Chasm

So, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been friends with James Petruzzi (developer of Chasm) and Dan Adelman (producer of Chasm) for years. Not hangout friends or anything, but I’m quite fond of both. Also, I quite like Metroidvanias, as my Leaderboard rankings have established. The friendship stuff never factors into my reviews. The genre favoritism probably does. Because, you know, unavoidable human nature. For what it’s worth, I met James when we got into a digital screaming match on Twitter, and although the hatchet has long since been buried, I’ve always suspected he secretly doesn’t like me very much (and if that’s the case, just wait until he reads this, which is probably my most scathing positive review ever). That’s fine. Neither does my new dog. Like her, you’re stuck with me James.

But, there’s one other factor that my fans should probably consider when reading my review of Chasm: this is the final new release I’ll ever review that started life as an Xbox Live Indie Game. Now granted, by 2012 (yea, 2012! This bun has been in the oven for a while), it was no-longer slated for XBLIG, but still, if you’re a life-begins-at-conception type, Chasm is the “last XBLIG.” For most people, that wouldn’t mean anything. For me? To say XBLIGs were an important part of my life is an understatement. Without them, I wouldn’t be Indie Gamer Chick today. I probably wouldn’t be doing game reviews at all. I truly in my heart-of-hearts feel that if I had started a blog that covered games from any community but XBLIG, I’d never caught on, and I’d probably have quit after a month or two. That was my track record with me and hobbies up to that point in my life. The one-and-a-half model airplanes hanging from my bedroom ceiling, the incomplete collection of 1999-2000 NBA cards, or my unfinished K’Nex Roller Coaster that I just knew I had to have are a testament to that.

So, I fully admit that my play session with Chasm had an air of sentimentality that nobody else will experience. My eyes welled-up and tears began flowing down my cheeks as the end credits rolled, because this was the end of an era specific only to me. This didn’t happen to me when XBLIG shut down last year. Maybe that was because I was so focused on trying to get XBLIG devs to preserve our community’s legacy and port their games to other platforms. For me, this had more of a feel of finality to it. Chasm was essentially the epilogue to the most important chapter of my gaming life. I believe after seven years and 575 indie games reviewed that I can evaluate Chasm without that perspective, but it seems like something my readers should know happened. It’s be like if it turned out Roger Ebert had at one point forced Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken to play Russian Roulette at gunpoint, then sometime later saw the Deer Hunter. Sure, it got four stars because it was great, but deep down maybe he really liked it because it reminded him of the good old days.

The character design is insanely clever because it’s completely gender neutral. It could be a dude, or maybe it could be a chick. It’s whatever you want it to be. It’s like a gaming hero Rorschach test.

Chasm is a Metroidvania with an ambitious hook: the entire interconnected world is randomly generated all at once upon starting your quest. In fact, players are given a seed code so that they can share their maps with everyone else (mine was 61OEC765). Doing this allows Chasm to be one of those games that claims to “never being the same game twice.” A claim that is, and always has been, complete and total bullshit. Randomly generated games are always the same game. No matter how many times you play Chasm, you’ll be interacting with the same NPCs, getting the same weapons, and completing the same worlds in the same order. Rearranging the ordering of the rooms will never change that fact. Claiming otherwise is like claiming Solitaire is never the same game twice. That might be factually true (there’s more combinations in a deck of 52 playing cards than there are atoms on Earth), but it’s still just Solitaire. And Chasm is going to be Chasm no matter how many seeds you experience.

While it’s commendable that Chasm can assemble the rooms in a way that always makes a playable map with all the quirks you would expect in a Metroidvania, the problem is this required some overly-bland design for it to work. Rooms are mostly very basic, no-frills rectangular hallways that you walk in a straight line to traverse. Maybe they’ll occasionally get bold and throw a hill in for variety’s sake, but really, it’s mostly rectangular rooms that you walk across. If not hallways, they’re vertical shafts with platforms that have enemies crawling around them, straight out of 1986’s Metroid. A few times these sections don’t even have enemies at all. While a small handful of areas are more involved, around 2/3rds of the rooms amount to the basic rectangles with slight variations. Although the level design is rarely bad (though it does happen, especially sections that rely on edge-of-ledge platform jumping), it never rises above being just really bland until one section late in the game that features an electric platforming maze. It’s heartbreaking because Chasm, like so many games before it, sacrifices creativity and inspiration for what is, when you get down to it, a marketing gimmick. This is as tragic as Space Jam, which I swear started out as something profound and moving until it became an extended ad for Nike and Big Macs.

