Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap

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

Me.

Into the world.

From my mother’s vagina.

Yep, you’re old. I’m not. Suck it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OH GOD, IT’S HAPPENING TO ME TOO NOW!

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

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

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

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Cuphead

♪♪ Well Cuphead released to Indieland,

And gaming fans thought it was nice,

They figured no one would bad review it, and they turned to Cathy Vice,

CAAAATHY VICE!

Aaaaand now her hands ache, like stabbed by knives

And her timeline fills her with dread

If her review should proceed but Cuphead don’t succeeeeeeddd..

Welllllllll..

Xbox fans will take her head! ♪♪

Mom?

So yea, here I am, reviewing 2017’s indie game of the year. Oh, the year isn’t even over yet. But let’s face it, Cuphead was fated to win universal accolades and more nominations than Meryl Streep regardless of quality the minute it debuted. Which, actually that’s exactly like Meryl Streep, come to think of it.

So yea, for those of you who already have formed an opinion and are fishing the internets for people who don’t share your opinion to hate-hoo, no, I didn’t like Cuphead. Oh I wanted to. Trust me, I like my windows. The thought of them having bricks thrown through them has me positively distraught. But I have two options: I can lie to my readers and say I liked something that I didn’t. That seems like a bad way for a critic to have integrity. My second option is to admit that I didn’t think Cuphead was fun. My father has an expression: sometimes you have to eat shit and learn to like the taste of it. Which, granted that could apply to forcing myself to play Cuphead until I like it. But, in this case the shit I’ll be eating is the mountains of it I expect from Xbox fanboys emotionally invested in the success and accolades in a game that they need to be universally praised because if it isn’t that means they can’t rub it in the face of PS4 or Switch owners because they base their self-esteem on owning the “best” console.

Speaking of integrity, no, I didn’t finish Cuphead. I did beat all the bosses through the first three stages. That I could play it at all is a fucking miracle. As people know, I suffer from photosensitive epilepsy. And literally every stage and every boss in the game opens with something that is my specific trigger. Thankfully, we quickly discovered I could just look away when each section started, though that means I had to wait nearly a full second before I could get in and start shooting. If people need an excuse as to why I didn’t like it and the old chestnut “she just sucks at games” seems tired, you can blame my utter failure at Cuphead on that one fraction of a second longer I had to wait over everyone else. I’m sure that made all the difference.

It would seem most people use the heat-seeking bullets (pictured) with the spread gun. Which was my first instinct too. Huh, maybe I am slightly wired for shit like this.

But seriously, the hook here is that you have to fight a series of bosses, with all the actual levels being optional. You gotta give the Cuphead guys credit: they know their audience. Contra is one of the most beloved 8-bit era games, but I have never once heard a single fan of it fondly reminisce about its level design. Most of them bring up how the final boss was a giant heart (if that’s the case, I wonder what part of the body this thing is supposed to be?). So why bother with the levels at all? There’s six normal levels in Cuphead that are treated like afterthoughts. That’s kind of a shame because, like the bosses, there’s genuine inspiration behind them. Unlike the bosses, they don’t seem designed specifically to generate an absurd body count. I’m guessing that’s why they don’t offer a nerfed version of them when you enter them, which the boss fights do. You do need to complete the stages to be able to get upgrades. For a game so fixated on bosses (seriously, the developers wanted to set a Guinness World Record for most bosses in a shooter. I’m guessing they got it, along with “game with the most forced finger amputations.” In your face knifey-finger game!), it seems weird that you don’t earn any upgrades through beating the entire point of the game.

So yea, the bosses. There’s a ton. They can be quite clever in their design. The issue is they’re so insanely difficult to beat that unless you’re wired for this particular genre, you’re going to be spending a lot of time making incremental progress only to die and start over. There’s no checkpoints, so every failure takes you to the start of the battle. There is an option to play a “simplified” version of each boss, which is how I ended up beating everything through the first three stages. But, if you don’t beat each boss on normal difficulty, you don’t get access to the final area of the game, which is basically just more bosses. I didn’t get access to it. I wanted to, and I tried really hard. I was able to beat the first world’s bosses on normal difficulty. The bosses after that? I spent nearly an hour on this one..

Seen here beating the nerfed version of it after another dozen or so failed attempts.

And about twenty times in a row I died at the very end of the fight. Some people say “the point isn’t to be entertained or having fun while you’re playing Cuphead. It’s the sense of accomplishment you get when you finally do win. All the anger and all the frustration is washed away then.” Accomplishments are not entertainment. If I had lost my virginity and then had an encounter with Jason Voorhees and survived, yea, that would be an accomplishment and I’d probably have felt good about myself. The thing is, I know I’ll just end up having to survive him again and again and again. After a while, it becomes less an accomplishment and more a war of fucking attrition. And that’s how Cuphead feels. By time I gave up, I’d put over seven-and-a-half hours into it. My hands were killing me (take my word for it: map the shooting to one of the triggers, do not leave it on the X button if you value your hands), I had a pounding headache, and I was being told by the game that I had played it wrong and had to go back and do it the right way.

