good enough to get that far. Yea, I wasn’t great at Gyro Boss. I did like it though. I’m a sucker for unassuming arcade scoring games. Even if I suck at them. I’m a sucking sucker that sucks.

I never once died from this wave that I lovingly called “Joey Chestnut’s favorite attack pattern.”

Every attack pattern seems fair and like you should be able to clock it eventually. I mean, I didn’t. But it seems like a competent player could. The patterns are selected at random with a larger attack that dodging causes “damage” to the Gyro Boss every 90 seconds or so. You score based on how long you last. There’s fake achievements to unlock. And, if you struggle with some patterns more than others, you’ll be totally at the mercy of the RNG. Of course, there’s no consequence for dying besides starting over with a score of zero because there are absolutely no online leaderboards. For an arcade style game driven by high scores. Maybe not all that much has changed in eight years.

I really wish devs making games like this would understand that pathetic people like myself need those leaderboards to validate our existence. No global high scores means I don’t know if I’m a better Gyro Boss DX player than XxWindowLicker420xX. What if I’m not? What if I’m not even close? Should I keep playing and hope he’s not spending half as much time as I am improving or should I seek out the next score-driven game nobody will buy and hope it’s something I have a leg-up on him? Or her. It could be a her. It’s rather sexist of me to think pothead window lickers can’t be women. We can be anything!

And that’s pretty much my only complaint. In summary: Gyro Boss DX is a perfectly acceptable indie time waster that I recommend. It might even be a good party game too. I really don’t know because my family is fucking useless at bullet dodging games. Up to four-players can be placed around the cylinder, and in multiplayer, the rules might randomly change on you. You could get a round where you can’t stop moving your ship. You might have to collect coins. You might even get to attack other players by firing missiles at them. It looked like it would be fun, but sadly the longest round my family and I played lasted approximately fifteen seconds. Even the kids that play games couldn’t cut it with Gyro Boss DX, and I ended up yelling at them because they sucked so bad that I couldn’t properly evaluate the mode. I mean, god damn family, there had to have been a baby mix-up at the hospital with me and somewhere out there is a confused family of amazing gamers wondering why their daughter is the drizzling shits at dodging hotdog-shaped bullets. Fifteen fucking seconds at most? Most of our games lasted under eight seconds. EIGHT SECONDS! On the plus side, I learned my entire family would take a bullet for me. Even if they were trying not to.

So do we pronounce it “Guh-Eye-Roe” or “You’re-roe”?

Gyro Boss DX was developed by Chequered Ink
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$0.74 (normally $4.99) said “you’re not the (Gyro) Boss of me!” in the making of this review.

Gyro Boss DX is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

After spending eight years genuinely working hard to improve my writing skills, it’s weird to throw that all out the window in an attempt to write a throwback style IGC review from 2011. I don’t recommend any other game critics celebrating their milestones try such a thing.

Venture Kid

I imagine many NES playing kids of the 80s drew or designed Mega Man characters and bosses. It’s probably the easiest thing in the world to do. Look around your room, find objects, and then turn them into _____ Man. Once you have eight of them, just take normal Mega Man villains, make them bigger so they can be bosses for the castle stages, then slightly redesign Wily’s skullship and BAM, you have a Mega Man sequel. So if Capcom comes to me and says “we need eight bosses for Mega Man 12” you can look forward to battling Keyboard Man, Couch Man, Ashtray Man, 5-Hour Energy Shot Man, Epilepsy Dog Man, Curtain Man, Door Man, and Hair-Tie Man. Well, we’ll make Curtain Man into Curtain Woman. Gotta remember equality.

So, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that so many indies pay tribute to the Blue Bomber. Of any iconic gaming franchise from that era, Mega Man probably lends itself most to adaption. That’s why any long-time indie watcher rolled their eyes as Mighty No. 9 was raking in a kagillion dollars in crowd funding. I know I did. Having played Vintage Hero, which actually held the #1 position on the IGC Leaderboard in the pre-multiplatform era of this blog, it occurred to me that you don’t exactly need four-million dollars to turn out a half-decent Mega Man homage. Frog The Door Games did Vintage Hero on a budget of Ramen Noodles and Basic Cable and the end result was roughly a four-million times better and more Mega Manish than the game so many rubes seeded. Even 20XX, which is based more on the Mega Man X series and did nothing for me (I never liked Mega Man X either) is infinitely more inspired than Mighty No. 9.

Honestly, if you’re more of a Mega Man X fan, you’d probably enjoy 20XX. It’s basically Mega Man X as done like a roguelike. For me, I tried multiple times to sit down and work myself into enjoying it. I just couldn’t get into it. I found everything about it to be boring. I think, above all, Mega Man style games need tight, creative level design or the formula gets dull quickly and the base concept of 20XX forbid such levels.

Do you know what other game is better? Venture Kid. Only this one has been slightly more controversial than I expected, with some people suspecting that they just took original Mega Man sprites and repainted them. If it’s true, “so what?” I say. Who cares? It’s supposed to be semi-satirical. It’s really not all that different than spoof films like Scary Movie casting actors that look like the stars of the flicks they’re lampooning, is it? It’s supposed to look like Mega Man, but not all like Mega Man. Deliberately so. So, what’s the deal? It’s not like developer Snikkabo just changed a helmet or the shading of the armor. It’s an entirely new look. What difference does it make if they just took an outline of the original sprites or if they redesigned the whole thing but with the intent to still very, very closely invoke Mega Man without it being Mega Man? Because that happens a LOT in Indieland. I’ve had tons of people who I hold much respect for shit on Venture Kid, claiming that it’s “lazy” and a “rip-off.” Really? For fuck’s sake, less than a year ago I played Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, which reskinned every aspect of Castlevania from the heroes to the enemies and nobody said “reskinning! BOOOOOO!” It stinks of a double standard. If Curse of the Moon can have the exact same enemies behaving the exact same way as they did in the 80s, only they look different, how is that different from what Venture Kid does?

Oh, it’s because it’s your chance to puff your chests out and shit on someone in no position to retaliate. Got it. Just so we’re clear: original game with mechanics taken verbatim from classic game with absolute no effort at all to differentiate those characters from the original characters besides base-level sprite repainting ala exactly what Bloodstained Curse of the Moon is: okay as long as the producer is a legend. Same circumstances but small, inexperienced indie dev ala Venture Kid: lazy ripoff. I’ll try to remember that in the future. Even if it makes no sense. I mean in theory, it should be the other way around and NOT okay for the experienced, legendary producer to do that but a great starting point for an inexperienced dev to pop their game making cherry, but what do I know?

If you wish, just tell yourself that Mega Man had to go off on an adventure but his suit was at the cleaner. Also the Venture Kid in the game looks significantly more rotund than the Venture Kid in the cover art and promos.

So yea, you’ll see a lot of familiar ideas in Venture Kid. Bosses that drop weapons you can then use. Eight levels followed by a handful of finale levels (actually, only two, which even I felt that was a bit lite). Enemies like the little helmet dudes that bullets bounce off of unless they rise up to shoot at you, only this time they’re crates instead of helmets. That’s fine. That’s sorta what you should expect in a tribute, right? I mean, y’all liked Shovel Knight, right? The game that played like DuckTales and even had enemies that behaved like other Capcom NES games. Again, what’s the difference? Is it that Shovel Knight and Curse of the Moon improved upon the NES originals or at least tired to feel modern and different? Because Venture Kid does that too.

Right away, you’ll notice the movement feels like you’d expect a Mega Man but not Mega Man game to feel like. And then you have to jump, and you’ll notice that feels completely different. The gravity is much lighter, but it doesn’t exactly feel floaty, either. It works. It seems like it won’t, but it was intuitive and adaptive, even if my brain doesn’t realize it. A lot of people complained about “last pixel jumps”, including me, where you had to get right to the edge of a ledge (I’m a poet and I didn’t know it) in order to clear a gap. BUT, I never once missed one of those jumps or ran into a pit attempting them, even if I was gulping when I tried them. So, was it really last pixel? Or was it my brain telling me “Mega Man can’t make that jump!” Mega Man couldn’t, but Venture Kid could.

Hell, there’s even a Castlevania stage. Venture Kid was a Kid Icarus stage away from being the Captain N: The Game Master release NES kids have been waiting almost 30 years for.

