Save me Mr Tako: Tasukete Tako-San and Pirate Pop Plus

I didn’t grow up with an original Game Boy, and only had a Game Boy Pocket because I wanted to dive into the Pokemon craze right away and had gullible parents unaware that Game Boy Color would be arriving two months after Red & Blue hit the US. To say I have zero nostalgia for the platform would be an understatement. Especially when my primary reason for wanting to own a Game Boy in the first place was a series that’s had roughly two-kajillion sequels with essentially the same gameplay but better writing since then. And frankly, I was never a big fan of the watershed titles for the platform. I’ve played all the Mario Lands. I had Link’s Awakening DX on Game Boy Color. They were what they were, but I wasn’t a fan. Really, the only stand-out to me was Donkey Kong ’94, and that was by virtue of it not having a console-counterpart. If you had asked 10-year-old me what was the worst game I owned in 1999, there’s a good chance I would have answered Donkey Kong Land. Mind you, I had Bubsy 3D.

That’s no joke, by the way. I asked Santa Claus for a PlayStation 1 for Christmas of 1996 because I got hooked on playing Crash Bandicoot while playing a PS kiosk. A few months later, it was time for me to pick out my first non-Christmas-gift game for my first ever console. This is what I chose. With encouragement from my parents, who thought it looked “easy for a little girl.” So my parents were condescending, had horrible taste in games, AND were sexist. On the plus side, I think the seeds for Indie Gamer Chick were planted that week. I really do.

Until recently, while I believe my “anti-Nintendo” reputation was a bum rap, it’s safe to say I really was anti-Game Boy. Following my re-evaluation of Donkey Kong ’94, along with my play sessions with Operation C and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, I’ll admit that portable gamers weren’t entirely hosed. But I also don’t get why anyone would want to make a game that looks and plays like a Game Boy game in the modern age. A severely limited system where even the best games had many compromises that had to be made in order to keep them portable. Don’t get me wrong: it is impressive when someone pulls off the mimicry without it feeling like they just colored a game in creamed spinach tones. Take both the games I’m reviewing today. They both feel very authentic, to the point that you can buy them as lost 1989 – 1995 titles for the platform that were just now unearthed. If seeing that off-putting color palette stokes those nostalgia fires, ignore this review. Both these games rise high enough that they should work for you. Well, that’s assuming you ignore the maddening difficulty of Mr Tako, but since so many blowhards from that era bitch about games today being too easy, I assume that’s you.

For everyone else, the question is: how good are these games on their own merit?

I want to be.. under the sea.. in a Octopus’s gar.. OH SHIT! NOBODY SAID THEY FORM ARMIES! RUN!

Save me Mr Tako is probably considered the best Game Boy-like ever. It’s super popular. And, yeah, it really does feel like something that could pass for an unreleased mid-90s Game Boy title. One of the ones that came out after developers figured out how to optimize it around the time Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 or Link’s Awakening hit.  It also offers alternate color palettes that I believe are based on ones offered by the Super Game Boy. The sound, the look, the cramped field of vision. It’s all here. For better and for worse. Picture “worse” here being carved into a series of Everest-sized mountains.

Mr Tako is one of the most baffling experiences of my IGC life, because everything is in place for a fun game. It has a quirky story about a brewing war between sentient octopi and humans. It has an absolute ton of power-ups to keep things fresh through-out. The storyline has you occasionally switch from playing as the titular Mr Tako to human characters to solve puzzles and beat levels. And Mr Tako is potentially one of the great indie mascots. He’s overflowing with charm and personality and is Pikachu-levels of adorable. And there’s a huge variety of levels and themes and enemies. Really, Save Me Mr Tako should be an indie platforming epic.

Look how happy Mr Tako is just to jump! I just want to pinch his little cheeks. Wait, do octopi have cheeks?

And I was just so bored playing it that I legitimately felt guilty. Like it was on me. That *I* was doing something wrong. And this is before the game totally shit the bed with some of the most cheap, unfair shit I’ve seen in years and one really bad oversight. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Save Me Mr Tako was developed by Christophe Galati ($4.99, normally $14.99 peed lavender ink in the making of this review). **NOTE: This review only covers the Nintendo Switch version. The Steam version is updated to fix many things complained about here. I didn’t like the base game and didn’t care to pay to start over a game I didn’t enjoy in the first place. But the Steam version might be better.

The one concession that Mr Tako offers that feels modern is offering 20 starting lives. As opposed to just doing away with lives. I mean seriously, if you’re going so far as to give players 20 lives, why do lives at all? Every other aspect feels married to being a Game Boy release. The levels are ambitious for 1991-93, but not for modern gaming. Just lots of jumping around. Trees. Nook-and-cranny exploration and searching. It feels like it’d be an incredible, critically acclaimed, game-of-the-year-on-its-platform contender. And it’s not just a typical hop-and-bop. Mr Tako can’t kill enemies. Instead, he hits them with ink and it stops them. While covered in ink, he can jump on them to reach higher platforms. All this framed with a relatively complex story that’s sort of like Wag the Dog, only with an army of Octopuses. Of course, the writing is married to being Game Boy-like as well. Very on-the-nose. Very to-the-point. The most basic writing style. I hate it when neo-retro games do that. The only one that’s really pulled it off is Shovel Knight, where at least the visuals did a little more.

