Indie Pinball Chick: Alvin G. & Co Table Pack (The Pinball Arcade Review & Table Rankings))

You might not know the name Alvin G. & Co. Founded in 1991 by Alvin Gottlieb of the famous pinball-making family, Alvin G. & Co never managed to capture any substantial success or market share and went out of business in 1996 (and functionally finished by 1994). Sadly, Alvin Gottlieb has since gone to the big arcade in the sky. I’ve got to be honest: I’m seriously stoked that anyone would think to recreate the works of this company. It represents a very positive step in preservation of the field. An obscure pinball manufacturer defined entirely by abject failure can still get officially recreated, over-priced releases in the 2010s. What a time to be alive!

I’m not a big fan of the Pinball Arcade’s physics, but in Tate Mode on Switch the games are a little more playable. But this package costs $7.99 and nets you only two tables. Mind you, Alvin G. & Co only released four traditional tables and one that’s a two-player versus game with flippers on both sides of the table. That one wasn’t included. Wouldn’t that have been neat if it was? I don’t know. Maybe Farsight didn’t have access to the other two traditional tables released by Alvin G. & Co, neither of which were manufactured in large quantities. But then again, so was Pistol Poker at only 500 made (and they probably didn’t sell most of them) and it’s here. Mystery Castle (no relation to the recent indie tribute to Lolo that I reviewed) is missing, and it at least looks interesting. The rarest Alvin G. table, Punchy the Clown (only 103 units made) is missing and.. uh..

Even Pennywise is scared of this shit.

Yeah, I’m actually kind of cool with that shit being left out. Also, my apologies to everyone who won’t sleep for the next few weeks.

Anyway, the games are stamped with the Gottieb logo on the Pinball Arcade menu, so I’m not sure why they didn’t just roll these into other Gottlieb table packs. This is pretty much the worst value in the entire Pinball Arcade collection, and there’s absolutely no reason for these tables to be so expensive. I mean, it’s not like they have some kind of expensive license or incredibly ambitious rube-goldberg type of mechanics. These are fairly basic early-90s solid state tables. I assure you, there’s nothing special about them. They’re very generic If they had to be sold separately, this should have been $3.99 at most. Maybe if the tables were good, you could justify it. But Pistol Poker is one of the more blandly designed card/casino themed tables I’ve seen, while Al’s Garage Band Goes on World Tour is simply a terrible all-around table that’s made even worse by the floaty physics of Pinball Arcade. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a worst value or a weaker collection of tables than what’s offered in this pack. Alvin G. might as well have a spin-disc on his grave because he’s probably doing a lot of spinning right about now.

The Pinball Arcade: Alvin G. & Co was developed by Farsight Studios
Point of Sale: Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Steam
$7.99 said “seriously, couldn’t they give us at least ONE more table” in the making of this review.
Switch version covered in this review.

TABLE INDEX

Alvin G. & Co Table Pack: $7.99 (The Pinball Arcade)
Total Tables: 2
Bad: 1
The Pits: 1
No Quality Tables

The Pits

#2: Al’s Garage Band Goes on World Tour
1992 Alvin G. & Co Recreation
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Table on Internet Pinball Machine Database

This is like what an old person thought kids of the early 90s were into.

What a miserable table. There’s a spin-disc at the top of the playfield that can’t be missed by the auto-launching plunger. If you hit it, and you sort of have to hit it, there’s a high probability it’ll drop the ball literally straight down the drain. I’ve had several instances where multiballs were ended immediately, even with ball save turned on, because the spinner dunked all three balls in the drain in under a second. And even if it doesn’t do it straight away, it might fling them into targets, but still in a way where they’re unplayable. I’m going to guess the real table doesn’t feed the drink as much, even if it’s ultimately a product designed to make quarters.