So they made not-Mega Man jump like Super Mario 2 Luigi without the floatiness. Big deal, right? And if that’s the only change that made me sit-up and take notice, that probably wouldn’t have been enough for Venture Kid to stand out. But then I noticed enemies were able to kill each-other with their bullets. It doesn’t factor into the game much, but it’s there and it’s a small touch that stood out to me and everyone else who sampled the Kid. That’s really Venture Kid in a nutshell: small changes that make the entire experience feel fresh. And really, Mega Man’s formula should absolutely NOT feel fresh after eleven primary games (twelve if you count Bass) and more spinoffs than Law & Order. Even the levels change things up with switches, locked doors, and a hidden item in every stage that unlocks the real last boss fight. There’s a store in the pause menu you can use to buy health refills, extra lives and stuff to help assure the item refills don’t go to waste. It’s like seeing someone you’ve known for years get a haircut. Sometimes it feels like they’re an entirely new person, even though really nothing has changed.

I’m not going to complain about the length. Some are. Some are saying the levels are too short and the finale sequence has less areas than a typical Mega Man game. Fine, I’ll complain about that part. Two finale stages is too little. But honestly, I prefer tributes to classic franchises to be a bit shorter. It’s so much more preferable to padding the length, which usually results in spotlighting flaws you otherwise missed while ogling the experience. If Venture Kid made any mistakes in this regard, it’d probably be with the bosses. They’re fine. They feel appropriately on-brand. BUT, then you encounter one that you fight while riding a mine cart that’s so insanely inspired that you wonder if they had that sort of potential for all the others and simply didn’t tap it. Now granted, I let Shovel Knight get away with less than stellar bosses so I have to for Venture Kid too, but I do so feeling like a judge letting an arsonist off on a technicality because the warrant was worded wrong. And now that arsonists is thanking me while ominously flicking their zippo.

I think I might be onto something with the whole Captain N joke.

In fact, up until the last two stages of Venture Kid, I figured this review would have to focus on the little things to complain about. Like how the opening menu has no clarification as to what difference there is between CLASSIC mode and ADVENTURE mode. Get this: classic mode has you play the first eight levels in sequential order while adventure mode lets you select which order to play them. Just like.. uh.. classic.. Mega Man? So why isn’t classic the one that lets you select the order and adventure the one that makes you go from point A to point B like an adventure? I don’t get it. Beyond that, I’d probably complained about how the inspired twisty-turny aspects of certain stages like the Egyptian one don’t factor into enough levels.

And then I got to the Dr. Wily’s Castle style end-game levels, and yeah, I now have something to complain about. Because these levels are a maddening torture chamber of design choices so poorly conceived that I’m convinced the developers are still stuck in the Mirror Universe and their goatee-wearing doppelgängers are causing mayhem. These stages are littered with instakill spikeballs with unforgiving collision detection, along with instakill “skull-balls” that orbit around a central point. That’s bad enough, but then you get to a section where the spikeballs blink in and out of existence with no graphical warning of them. When you encounter these, you’re almost guaranteed to die because the first time they appear. It happens like it was deliberately timed to happen at that point. That’s not challenge, people. That’s kicking someone in the nuts and then telling them you’re playing a game where you have to avoid getting kicked in the nuts and they just lost. You have to know a challenge is happening or else it’s just GOTCHA!

It really puckered my butthole when it happened because everything before this was so well-crafted. This moment was beneath the Venture Kid that I just played through. So was an auto-scrolling section leading to the true final boss that relied less on level design and more on the spikeballs. I think Venture Kid succumbed to relatively inexperienced developers not knowing how to make a game feel climatic. Another problem is they couldn’t decide if they wanted Venture Kid to feature linear levels or Mega Man style stage selecting. Including both sounds like a perfectly fine compromise, but when you think about it, having the option to do both still requires levels 1 – 8 to have little-to-no difficulty scaling. There’s a very small amount of sections that are made easier by using items acquired in other stages, but really you can beat the whole game with just the starting peashooter and it wouldn’t change all that much. Consequently, the final two levels feel like they’re the 9th and 10th levels of a game that scaled properly to get there, only without the scaling. You don’t do swimming lessons by teaching someone how to kick their feet for eight weeks, then strap a barbell to their feet and throw them into the deep end for week nine. I mean, I do that, but sane people don’t.

In fact, a lot of people on my timeline said those stages ruined the game for them. I’m not going there, because they didn’t for me. They were disappointing, but I still could beat them, and did. I just had to trial-and-error my way through them in a way that felt like it belonged to another, lesser game. It was unfortunate because you never want to finish any good game on a sour note, and Venture Kid ends with a degree of sourness normally restricted to laboratory conditions at the Warhead candy factory. But don’t let that distract from the fact that Venture Kid is a very good game. It’s sad to me that so many people are dismissing it as a clone of Mega Man or even a rip-off of someone else’s Mega Man tribute. This is the same community that gave four-million-dollars for a Mega Man tribute sitting on a 52% rating at metacritic. Nobody should be calling any indie a Mega Man tribute when you already gave more money to that steaming turd than you have to most charities.

The final levels do go a bit overboard on the instakill shit. Remember aspiring indie developer reading this: it DOES matter that people put the controller down, game beaten, in as good a mood as you put them in when you game was at its peak enjoyment. Otherwise they might be less likely to spread the word of it.

I hate to keep coming back to this, but the sheer amount of double standards on display from the blowback to Venture Kid is kind of shocking to me. I liked Venture Kid. There’s not a lot to it, but what is here is just plain fun from start to.. uh.. close enough to finish. It’s why I consider myself so lucky that I couldn’t give two shits about nostalgia. It keeps me from being weird about games and over-thinking whether they work or not. If I’d never played Mega Man, I know in my heart of hearts I’d liked Venture Kid every bit as much. That it set out to pay tribute to an iconic franchise is nothing more than trivia as far as I’m concerned. That being the case I probably shouldn’t have spent so much of the review talking about Mega Man. Hey, you have your double standards. I have mine!

Venture Kid was developed by Snikkabo
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$7.50 (normally $10, but $7.50 if you own any other Switch games published by FDG Entertainment) thanked all their fans and the entire indie community for sticking with me through my first six-hundred indie game reviews in the making of this review!

Venture Kid is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard!

Wonder Boy Returns Remix

2019 is truly the year of the pointless remake. First I had ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, which did so little to improve the twenty-eight-year-old original that I wonder why they even bothered. And now I’m playing Wonder Boy Returns Remix, which does so little to improve the thirty-three-year-old original that I wonder why they even bothered. I don’t get it. Why would anyone remake a game from the 80s or even the 90s with the same exact levels? Why would fans of the original choose this version over the old one? Presumably, those fans would scoff at modern graphics. And the graphics of Wonder Boy Returns are not that great, to be honest. The style, animation, and even font used for the points when you kill enemies look like they belong to a free browser game designed to advertise car insurance.

I’m certain that Wonder Boy/Adventure Island was good back in the 1980s. The tropical theme is fun. You get to skateboard, and skateboards were big in the 1980s. And it was sort of like Super Mario Bros but not Super Mario Bros, and it was on Sega platforms where there was no Mario, but it was also on the NES where there was a Mario game but you were waiting for another Mario game and anything Mario-like will do. Give me a break, everyone. I’m trying really hard to get myself in the mindset where this game was ever good. Because my play session with it in 2019 was the drizzling shits. It’s so boring. And no matter what else I say after this paragraph, remember that there’s nothing worse a game can do than bore.

The timer is a hold-over from Wonder Boy’s life as an arcade game. It’s there to prevent you from sitting still, drains relatively quickly, and can only be replenished by fruit that spawn out of nowhere. Like the lives system, it no longer services the game.

If you played the 1986 Wonder Boy in arcades, the 1987 Wonder Boy for Sega Master System the 1988 Adventure Island for the NES, the 1990 Revenge of Drancon for Game Gear, and probably twenty thousand more remakes, you’ve played Wonder Boy Returns Remix. I should also probably note that you can play as Wonder Boy’s girlfriend. The girl is reserved exclusively for “practice mode.” Practice in this sense means you can’t take damage from anything (except falling in a pit, which costs you a life), never get off your Vespa, and basically get a free ride to the end of each stage. Because girls suck and they need their hands held. It’s slightly cringey. But what’s really weird is, it’s called “practice” and yet, if you’re really struggling to get past a level on normal, you can’t just jump straight to that level to “practice.” You have to do a full play through with the girl to get all the levels. Her unlocked levels are kept totally separate. Well hell, that’s not practice then. If I’m stuck on level 5 – 2 with the boy and want to “practice it” with the girl, I have to beat every between level 1 – 1 and level 5 – 1 with her. And given that you can’t just run as the girl and you apparently MUST use the Vespa (which is functionally the same as the skateboard), it’s ESPECIALLY not practice. There’s no bosses, so it’s REALLY REALLY REALLY not practice. It’s just patronizingly easy mode, starring a girl, because girls are helpless.