For whatever reason, Mr Tako just never held my attention. I’d knock out a few stages, find something else to play, and dread reopening it thinking “oh God, I’m not liking this and everyone is going to be pissed at me.” Because I honestly couldn’t put my finger on why it wasn’t “doing it” for me. Maybe it was too simple? Maybe it was too basic of design. I don’t know. I did like one aspect of the platforming: when you’re just under being able to jump up on a ledge, the game automatically gives you a little boosty next to the edge of it to put you up and over the top on it. It’s actually nifty. Never seen a game do that. And that is the only aspect of the gameplay that really stood out to me in almost three hours. Now mind you, by time I threw in the towel, I was only 22% complete on the game. If anyone thinks I gave up too early, (1) if a game needs three hours and over 20% of its contents to “get to the good stuff” I say that game is an automatic failure and (2) by time I did quit, Mr Tako had absolutely cratered into a slog of frustration and madness that made me actively hate it.

The good people of the Exxon corporation would like to remind you that THIS SEAL IS HAPPY!

Mr Tako’s one-hit difficulty becomes intolerable when playing as anyone but the octopus. A human character with no means of defense who has twice as much surface-area for enemies and projectiles is just not as fun to play with in our zany cephalopod adventure. It creates such an unwelcome pacing issue in what is already a game that feels slow despite having relatively small stages. There’s fifty hats that grant Mr Tako powers, but most of the ones I’ve gotten so far aren’t fun to play with. And on top of all that, the current Switch build doesn’t pause the action when you open doorways by solving “puzzles” (which is as simple as pushing a gravestone). When the camera pans over to show you what you opened up, you can die, even though you’re not on the screen and have no means of defenes. It’s one of the worst oversights I’ve ever seen in a game. There’s actually a patch that’s been waiting to be applied for a long time, but the developer has no control over when it’ll go through. It’s apparently fixed on Steam, but it doesn’t change the fact that I had no fun up to the point I quit. Maybe the easy mode that’s included in the patch will fix that. I don’t know. I’ll need to try it again when that patch hits. I know one of the devs from Twitter. Nice guy. He knows to hit me up for his Second Chance with the Chick when it’s live.

By the point I quit, I burned 40 lives between only two levels, trying to get past crows and ghosts that buzz-bomb you. Often with limited room to actually dodge them. And then, when I’d actually got past them, I’d open up a pathway by shoving a gravestone over, only I’d somehow die before the camera reached the thing it was trying to show me I unlocked. I’m happy a patch is coming (maybe. Apparently, it’s been stuck in queue for months), but seriously, how did they miss THAT in play testing? Developers really need to remember to find people who don’t know how to play the games to do the testing. If they can’t find such a person, they need to pretend they don’t know themselves and play like a newb would. I run into shit like this far too often.

Really, I think I must just be bias against looking like a Game Boy game. Because I recently also bought a game called Pirate Pop Plus. Instead of opting for complexity, it feels more like one of those really simple early-generation GB titles like Alleyway or Balloon Kid. Inspired by the classic arcade game Pang (also known as Buster Bros. in many releases), you throw a harpoon up at bubbles, which split into progressively smaller bubbles. The twist in the formula is that a pirate shows up to randomly shift the gravity on you, causing the action to rotate around the play-field. It is a fresh twist that manages to play intuitively. I should have liked it given that I’ve enjoyed Pang in the past, and while the gravity stuff is unquestionably gimmicky, it does work.

Also, neither Mr Tako nor Pirate Pop Plus allowed video capture on Switch. Which really sucks for them more than it does me because I post roughly six-thousand 30-second clips per Switch game during my play sessions, give or take. I might not have a million followers on Twitter, but the nearly 20K I do have buy a lot of games based on those videos. Indies are dependent on word of mouth, but with quick video capture options, they can also use show-and-tell too. You need every tool you can get, developers. Don’t cut your fans off from doing your marketing for you.

And yet, I was once again just sort of bored. There’s visibility issues (mostly owing to the backgrounds occasionally being too noisy) and the whole thing just looks and feels very old and tired. I normally don’t give a flip about visuals, but here, they don’t work. And I don’t think it’s just about having a limited four-color palette. Gyro Boss DX had one also. But there, the visuals are stark and clean. No matter what color scheme you’re using in Pirate Pop Plus, it’s still married to a Game Boy aesthetic not in service to the actual gameplay. And that’s a damn shame, because looking the way Pirate Pop Plus does really does take effort. It’s not like making your game look this way is a corner-cutting measure.