Notice most of the pictures feature flat or semi-flat hallways. That’s no coincidence. It’s just what most of the game looks like.

And frankly, building around “endless replayability” is so misguided, because the type of people who replay games that much will do so whether stages are random or not. I meet gamers all the time who brag about how they play stuff like Super Metroid or Chrono Trigger every month and have since they came out. Twenty-plus years and hundreds of replays later and they STILL do it today. As someone who almost never replays most games, this shit baffles me, but it’s fairly common. These type of gamers don’t need procedural generation (actually what they need is to be sectioned). For everyone else, nobody reasonably expects a $20 game to be a permanent investment that never gets old and never runs out of steam. Honestly, I think Nintendo got it right with the original Legend of Zelda: beat the game once, get a second quest where everything is rearranged. After finishing that, anyone should be ready to move on to the next new gaming experience.

So who benefits from those randomly generated levels? I’d argue nobody does. Yes, I did just fall in love with Dead Cells, which also features randomly generated stages. But, unlike Chasm, Dead Cells never has to build one continuous map that all interconnects. Since nothing has to make sense, they could allow for some wacky level design. Spelunky does this too, for better and for worse. Chasm, being a full-blown Metroidvania, couldn’t risk something so off-the-wall that it could make an experience more frustrating, so it had to make levels overly conservative. It does work, and after generating a few new worlds and exploring the starting levels, it’s remarkable how normal these maps are. Bland, but normal. It’s neck-and-neck with SteamWorld Heist in the race for most intelligent procedural level algorithm in gaming history. Probably the best thing I can say about Chasm is if I didn’t know the stages were randomly generated, I’d guessed they were hand designed and cutting edge.. at least for a game from 1993.

Do you know why that sucks most of all? Chasm is really good. For all the whining I just did, it turned out to be one of the most satisfying Metroidvanias of 2018. One of the rare times where I actively sought-out filling-out the entire world map, collecting all the items, finishing all the side-quests, and completing the catalog of monsters. I have a lot of games to cover before 2018 is up, and if Chasm wasn’t such a joy to play, I would have tried to have finished it faster. I have shit to do. Stop snickering. Okay, fine, I don’t. But I still would have tried to finish this as quickly as possible. Instead, I ended up putting extra time into it before finishing the final boss just because I was enjoying it that much. That to me is the mark of a good game: stalling for time before beginning the end-sequence.

I have to admit: I didn’t see fighting a sentient cube of lethal jello coming.

I was totally dazzled by the settings and the variety of enemies. More specifically, murdering those enemies. I almost never pay attention to the actual artistic design of basic baddies anymore. Chasm commands that you take notice. The models stand out more than any 2D game I can remember in recent times. However, take my word for it and play Chasm on normal difficulty. For easy mode, you’re essentially an unkillable tank. Hell, in normal mode, you’re still likely to end up with so many health refills that it’s conceivable you could retire from adventuring and set up a lucrative Whole Foods next to the mine that the entire game takes place in. Who cares if this helps evil win? Bad guys still got to get their groceries from somewhere, right?

Actually, the items are a problem in general, and it probably goes back to the random nature of the game. After around the three-hour mark, I never once got a weapon or piece of armor out of a treasure chest that a defeated bad guy or the stores in the town hadn’t provided a better version of already. Even late in the game, I pulled a Silver Helm from a chest, when I was really four or five levels above its stats with the shit I already had. Hardly a deal breaker, but I have to admit that the sense of discovery was severely compromised by how many items I got from chests that were obsolete. Hell, the game builds up acquiring this mythical Sword of Light or something along those lines. You have to do a series of fetch-quests to get the magic orbs needed to open the gate that has the chest for it. When I finally did, I was so jazzed.. and then my brain let out one final, deafening “WOMP WOMP” as I looked at its attributes and saw that it did a lot less damage than the Gilded Hammer I had already forged several hours earlier. There was a reliable pattern of feeling brief excitement upon seeing a new thing for the first time, followed by disappointment when I saw the new thing’s stats. Which is also the same dilemma gamers experience every time a new Nintendo console is announced.