I can’t stress this enough: Cuphead is fucking gorgeous to gawk at. We’re used to games looking good these days, so I don’t think the average gamer appreciates the degree-of-difficulty in getting a video game to look just like a 1930s Fleischer Studios short. It’s insane how uncanny it is, and that’s commendable. I mean, it’s weird they went to all that effort but the cut-scenes unfold as a series of still images with text instead of, you know, a cartoon. It’s also kind of jarring how they chose a shooter of all things to fit into this art style. A Zack & Wiki style puzzle-adventure seems like it would have made more sense since those old 30s cartoon shorts were based around slapstick and visual gags. Here, the bullets don’t even look like they match the art style. They’re bright and look like they were overlaid on top of the hand-drawn animation, giving the whole experience a strange Dragon’s Lair-ish vibe. But even with those nits, Cuphead is probably the best looking indie game ever. I just wish it had been something that aspired to be fun, instead of difficult to the point of inaccessibility.

And this is where I stopped. Call me a pussified quitter all you want. By time I got here, my hands were hurting so bad that I asked myself what was I trying to prove? I hadn’t liked anything about actually playing Cuphead up to this point, and probably lost relationships after attempting to play it in co-op. It’s been 24 hours since I put it down and my hands legitimately still hurt. If I wanted that from a game, I’d buy a PainStation.

Go ahead and say I suck at games. It’s the fallback insult for every single person who disagrees with one of my reviews. “You didn’t like Hotline Miami because you sucked at it. You didn’t like Cuphead because you sucked at it. Just stick with Call of Duty you casualtard!” You’re right, I did suck at Cuphead. I also sucked at Spelunky, Kingdom, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, and countless other indies I’ve loved. If a game required me to be good at it to enjoy it, my list of recommended games would be shorter than Mitt Romney’s bar tab. The problem with Cuphead is I didn’t find it fun. I found it tedious and maddening. I hate saying “it’s just not for me” because that sounds wishy-washy, but it’s just not for me. I don’t think not finishing it means I’m not qualified to say why I don’t like it. There was once this guy who ate an airplane. For real. His name was Michel Lotito, and he ate a lot of weird shit. He set a pretty high standard for what a person is willing to swallow in the process. Saying I’m not qualified to review Cuphead is like saying every food critic who hasn’t eaten an airplane isn’t qualified to review food. You’ll excuse me if I find that way of thinking, ahem, tough to swallow.

Sorry.

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

$19.99 noted that only 4.32% of Cuphead owners apparently have finished all the bosses on the first three stages regardless of what difficulty they chose in the making of this review. Well I finished all those bosses and got the achievement for it. In fact, only 12.51% have the achievement for beating all the bosses in the second world, and less-than-half of all owners (42.73% to be exact) have even finished the first world’s bosses. Kinda strange, given how angry Xbox fanboys are about any remotely critical opinions of Cuphead, that so few people who own it have actually made any progress and are instead screaming at people who did beat all those bosses because they didn’t have fun doing it. But I’m sure they’ve loved and relished every minute spent with it and it’s just a total coincidence the majority of owners apparently can’t pretend they’re having a good enough time to force themselves to get past even the first world. Fucking GAME OF THE YEAR, AMIRIGHT!

 

Christ, if I suck at games, I hate to think of how bad at them the other 95% who didn’t get this must be.

 

SteamWorld Dig 2

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

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

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

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

Hype.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of disclosure.

So yea, SteamWorld Dig 2 is pretty good.

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

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

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

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

Short Subject Saturdays: Dead Horizon

Dead Horizon is a light gun game without the gun. One that should probably take the average player around five minutes to finish. And it’s yet another free-to-play game that, despite a lifespan that would make a mayfly shake their head in pity, is probably worth at least a buck. In short summary.. really short since I don’t want to spend more time writing about this game then it took me to finish it.. you play as a farm girl who inadvertently finds herself as a legendary gunfighter. It has all the trimmings of a pretentious short-subject indie film, including the most cringe-inducing ending to any game I’ve played at Indie Gamer Chick with the possibly exception of the 4th Wall. This is a seriously weird game to review because it doesn’t even give you enough time to like or hate it. It ends before the point where the goo in my brain even begins to register stimuli. I guess I wish there were a few more stages, or something more difficult than lowering my mouse to the bottom of the screen and then raising it back up and clicking. And come to think of it, the game seemed really fickle about what constituted lowering the cursor and raising it back up. But otherwise it’s worth a look. Sorry if that doesn’t sound enthusiastic enough. It’s a five-minute long gunless light gun throwback. What do you want?