Bill Simmons often points out the weird, unique-to-basketball phenomena where traded NBA players look completely different in their new uniforms. When Shaquille O’Neal was dealt midway through the 2007-08 season from the Miami Heat to the Phoenix Suns, even though he was exactly the same player he had been just a few days before, Shaq suddenly looked fat and out of shape upon donning the Suns jersey. But nothing had changed besides putting on a new top. When Kwame Brown was traded from the Wizards to the Lakers, he looked amazing in the purple and gold, and for all we knew, he was going to breakout and prove he wasn’t one of the biggest busts ever. It didn’t happen, and why would it? He was still Kwame Brown! He sucked! But man, did he wear that Lakers outfit to perfection. Meanwhile, I watched Kevin Durant for three seasons on my Golden State Warriors, and while he played marvelously for us, something always looked horribly off. I think even the most diehard Dubnation member would concede it.

There’s tons of unlockables to keep players interested. But, no online leaderboards, which is the only thing with me proven to for-sure keep me going even with games I dislike.

Pirate Pop Plus was developed by Dadako ($3.56, normally $4.99, received an Angry Pirate once in the making of this review)

I can’t help but wonder if this also applies to video games. I recently played Contra Anniversary Collection. When I saw Operation C, and by “saw” I mean literally saw screenshots of it, I was bracing for the absolute worst. It used almost the same character models and lots of aspects of the game were simply black-and-white versions of gameplay elements lifted directly from Contra and Super C on the NES. But it just looked wrong. And guess what? It wasn’t at all. It was one of the best Game Boy games I ever played. One of the most faithful adaptions from the NES to the Game Boy I’ve experienced. And for the entire two hour play-session, my brain kept telling me “this can’t be happening. It just looks like it shouldn’t be possible!” At least my session with Operation C tells me that I’d recognize a good game when I play one. So I don’t actually think Save Me Mr Tako or Pirate Pop Plus are good. But then again, maybe if they looked different, I’d be willing to give them a little more rope. Besides to hang themselves with, I mean.

Whipseey and the Lost Atlas

I pre-ordered Whipseey and the Lost Atlas based on the cover art and one screen shot. It looked like it aspired to be an indie tribute to Kirby. Those don’t happen as often as you would think. Also, the preorder offered $0.50 off the purchase price. You guys really should only pre-order digital games if doing so nets you a discount. Otherwise, it’s not like the eShops will run out of copies. And then, on Tuesday morning the game unlocked and I started it. And right away, I could tell something was off. The scrolling didn’t feel smooth. The controls didn’t feel 100% responsive. Attacking was awkward and clumsy.

It only took me a minute to realize all these things. I genuinely try to review games and not their developers, but I do have to ask: if I realized this stuff was off that fast, why didn’t they realize it sooner? Like, before releasing it?

The shit thing is, Whipseey looks so good in screenshots. It’s a photogenic game. I bet it ends up a best seller by virtue of release date and how fun it SEEMS like it should be.

Whipseey is not good. And that’s a shame, because it sure seems like it could be fun. Despite looking like Kirby, most of the action borrows from entirely different games. Your primary attack is a whip that mechanically functions like original generation Castlevania games and only works straight in front of you. Sounds great. The problem is that it’s clunky to use, with a delay. It’s also not really suitable for mid-jump attacks, and that’s a big problem because the game is built largely around platforms and enemy placement that forces you to mid-air attack. Maybe if the button placement was different, it’d be easier to pull off. But Whipseey doesn’t offer button mapping. On Switch, B jumps, Y whips. I found it quite awkward switching between the two on a standard Joycon. None of the other buttons do anything. So why not offer mapping, or at the very least, some kind of dual button scheme?

On the plus side, the collision detection is absolute shit. It works against you, sure, but you can hit bosses and enemies sometimes without making contact. So there’s that.

See how far my whip is from making contact on this, the first boss? It’s almost a full character length from it. But, this landed. It caused damage. That’s how bad the collision detection can be. That’s fucking embarrassing. I guess to make up for this, the developer gave the boss an electrocution move that has no telegraphing. The first two bosses are genuinely some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Here’s a full video of that boss fight if you want to see me get credit for a few hits I completely whiffed. Also, who makes their first boss an underwater fight unless that’s the entire game’s theme? For fuck’s sake!

The combat is bad. The platforming is worse. Instead of Castlevania, think Donkey Kong Country 2 or 3. Whipseey has the ability to do a Dixie Kong-style helicopter glide, and that’d be great. But the game is filled with instakill spikes with less than accurate-feeling collision detection, instakill pits, and lots of enemy crowding. And the game seems to have a thing for putting something above your head, and a pit in front of you, so that you go to jump but the platform above you cuts off the angle and you fall into a pit. The jumping just feels off. The gravity too heavy, the angles tough to judge. It’s never intuitive. The helicopter thing or the parts where you swing from your whip would be fun if the physics were refined and smoothed out. They’re not, and consequently they’re just not fun.