And it’s not a very interesting table anyway, though it shares a similar attribute to the Darth Vader table I called the best in Star Wars Pinball: there’s nothing in the entire center of the playfield, with everything moved off to the sides until you get to the disc at the top. There’s also a gap behind the disc that leads directly to a reset. But the ball lock is too close and too easy to shoot, as is the extra ball target. It’s as if the table knows it’s garbage, so it makes up for it by trying to give you as much free shit as possible so that you don’t walk away feeling totally ripped off. I only rate this game Above Average in difficulty because the outlanes are hungry and clearing the spinning is entirely on luck. The theme is so horrible, too. It feels like it was meant to be based on Wayne’s World or This is Spinal Tap or something. The worst table recreated table I’ve played so far, easily.

Also, what the fuck is the “bump button” and why does it keep being brought up? You have to tell us this shit, Farsight!

The Bad

#1: Pistol Poker
1993 Alvin G. & Co Recreation
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Table on Internet Pinball Machine Database

The voice of the gunslinger sounds like Sarge from Red vs Blue.

I suspect this table would jump to “good” on any other pinball launcher. One with decent physics. Pistol Poker feels a bit more floaty than normal, and actually getting credit for hitting the targets felt especially wonky here. It’s not like this had potential to be amazing or anything. There’s literally dozens of tables out there that have pretty much the same poker concept, but with better layouts. Pistol Poker is one of those split-level tables where the lower flippers can’t really target anything on the top of the playfield, and instead you get a single right flipper to do all the target shooting. Sometimes those works. For Pistol Poker, the bumpers crowd the limited upper-flipper. I think it’s supposed to create a sense of urgency, but it’s not that hard to get to the upper playfield. This split-level didn’t work for me at all.

And the old west theme is barely used. There’s ONE fun mode where every light and target goes live and counts as a bullet being fired by a gunslinger. I wanted more of that type of stuff. But the bonus entrance that allows you to get cards you haven’t gotten the target lit for, which requires you to time a light indicator on the backglass, is too prominent. It’s literally right in front of the flippers and is arguably the primary target of the table. Bizarre to be sure. I wish I had more to say, since this just technically won “best in set” for the Alvin G. & Co pack, but ultimately Pistol Poker is just really boring. If they’re going to ever do another table like this, I’d rather they do the 1994 Data East table based on the movie Maverick. That’s a good card game based table. Pistol Poker is shooting blanks.

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.

Iron Crypticle

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

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

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

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

By the power of Grayskull!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, they can have it.

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

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

Treasure Stack

I never really liked Wario’s Woods. When I was still fawning over NES Remix, the moment I realized the series was running out of steam is when the Wario’s Woods shit started during NES Remix 2. Now, considering that the Remix series turned chicken shit like Urban Champion, Clu Clu Land, Baseball, Tennis, and Ice Climber into chicken salad, that really gives you an idea just how bad Wario’s Woods is. It’s horrible. Cynical too. Nintendo had struck gold with Tetris but they didn’t own it and wanted a Tetris-like to call their own. They had Dr. Mario, which was a big hit for reasons I’ll never understand because Dr. Mario is fucking boring. Yoshi’s Cookie is fucking boring. And Wario’s Woods is clunky as all hell AND fucking boring. It’s the worst of that initial Trilogy of Not-Tetris. It was the second-to-last Nintendo-published NES game, with only StarTropics 2 coming out afterwards. Not exactly a riveting send-off for the console that made them famous. If you told me an indie developer would make the Wario’s Woods formula somewhat compelling, I’d say you must be high. But here we are: an indie tribute to one of the worst “major” puzzlers ever, and it’s not bad.

Treasure Stack isn’t great either. For those unfamiliar with the concept: multi-colored treasure chests rain down from the heavens into a well, two boxes at a time. You’re a little dude or dudette at the bottom of the well who has to platform around, grabbing and stacking the chests. Occasionally keys will come down with the treasures. If you match a key to the right color chest, it detonates the chest and all chests of the same color connected to it. The platforming guy/gal controls smoothly and has a grappling hook they can use to grab blocks from high up in the well and quickly bring them down to the base, which is what sets Stack apart from Woods. It’s clever and it works. And there’s special items that automatically clear blocks out. It sounds great, and it would be.. except the garbage blocks.

I’m guessing color-blind players will not enjoy this one as much.