“Blood and Piss” isn’t just about passing Kidney Stones anymore!

But I wanted to review this because, as much as I hate to keep harping on this, the developer really should have thrown a buck on this. I met him when he asked me to review this and he seemed nice. He was probably a little perplexed that I was brow-beating him for not charging at least a dollar for Dead Horizon before even playing it. Seemed like an odd thing to bitch about, especially for a game I hadn’t even played. He told me he felt he couldn’t justify the price because of the length.

You know, when I was younger, there was a little miniature carousel at the grocery store my parents took me to. It cost $0.50 to sit on it for a minute. Pretty solid investment for a minute of overwhelming joy. I asked my Mom if she remembered watching me ride it. She said “well yeah, it was like three weeks ago. It was embarrassing, Cathy. You’re nearly 30. For God’s sake don’t tell anyone.” My point is, nobody in their right mind expects that small of an investment to be a permanent investment that they can hit up again and again and again and again and hang on I think we’re out of milk……………..

Right, point. Sorry I, uh, needed milk. I wasn’t riding the carousel again. The one with the pink unicorn. Ahem. Forgot to get cereal. No point in getting milk without cereal!

Resolution? Ha, what’s that?

Okay, so, look, $1 is NOT a permanent investment in entertainment. You spend $1 for delicious Mega Fruit Gum, or to ride the miniature carousel with the pink unicorn while it plays Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star, or to play whatever shitty modern arcade games your local big box happens to have near the checkout counters. Because literally every single person who has ever been into an arcade has spent at least $1 in their lifetimes playing games that lasted under five minutes. Nobody in their right minds expects that $1 to keep giving them jollies years later. So put a $1 on your games, indies. For real, this is getting annoying. You can look at the graphics or writing for Dead Horizon and see that actual fucking effort was put into it. There are people who are putting no effort into their games and making actual fucking money. It’s really annoying when someone who actually tries doesn’t make any money on something they deserve to make money on.

I knew I would end up spending more than five minutes writing this review. Mother fucker!

Dead Horizon was developed by 14 Hours Productions (oh that name has got to be trolling)
Also annoying: free games deprive me of my price jokes. I’ve spent the last six years carefully crafting those price jokes into one of my most beloved running gags and you free indie games are fucking my schtick up. Anyway, get Dead Horizon on Steam here.

Oh, and it’s Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Shephy

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

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

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

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

With each other, not with me.

I don’t think this is coming out right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you fucking kidding me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gravity Quest

Think of a video game like a strand of Christmas lights. If one doesn’t work, the whole strand doesn’t. It only takes one thing being off about a game to make it so you can’t enjoy the rest of it.

So I haven’t picked up a new game in a while, but I had some downtime the other day so I grabbed Gravity Quest by Alexandr Krivozub. It’s a weird name since there really isn’t a quest, per se. It’s a first-person maze game. And I don’t mean like Pac-Man where it’s called a maze game even though you’re not really trying to get anywhere. It would be like calling my neighbor’s car a musical instrument because if I beat on it with a golf club in just the right way it would make noise that could be interpreted as music. That’s just an absurd way of thinking, or so the judge told me. I mean it’s literally a “get from point A to point B” maze game. With mazes. I like those. I wish there were more of them. And this one had a nice visual style while combining the maze concept with the getting-stale-but-not-quite-tired gravity stuff. So I gave it a whirl.

Visually it’s nice. I mean, gee, look at it. Pretty.

An hour later, with about 80% of the game completed, I couldn’t really stay energized enough to continue on. This is one of those really tough reviews to do because the game does almost nothing wrong. It advertises itself as a 3D gravity-defying maze game and that’s exactly what it is. There’s no jumping, no puzzle-solving, no combat, no platforming, or anything besides the maze and a few switches that will either take you to a different section of the level or reverse you to the other side of the walkway you’re on. That’s fine. It’s basically what I wanted it to be.

So why didn’t I like it?

Because the moving speed is far too slow and as far as I can tell, there’s no run button. Yea, that’s really it. That’s the only thing Gravity Quest did to fail at getting my seal of approval. That omission, the lack of adjustable speeds, turns the game into such a slog that it saps the energy out of your marrow. If you make a wrong turn into a dead-end or end up walking in circles, and you will because, you know, it’s a game with 3D mazes, it’s borderline painful. The levels actually are well designed and make use of both gravity and the limited first-person perspective. But it’s hard to appreciate those things when the pace is on par with watching erosion in real time. It’s sort of insane to think about: lots of things need to work right in a game, yet it only takes one little thing to render a game completely boring. But, in Indieland there’s nothing worse than being boring, and Gravity Quest is boring. And it’s boring because it’s lacking one simple, obvious feature.