I really don’t have that much to say about Whipseey. I wanted to quit multiple times while playing it, finally giving up on the last boss. There’s only five levels, none of which rise above bland in terms of design. Things really don’t start to get interesting until the fourth and fifth levels, which had potential to be a bit more than simply bland if all the mechanics had been given more development time. But that means you’re over 60% of the way through the game before the level design feels ambitious. Before that, it’s just enemies being placed in dickish positions, or stuff like hopping on enemies to clear pits. In other games, the “bounce across enemies to finish a section” can be a highlight (see Super Mario 2 with the fish). But for Whipseey, if you fail to make the jump, even if you manage to float back to the starting platform, you’re dead. The enemy never respawns, and despite the door you came from being RIGHT FUCKING THERE, you can’t enter it and then go back and try again. You have to throw yourself into the pit and try again.

Also, this guy moves back and forth. So it’s not like you have a stationary target to hit. It’s incredible how many things Whipseey manages to do wrong in only five levels.

It’s rare that I play a game where it feels nothing goes right, but that’s Whipseey. You get a free life if you collect 100 gems. You get gems from enemies. But, when you whip enemies, the gems don’t just drop. They go flying behind them. In a game based largely on pits. Guess where most of those gems end up? If you run out of lives, you have to start a level again. Guys, it’s time to get rid of lives systems. You’re not doing anything to help your platform game by adding busy work of replaying levels for the sake of “challenge.” Come up with something better. If you need to force players to replay entire stages as a punishment in order to make your game harder, you’re doing it wrong. And, if you’re afraid of pissing off the blowhard crowd that wants to be punished for poor play because privately getting spanked is their kink, make it optional. In Whipseey, there’s a menu for “options” but the only thing you can change is the sound. Bosses are all boring. Enemies are boring and often cheap. There’s only five levels. There’s no power-ups. There’s no twists. It runs out of ideas fast. There’s only one potentially memorable set-piece (set on a train) and it ends up playing quite poorly. I feel like a bitch for going off this much a first-time developer’s game. This really wasn’t a fun review for me to do, but to my credit, it wasn’t a very fun game I was playing.

I’m not actually going to complain about the length. Some might not want a game with five relatively normal sized levels for $6 though. If Whipseey had been just okay, I’d probably been fine with the length. If it’d been good, I probably wouldn’t have been. It wasn’t either of those things. I was happy to get to the end.

All these little problems that add up to overall pretty terrible experience screams of a game that was rushed from conception to market as fast as could be done. NOTHING I’ve seen here leads me to believe developer Daniel A. Ramirez should quit. He clearly had a vision and saw it through to completion, and has a finished game that, when I saw it, I wanted it. And then I played it, and I wish he’d worked on it longer. If this had been given an extra spit-shine when the levels were done, with the rough edges smoothed out and less emphasis on dick-headed enemy placement, Whipseey and the Lost Atlas could have been a memorable indie romp. Instead it just feels like an unfinished prototype. But, it sure looks great in pictures. Big deal. So did Ryan Leaf.

Whipseey and the Lost Atlas was developed by Daniel A. Ramierez
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

$5.49 (normally $5.99) doesn’t do great with whip-based indie tributes in the making of this review.

Strikey Sisters

People, myself included, might look at pictures or clips of Strikey Sisters and assume it crosses Zelda-style adventures or RPG-style games with Arkanoid-inspired brick breaking. It doesn’t. There’s no permanent upgrades. You don’t level-up. You don’t unlock new items or abilities. The one Zeldaish mechanic is that the paddle is replaced by slashing at the ball with a sword, but that doesn’t mean the game is essentially Linkanoid. So, don’t let the facade of Strikey Sisters lull you into believing it’s deeper than it really is. This is a one-level-at-a-time, white-knuckle-action brick breaker. But a damn good one. The best brick breaker I’ve ever played, in fact, and one of 2019’s very best hidden indie gems. I just want to make sure people know what they’re getting with it. Like how I think people who take their first kitten home from a pet store should have their cars keyed, with the shop owner saying “this is going to be your couch from now on. You’re going to LOVE IT!”

Can we please phase out “lethal bubbles” in games? They’re only acceptable if they involve dinosaurs capturing enemies in them. Then popping them, which presumably kills baddies via some kind of drop in pressure. Like seriously, that’s how it works in Bubble Bobble, right? Enemies die via an extreme case of the bends?