And yes, I’ve been abusing save states in the same way Kevin Spacey has abused age of consent laws while playing classic Castlevania games for the last week, but hey, I beat Cuphead, so suck my asshole.

(Also, I’ve been made aware that if you beat the game on hard mode, you find the girl chilling out. It would seem the whole kidnapping was staged and she was actually trying to trick Wonder Boy into rescuing her so that he could make babies with her. If my eyes rolled any more, I’d be able to cosplay as the Undertaker. I’m not offended or anything. It’s almost adorable in the same way being trapped in the a conversation with a senior citizen who casually states that he believes a woman’s place is in the home is. Now everyone, before freaking out, remember, it was a different time. May, 2019. Yea, the original basically has no ending at all.)

To the game’s credit, the only person I know named Tanya is sort of worthless. She locked her keys in her car, had a locksmith come to jimmy it open, got in the car, started the engine, remembered she left her purse or something on the sidewalk, got out of the car to get it, resulting in her locking herself out of her car AGAIN, this time with the engine on. Tanya, I’d worry that you’d see this and get mad me, but I seriously doubt you can even read.

Now, in the interest of fairness, I fired up my MAME cabinet to give the original Wonder Boy a shot between the last paragraph and this sentence. I can attest that the controls are nominally fixed over the original. The biggest change seems to be in the skateboard. I was nailing some pretty hair-raising jumps with it. In the arcade version, the physics feel totally different and I was shorting the same jumps. So some effort was made. And Returns Remix also adds a charge shot, which can kill multiple enemies and also clear out rocks you trip over and other otherwise indestructible objects. Purists are crying foul, and it probably nerfed a lot of the challenge, but I used it, and I liked it. Given that I didn’t like a lot about the game, I’ll take whatever net-positive I can get.

There’s one more good addition, and it’s the best idea the new version offers by far: each stage is totally self-contained. There’s now a level select screen, and you start every stage with 5 lives. Honestly, it might as well of done away with the lives altogether. If you wish, you can play “one coin” mode. There’s no level select, and you have ten lives to beat all 32 stages. I stuck to normal mode, and honestly, the level select idea and implementation single-handedly kept me from going into full-blown scathing IGC mode. It’s a genuinely great improvement. If there’s Wonder Boy fans who never beat it, you can beat this one. It has the same levels from your childhood.

It probably could have used online leaderboards too. Otherwise scores are kind of pointless in 2019.

So what’s the problem? IT HAS THE SAME LEVELS AS YOUR CHILDHOOD! Wonder Boy came out three years before I was born. Games have come a long way over the past three decades. Wonder Boy runs out of ways to keep things fresh after just a small handful of levels, leaving worlds 2 through 7 and their twenty-eight stages a repetitive slog. Fighting the same enemies and clearing the same platforms, only rearranged in different orders. There’s a boss fight at the end of each world, but really they’re all the same and only the head changes. They all attack in the same way and only the speed they shuffle back and forth at changes. They remind me of the fights with Bowser in Super Mario 1, but hell, even those would do things like have him start spitting hammers or put blocks in your way to add to the challenge.

What Wonder Boy Returns Remix needed to do was, well, REMIX things. Add new challenges based on modern gameplay conventions. I’ve reviewed one other game with the word “remix” in the title: NES Remix. It stars some games even older than Wonder Boy. But it felt fresh and modern because it took the existing games, some of which were genuinely terrible games even in the mid 80s, and went full-on wackiness with them. Wonder Boy Returns Remix feels so safe and utterly devoted to faithful recreation that, while you do sorta have to tip your hat to how close it comes to feeling like the original, you also have to shake your head at what it accomplishes? Because I can track down Wonder Boy 1986 right now. Anyone can. I don’t think a level select is worth a remake. I don’t think starting each stage with five lives is worth a remake. The formula works. It’s beloved. I had so many people on Twitter saying “OMG ADVENTURE ISLAND!” even though this is Wonder Boy, but Wonder Boy is Adventure Island. My point is, people want more of it. But do they want more of the same?

I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be an axe or a hammer he’s throwing, so I’ll use both horrible puns. Pun #1: Hammer. “This boss must have been drinking last night, because now he’s hammered.” Pun #2: Axe. “Don’t feel sorry for this boss, he was axing for it.”

Hell, I even think the graphics of the original are better. They hold up pretty good for a 1986 game. The irony is the remade graphics of the new one feel more tired than the 1986 graphics. So who is this made for? I let my 12 year old nephew play it. He thought it was fine at first, but got bored after fifteen minutes. Scoff if you will, old school gamers, but he pretty much saw everything the game has to offer in those fifteen minutes. And that’s really the story of Wonder Boy to me. It seems like it’ll be decent, but it just runs out of steam too quickly. And Wonder Boy doesn’t even have all the hidden goodies that Adventure Island apparently has to keep it fresh. Just the same handful of enemies, set pieces, and jumps in different arrangements. Maybe that’s what a lot of old school games were, but maybe those games that held up are just.. I dunno.. better? Maybe Wonder Boy was limited all along. Maybe that’s why the series had to evolve as radically as it did. Can you believe that IGC Seal of Approval winner Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap was a direct sequel to this? If they were any different, there would be a horrible sitcom made about them being roommates.

Wonder Boy Returns Remix was developed CFK
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$14.99 said “yes, this counts as an indie. It’s review #599 in fact” in the making of this review.

Thanks Garrett for the research! Kick him some bucks, everyone.

SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech

Disclosure time: Image & Form top dog Brjann Sigurgeirsson (a name that sounds like someone began to sneeze mid-pronunciation) is a friend of mine. But I’m not sure what that does for a developer besides giving me a direct line to let them know all the numerous ways they fuck up their games. Brjann and I have an understanding: he makes the games, I review the games. No matter my opinion, our friendship remains unchanged. And since I take my critic duties seriously, I don’t talk about their projects still in development with him. I think it’s sort of unethical for a critic to get too hyped for a game that they’re going to cover. It’s not fair to the game. So I didn’t know all that much about today’s game until very recently. I think maybe he might have told me they’d be following SteamWorld Dig 2 with an RPG, but if he did I forgot. When I saw SteamWorld Quest unveiled, I was like “oh, well that’ll be different.” But I didn’t find out about the card-based attack system until right before I started playing it. When I heard about that, my first visceral thought was “well, they were due to have a game suck anyway.”

Nostradamus I ain’t. SteamWorld Quest is the most fun I’ve had playing an indie RPG. You know Brjann, it’s hard to test the legitimacy of our friendship if you don’t make a game I can dislike.

My cynicism was based their chosen combat scheme. I hate card-based attack systems in games. I loved Kingdom Hearts, but hated Chain of Memories. As a teenager who had just gotten hugely into RPGs and was starving for games for it, I couldn’t even like Baten Kaitos. I think I was the only one who didn’t. Before it, I tried Lost Kingdoms on the GameCube, was bored sick, gave the “improved” sequel a try and thought they made it worse. I even tried Eye of Judgement (the gimmicky PlayStation AR game) because, hey look, real cards! It sucked. If any card-based game had potential to hook me, it was the Metal Gear Acid games, but it turns out I was hoodwinked and they’re actually a series of load screens interrupted by a brief card-based tactical RPG snippets. The series was actually fine. Clunky, but fine. But seriously, I think the second level of Ac!d is still stuck loading.

And yes, for those who follow me on Twitter, I play Magic: The Gathering and enjoyed the Steam version of it. Do you know what the difference is? It’s based on the actual physical card game. That does make a difference, ya know?