Behold, the worst part in the game. At one point you have to wall jump in the dark with saw blades moving up and down the walls that you can’t see. Yeah. James, I know you’re reading this. You owe me fifty push-ups for that one. I don’t have the authority to order any such thing but.. well.. seriously, fuck it. Drop and give me 50, maggot.

And I’m guessing the algorithm isn’t perfect, because twice I found a room where the enemies paid off so much XP that I was able to screw-grind myself up three or more levels in under five minutes. I was never in danger in dying in these rooms (or at any point, really. I don’t think I ever dipped under 20 health), but I also suspected I wasn’t supposed to be that far along yet. Even worse was when those XP-bleeding monsters would also drop weapons far-and-away more powerful than anything I had access to. Item drops seem to go in binges, and at one point I went a three-minute stretch where every-other enemy dropped a pricey sword that I could hock at the shop. Leveling-up was just icing on the cake. Hell, that one three-minute period where the enemies were essentially piñatas left me with so much swag I could sell in the stores that I was able to clear out entire shop inventories (by this point, probably half the items they initially had) AND upgrade them in roughly the time it takes to cook a pizza. The strange thing is I never felt noticeably more powerful whenever I would gain a level. It makes the RPG elements feel so inconsequential that I can’t help but wonder if Chasm would have benefited from cutting them entirely and relying fully on items and weapons for the basis of gaining strength.

Thankfully, the combat is properly satisfactory. Most weapons feel weighty, and combined with the excellent sound design serve to make strikes feel authentic and cathartic. Chasm is never boring. Which is not to say it doesn’t have a bit of sloginess to it. Given how much backtracking factors into progress and completing side-quests, I wish enemies leveled-up alongside the character. The random design once again stymies the overall design, because you often have to venture back to out-of-the-way sections of levels just to grab a chest or a hidden area that you previously couldn’t access. In a hand-designed world, a developer could make sure to place these things along the backtracking paths, so as to make replaying them close to as exciting as it was the first time. Axiom Verge sets the high-marks for this. In that game, whenever you’re forced to go backwards, you’re almost certain to cross paths with an item you saw just out of reach before. For Chasm, the placement is in the hands of the game’s level-lottery, and the level-lottery doesn’t give a flying fuck if you’re having fun or not. But no matter where items are, you’re required to constantly go back to the earlier levels, where enemies no longer pose any risk. If the baddies got badder, perhaps Chasm’s pace wouldn’t feel so stop-and-go. Then again, if the stages didn’t feel so repetitive and samey, perhaps I wouldn’t have gotten lost as many times as I did trying to remember which corner of the map had which ledge I couldn’t get to before.

I looked all over trying to spot a cameo of myself or my mascot, as is tradition with former XBLIGers turned tentpole indie devs. It’s like paying tribute to the Gods by sacrificing a goat. Forget to do it and you end up struck by lightning or something. James presumably values his house and knows I’m nutty enough to burn it down, so there’s NO WAY he could forget. Well, he either forgot or this is supposed to be me. I mean.. it could be me. Not a very good likeness. My tail is green, among other things.

Really, everything wrong with Chasm will come back to the level design. Because in literally every other aspect, Chasm hits the mark. Above average or better in combat, graphic design (it could be the best looking 16bit-inspired game ever), enemy design, control design, weapon design, story design, (well, relative to the era of gaming it aims to invoke).. really, the thing that I’m most grateful for with Chasm is it’s now fated to be my go-to example of what a shitty idea procedural generation is. Chasm is a very good game that is never great, just because of one mechanic that was included with the best of intentions. They spent seven years making the perfect randomly generated Metroidvania and I feel they probably accomplished it. And it’s awesome, but not as much as it would have been if that time had been spent putting these same mechanics in a game with clever puzzles or innovative platforming. There’s nothing imaginative about Chasm’s gameplay. Really, it’s so conventional that I can’t blame those who feel it’s as forgettable as its level design. It is one of the best indies I’ve ever played. It’s in the top 98 percentile of all indies I’ve ever reviewed. And I’ll probably forget about most of it as soon as I finish this review. Levels are what stick with players more than any other part of a game. I know I’ll forget a lot of about Chasm because I couldn’t tell one room apart from another when I was actively playing the dang thing.