I don’t know why the game needed garbage blocks. The formula for Treasure Stack wasn’t exactly something that lends itself to fast-paced action-puzzling. Without them, the game would still be difficult enough once the chests/keys start dropping faster. Especially since you’re left up to the whims of chance as to whether the game will generate the right color key you need to set-off the elaborate combo you’ve been preparing without having to rethink the whole thing if it doesn’t come fast enough. And even the keys you often can’t count on to be your salvation because I swear to God they constantly come down paired with a treasure chest of the same color, which means the key and the chest that are falling will detonate upon landing and thus you can’t do anything with them. It happened to me all the time and was annoying. They really should rig it so a chest and a key of the same color NEVER come out together. It would make the game ten-fold better. But really, the garbage is the big issue here. Everything about the garbage blocks saps the fun from Treasure Stack. The meter for triggering them fills up too fast. When they activate, they blanket the top spot of each column in the well. Just a couple of minutes into the game, the meter starts filling up quite fast, while the colored chests/keys rain down even faster. It’s just not reasonable to be able to keep up with them even if you had four hands and two brains. And I don’t have four hands.

Even worse is that death is instant if you reach the top of the well. A game like this really called for a Tetris Attack/Pokemon Puzzle League style grace-period where you have a couple of seconds to fix the problem before being declared KOed. You can have a relatively comfortable three-space gap from the top of the well and end up dead a moment later. Hell, I’ve had better conditions and not survived the next ten seconds. And because your character can only leap one block, recovery is next to impossible once you reach a certain point. By five minutes in, Treasure Stack’s action is so fast that it’s well beyond the point of reasonable management. If the blocks fell horizontally instead of being stacked on-top of each other, you’d have a lot more time and the stacks in the well wouldn’t become insurmountable instantly. Treasure Stack, more than any well-based puzzler I’ve ever encountered, feels like it’s designed specifically to smother you.

I can’t remember a well-based puzzler where you can go from feeling nice and relaxed to overwhelmed and defeated in such short order. And not in a good way, either. The tide turns so quickly that you can’t even process how you failed. It just sort of happens.

This probably makes it sound like I didn’t like Treasure Stack at all. And for solo play, I really didn’t. It just does too many core gameplay mistakes to be enjoyable. But Treasure Stack is designed with multiplayer in mind. There, the rules are a bit different and the game absolutely shines. Playing online, you get a lot less garbage blocks, and they only come as the result of your opponent racking up combos and other assorted puzzling shenanigans. I wish it were more clear which actions trigger more garbage blocks so I could try focusing on that. Sometimes I would set up very elaborate combos only to see but a single garbage block drop on my opponent. But still, the way multiplayer is oriented allows for Treasure Stack to be appreciated. You actually have time to experience the thrill of very elaborate combos, something I feel is next to impossible to pull off in solo play.

I won this match. It wasn’t quite the same thrill as winning at Tetris 99, but still, in your face person I beat.

I can’t help but wonder if Treasure Stack released a bit too early. Some fixes have already been done. I bought the game on Friday, and at that time there was no option to play another round of solo play. You had to go all the way back from the starting menu to get another game going. That’s already been fixed, less than a week later. But there’s a lot more patches coming. Maybe Treasure Stack needed a bit more cooking. Especially since the game is so dependent on online multiplayer. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, and players who are turned off by the initial batch of problems might not return after their first play session, thus hurting the game’s online player pool. This is the type of stuff developers should think about but don’t. I get that it must be an exciting and anxious moment to see your game on the marketplace, but if you’re multiplayer focused, remember that multiplayer indies die a miserable death if they can’t cultivate and maintain a sizeable user-base to support the game. If your title is buggy when it comes out, which is when you’ll get most of your sales, you’re handicapping your chances right out of the starting gate. I genuinely believe that Treasure Stack will be good as a solo game eventually, but as of this writing it wins my Seal of Approval strictly for the multiplayer, which is awesome. Whether it’ll ever succeed as a fun and frantic single-player experience is possible but not a certainty.

