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

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

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

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

Fine, I’ll play it their way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Three Fourths Home Extended Edition (Short Subject Saturdays)

I’m not really a text-based adventure type of chick. It’s one of those things I just don’t get. It doesn’t seem to take advantage of the medium. But I was really, really surprised to see one on the Switch marketplace that actually straight-up says it’s a short-subject game. I have a feature called Short Subject Saturdays.. cue the graphic..
And and the game was on sale so I figured “why not?”

Then I played it. Well, “play” is a generous term here. You’re a girl in a car driving home in a blinding rainstorm while talking on the phone to your family. That’s the entire game. And, presumably for the sake of immersion, you have to hold the right trigger down the entire.. fucking.. time. If you do not, the car stops and the dialog will not advance forward. Apparently Kelly’s cellphone is being powered directly by the gas pedal of the car. It has to be on the list of the dumbest ideas for a gameplay mechanic I’ve seen in my entire life. My amigo Brad Gallaway of GameCritics.com suggested I use the same rubber-band trick I used with Cuphead, but it’s harder to do so on the Nintendo Switch. So my right index finger (which is still sore, I’m not even exaggerating) and I are currently not on speaking terms, and that’s a shame because there’s a Parks & Rec marathon on and plump Chris Pratt gets me wet.

The main game is around 20 – 30 minutes long. The extra stuff is another 15 minutes or so. It feels longer.

A text-based game has to have sharp writing and something intriguing about it to make the experience worth your while. The point-of-view character is Kelly, a mid-20-something who just moved back home after some sort of falling out with her boyfriend. Her Mom is an overbearing bitch. Her Dad is an off-his-nut alcoholic who apparently had a leg amputated following some sort of farming accident. Her brother is a self-indulgent twat who writes sloggy fan-fiction (clearly this was the author insertion character). Unfortunately, the game is framed as being a casual phone call with your family. The one and only positive thing I can say about Three Fourths Home (I refuse to enable to their bad grammar by not capitalizing the title) is that the dialog often does feel like real inane banter between a daughter and her cunt mother, stumblefuck father, and douchebag brother. But, that’s kind of the problem: they’re fucking boring. The stuff that IS interesting, like why Kelly moved back home and what caused her family to leave the farm she was visiting for old time’s sake, is kept somewhere in the background. Instead, topics center around a swear jar and your brother reading his shitty short story to you (how meta). There’s a ton of filler that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. You don’t really get any closure on the family situation because, as you make your way home from a drive out in the boonies, a tornado warning hits. There’s also an epilogue that feels more like a prologue, but it doesn’t really help either.

Apparently the story unfolds differently depending on how you answer the questions, but the thing is I’m not really willing to go back and sit through this literally-physically-painful-to-play text adventure because (1) it was boring the first time and (2) I’d be afraid I’d answer the stuff wrong and get the same exact ending I already got which sucked and offers no closure. There’s no obvious spot where the story could branch, or why it would branch. It reminds me of #Wargames, where the challenge is entirely based around not nodding off and you have no clue where to press what to change the story you already snored through before. Really, Three Fourths Home would have made a better short film. As a video game, because of the R button requirement, it might be the worst game I’ve ever played. It’s that boring and that badly designed.

The extended stuff pushes the envelope by letting you walk left OR right. Thankfully moving is optional.

It’s also an epilepsy risk because the game takes place in a lightning storm (though I’ll defend the developer’s decision on this one since it’s sort of is necessary for some of the symbolism and disabling it would go against their creative vision). It’s not badly written. Again, it feels kind of real. But real-schmeal. Three Fourths Home is a fucking bore. I literally can’t believe in 2015 people were throwing this piece of shit Game of the Year nominations and 10 out of 10s. How? Why? Is this one of those “I better pretend I liked this or people will think I’m not indie enough” things like with Proteus? Lately people have accused me of being too wishy-washy with some of the games I haven’t liked. How’s this for wishy-washy: Three Fourths Home Extended Edition is overwrought pretentious tripe with all the depth of an evaporated puddle of piss.

Three Fourths Home was developed by Bracket Games
Point of Sale: Switch, Steam, Xbox One, PS4, Vita

$2.24 (normally $8.99.. FUCKING OUTRAGEOUS! I feel sorry for anyone who bought this thinking it would be something else) sent this game to the cornfield in the making of this review.

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