Actually, Strikey Sisters is based on an obscure 1994 SNES game called Firestriker. I’d never even heard of it, though judging by the amount of people who pointed this out to me when I first started playing Sisters, it must have a cult following. That’s what I love about indie gaming: even the most seemingly forgotten games can be honored with a modern homage. One that presumably improves the mechanics of the original. Because I look at videos of Firestriker and can’t imagine it must have been as good as Strikey Sisters is. Then again, Strikey Sisters does a lot wrong too. Not since Dead Cells has an indie taken me on the type of ride it has. For every moment of jubilation, there was a moment or two of annoyance and rough design. But, as my “best brick breaker I’ve ever played” label already spoiled, not in a way that’s a deal breaker. The steps Strikey takes forward are larger strides than the relatively tiny steps it took backwards. It provided me with a unique way I can explore why Strikey Sisters worked for me while also underachieving.

STEP FORWARD: Strikey Sisters realizes the potential Arkanoid strived for and, in my opinion, failed to achieve in 1986. Arkanoid wanted to actionize the foundation laid by Breakout, providing paddle upgrades, unique brick layouts, and weapons. But Arkanoid’s gameplay was still slow. Enemies had no effect on the paddle. Items of actual value were rare (especially the highly desirable laser that lets you fire upon blocks and enemies). And the physics were married to that of Breakout’s. Arkanoid wasn’t an action game. It was always about the bricks.

Strikey Sisters is about the action, with the brick breaking being the framing device to deliver that action. There’s more enemies, and the enemies always drop items when killed. Almost all the items are useful to some degree in any given situation. DYA Games also confirmed to me they rigged the physics a bit so that the ball couldn’t get caught in repeating loops, like many brick breakers before it. Also, stages in Strikey don’t end when you smash the last brick. Instead, enemies constantly respawn until the last brick is broken, at which point the respawning stops and stages end when the last enemy is defeated. It’s a very clever mechanic that assures stages retain intensity even as the screen starts to clear, and finishing levels feels satisfying and cathartic.

STEP BACKWARDS: The action can be too intense at times. All enemies are wired to march closer to the the character (who functionally serves as the paddle). While this assures that even if your ball is caught in an unplayable trajectory, you won’t be stuck waiting forever to finish stages, it also results in some of the worst crowding I’ve seen in a brick breaker. Ultimately, this is still a brick breaker and your primary survival objective is to keep the ball in play. But as enemies close in, you have less room to play the ball. It often devolves the action into hacky-slashy button mashing just to clear the enemies out in front of you or batter the ball back and forth trying to keep it in play. I get that the enemies closing in 100% assures stages don’t overstay their welcome, but maybe some other solution was needed, like not having the enemies march towards you until all the bricks were cleared, or 90% of them, or something. I wanted to pepper spray the game at times for violating my space, but I’m not sure it would actually work. It’d probably void my warranty too.

The boss battles vary wildly in difficulty. It usually comes down to if their attacks involve crowding the paddle or not. I actually lost more lives attempting to use the Zelda-like charge shot and having the ball ricochet out of playable range than I did from direct attacks. Easily so. It’s not even close, really.

STEP FORWARD: You don’t even need the ball to clear out enemies or bricks. Because every enemy drops an item, and because enemies are designed to move closer to you, you’ll constantly have a chance at picking up items that can be shot at bricks or at further away enemies. It’s another example of a concept that Arkanoid invented being fully realized. Many brick breakers have items that can clear out blocks besides the ball. No game has as many chances to do it as Strikey Sisters. While it isn’t completely immune to what I call Last Mother Fuckin’ Brick Syndrome™, it never devolves into a slog trying to get that last brick or last enemy. Probably the smartest design choice was allowing you to attack enemies directly with your sword, without needing an item to do it. For all the times I’d whine about the bottom of the screen being clogged up, I’d just as often welcome enemies like they were coming to liberate me from the oppression of boredom.

STEP BACKWARDS: The ball’s physics can be downright wonky at times. Sometimes it can end up on a nearly 90° horizontal trajectory after bouncing off an enemy. Sometimes it’ll be bouncing one direction on a thin trajectory and then change directions bouncing off solid blocks for absolutely no reason. It’s especially bizarre because the collision detection is so unremarkable that it’s a non-factor, and yet I have to believe something very weird is happening with the detection for the ball to just abruptly change course. Also, compounding this is the occasional enemy or boss that can alter the course of the ball by doing a ground-pound, which I swear to Christ, always seemed to make the ball go flatly horizontal and thus breaking the game’s flow horribly.

Something that never occurred to me until just now: the sword never gets bigger. The surface area you can cover never grows at all. You never gain the ability to directly control the ball. Really, that type of stuff would’ve been the most obvious items to include and it’s ballsy that it wasn’t done. No pun intended.