I really do hate to rag on Chasm, because it’s so much fun. It’s a blast to play. Really and truly. But, it feels like it doesn’t live up to its potential. It’s rare for me to play a game so mechanically right that it’s almost uninteresting to talk about. Hell, these mechanics deserved a better game. Maybe they should have tried more high-concept level designs and seen if they could make them work with the randomness. Sure, it could have failed, but with these gameplay mechanics, it’s still near-certain Chasm would have been just as fun. Think about it like this: in bowling, it’s way cooler to see someone pick up a split than throw a strike. Chasm scores strikes. One after another. It frustrates me so much because the people who made that have to be capable of making better levels than this.

This is the one spot I almost gave up on. The samey rooms and somewhat illogical map design had me running in circles while I searched all over looking for the solution to this puzzle. You can’t go to GameFAQs either because the solution is random too. It makes me wonder if the entire point of Chasm’s procedural generation is to prevent strategy guides from being useful. That would be the worst reason for doing anything in the history of humanity. Remember, as a species, we used to collectively agree that the best way to help sick people was to open up their veins and drain them of their blood. Even considering that, trolling guide users by having bland random stages is the worst idea ever. But presumably that’s not true and the levels are random for the “never the same game twice” bullcrap. God I hope that’s the reason.

Nah, actually they should have dropped the randomness altogether. The amazing thing is they spent so long trying to get the system for it working and stainless, when they’d been way better off critically if they’d made one single, hand-crafted map and went all out on cleverness. I’d love to get DLC for this that’s an entirely hand-designed area with the most outlandish adventure-platforming-puzzling they could come up with. That’s why Chasm is so strange. The thing that holds it back is the thing the entire game was developed around. A thing that raised nearly $200,000 on Kickstarter. And it sure seems like Chasm turned out as good as James could have dreamed of. I often joke about minimum indie badness. For Chasm, the germ of the idea was that badness. Everything that grew from that turned into a very good game. And yet I’m left frustrated and wanting the developer to aim higher. I suppose it’s a fitting conclusion to the legacy of Xbox Live Indie Games, where not all ambition was well-founded, but dreamers still managed to overachieve and leave me in awe. I’m just happy the final chapter of XBLIG had a happy ending. One that didn’t end with developers tarring-and-feathering me. At least not yet. Don’t even think about it James.

The name is every bit as bland and unmemorable as the levels are. I was going to accuse it of completely failing the Google Rule but then I punched in the word “Chasm” and the first several results were all tied to it. I’ll shut up now.

Chasm was developed by Bit Kid Games
Point of Sale: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Vita, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 tearfully turned out the lights on this chapter of her life in the making of this review.

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

Review copies of Chasm were provided to members of Indie Gamer Team. The copy played by Indie Gamer Chick was paid for by Cathy.

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Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

This is almost not fair. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon probably shouldn’t be listed alongside stuff like Escape Goat 2 or Axiom Verge or even Fez. I mean, Fez had close to an entire movie devoted to its development, something most indies could only dream of. And yet, it still feels more on the same level as its peers than Curse of the Moon. It seems somehow wrong that today’s game competes head-to-head with it for a spot on the IGC Leaderboard, along with Dead Cells or SteamWorld Dig 2 or Sportsfriends. In case you didn’t know, Bloodstained is produced by Koji Igarashi. As in “the guy who made Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.” To say doors would open to him that wouldn’t open to your average indie developer is a bit of an understatement.

To put it in perspective, Curse of the Moon is the result of a $5,545,991 Kickstarter campaign. But, Curse of the Moon wasn’t even the focus of that campaign. This is the game that got made because the campaign made so much money. This is a stretch goal. The game that people actually backed is coming out next year. That’s fucking insane.