It doesn’t help that SteamWorld Quest gets off to a start so slow that the jump from prokaryotes to eukaryotes looks tame in comparison. Part of that has to do with the writing, which I’ll get to in a bit. But first, those card mechanics. The idea is you construct a deck of eight cards for each hero you have. When a battle begins, you’re randomly dealt a mixture of six cards from all the heroes. Each turn, you pick three of them to use. They might be attacks, or defensive maneuvers, or special moves that will come into play later in the fight. The real novelty is that each card either comes free or at a cost. If the card has no cost, it adds a counter to a charge meter that you spend on the priced, more powerful cards. It’s clever and works well, but SteamWorld Quest goes the extra mile by including cards that cooperate tag team-style with each-other. Or, if you use three of a single hero’s cards, you get a bonus 4th card separate from the ones included in your deck with a desirable special effect or attack. It’s a rich, satisfying combat system that never gets boring and can be adapted to anyone’s play style. Well, at least after an hour or so.

See the blue bars in my health meters above? That’s probably the most over-powered tactic in the game. See the chick in the witch’s hat in the center? That’s her special combo card when you use three of her cards when she’s equipped with certain weapons. It essentially renders damage to all your characters null and void for a few turns. In fact, she was, to me, the true star of the game. I stacked her with no-cost cards, including one that allowed me to draw extra cards my next turn, and absolutely annihilated battles. I had to voluntarily nerf her by switching to a different weapon (which changes the bonus combo card you get) just to create my own challenge on normal difficulty.

The truth is, I was bored at the start of Quest. The combat system’s eventual wealth of complexity is nowhere to be seen at the start of the game, and what you do start with gives no sign of the greatness to come. You don’t even get a taste of the potential until you open the third and especially the fourth character of the game, at which point you can dump main character Armilly and her boring ass moves. You’ll also have acquired more cards by this point and the ability to create even more. It turns what feels like a gimmicky system into the world’s most entertaining combat laboratory. I remember when playing Hollow Knight that fans kept assuring me that I’d be “opening up the game any minute now.” Well, that really does happen in SteamWorld Quest.

I don’t know if the slow start could have been fixed. Maybe if you started with three characters instead of two (and really, there’s no reason why Galleo coudln’t have been part of your party at the start of the game instead of about thirty or so minutes in). In truth, you can probably “open the game up” in an hour, give or take fifteen minutes. Once you do, you’ll find a combat system that is deceptively deep, allowing for multiple strategies and mad-scientist levels of experimenting. I had just as much fun tinkering with loadouts one card or one accessory at a time as I did opening up new levels. That’s no joke. I’d change a single card in a deck and get positively giddy at the thought of seeing how it worked with the other twenty-three cards. And it’s super easy to grind because you can use save stations to refill your health at a “cost” of respawning all the enemies (besides sub-bosses) in a stage. SteamWorld Quest is a rare game that I enjoyed that feels like it’s going to bore for the first hour or so, warms up, and takes about three hours truly hit its stride. Once it does, I honestly can’t remember the last time I had so much fun with a no-action-prompt, turn-based RPG’s combat system. It might be my favorite ever, indie or otherwise.

If there’s a problem with Quest’s combat, it’s the rewards for beating enemies just aren’t plentiful enough. Leveling up is not the issue. You’ll do it a couple times a chapter. There’s safeguards in place to prevent screw-grinding. The issue comes from enemies not dropping enough resources to craft or upgrade cards. Especially the upgrade part, which requires tons of materials to go all the way with. My strategy for upgrading was to start by focusing on the common, cost-free attacks that most of decks consisted of. But, once I had those beefed up, I realized that I had to go get more materials for the rest of the cards, but getting enough to make meaningful upgrades took forever. It requires you to replay previous chapters, now with a presumably overpowered party, hoping against hope the enemies will drop the stuff you need. Not until very late into the game do resources seem to start to become abundant. I don’t know if I was upgrading cards ahead of schedule or not. Probably not, since some of those upgrades require you to get rare materials that don’t appear until the late game. So you do have to grind, but in the mid-late game, it sort of becomes a chore. Though even flattening enemies doesn’t completely bore. Just remember to hold the right trigger down to fast forward though attack animations.

Balance isn’t too much of an issue (besides Cope’s team-shield thing she does). Really, that they had so many cards without screwing up the balance is remarkable, especially given the rock-scissors-paper nature of enemy types.

What they should have done was had the enemies upgrade alongside with you. Quest is broken up into four acts with a few chapters in each. You’re not exploring big, open worlds. You’re playing relatively tiny levels, most of which you should be able to comfortably knock out in under 20 minutes. The bite-sized stages works, but comes at a cost of having to replay entire chapters, with all the original dialog, cut scenes, and boss fights intact, in order to do the grinding and find the treasure chests that could contain new, valuable cards that you missed before. There’s a “skip” option during cut scenes, but our definitions of “skip” seem to differ greatly. When I press “skip” I expect the cut scene to end and the action to start. For Image & Form, “skip” means “end this sentence, begin the next.” It could take over a minute of slamming the B button to finally “skip” past all dialog you’ve presumably already heard once and thus want to, you know, skip, and start playing the game. I hate it when games do this. I call it “Going Pony” because in some chapters, you’ll be screaming “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” until you’re a little hoarse. UPDATE: You apparently can skip all the dialog by pressing X. I wish I had known that. I would’ve prevented me from Going Pony 3 or 4 times. But honestly, this has no effect on the rest of the review so carry on.

The two self-evident fixes (maybe having the option of beefing up enemies when you replay chapters and being able to skip the cut-scenes entirely when you replay chapters) would have taken any sting out of grinding. Because the combat never gets boring once you start to build up your heroes and their card collections. I joke all the time about “minimum indie badness” but here that was potentially the difference between the best RPG combat system I’ve ever played and just a very, very good one.

I can’t stress enough: the combat is awesome. Eventually. But this is an RPG, the one genre where a game needs equal parts compelling story to go along with interesting and novel gameplay. SteamWorld Quest follows Armilly, lowly daughter of a grocer and fangirl of legendary hero Gilgamech. She wishes to join the hero’s guild, can’t, but ends up having a wacky adventure where she eventually teams up with a ragtag group of misfits and outcasts, including the former sidekick of her idol. It’s a good story. Suitable for all ages. There was even a nice twist that I genuinely didn’t see coming. There’s just one problem: Armilly is written horribly.

One last game design nitpick: I wish the levels felt less like glorified sidewalks. There is some hidden stuff, but it’s done via just covering chests or switches with foreground objects. It makes the environment feel like a facade or a set, instead of a big, thriving world. Like a bunch of kids LARPing at Disneyland.

Let me preface this section by noting I’m not some kind of student of literature or creative writing. I’m an investor by trade who dabbles in game criticism as a hobby. But, I’m familiar with the concept of the hero’s journey. SteamWorld Quest seems to want to take Armilly on a fairly standard hero’s journey path and checks all the boxes for it. But the dialog takes the oomph out of her adventure because she’s just too much of a smart ass with no reason to be. She also has this gee-golly-shucks way about her, especially when she goes all slobbering fandom on retired Gilgamech sidekick Orik when they meet up. The smart assery and the starstruck fangirl delivery of her dialog aren’t compatible. Usually when characters are wise asses in fiction, it’s to make up for an inadequacy. When Buffy gets smart-alecky with Giles, it’s a defensive mechanism. If Bart Simpson mouths off, it’s for attention. When Archie Bunker says something bigoted, it’s because he’s insecure. Unless you’re doing a full-on comedy, sarcasm should always be grounded as a coping mechanism. Backtalk or sass without foundation is sort of dull because instead of flavoring a character’s idiosyncrasies, the sarcasm becomes what defines the entire character. And Armilly, who is the center of attention, among friends, and the leader of her group, has no reason to be non-stop sarcasm and quips. It’s the same flaw I found with the Peter Venkman character in Ghostbusters. Perhaps the only flaw in the entire movie. He’s unlikable. And I’m sorry to say it, but Armilly is unlikable.

Plus it doesn’t help that her sarcasm isn’t remotely funny. It’s just kind of awkward.

I wasn’t sure if this direction was done because the game is meant to be lighthearted and semi-satirical. But, while it’s true that there’s a bit of Paper Mario-esq tomfoolery about SteamWorld Quest, the plot is simple and engaging, and Armilly is the only character that really feels like she betrays the gravity of the situation with her dialog. The “wannabe heroes become heroes in an unexpected way” trope usually works because you see them grow into the roles. I don’t feel a sense of growth in Armilly and wish she was written a bit more sympathetic. Imagine if Luke Skywalker had been a slobbering Jedi fanboy who fawned all over Obi-Won with bad sitcom quips when it was revealed he was a former Jedi Knight. Who could get someone behind that? These traits need to be tempered with flaws and insecurities, or else they’re just someone who is the hero because they’re the main character. Thankfully, the other characters and even the villains have relatively sharp dialog and for me were the real stars of the game. Hey Image & Form: give us a spinoff or DLC with just the twins. Make it happen!