STEP FORWARD: Those same wonky physics benefit the player just as often as they annoy, allowing you to clear out enemies that are crowding the paddle or unleash spells on blocks or enemies on the other side of the screen. It’s about 50/50 on the benefit/annoyance scale, really. And all the items feel powerful. Plus, you can use your charge shot to deflect enemy projectiles back at them, either killing them or breaking any bricks they hit. Some bosses feel like they’re built specifically around batting their own attack back at them. It never gets old, either. It’s always satisfying to return their fire. Well, at least when it hits.

STEP BACKWARDS: Strikey Sisters is deceptively difficult. I was playing the game on easy, with unlimited lives, and still had to replay levels and especially bosses all the time. Losing track of the ball is an occupational hazard, especially when enemies start to fire round projectiles roughly the size of the ball. Glowy ones, or fire ones (and the ball can turn into a fireball with the right item). You’re given a charge move with your sword straight out of Zelda, but you can’t use it on the ball if enemies are crowding because it’ll inevitably deflect out of play. And many enemies/bosses are capable of batting the ball back at you, meaning you often have to damage them from behind, and thus you’ll rely on lucky shots instead of skill shots to take them out. While no brick breaker has ever empowered players to the degree Strikey Sisters does, where you frequently end levels in an explosive, satisfying way, I also had moments of glory muted with the knowledge that I got really lucky. Luck factors in a bit too much.

Some of the levels are practically designed for the ball to get caught up in a shallow trajectory that all but removes it from the action. Also, there’s apparently no bonus or use for the coins besides needing to get X amount of them each stage to trigger the appearances of chests. There’s tons of unlockables like levels, artwork, cut scenes, etc that mostly unlock upon beating the game. Maybe the coins should have been used for a store that exclusively unlocks the bonus material. I’d cared a little more about getting them for something like that. By the end of the game, I put as much consideration into them as I did in bending over to pick up change on the sidewalk. By the way, my rule for that is “only for dimes or higher.” If I throw my back out, I think people in the emergency room would laugh at me if I said I did it stooping over to pick up a penny or a nickel. A dime, I feel, would be met with understanding nods and approval.

STEP FORWARD: All of that is done to keep Strikey Sisters at a fast-tempo. Let’s face it: brick breakers are, by nature, slow. Even 2009’s Shatter, probably the high-water mark for the genre up to this point, can be really sloggy at times. When the action slows down in Strikey Sisters, sometimes you welcome it just because you can fucking stop to breathe. Even the relatively tame early stages have players constantly doing stuff besides simply batting a ball back and forth. A brick breaker, at its worse, is just Pong designed for single-player. Which makes sense. Breakout was created because Nolan Bushnell mandated a single-player Pong. Great. But, gaming has come a long ways since Pong. It’s come all the way since Pong. Even your Arkanoids, your Shatters, or indie takes on the genre like Wizorb make the mistake of having their games be focused on knocking out the bricks. But we’ve done that shit for over forty years now. Strikey Sisters is the first brick breaker that figured out how to make the genre relevant to today’s gamers: move that shit to the background. It’s not what you do, but how you do it. Make the “doing it” part fun. It’s a brick breaker, but it’s an action game first. That’s so smart.

STEP BACKWARDS: There’s lots of annoying little things Strikey Sister does (or doesn’t do) that annoy the shit out of me. I got a 98% completion of the map, but I had no clue where the 2% I’m missing was at. Each brick you break drops a coin. Collecting X amount of coins in each stage spawns chests. One chest has a green emerald in it. The other has a card which you can throw at an enemy, capturing them Pokeball-style. Only, all that does is add them to your Bestiary. It would have been neat if you could have used those enemies. I think they probably planned something like that and had to abandon it, since there’s so much emphasis on the capture stuff that goes nowhere. Finally, some stages have a key that opens up extra-pathways on the map. Apparently I missed a single key that opened up one meaningless, inconsequential extra stage along the way. It took me a while to figure out which bare spot on the map I could probably access if I got a key. Now, I’m the proud owner of my first total 100% completion in a long time as part of a game I did for Indie Gamer Chick.

Booyah! Fucked this game up!

STEP FORWARD: Seriously, I can’t stress enough how much stuff is packed into this $10 game. You get an extensive “quest” that took me around six gameplay hours to finish. There’s a lot of stuff to collect, hidden levels to unlock, monsters to catalog (though you can semi-cheat the Bestiary by hitting a creature with a card and then quitting to the map without finishing the stage and it’ll still count). As if that’s not enough, upon beating the game there’s sixty bonus levels thrown into the menu just for shits and giggles. And you might actually not be burned out on Strikey Sisters by time those bonus levels come into play. That I actually wanted to get 100% of the map, emeralds, and enemies captured is so rare these days for me. But I couldn’t get enough of Strikey Sisters. It’s just plain fun. From start to finish. Every frustration, every moment of annoyance, completely trumped by how fun it is. This is a very good game.