It’s hard to gauge potential in a game. When something is wrong, we know how much it hurts it, but we can’t know how much the fix of it will improve the overall experience. I do believe the foundation of something really good is here, but how good can it be? I don’t think Treasure Stack will ever have the cerebral elegance of Tetris, the white-knuckle action of Pokemon Puzzle League, or the combo-heavy frenziness of Puyo Puyo. It’s going to be somewhere between those even if it peaks. But, I would have guessed Wario’s Woods was beyond salvaging and that’s clearly not the case. It shows how inspired the development team is that they polished that turd to a golden shine. There’s something here with Treasure Stack. Multiplayer proves that. Get a four player local game going and you’re going to have a blast. There’s cross-play with online multiplayer, which as of this writing has a lively user base. Those modes make Treasure Stack worth a look. Single player might be awesome at some point, but right now it doesn’t, ahem, stack up.

Treasure Stack was developed by Pixelakes
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 noted “why aren’t there power-ups for the character? Stuff that lets him jump higher? Come on, if you’re going to have a platformer in your puzzler with jumping, you gotta have power-ups for the character!” in the making of this review.

Treasure Stack is Chick-Approved.. Christ, that’s five in a row, maybe I’m going soft.. and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Farm Together

I feel really bad for Farm Together. It was set to be my new zen-like gaming addiction. My substitute for Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, which I used to and play half-engaged while the other half of me thought about work stuff. And, for a few days at least, it was just that. Then Tetris 99 sunk its fangs into me and Farm Together fell completely off my radar. Granted, the two games have nothing in common besides their addictive, veg-out potential. Still, choosing Tetris 99 over Farm Together is like selecting your drug dealer based on which one has the most teeth.

Developed by XBLIG all-star studio Milkstone (whose game Little Racers STREET was featured in my 2013 Indie Royale bundle), Farm Together is a remake of their Xbox Live Indie Game it Avatar Farm. A glossier, more polished, souped-up version of it. It’s not so much a game as much as just a grind-for-the-sake-of-grinding time waster. But hey, those have a place in the big tent of gaming. Basically, you plant crops, wait a while, and then dig up those crops for slightly more resources than you put into planting them. Then you buy and unlock slightly more expensive crops that you plant, wait, and harvest for slightly more resources. Rinse and repeat about two-trillion times, and that’s Farm Together. There’s no real goal or end-game. You just plant, wait, and harvest. You can also buy cattle, birds, and fish that you feed, wait, and harvest. The wait times vary, but the basic concept never changes: place object, tend to object, harvest object. Sometimes the objects are permanent investments that you eventually make a profit on (the cattle, trees, the flowers, or fish). Sometimes they’re a one-time thing (most of the veggies). But the crux of game is grinding to get resources to grind more.

If they start singing, I’m packing my shit and getting out of here.

It’s a fucking grind, and nothing more. But, I kind of admire it. There’s no micro-transactions that speed up the wait times, which probably was very tempting to include because drooling addicts such as myself would have caved in and bought them. And because there’s no ultimate end-goal, you’re free to go about things at your own leisure. I focused on slowly getting permanent resources to blanket my farm. Trees are a permanent investment that will slowly result in a net-profit. Veggies are one-and-done. Flowers are also permanent but require constant watering to yield the best results. Raising animals seemed unbalanced and too expensive, so I avoided it unless it was related to a challenge in the game. I had no interest in watching them just stand around asking for food. I already feel like a monster for letting my Nintendog go 15 years unloved and unattended. OH GOD MUDDY, I’M SO SORRY!

It’s a simple, arcadey/mobiley setup, but one filled with gross limitations. For example, there’s no way to set up an irrigation system to tend to veggies and flowers. Or at least an efficient way. There’s a sprinkler you can purchase, but the sprinklers only tend to two squares. Mind you, your tractor services nine-squares at a time. And that sprinkler, instead of costing a reasonable resource to purchase, costs the relatively rare and valuable pink medals. Having to give those up just to be able to let two squares linger without needing to micro-manage them like the world’s fussiest baby is ridiculous. Given how much emphasis is given to decorative shit to purchase (which you usually spend diamonds on), why aren’t the sprinklers more cost efficient? Hell, they’re listed alongside the fencing items and are, as far as I can tell, the only thing in their category that actually does something besides sitting there. I didn’t even realize they were there at first.