The moon is visible in every stage and slowly develops into a full moon that frames the final level. This doesn’t make Curse of the Moon better, but it shows a wonderful attention to detail that demonstrates how much care and consideration was given during the design. Meanwhile, Link is like “the moon.. full gets full? That’s adorable. For me, the moon tried to crash into the planet, obliterating all life as we know it. Enjoy your Castlevania cosplay. It’s precious.”

Curse of the Moon was promised to be a “retro mini-game prequel” or something along those lines. But it ain’t mini. This is a full-fledged NES-style game so convincing that you would swear this is the missing link between Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and Super Castlevania IV. And it truly is an NES Castlevania in everything but name. Enemies are almost all reskinned versions of Castlevania staples. The four characters are very similar to Dracula’s Curse. There’s no Grant Danasty, and the main character doesn’t feel like a Belmont, but the first ally you gain certainly does, whip and everything. The second character is a close approximation to Sypha Belnades. Finally, they just pretty much said “fuck it” and stuck Alucard in as the third ally, bat-transformation fully intact. It’s the moment where you feel the team said “we’re either going to get sued or we’re not. Might as well go big or go home.”

If you think of Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon as Castlevania 3.5, that tells you everything you need to know about the game. It controls slightly better than the NES series, and it’s especially nice that the stairs aren’t a complete nightmare to use anymore. But otherwise, it feels like a really great ROM hack. Everything has this creepy familiarity, but that doesn’t mean some inspired bits of originality don’t seep through. In fact, not being married to the Castlevania mythos allows for some of the most creative boss designs in the series. The series that Curse of the Moon isn’t part of, but kind of is anyway. Sorta. It’s complex.

“Excuse me, have you by any chance seen my wife? Last time I heard from her, she said she had to go fight bears. Bears that ‘care’ whatever that means. Kinda sexy in a bald, creepy, evil spirit kind of way?”

Another way to look at it is someone shot Castlevania with the same modernization ray Shovel Knight used on classic NES Capcom games. 2010s 2D gameplay conventions are here. Optional difficulty? Check. A save system besides a password? Check. Tons of extras and multiple endings? Check. It’s actually an impressive, fully-realized package and it’s strange that people still think it’s some sort of throwaway Kickstarter bonus. Let’s say Ritual of the Night never sees the light of day and Curse of the Moon is as far as the franchise makes it out of the crib. As much as that would suck, the one thing we wound up getting is very, very good on its own merit.

Having said that, the big issue is the difficulty and the lack of flexibility. Curse of the Moon has two difficulty options: Casual and Veteran. There’s no toggles to adjust how hard the game is between these, and that’s sort of a problem. “Veteran” is Castlevania exactly as you grew up on. A lives system and that infamous Castlevania “getting hit by a bat somehow causes your character to dramatically curl up and fly six feet backwards, more than likely into a god-damned fucking pit” recoil that resulted in many a hurled controller. It also nerfs the value of item-pickups. Casual eliminates both the lives and the recoil. Consequently, the normal mode is too hard and the casual mode is too easy. But there’s also a chance that the normal mode is too easy for most Castlevania veterans. Despite the fact that I’ve beaten Castlevania I & III (fuck Simon’s Quest, it sucks, it’s  boring, and it has too much downtime), I wasn’t really looking to challenge myself here and so I opted for casual mode. But when I dipped my toes in the putrid water that is Veteran mode, I actually did clear the first few levels with almost no effort. I’m getting reports from Castlevania fans that this would be the easiest of the NES Castlevanias if it was legitimately part of the series. Take that for what it’s worth.

This was my favorite boss fight. And yet, as cool as it was, I couldn’t stomp out the earworm that kept humming the theme to DuckTales in my head.

But, I kind of wish I could have played the unlimited lives version of the game with the option to turn the recoil on and off. Just to give a whirl. Oh, I wouldn’t have left it on. I actually kept a running count of how many times I would have almost certainly died as a result of that recoil: 57 times. That’s 57 times I didn’t scream myself hoarse in anger. But what if I wanted at least that much challenge without having to deal with starting full levels over because I ran out of lives? That’s not possible with Bloodstained, and maybe it should have been. The lack of Goldilocks options means everything is too hot or too cold, and we never get a chance at making things “just right” before the bears show up to eat her face off.