For all the issues it has, everything just comes together so well. Hell, the game has deliberately badly acted 90s style voice overs. Seriously, it’s actually promoted as being “cheesy” in the game’s features on the official sales page for it. Being bad on purpose isn’t funny. It’s awkward. But the actual humor in the dialog with its cringey delivery does typically land. How? What the fuck? How did you not totally shit the bed, Strikey Sisters? You’re based on a Super Nintendo game nobody has even thought about in twenty-five years. You have terrible acting. You have a disjointed map that circumvents proper difficulty scaling. The action can become an unmanageable clutsterfuck of confusion and cheap deaths. All in a genre that should be so done-for that even the strongest smelling salts in the world couldn’t bring it out of its coma.

I should note that there’s a co-op mode. The issue is my playing partners are either not into indies or are unwilling to play most genres. BUT, I want to note that there’s two balls in co-op, and players take damage if either ball is missed. That’s a really bad design choice because the game gets insanely chaotic. There should have been two uniquely-colored balls and damage specific to the player the ball belongs to.

And yet, here we are. Strikey Sisters is one of the best indies I’ve ever played. Another wonderful 2019 Switch-console exclusive like Q-Yo Blaster that’s probably fated to plummet quickly into indie oblivion due to an uninspired name and unattractive box art. A game will inevitably be awarded my You Heartless Bastards Award (given to great games that nobody buys) because most people reading this will never give it a chance. But, for what it’s worth, I love you Strikey Sisters. Now figure out a way to sell a million copies so the titular sisters can make a cameo in Smash Bros. I want to see Marie talk shit on Solid Snake and get Elene throwing hands with Ness. Like, I need this in my life. Please.

Strikey Sisters was developed by DYA Games
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$7.99 (normally $9.99) said “the things we do for our pets” in the making of this review.

Strikey Sisters is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Q-Yo Blaster

Shmups aren’t normally my thing. Well, I say that at least. Upon reflection, I realize they’re in the same category as tower defense games. I say they do nothing for me and typically don’t seek them out. But, if I find myself playing a good one, I get sucked into the experience as much as any title from a preferred genre of mine. And, let’s face it, if you absolutely need to scratch that white-knuckle action itch but don’t have a lot of time to invest, a shmup is probably the best bet. It’s one of the few genres that can get away with a game that’s done in under thirty-minutes. As it should be. Imagine if Gradius was a ten hour long game. It’d suck. You’d be in physical pain by time it was over. Thirty minutes is perfect. It’s not even enough time for the logic center of your brain to say “just because we see the game from a side-perspective doesn’t mean it’s really taking place on a single line of existence that both the good guys and bad guys agreed to stay glued to with all their bullets traveling along that same line, right? Because wouldn’t it make more sense if a slow moving bullet was coming at you in a bullet-hell to just side-step it, move a little to the left or right, instead of up or down into the path of more bullets? 2D games make no sense, yo!”

Of course, you can say that about any 2D game. Moving on..

The game looks like a fever dream and a bad acid trip made horrible, disgusting love and this was the end result.

A session with Q-Yo Blaster can be finished in around thirty minutes. Knowing that, and seeing its gorgeous cartoonish visuals, you might mistake it for the type of shmup that’s all style and no substance. But this is a deceptively deep shooter. For starters, you have three different character types to choose from: Endurance, Damage, or a balance of both. There’s sixteen total characters to choose from, each with unique stats and an options. Sixteen! And trust me, playing as each feels just barely different enough that replaying the 30-minute quest doesn’t start to get stale. Plus, there’s multiple different play modes, with some items and weapons only available in higher difficulty levels.

Actually, that bit is sort of a dick move. There’s really no reason why weapons like the drone, laser or homing missiles should be excluded from easy mode. It’s like telling a person incapable of playing on higher difficulties that their dripping pussy ass deserves to have less fun. I don’t get it. Presumably a person playing on easy would be more likely to recommend the game to others and help developers sell more copies if they’re not gated off from having as much fun as everyone else. Developers who choose to gate based on difficulty really seem like they forfeit the right to bitch if their game doesn’t sell. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun with Q-Yo Blaster and it’s going to be an IGC Top 50 game as of this writing. But I’ve never understood why the 2D shooter genre specifically does this type of stuff habitually: stripping out phases or weapons or bosses or ending. Is it because games like Contra III did it back in the day? Is it a way of pandering to hardcore genre fans, saying “look, we don’t want the casuals leeching off our coolness any more than you do, so we’re going to keep them from getting to play with the coolest toys.” I don’t know. I do know that your Cupheads or your Q-Yo Blasters would do better if people of all skill levels felt equally welcome, and they don’t.

See the weird octopus vagina thing in the dead center of the screen behind everything else? The one labeled “blood?” Yea, that’s not a boss. While you shoot at enemies, every bullet that hits fills up another charge meter. When that one fills up, it automatically unleashes some kind of super attack that clears the area and does low-to-moderate damage on bosses. It’s a neat idea, but it’s hard to really harness the potential of it because, being a shmup, there’s already so much shit you have to keep track without having another meter to keep glancing at. I wish the game let you manually use it when the bar fills up instead of auto-firing. About a third of the time, the thing would go off while I was clearing the last enemy on the screen.