Trees were my primary method of making money. They’re permanent, don’t require watering or any tending to, and some of them bear fruit multiple times during a “year cycle.” If you plan to be playing the game long, they’re the way to go because they’ll eventually be net-positive after a week or so with no effort required. All the crops “level-up” which basically just makes them give you more money. And hey, trees are pretty and they make air and stuff for us.

And that’s where Farm Together fails: it seems to want the grind to be the central focus and does nothing to take the edge off that. For me, one of those “ta-da!” moments in games like this is when you no longer need to grind. What limited options there are in Farm Together for that in theory work, but they’re too expensive and not efficient. I hired a farm hand. The section I marked him for barely clipped the edge of where I kept llamas. What did the farm hand do? Ffed the ffucking llamas. Over and over and over and over and over, completely draining my money. And maintaining him didn’t save me any time or money compared to just doing the work myself. As for the sprinklers, they do the job, but two squares for one medal is not remotely reasonable a price. Really, the sprinklers should cost diamonds, not medals. But that’s the story with Farm Together in general. It seems like whatever option would lead to the game being less tedious is the option that was declined in favor of enhancing the grind.

And there’s so much more missing. You can’t upgrade your tractor, and doing everything nine-squares at a time is too slow and clunky. You need to fill it up with gas, which thankfully doesn’t cost money. But it drains quickly, requiring you to dash back to the pumps every minute or so of harvesting. And the first pumps you get actually are too slow to fill back up themselves, which is a real kick in the ass for impatient types such as myself. Eventually you’ll get a gas station for 25 pink medals, but even a full tank won’t last you very long when you have a LOT of stuff to harvest (which you will because that’s, you know, the point of the fucking game) keeping you dashing back to the gas pumps like they have the only bathroom on the place and you just won a binge eating contest at Taco Bell.

And you never can get the tractor to do more than nine-squares at a time. Why not? I mean, it’s a game about farming. Give me a god-damned combine harvester as opposed to dry-humping my crops nine-squares at a time. Fine, maybe Farm Together aspired to be slow and grueling like real farming is. But I’m not sure that excuse flies. When you place an animal down, they will stay in the square you dropped them in. No fencing required. I wasn’t aware animals operated on the honor system like that. Certain types of crops that you can’t plant side-by-side in real life (such as tomatoes and sunflowers) can be done with no consequence here. You can put predatory fish in the same body of water as the shit they would normally eat with no apparent drawback. I think realism was thrown out the door. Farm Together doesn’t at all present itself as a farm simulator, so to hell with saying “real farming is hard work” and let me have more shortcuts.

I came to dread seeing those little water-needed symbols. Annoyingly, it sometimes rains in the game but the rain doesn’t actually water the plants. Apparently flowers are quite snooty about the water they drink. What am I using? Fiji Water or something?

Which brings us to the big hook. The one that I kept forgetting was the main selling point despite it being in the fucking title: online play. You can go to other farms to help harvest their crops for extra experience points. Whatever you dig up goes to their bank account instead of yours, and safeguards are in place to prevent abuse. My friend MJ was the one who couldn’t wait to get me playing this, but for me, I guess I’m weird because I wanted to take on the responsibility of harvesting all the stuff I planted myself. I mean, what’s the point of going to all the effort of planting the stuff if you’re not the one getting to see how much your own hard work paid off. If I set up a domino rally, I’m not inviting someone over to push the first block over. That shit was hard work! I want to be the one to do the fun part! Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people are enjoying visiting other farms. For me? When I saw the effort others made it make their farm look like a.. you know.. farm, I felt like a kid who just presented a formless clump of Legos to her mother and said “look, it’s a Transformer!” or something. One dude I visited basically made Seaworld, and here I was thinking my shit looked good because I finally smartened-up and started putting things in clumps of nine for even-harvesting with the useless tractor. I was so embarrassed that I never turned on the ability for others to visit my stuff. My farm wasn’t good-looking. Others have full resorts going. I just shoved shit wherever I could find room. Story of my life. I never was good at decorating cookies during Christmas, either. I just would slather on a large clump of frosting and eat it. That’s basically what I did here.