Can’t stress enough though: it looks great!

This is Alexandr’s first game on Steam, as far as I can tell. And, as far as first efforts go, it’s not that bad. The one thing wrong with it is a deal breaker, but it’s the easiest thing ever to fix. Just add a run button. Once he’s done that, I’d be easier to appreciate the relatively simple but somewhat challenging mazes, the cleverness of the design and the visuals. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not in contention to be a top Leaderboard game or anything, but it would still be on the Leaderboard. So Alex, add that run button and let me know it and I’ll club your baby with my seal. I’m not sure that came out the way I meant it to but hopefully you get my point.

Gravity Quest was developed by Alexandr Krivozub
Point of Sale: Steam

$2.99 sang “Run Run GET A RUN, I wanna Run!” in the making of this review.

If you’re reading this anywhere but IndieGamerChick(dot)Com, you are reading a stolen review. Please head over to my site, read my stuff on my blog.

Save Jesus

Shock value sells. Sacrilege sells. Counter-culture sells. Maybe you won’t be building a Scrooge McDuck-style money silo with your earnings from it, but in Indieland, being outlandish certainly helps you stand out in a crowded field. Even if the games that rely on gimmicky “yep, we went THERE” satire tend to suck. I’ve reviewed so many games dependent on a novelty shock concept that you would think I wouldn’t fall for it anymore.

Yet, here we are.

Generic Physics Puzzler: Jesus Edition.

Or Save Jesus.

Whatever.

The guy in the UFO thing is apparently someone going back in time to assassinate Jesus. Seems like it could be easier. Just replace the wise man giving gold with one giving enriched uranium. That seems like it would do the trick.

The guy in the UFO thing is apparently someone going back in time to assassinate Jesus. Seems like it could be done easier. Just replace the wise man giving baby Jesus gold and instead give him a piece of enriched uranium. That seems like it would do the trick.

The idea is there’s a giant ball that you must somehow cause to bowl-over Romans while sparing Jesus, and sometimes his disciples. You can’t directly move anything. Rather, you use the mouse to clear out certain blocks that starts the chain reaction with the ball. The Jesus theme is completely unnecessary. You could plug any theme into this and it wouldn’t make a difference. But they chose Jesus because LOL blasphemy am I right? “It caught your attention, didn’t it?” said Brian. Well, yea. But I figure I’m going to hell anyway because.. well.. anyone that’s read this blog knows why. I might as well get a leg up on the type of stuff that I’ll be playing once there. Stuff like this.

I exaggerate the blasphemy part. Besides a colorful splash of blood, there’s nothing really all that M-rated about this title. This really compounds the “why even bother?” question. I played a truly horrible brawler called Fist of Jesus once upon a time. It was among the worst games that I ever played at IGC. But, damnit, it went all-in with its gimmick. This included implied homosexuality between Jesus and Judas. The type of stuff that will earn you a protest at your office and all the free publicity that comes with it. With Save Jesus, all you get is a cartoonish “squish” sound and a puddle of blood if you accidentally kill Jesus. Oh come on, the Romans could at least lap up his blood with their tongues, because it’s basically red wine when you think about it.

The biggest problem is the game is just so damn bland. Physics-puzzlers are one of the most over-saturated genres these days. You need more than a clever and/or offensive theme to stand out. You need solid, original gameplay. Save Jesus is just boring. The physics are a little wonky too. Sometimes stages would clear themselves before I even got the ball rolling, just by the Romans dropping into pits. Other stages required me to time detonating a dynamite crate to launch the ball up to a higher platform. But the physics are so unforgiving that it required several attempts before I timed it on the correct microsecond that would solve the stage. Stages like this don’t feel like you solved them based on any skill, since you know what you’re supposed to do and it just comes down to clicking the mouse at the right time. A puzzle in the same sense that waking up when your alarm clock tells you to is.

I clicked one block here and the stage beat itself. I didn't get any stars for it, but really by this point I just wanted it to be over with.

I clicked one block here and the stage beat itself. I didn’t get any stars for it, but really by this point I just wanted it to be over with.

I’m not religious, so I don’t really care if Save Jesus is designed with the shock-value of “it’s funny because it’s Jesus” in mind. Heck, I’d even be prepared to name such a game my favorite indie of all time if it was that good. But, no matter the gimmick, games have to stand on their own. The biggest sin Save Jesus commits is being boring. There’s nothing worse a game can do.

It did do some carpentry in my house though, so it has that going for it. And it fed an army with a fish. Cured my cataracts. Walked across my swimming pool. Resurrected my 108-year-old neighbor. Hardly seal-of-approval worthy stuff if you ask me.

headerSave Jesus was developed by Almighty Games
Point of Sale: Steam

$1.59 said “John 11:35 never felt more appropriate” in the making of this review.

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