Having said all that, Q-Yo Blaster’s thirty-minute quest, even with the cooler weapons gated off, is pretty engrossing. There’s a bonkers story tying all the animated cliches together, but it’s overly long and very poorly translated, with tons of grammar errors. Skip it and just pretend you’re in a game where Roger Rabbit’s Toontown is being invaded by insects. Levels can be very short (the first level barely lasts 30 seconds before you fight the first boss), but the variety rarely lacks and most of the bosses are memorable and fun to do battle with. If this were a basic, no-frills shooter, the setting and character design alone would make it stand out in a crowded field. And then it would disappoint, because nobody should want a bland game just because it’s pretty to look at. Then again, people do accept blandness as long as it’s pleasant on the eyes. It’s how Paul Walker and Jessica Biel became stars.

But Q-Yo adds strategic elements like the ability to collect “pulses.” Activating them turns all the enemy bullets on-screen into collectable energy that you can use to charge your own super weapon. It’s a fun concept that doubles as both a planned attack and an emergency get-out-of-dodge button. Plus, while you can select between using a mega laser or a shield as your super weapon on the character select screen, using the mega laser also will clear any bullets directly in the line of the blast, effectively making it a shield. You’ll need this for certain boss fights, especially on the normal difficulty. You get upgrades between each stage, but I wish those upgrades allowed things like increasing the amount of pulses you can collect. The upgrades all work, but they don’t make you feel like you’re gaining significant power. They’re small edges that you might not even notice are happening, like increasing your own bullet speed. With some characters that increase is so slight that it practically makes no difference. Also, you can choose to get a 1up between each stage, but you get a ton of continues on both easy and normal, so really the 1up is every bit as stupid a choice as taking the potion over an extra heart container from the old lady in the original Legend of Zelda.

While the power shots are visually impressive, I wish they felt more powerful than they actually are. The noise it makes sounds less like unleashing a devastating blast of energy upon your enemies and more like the type of noise a cheesy 70s sci-fi movie would use to signify characters hanging-up on a telecall.

Ignoring the easy/normal crap, the biggest problem with Q-Yo Blaster is the game sorta chugs in terms of performance. It’s hard to explain, really. The best way I can describe it is if you’ve ever tried to put an emulator on a computer or game device not powerful quite enough to run the games for it. Q-Yo Blaster on Switch feels like a Super Nintendo game being emulated at around 90% efficiency. It works, though sometimes the frame-rate stutters (rarely in the middle of action, though it did happen once or twice) and the game never feels smooth. Thankfully, responsiveness doesn’t take a hit. The controls are fine-tuned and apparently compensate for the engine’s short-comings. Still, while Q-Yo Blaster never crashed on me, it always feels like the game is barely holding together and could shit the bed at any moment. I can’t remember the last time I played a game so good that felt so rough. Q-Yo Blaster is a finished, completed game, but it also feels like a proof-of-concept prototype with its short levels and choppy animation. It’s the damnedest thing. It’s so jarring that I wonder if it was done deliberately. Odd stylistic choice if so, but then again there’s people that think girls want to sleep with guys that have a pierced cock. We don’t. Gross.

This is your brain on drugs.

Take all this with a grain of salt because I’m not an expert on this genre by any means, but I had a lot of fun with Q-Yo Blaster. Accessible even to non-fans, quick-enough that it doesn’t leave time to get old, complex enough that genre veterans should still get value out of it, and loaded with enough characters and modes that you get value for your purchase, thirty-minute length or not. This is a very good game. But, I worry about it. It’s been out for a while, yet nobody is really talking about it. It had a successful Kickstarter campaign, but it wasn’t a big campaign so nobody really knows about it anymore. It offers a 50% discount if you own any other game by publisher Forever Entertainment (which, if you’re a Switch owner, is pretty likely. They’re one of those companies that does blow-out $1-or-under deals on their mountain of titles all the time), but you wouldn’t know by going to Nintendo.com because the store page only mentions it when you’re on the actual eShop on your Switch. It’s one of those games that’s destined to win my “You Heartless Bastards Award” in the next few years. Q-Yo needs word of mouth, but I’d never heard of it until the moment I bought it while randomly browsing the eShop. It’s worth checking out and you totally should. Even before I moved up difficulties and discovered easy mode gated out weapons, I was having fun. After that, I was just having fun while being slightly annoyed, like having sex in a room full of house flies.

Q-Yo Blaster was developed by Team Robot Black Hat
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$4.99 (normally $9.99) wore the black hat in the making of this review.

Q-Yo Blaster is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

 

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 at 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!

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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 behind someone like 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.

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