This dude had a full seaside resort thing going. My cleverness began and ended with me naming my farm “50 Shades of Hay.” And then it turned out there really was no particularly useful hay in the game and I felt like an idiot.

But, for all the bitching I’m doing, I’ll give Farm Together this: it’s cathartic. Farm Together is NOT a game. It’s a Slinky that you shuffle the coils back and forth from one hand to the other because it’s the only activity that’s keeping you from grabbing an automatic rifle, climbing a water tower and taking out the entire town. It’s bubble-wrap that you sit there, slack-jawed, popping one air-pocket at a time like a fucking psychopath. It’s the adult version of that children’s toy with the colored pegs and the hammer that you sit there smacking the pegs down, then turn the thing over and smack them on the other side. I don’t know what that’s called but it’s always my go-to gift for people I hate because their kid will make a lot of noise with it and drive them insane, which makes me happy because fuck them, am I right? What Farm Together is not is Sim City for rednecks. It’s a mobile-style resource grinder, like Clicker Heroes with a farmer’s tan. Those obviously have a place in gaming. That someone as jaded as me can easily lose themselves in something like this has to be indicative of something with merit, or at least I’d think so. And yea, maybe it’s a bit over-priced at $20 and the DLC is lame (it’s just accessories that change your appearance but otherwise accomplish nothing). And there is something undeniably satisfying about completing a mission in the game (which is just harvesting X amount of resources) or reaching the point where previously expensive items can be bought in bulk. I don’t know if I’d call it “fun” or “compelling” but it’s certainly endearing. When I thought I had enough playtime to do this review, I kept turning the game back on to get screenshots and inevitably would put another hour or two into work every time I did. That seems like it’s important to note. So yea, go ahead a try it. It’s dumb and it’s a bit lazy at times, but it’s a perfectly fine time-waster. Certainly better than bubble wrap.

Farm Together was developed by Milkstone Studios
Point of Sale: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 ♪♪ Farm Together.. right now.. over me ♪♪ in the making of this review.

Farm Together is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

*A friend purchased a copy of Farm Together for me. Because I chose to do a review of it, I purchased a second copy out of pocket. All games reviewed at IGC are paid for by me.

Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition

During my Cuphead re-review, I noted that nobody wants to be the one person not having fun at a party.

Taking that a step further, you especially don’t want to be that person because some assholes will swear you’re only not having fun for the sake of being contrarian. But that happens a lot. If you’re a moderately popular and influential critic and you’re not enjoying an overwhelmingly popular indie darling, fans of the game will believe the only rational explanation is you’re intentionally not liking it for the sake of being different. Trust me when I say, it’s not worth it. And besides, I bought Hollow Knight three times: twice for me (first on Steam, then on Xbox One), and once for my friend William. This wasn’t Press X to Not Die, which cost a couple of bucks and I could send it to friends as a sadistic joke. I wanted to like it. I wanted to love it. I didn’t want to be that person at the party.

But I am yet again. I actually sort of hate Hollow Knight. And not just in a “not for me” type of way. I don’t think it’s a well made game.

I did laugh far more at making this than anyone in their right mind should have. What can I say? When you sit on the bench to save, it kept making me think of that Klay Thompson meme. I love that meme. When we eventually build a Klay Thompson statue outside the Chase Center, I want him to be posed like he is in that meme.

Let’s strip out all the (insanely gorgeous) art and (not really all that clever) writing and talk about the thing that should matter most in a game: the gameplay. The thing I take issue with for Hollow Knight is how it seems to be made specifically to be less fun than it can be.. nay.. SHOULD be. As if the developer was given an option for every aspect: the fun way and the not fun way. And then chose the not fun way because that would be bold and dark. See though, I’ve always felt the graphics and character design should be the primary thing that sets the mood. If you need to make the gameplay less fun to make things feel bleak, you’re doing it wrong.