I complain because I love. And in the case of SteamWorld Quest, I truly love this game. But, the scary thing is that it could have been even better, and the ways it could have been better are so self-evident that a transcendent game is potentially in play for the sequel. I’d be curious how it might work in a more open, less linear format. And while I wish it had a stronger lead character, everything else is either good enough to satisfy or downright inspired. I keep going back to the balanced, joyful combat. It’s a game that relies on luck of the draw, and yet it never once felt like my battles were failing because of bad luck. It always felt like it was on me constructing bad decks. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun tinkering in menus, outside the core gameplay than I had with Hand of Gilgamech. I’d scurry back and forth between looking at the cards I had for one character and then another and ask myself which ones complemented each other. I reverted back to being that ten year old whose parents went a little overboard getting her Magic cards in an attempt to get her to do social stuff, but the social stuff never happened because I was so busy constructing decks. For me, that’s the ultimate high a game can achieve: make me fee like a kid again. It gets off to a slow start, sure. You know who else got off to a slow start? Einstein. You’re in good company, SteamWorld Quest.

SteamWorld Quest was developed by Image & Form
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$24.99 said seriously Image & Form: spinoff with Tarah & Thayne or I fart into an empty coffee can and mail it to you in the making of this review.

A review copy of SteamWorld Quest was supplied by Image & Form. Upon its release, a copy was purchased by me. All indie games reviewed at Indie Gamer Chick are paid for by me out of my own pocket. Even when friends pay for a copy for me when I tell them I have to buy my own copy because that’s how I roll. For more on this policy, check my FAQ.

SteamWorld Quest is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Death Coming

Have you ever picked up a Where’s Waldo book and wanted to massacre all the extras? No? Just me? Scary? Okay. Well, Death Coming is basically that. You take the role of an assistant Grim Reaper, specifically targeting three people per a level. But hey, you also have quotas to fill, and look at all the fleshy people just walking around, being all quota-like. Each stage requires you to kill a certain amount before you can move on. On the Switch, you can use a cursor or a touch screen. My brain has bad wiring and for some reason I kept alternating between the two, but in a nutshell, you click objects and if you click them at the right time, people die. And if that’s all Death Coming had going for it, it’d be fine. Not memorable, but a decent little time waster.

You get to pull off such kills as locking someone in a room with radioactive material and let them die of radiation poisoning. It’s the feel good game of the year!

But, Death Coming has a lot more going on for it. It’s all the proof developers need that it’s not what you do, but how you do it. Developer NEXT Studios was smart enough to give the NPCs personality and character. Don’t get me wrong: the NPCs follow strict parameters and aren’t exactly subject to free will despite what the game says. But at least it feels like they were given enough heart to be a bit more than just a body count. An ongoing story during your reaping shenanigans is a series of heists that you inadvertently foil through your death-dealing duties. Some NPCs carry on torrid love affairs, complete with scootilypooping (censored behind giant hearts, aww isn’t that sweet). Even alien invasions go down while working. None of this has anything to do with you being a Grim Reaper, though your presence certainly can work out for and against them. You just simply take souls while these cannon-fodder go about the (last moments of their) lives. It makes Death Coming fun in a fly-on-the-wall kind of way. If that fly were armed and wanted you dead.

You don’t directly kill anyone in Death Coming. Rather, you click objects and hope they do the deed for you. At its most base level, this means waiting for an NPC to walk onto a single square of the playfield that a trap will catch them on, like having something fall and squash them, or having them fall down a manhole. The more puzzlely aspects involve using various objects as complex series of rube-goldberg antics in order to free the meatbags from the mortal coil. Like there might be a target character lounging by a swimming pool. You close the umbrella above his head, wait for him to get into the pool, then click an electrical wire above the pool, frying him and all the other NPCs in the pool with him. I don’t know what is says about me that I found the gameplay so satisfying. Nothing good. Or, according to my increasingly terrified family, surprising.

But, as cathartic as it is to resurrect a tyrannosaurus and send it on a rampage, I take issue with some of Death Coming’s design choices. In order to add “challenge”, the game employs “angel police” that feel you’re just a little too blood-lustful. In order to activate any trap, you have to click it twice. The angels only catch you if they spot you between the first and second clicks of an object. If they spot you three times.. I’m honestly not sure what happens since it never once happened to me. I mean, it’s a point and click game. There’s no avatar that has to avoid detection of the angels. The only time I got spotted was when the camera auto-zoomed in because I triggered some event and I forgot to zoom back out afterwards. Death Coming didn’t need this shit. All it does is slow the gameplay down, making me have to wait longer to kill NPCs because I had to watch an angel slowly fly by. And it’s not like Death Coming was fast paced to begin with. It’s one of those “minimum indie badness” decisions that seems so obviously unnecessary in retrospect and makes me wonder if there was anyone along the way who told the devs “no”. It gets really out of hand in the last level. You’re given a chance to activate weather-based events, but doing so spawns an angel. It’s not optional to do this, but the game also spawns even more angels as you go along. I don’t know if this was done to feel climatic or to pad the run time, but it grinds the level into something resembling a slog. The Indiana Jones theme is so fun for that level too. It doesn’t ruin it, but it comes close.

The angels spotting your finger does absolutely nothing. As long as you zoom out, you shouldn’t get spotted at all. It’s like someone spent a day with the world’s least threatening hall monitor and said “this pussy man would make a great video game antagonist!”

The bigger problem is how many replays you’ll need to get a feel for the traps. Sometimes they’re not so predictable, but once they’re used (or used X amount of times), they can’t be reused. If the word bubbles that appeared above the traps had been more descriptive, maybe you could more accurately predict what way they’ll fall or what part of the current rube-goldberg puzzle they’ll activate, and what path that will take once you do. In each of the six levels, I would find myself restarting them several times each, which I found necessary to figure out how the traps are used and how many characters you can take out in each. The only time I didn’t was in the sixth and final stage, where I put over an hour into it before realizing that it’d probably be in my best interest to start over. Once I did, I finished it in about fifteen minutes. In fact, I realized late in the game that you don’t even need to kill the three “target” NPCs featured on each stage to advance to the next level. You just need to fill your quota. I honestly don’t even know what the point of it was. Maybe it’d make sense if it were a different three characters every time you started each stage again and getting all three was necessary in addition to reaching your quota. But it’s not. Strange.

And I always hate to say this stuff, but the current Death Coming release is a bit unstable. The game skipped a bit sometimes when events would be triggered or when I scrolled around, or zoomed in or out. The skip never went away, but wasn’t a deal breaker or anything. I think one time it messed with my timing of activating a trap. A bigger worry is that I crashed the game a couple times in the final stage, once loading it, once when I went to take pics for this very review, uploaded them, then returned to the game only for me to code out to the Switch main menu. I’m sure it’ll get patched out eventually, but I hope the irony that a game about the Grim Reaper kept dying on me isn’t lost on anyone.

This is fun an all, but getting high scores would require keeping track of so many things that really you can probably chalk all the top people down to blowing lottery-levels of luck on a $7 Switch game instead of a lottery ticket. Only they know if it was worth it. Probably not.

Being a puzzler, once you finish Death Coming, in theory you should be done. Thankfully, NEXT came up a novel solution: a scoring system with online leaderboards. I figured there must be an absolute max score and the boards would be filled with multiple identical numbers. As of this writing, they’re not. None of the six levels feature the same person or same score in the top spots. That’s promising, and makes me think that the potential for higher scores might be on the table. So, Death Coming is more than your run-of-the-mill puzzler. But I wish it realized that. The angels and the arcadey scoring I think might have come at the cost of more of the more complex, multi-phase traps that made me giggle like an sadistic five year old who just discovered what you can do with ants and a magnifying glass. But hell, even a single-phase kill, like dropping an anchor on a boat, made me smile and feel warm inside. Death Coming isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s the exact sort of pick-me-up you want to play when you’re suffering from the flu and have pondered whether you’d welcome the loving embrace of death. Can you tell what kind of week I’m having?