I’m curious if they mistook “bleak” for “slow”. Upgrades take so long to unlock that by time you get them, it’s no longer an exciting development. It feels like it’s overdue. I didn’t get the ability to wall-jump until over ten hours into the game, and I didn’t get my first upgrade to my standard weapon until eleven hours in. In that time I also added only one single hit point to the initial five you start with, and one “notch” (giving me four total) to apply “badges” which provide things like showing where the fuck you are on the map. Oh, and you can only switch between the badges at the save points. Why? How is that in keeping true to the atmosphere? What about applying a badge to your armor requires the specific act of sitting on a park bench? Maybe I’m spoiled by games that thrive on making the player feel like they’re getting stronger as the adventure unfolds, but I just felt like Hollow Knight deliberately kept me in purgatory.

Fans built this up acquiring this to me so much. I was like “what is this super magical item they keep hyping that will completely change how I feel about this pretentious piece of shit?” A wall jump? A FUCKING WALL JUMP!? You mean that thing that’s been in games for thirty fucking years?

Every aspect of the design is focused on maintaining the slow pace. The map is sprawling, but you don’t get it all at once. You have to find a locate this person in each different section of the game who will sell it to you and then separately buy from his wife the ability to see the things on the map that you’ve already passed by. In theory that means the guy making the map is better at adventuring than the hero is, since he’s ahead of you and apparently making progress without a hitch. That stuff always breaks my immersion. It’d be like if Sean Bean was giving his “one doesn’t simply walk into Mordor” speech when suddenly a traveling salesman walks by and says “oh actually, you do. Here, I made a map of it. Let me offer you travel tips..”

Thankfully you only have to buy the map icons once for each type of thing, but like everything else in Hollow Knight, it grounds the proceedings into a monotonous slog that feels more like a series of busy-work for the sake of busy-work chores rather than some kind of epic quest. “Slog” really is the perfect word for Hollow Knight. Save-stations are kept to a minimum and spread really far apart, but you’re forced to constantly dash back and forth to them in order to change your badge loadout. Items are relatively expensive while enemies drop relatively few coins to shop with, forcing you to grind if you want to get the stuff that should be for free anyway. Most of the other items offer no descriptions as to what exactly they do and players were reporting to me they were actually finishing Hollow Knight without ever using them or figuring out what exactly they did. There’s really not a lot of games where you can play for an hour and feel like you’ve accomplished nothing in them. Hollow Knight is uniquely like that. It’s the anti-exhilaration Metroidvania.

On the positive side of things, combat was kind of nice. I’m big on swinging a sword feeling like there’s a weight behind it and combat being more than just an animation of a stick moving out and an enemy blinking to indicate damage or vanishing to indicate death. It’s really cool that the dead husks of your vanquished foes remain (until you walk far enough away at least). But there’s not a whole lot of variety to the action. There’s only one weapon, a “nail” that is functionally a sword. When you upgrade it, you don’t get new moves or anything, at least at the point where I was too bored to press-on. There’s no secondary weapons for you to equip, and all the upgrade does is add one extra point of damage. When you’re playing a long game that feels even longer and you only get one real weapon to use with the only moves being swing it horizontally or swing it vertically if you’re attacking upward, it gets redundant no matter how meaty the hits feel. I did get a Ryu and Ken style fireball, but that takes magic points to use and can’t be aimed upward, making it less useful in general than the starting weapon. Variety is the spice of life. For Hollow Knight, all I was left with was lots and lots of salt.

All credit to Hollow Knight: it’s pretty. But it’s 2018. These days it’s more notable if a game is ugly.