Death Coming was developed by NEXT Studios
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Steam, iOS, Android

$6.99 didn’t fear the reaper in the making of this review.

Death Coming is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Homo Machina

This also makes an effective diagram on the best places to shoot someone.

Big time educational video games are a thing of the past. But, their fade into oblivion wasn’t exactly based on lack of sales. In a nutshell, by 1999 a publishing company called Softkey had most of the more well-known educational games like Reader Rabbit or Carmen Sandiego or Oregon Trail. Softkey was led by my dear friend Kevin O’Leary. Yes, THAT Kevin O’Leary. Mr. Wonderful on Shark Tank. But what happened was, Kevin and the Softkey guys were bought by Mattel for 4.2 *billion* dollars, even though they really weren’t worth that much and Mattel could never in a million years hoped to recoup on the deal. At least in a time frame most people would consider reasonable. This was around the time of the Dot Com gold rush, and Mattel probably had big plans for these properties related to that. But $4,200,000,000? Yikes!

It startled people at the time and later went down as one of the worst deals ever. But, people didn’t really stop buying educational software. What happened is, Mattel had to try to get back what they paid for it, so they overspent on the production of the games, then over-manufactured them. The inventory outweighed the demand and what had been relatively low-cost to produce products suddenly had too much money being spent to create them. This led to Mattel posting losses on the Learning Company.. you know, the thing they massively overpaid for.. and it was thought “well shit, if Mattel can’t make money on these types of games, who can?” Absurd, but that’s how it works when short-sighted, overly-reactionary people are in charge. The industry decided that the bottom had fallen out on educational software, even though there was no other evidence of that besides Mattel’s losses. Bye-bye educational software. Oh, and Mattel fired Kevin. Kevin was so crushed he could barely muster up the enthusiasm to sit and count his millions by the fireplace, with a glass of fine wine, probably cackling. I picture cackling. And he’s naked when I picture it. I need help.

It’s a little more complex than that and more than a few heads at Mattel rolled over it, but that was the downfall of educational-entertainment in the game industry. Based on nothing but an obviously bad, reactionary, short-sighted deal going about as well as expected. When business gets dumb, it gets real dumb.

One of the minigames is really just a stripped down, no-fail version of Hang-Man. The answers were a garbled word-salad. Maybe the human’s date involved showing her the Oh…Sir games.

Those IPs are rotting on vine, and honestly the new Carmen Sandiego on Netflix wasn’t for me, but that there’s no reason for edutainment to be dead. Hell, if a group of plucky modders can save Sonic The Hedgehog (at least before Hollywood and Jim Carrey drive the final stake through his heart), why can’t indies do the same for educational games? Take this idea: Homo Machina. Which is Latin for “Man Machine.” But I’m sure some particularly dense and hateful parents won’t know that and forbid their kids from playing the game they think is about gay robots. Homo Machina is a game that aspires to educate children on the human body. This way they’ll  understand the mechanics of all the things people on Xbox Live are saying they’re doing with their mothers.

The real kicker is they based the game around the art of Fritz Kahn. You might not know the name, but you for sure know his work. He’s the one who drew the human body like a giant factory or machine populated by human workers. He’s considered the Godfather of Infographics. And, if you want to talk about someone who lived a fascinating life, look no further than Kahn. Homo Machina uses the basis of his work to teach children and adolescents about bodily functions. Frankly, it’s not the worst starting point for an edutainment game I’ve ever heard. But what do I know? I’m inching towards the big 3-0 in two months. And, despite the Power Rangers / Super Sentai fandom, I’m fairly sure I know how the human body works. In the immortal words of Jaime Lannister: “the first time you cut a man. Realize we are nothing but sacks of meat, blood and some bone to keep it all standing.” Not that I’ve ever cut a man. Flame throwers don’t cut.

So, I recruited my nephew (age 13) and niece (age 7) to give the game a try. Homo Machina is broken up into a series of short vignettes. Holding the Switch vertically, like a tablet, you’re presented with puzzles based around getting the human machine to work properly. Stuff like focusing an eye to see, an immune response to a cut, tuning into a song, etc. Each of us made one complete play-through, which takes under an hour or so. The “puzzles” are rudimentary touch-screen stuff with no fail conditions. They’re all short and simply, with the only one giving me issues being the two hearing mini-games. One requires you to pluck cords in your eardrum in sync with a noise coming through, while the other asks you to tune into the frequency of the music. The final tuning bit took me forever to get everything to line up and was insanely frustrating since the touch controls throughout the game can be imprecise and fickle. The little people inside me were activating my cussing mechanism. The struggle with this game was the only of the minigames that all three of us couldn’t quite get right, and in fact I had to solve it for the 7-year-old. Hah, showed her. Psssh, newb.

They could have included extra modes and challenges after the game. Like with the heart one, you just took a speed ball. Keep your heart from exploding and live long enough to say “I’M NEVER DOING THAT AGAIN!”

The short run-time (though at a low price) of Homo Machina didn’t really take the edge off for me. I have to confess: I got really bored quickly with it, and never really stopped being bored. The minigames are too simple and the art style and presentation did nothing for me. It’s not actively bad, but the inspired setting didn’t really lead to inspired gameplay. But, Homo Machina wasn’t really made for 30-year-olds. So the question is, what did the kids think of it?

The answer: they liked it. Mostly. The base problem is the framing of a human body as a factory with business people and a board of directors running the show didn’t really connect with them. Both are fans of Pixar’s Inside Out and that made more sense to them, at their ages, than a boardroom did. But, they loved the actual gameplay mechanics. Through those, without the story or dialog, both got immersed enough that they felt they were contributing to the life of a real person. That’s important. It’s the edutainment secret-sauce that the top games like Carmen Sandiego had going for them. The sense that the tasks are important and are building to something bigger. Both were disappointed that the game ended when it did. Hell, the ending took me by surprise too. The last mini-game is about lining fingers up with a possible love-interest and doesn’t feel climatic at all. It ends with the people inside the human machine celebrating and dancing. It felt like we were just starting and the first chapter was over. But nope, credits. I think it says a lot about Homo Machina’s potential for young people that they were both crushed that the game was over. Meanwhile, I silently did a fist-pump.

One universal complaint, besides the bleh touch input, was that the games come with almost no instructions and it’s not always clear what touch motions you’re supposed to be using to achieve what effect. In a game that requires you to mix chemicals to activate your adrenal glands, there’s no instruction that you need to shake-up the beaker. I spent a few minutes poking at the screen trying to figure out what the next step was, including botching the puzzle by turning the heat on before the mixture was ready. None of this stuff is a deal breaker, nor particularly challenging, but what you’re supposed to be interacting with and how you’re supposed to are common questions during Homo Machina that you get no answers to.

This is the music game I was talking about. See the graph on top? Well, the game is quite anal about getting it just right, since I spent almost as much time trying to get that right as I would listening to an actual song. I pictured Homer Simpson stun-locked after Carl told him he was slow.

The real real question is: does Homo Machina have educational value? For thirteen-year-olds, probably not. My nephew already understood things like respiration and nerve signals. At least he still had fun playing the game. But, my niece now knows that her body makes chemicals that help her run and knows the basics of how nerves work (she got very wide-eyed when she found out her body used electricity and asked if she would ever become a super hero). So yeah, there’s something here, but no means to quantify it. Then again, did kids really learn all that much about the Manifest Destiny from Oregon Trail? Over thirty-years after it came out and really, what people older than me learned from it is that dying of projectile diarrhea is fucking hilarious.

Still, I like what Homo Machina represents. I was literally just talking to developer Red Vonix (who was such a good sport with my Santa’s Special Delivery review) about the gaping hole left by the lack of educational games. Think about it: the generations that came before me still talk warmly about Oregon Trail and it’s hilarious death-by-dysentery lessons, while even the most cynical of millennials develop a subtle phosphorescence when talking about Reader Rabbit. That’s something current generations don’t have. Indie developers should take note, because it could be your work that gets the fondly-remembered meme treatment 30 years from now. Homo Machina might end up being that game for my niece and nephew. Sadly, I found it too boring to award my seal of approval to. I spent a solid week going back and forth on whether or not I should, but ultimately I can only speak for myself. If the kids don’t like it, they can start their own blog. But seriously parents, you could do worse than spending $3 on Homo Machina. For example, you can force your kids to play your generation’s educational games. Just remember, if you do so your kids will wonder what they did to piss you off.

Homo Machina was developed by Seaven Studio
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android

$2.99’s niece thinks static electricity makes her Raiden in the making of this review.

IF I could award my seal of approval based on how RJ’s kids liked Homo Machina, I would have done it. So parents, take note.

Cuphead: The Final Review (At Least Until the DLC)

I’ve already reviewed Cuphead twice, once when it first came out in 2017, and again in late October of last year. I didn’t like it. This is no secret. The problem is, a fairly large section of gamers that need people to like the games they like because they subconsciously look at it as affirmation for their own self-worth said my opinions didn’t count because I didn’t beat the game. Mind you, some of them.. most of them probably judging by the percentages.. didn’t beat it either. But they plan on it. It’s on their increasingly yellowed, tattered to-do list, right under games like Battletoads or Ghosts ‘N Goblins. Which they will get to any day now. When they get some free time and Netflix has nothing good on. And hey, since they say they’ll eventually find the time to beat these things, it’s totally cool that they white knight for them, while not cool that you point out the flaws in these games or their argument. It’s not a double standard at all. Apples and oranges. Totally different, as anyone can see.

I wasn’t sure what “gitting gud” or beating Cuphead would change about the stuff I primarily disliked about it. The cheap shots. The lack of checkpoints. The fact that there is a simple mode for the first seventeen bosses (though not for the Run ‘N Gun stages, which are technically optional as long as you don’t want to buy any upgrades), but using the Simple option gates you off the final two boss fights. Proponents of the Headed Cup say that the enjoyment and fun is when you finally triumph, and that getting to that point isn’t necessarily meant to be fun because the point is the challenge. By giving up on that challenge, they say my opinion is voided and nothing I say about the game counts because I played it wrong, I guess? By not failing enough? Or getting bored with failing? Even though they say the point is to fail? I think? Wait, what is their argument again? That it couldn’t have the easy modes that it already fucking has.. why? And my opinion doesn’t count until I beat it, why? I don’t get it. It’s like saying you can’t be grateful for airbags until you’ve hit a deer doing 80mph.

I mean, you can just say what you really want to say: “I can’t handle you not liking this game because I base all my self-esteem on the success of games by developers who would find me Steven Urkel levels of annoying if they knew me.” Whatever, my reviews for Cuphead don’t count unless I beat it.

Fine, I’ll play it their way.

I just beat Cuphead. Here’s a playlist of me beating all 19 boss stages. I also beat three Run ‘N Gun stages so I could get the 15 coins out of them plus all the hidden coins so I could buy all the guns.

My friends thought I’d lost my mind. Why would I subject myself to hours upon hours of a game I didn’t like? Because, out of fairness, the critics of my criticism might have had a point. While I was fairly certain, based on my nearly 23-years of gaming experience, that I wouldn’t have liked Cuphead even if I forced myself to sit down and beat it all the way through, I couldn’t know for sure.

I’m a moderately well-known indie game critic. But who am I to double-down on every single review I make and say that I know the stuff I’m guessing is right? Doing so makes me no better than the fans who sent me hate mail for these reviews. How can I expect anyone to try to see it my way when I myself am unwilling to try to see it their way? So, I decided to take that complaint off the table, permanently and put the ball in their court. And really, the only way to do that was to finish the game.

My goal was to get all seventeen “contracts” from the bosses of Cuphead’s first three worlds, giving me access to the final stages against antagonists King Dice and the Devil. And I took it very seriously. I spent over a week studying videos of “professional” Cuphead players, learning the tactics and strategies, then attempted to apply what I learned and see if I could watch the credits roll and add the finished game achievement points to my account. Originally I was going to do it one hour at a time once a day, but I shit canned that when I realized that I’d need at least that much time to warm-up every day. And some days, like Thursday evening to Friday early morning, I was doing insanely good.

At 6:50AM yesterday morning, I beat the Devil and rolled the credits. I can now say I’ve beaten Cuphead. Mic drop.

So, under my authority as someone who gitted gud at Cuphead: Cuphead still fucking sucks. Hell, if anything I have more stuff to complain about now. For those of you who can’t handle hearing people make valid complaints about your favorite games, do yourself a favor and leave now. I promise I’ll return to under-the-radar games you don’t base your self-esteem on in the coming days.

And the shit thing is, Cuphead didn’t have to suck. There is no reason why the game had to be this hard, or at times play as unfair as it did. Having now finished the whole thing (no I’m not playing it again on expert. This isn’t politics, assholes. You don’t get to keep moving the goalposts on me), I did manage to find more fun than either of my previous two sessions, though never to an astonishing degree. What limited fun I did have, we can’t rule out Stockholm Syndrome for either. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 2017, I actually did get all the contracts for Inkwell Isle I. But, I decided to start over from scratch with my project (titled “Vice Versus” which isn’t as clever as I thought, in fact it doesn’t really sound as much like vice-versa as I was hoping when spoken out-loud) and re-collect the Inkwell Isle I contracts. Among other reasons, I knew that the key to success was getting the hang of the parry, something I never got the hang of it my first couple forays. I needed the practice.

And I got it in my first encounter where random elements play a significant role in the battle: a pair of frogs who Megazord-together to form a giant slot machine. Yeah. This was the point where I realized I was in big, big trouble. The slot machine has three primary, randomly chosen attack modes. Unlike most bosses, you at least have a warning of what random element you’re going to face-off with when the reels line up. The one that kept screwing me was a series of inner-tubes that would randomly (double the random!!) have a column of fire going up or down. I couldn’t get the hang of this attack in particular and got right to the end multiple times. Fatigue and nerves began to set in and I started taking damage on phases that I had previously got past with no sweat. I even got killed by the slow-moving coins that it launched at me. After 20 or so attempts, I did beat it with a perfect score. Was I overcome with happiness? No. Relief? Well, yeah. If you fail at something dozens of times and then succeed, you’ll be grateful when it’s over because that means you don’t need to do it again. That’s not exactly entertainment. Well, unless you count Joss Whedon’s career.

But, was any bit of it fun? Nope. Not even a little. BUT, I’m willing to concede that I had a little bit of fun with the other four bosses in Inkwell Isle I, and various other bosses in other worlds. Even the shmup bosses I didn’t hate nearly as much. Or at all, really. Truth be told, I found them nearly enjoyable this play-through, having studied-up on how to beat them. The Blimp Chick (she’s literally a blimp, not fat, please don’t accuse me of fat-shaming) along with the Genie and Giant Bird battles from Inkwell Isle II were actually pretty fucking sweet. I didn’t expect that. Especially since I found these stages so dull the first time. Alright, gentlemen: set your faces to “stun.”

I, Indie Gamer Chick, am willing to admit that I was wrong the first couple times I played Cuphead. The shmup stages, previously a sore spot for me, were probably the most consistently decent parts this time around, and yea, sorta fun. Kinda.

Hell, I even beat the giant robot in six attempts and didn’t hate the experience of fighting it. I only really got annoyed on the 4th lost life because the final phase is far too spongy, repetitive, and lasts so long that the tension is lost and it just sort of becomes boring. It’s simply spams the screen with bullets while electrified poles get in the way. Before this, you had a clever set up with three different body parts to attack, each of which has its own unique moves and patterns. I heard more fans of the game complain about this stage than any other, but I thought it was the most fun of the shmups. Then, suddenly, it became an uninspired, lazy bore. And sadly that section lasts half the fight. Half! One constant thing I noticed in the interviews with the developers is they always go back to using the difficulty as a crutch to preemptively reject complaints. But Dr. Kahl’s Robot, one of the most cool and memorable designs in Cuphead, with one of the best sequences in the entire game, goes down as being one of the least popular stages. Someone involved in the game should ask themselves how that can be? Because it’s mostly boring and the boring part ends the fight. It leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. They don’t remember how clever that intro was. They don’t remember the fun when the head flew off. They remember a lazy, first-year game design bullet-hell effort that closed the fight. What a shame.