Honestly, that was my whole problem with Hollow Knight: it’s boring. There’s just not enough stuff to do in it. It feels like it has all the ingredients to not bore, but then those were spread so thin for the sake of padding the length that all the fun was pushed out. It doesn’t help that the level design is overly basic, like something out of a first-generation Metroidvania. “Wait a second, didn’t you just like Chasm?” Yes I did. What’s the difference? In the time it took me to upgrade my weapon for the first time, add a single point of health, and a single notch for my badges, I had beaten Chasm. Plus, you know, it had a variety of weapons and items and stuff. It wasn’t just the same shit over and over again. It’s not just what a game is, but how that game plays out. Hollow Knight forces a ton of backtracking and grinding, but doesn’t make those things fun or easier. You mostly have the same stuff you started the game with. It gets old. And sorry if I keep harping on this, but it genuinely feels like the developers were more concerned with being emo or dark than they were with making a fun game. Would it really have ruined the bleakness if they gave the protagonist a slingshot or boomerang or something to make it so you’re not just doing the same sword strikes against the same enemies for 30 to 60 fucking hours? Or given more special moves that required less magic. Or let you get more magic. In 12 hours I got one piece of the “vase” or whatever that gives you more magic. That meant I still had to find two more before I got more magic. I got one-third of that upgrade in twelve hours. And the one I did get I bought in the shop. Part of the fun in Metroidvanias is finding stuff. The world of Hollow Knight feels like I did after 12 hours with it: empty inside.

I didn’t finish Hollow Knight. I probably didn’t come close. I did put twenty-hours combined into it with the best hopes and intentions. The first time was back in 2017 on Steam. I bought a copy for Will too, and with my best friend playing alongside me, we set out to see what the hype was all about. We were both excited to get on the Hollow Knight bandwagon. After a few hours, I felt weird. Because I wasn’t having fun at all. When I found out Will wasn’t either, I just found something else to play. I occasionally booted it up again thinking “maybe I was just having an off-day”, before finding myself quickly bored again by the same sword and same enemies and the same dull levels, eventually putting eight hours into the thing. Clearly it wasn’t an off-day thing. I figured maybe it was because a computer isn’t a good home for a Metroidvania, so when I saw Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition discounted on Xbox One, I thought “okay, maybe I’ll finally see what all the fans see in it.”

Maybe the oh-so-subtle symbolism is why this game has so many people blown away who can’t exactly articulate what it is that has them sucked in to the experience. I’m just saying, there’s a LOT of it in Swallow Knight.. I mean Hollow Knight.

Nope, I didn’t. I still don’t. I tweeted basically the entire time, showing my progress. For the first hour or two, it was fine. It was almost fun in a tutorial type of way. But then I started to wonder out loud when the game would start to, you know, wow me. The entire time, fans of Hollow Knight were assuring me “you’re about to get to the good stuff” or “you’re about to open up the game.” And then it didn’t happen. They kept promising, I’d get to the spot they were talking about or get the upgrade that they swore would change how I felt about the game, and then it didn’t, and then they promised me the really good stuff was “still coming.” Finally I caught on that I’d never get to the “good stuff” because there is no good stuff. Hollow Knight is a very basic Metroidvania with its only remarkable hook being that if you die you lose all your money, but if you go back to where you died you can get the money back. You know, that thing other games have been doing all decade.

Otherwise, Hollow Knight is stuck in early 90s 2D adventure mentality, but people will give it a pass because it’s “deep”. And you know it’s “deep” because it has a pretty art-house decor. Who cares? The first time a stage made me sit up in my chair, I was ten hours in. And even that didn’t last. Maybe I quit right before I got to “the good stuff.” I don’t know. I don’t really care. It shouldn’t take that long to get to the part that’s entertaining in the entertainment product. And if someone still thinks I sought out to find things to dislike about Hollow Knight for the sake of being different, do you really think I needed over $30 and twenty-combined hours to do that? Because I didn’t.

I wanted to have fun at the party. It turns out the party kind of sucked. Like one of those ones where you find out it’s not really a party and they’re going to try to get you to buy a timeshare. They already fed you, so it seems rude to get up and walk out right away. You start checking your watch to make like you have something better to do later. But really, you’re trying to figure out if you should leave before he hands out the brochures or wait until afterwards so you can show it to your family and laugh with them. That’s what the Hollow Knight experience was for me: being trapped at a timeshare party. Hell, come to think of it, I think I’d like that party more anyway. At least I’d get fed.

Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition was developed by Team Cherry
Point of Sale: Steam, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4

$9.89 (Steam) and $11.99 (Xbox One) (Normally $14.99) thinks Voidheart sounds like a Care Bears villain in the making of this review.

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