It shows that the overall difficulty is hardly the only mistake Cuphead makes. Scaling might be an issue. Yes, bosses can be tackled in different orders, but after needing over one-hundred attempts and three days to beat the Dragon, followed by another couple dozen attempts at beating a giant Queen Bee, something strange happened: I annihilated the remaining six bosses in Inkwell III, needing seven or less attempts to beat each. Did I “GiT GuD?” Perhaps. Or maybe the bosses were ordered wrong. Sally Stageplay I beat in just two attempts. Two! She clearly should have been a stage one boss. The pirate could have been a great intro to stage two. The frogs belonged in stage two, maybe stage three. The Dragon SHOULD have been stage three’s final boss and the gatekeeper of the final level. And God Damn, when I finally got to King Dice, he was a bit of a pussy. After making my way through his mini-bosses (all of which but one are thankfully simple, though in a good way that makes sense from a game design perspective), I beat King Dice in my very first direct fight with him despite completely shitting the bed. He was dead in barely half a minute. THAT was the boss that was hyped the entire game? Yeesh.

But, my main complaint is still with the difficulty. I realized by the end that the truly tough bosses wre tough because of RNG. The Candy Bitch has an assortment of mini-bosses, three of which are chosen at random to do battle with. And during the second and third fights with those bosses, more elements are added to dodge. If I got the Flying Waffle as the third boss, it meant I was dodging its attacks PLUS little jelly bean things running along the ground PLUS the Candy Bitch shooting projectiles at me. In my successful run, the Waffle was the first of the three I encountered. Yea, I won that round, and did so without taking a hit. But I owe that just as much to good luck as I do any skills I picked up.

The same went for The Dragon the Queen Bee. Those fights have auto-scrolling platforms that come out in random patterns. Many times I found myself in a position where I had to jump, but the level stopped spitting out platforms for me to jump to. I won’t complain about needing over one-hundred attempts to beat the Dragon because my epilepsy came into play and the steps I needed to play it (drowning out my game room with lighting to offset the lightning storm strobe-effect) caused visibility issues for some of the obstacles. I mean, they could have included photosensitive options, but truthfully there’s more color-blind gamers than epileptic ones and they get no help with the pink-shaded parry objects. I sort of feel like colorblind gamers are told to get fucked here by a couple of pretentious “our way or the highway” brothers, but what can you do? I stand with the devs on it. I’m giving them bunny ears with my fingers while doing it, but I stand with them.

UPDATE: Colorblind readers alerted me that black & white mode wouldn’t help either. After sharing a full play-through video of that mode with me, they’re right: you couldn’t possibly know which stuff is a parry or not unless you already knew. The Two-Strip mode (which, like Black & White mode, is gated off unless you perform extra-difficult tasks in the game) I guess would work better for seeing the parryable objects, but at a cost of having other important aspects bleed into each-other. Their solution was to add some kind of shimmer, glow, or other subtle visual cue to the parry objects using an effect that is distinctive from other effects used in the game. This could have been an adjustable option, not something that is present for all players. “There’s plenty of design options that could have been used that are true to the vintage aesthetic.” I normally don’t get pissy about this type of stuff, but given this is such a tentpole indie, having visual accessibility options could have set new standards for the entire scene, and instead of the Moldenhauers seemingly gave no consideration at all. 

My question is, if the bosses are as well designed as fans of the game insist they are, why did it need so many random elements that have NOTHING to do with pattern recognition or defensive maneuvering? Of course, I can’t be 100% for sure. I’m not that good. But, I suspect the random elements led to situations where I couldn’t have possibly hoped to not take damage, based on nothing I did but rather on luck of the draw. I’m not the only person complaining about this, either. Guys who do boss-rushes complain about the Mermaid/Medusa shmup battle essentially requiring the luck of good RNG to get a perfect score on Expert. This came up constantly on videos from players much better than I, so I figure there must be something to it. So, are you going to tell those guys to shut up and “git gud” when they’re making world-record speed runs that are screwed not by their own skills but because the game’s lottery spit out an unwinnable situation? That fight sucks enough with stun-locking beams that you have to wiggle-the-stick to be able to move again. That wiggling happens in a narrow corridor with lethal coral, like the dam stage from the NES Ninja Turtles game. God damn, devs: stop copying bad levels from old games. Or, if you insist on doing so, try making them good at least, will ya?

Cuphead is well produced, but don’t mistake that for “well made.” McDonalds hamburgers are well produced. No joke. They’re designed by some of the most highly paid food scientists in the world. But that doesn’t mean their food will be up for Michelin Stars. With Cuphead, there’s just too many little things wrong, where someone should have told the Moldenhauers “have you guys considered that you’ve taken things a bit too far during this part?” Like during the King Dice fight, you might encounter a skeletal race horse that’s challenge comes not from enemy design, but by having a TON of objects in the foreground cover up the actual action. It’s an indefensible design decision. I’m sorry but if someone is playing a game and I stand in front of the TV, telling that person “isn’t this hard? Git gud!” isn’t going to fly. They’re going to ask me why I’m being a bitch. Apparently by that point they were so out of ideas that their only solution to add challenge was to make it hard for players to see. They could have added different enemies or basically anything else. It’s a video game. You’re limited only their imagination. But no, they went with blocking the screen. Does it look like a 1930s cartoon? Yea. But Cuphead, get this, isn’t really a 1930s cartoon. It’s a 2017 video game and that section is one you are expected to play. I was embarrassed for the Moldenhauers during that fight. It was so uninspired. Not the character design or the fight itself. Just the challenge. Let’s block the screen. Maybe they have fond memories of standing in front of the TV while each took turns playing Gradius as kids and this was an inside joke for them. Probably not. It was the best they could come up with to add difficulty. And it was fucking lazy.

So here I am, three reviews later, beater of Cuphead, and I still don’t like the game. I’m in the 7.19% of Xbox One Cuphead owners who have beaten the game. I got good. So why wasn’t it fun? Why couldn’t it be fun? I want Cuphead owners to take me down this road, where Cuphead exists with checkpoints or the ability to play the final bosses whether you beat the first seventeen on simple or not. Why is this game not as good? Because you lacked the self-restraint to beat the game on normal? That sort of makes it sound like you’re who needs to “git gud” if you can’t resist the siren call of optional difficulty. Like, people truly think that if these options existed, there wouldn’t be people playing on Expert difficulty (which is optional) and doing full 19 – 0 perfect boss runs. Or making up their own challenges, like beating every boss using just the pea-shooter or not parrying unless absolutely necessary to open up a gameplay mechanic. Because people are doing those things. They’re all over YouTube. Hell, this week, I saw someone who discovered you could beat Super Punch-Out!! without ducking, blocking, or dodging. The majority of gamers who want a challenge can find it whether forced by the game or not. Why should the rest of society be held back from having fun because you can’t control yourself? If you think Cuphead should only be played on normal, go play it on normal. If you need games to not have optional difficulty, who the fuck died and anointed you the gatekeeper of real gaming?

I can’t complain about Cuphead’s controls. I’ll vouch for them. They’re solid and responsive. I can’t complain about its concept. I like boss rushes and bullet-sprayers. I can’t complain about its soundtrack or appearance. It’s the best looking video game ever made. Cuphead is a game I want to love, because holy shit, has there ever been an indie this fun to watch? It’s in a league of its own in every single regard except being fun to play. Not that it’s never fun, but too many aspects of the game are based around being difficult just for the sake of doing so. It’s why I find the art almost obnoxious. Because fanboys of Cuphead, and even the developers themselves, use it as a deflect-all shield for why they couldn’t make the game easier. Even though they, you know, did include an easier mode. Those fucking sell-outs! What a weird choice for the Git Gud crowd to defend, no? Then again, I don’t recall hearing that Celeste is for pussies all that much.

I don’t feel good about having accomplished something that only 7% of owners did. This wasn’t some special challenge or rare event or extra difficult optional path. This is just beating the game. I know you can’t rely on achievement percentages because so many people (including me most of the time, guilty as charged) buy games and sit on them, but 7%? If that doesn’t hurt your heart, given how much work they put into the game, you need to check and make sure it’s still beating.

By far the worst argument for I’ve heard is “well, what about King Dice or the Devil? How were they supposed to make THOSE fights easier? So, as you can see, they HAVE to gate it off.” Hmmm.. here’s a thought: they don’t. They could have just left those two fights exactly as they are in the standard mode, unchanged. I have no objection to a game’s final bosses being harder than others. They’re the last bosses. Being harder is how final bosses are supposed to work. If they’re too hard for those who finished on simple, I don’t know what to say. Git gud?

Cuphead was developed by StudioMDHR Entertainment
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 told the Moldenhauers “Git Fun” in the making of this review.

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