You can actually make your own challenges, though the game doesn’t remotely advertise this. I didn’t even know about this stuff until well after I had beaten the game and was replaying it for the sake of grabbing extra screenshots for this review, but you can murder the allies you acquire over the game’s first three levels by attacking them instead of talking to them. If you do this, you gain an extra ability for the main character. Killing the Belmont wannabe gains you a wider-ranged jumping-slash maneuver. Killing the Sypha clone gains you a double-jump. Killing not-Alucard allows you to dash. Mind you, the main character is easily the most boring to use, so it’s actually not-desirable to kill the allies to gain these moves. It would make more sense if killing them gained you something the ally did. Kill the not-Belmont, gain her higher jumping. Kill not-Alucard, get the ability to fly. Something, ANYTHING other than the way they did it. You also unlock different endings, depending on which allies you kill and which ones you don’t. By the end of the game, I was using all of them except the Sypha clone, who would be almost worthless. Except for the fact that I killed the last boss by, you guessed it, using the Sypha clone. That dude became the friend you drag around with you on a night on the town because he’ll pick up the check at the end of the night.

I giggled when I reached this scene. Yes, it’s a character based on Elizabeth Báthory, the infamous “Blood Countess” accused of killing over 600 girls and bathing in their blood to maintain her youth. But this is also a wonderful satire of the final room of the original Castlevania. Instead of coming across Dracula’s coffin, you come across a bathtub. And yes, I’ve confirmed this was deliberate. Now THAT is how you do an in-joke.

Otherwise, I really liked Curse of the Moon. It’s probably not as good as Castlevania III, where I feel the level design is stronger and more inspired. Curse of the Moon brings a lot of great ideas to the table, but the levels themselves feel more like direct homages that didn’t stray far enough from tradition to feel like the “lost sequel” that it aspires to be. Given the fact that the bosses stand out for their creativity, it’s a crying shame that the levels almost never do. There are multiple branching paths in each stage, but they’ll all bring you from one level to the next in linear fashion and only give you a couple new areas to explore, though those few extra rooms have the same look and feel to them that the other paths do anyway. Don’t get me wrong: the levels are never boring, and actually it’s a treat that not one of them sucks the fun out of the game. But while the themes can be fun and the reskins of existing Castlevania enemies are nifty, the levels all feel like stages we’ve already played from previous games. Well, besides the last stage where an army of bugs destroys the walls, but that feels more like Heat Man’s stage in Mega Man 2, so the familiarity is still there.

And also, it’s worth noting that the fifth boss is so absurdly flashy that I’m honestly lucky I didn’t have a seizure. All the bosses do a final “last hurrah” attack once defeated, and that one was probably the most flashy, dangerous-for-my-epilepsy moment I’ve had in seven years as IGC. It made people without epilepsy sick too. I normally defend these types of artistic decisions, but this one I feel crosses the line where it’s unnecessary. But don’t let that discourage you. The bosses are creative and cool. Just exercise caution.

What makes Curse of the Moon truly unique is I don’t have to say “it’s an NES Castlevania, and if you didn’t enjoy those, you won’t enjoy this.” Because that might not be entirely true. The casual mode might make it so players who liked the concept but not the prohibitive difficulty of the originals can actually take-in this game from start to finish and not give up in frustration. And they’ll probably have more fun with doing so than they ever did with the 80s/90s originals. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is an accessible NES Castlevania that gives players broken by Dracula’s Curse a pair of crutches. Isn’t that the best way to pay tribute to a classic? And it goes so much further than that. Teenagers who grew up with the NES are now adults in their 40s with all the fun that can come with that. Slower reaction times. Waning skills. Maybe those who ate through the originals once upon a time but can barely get past the Mummies/Cyclopes/Gargoyle combination now that they’re decrepit can feel like they’ve come home again. Curse of the Moon can tickle the nostalgia of that crowd, but also be something they share with their kids. This, my friends, is how you do a classic franchise tribute. Polish the spirit of the game and plaster-over the unsightly holes. You know, the holes you made when you threw your controller through a wall after being knocked backwards into a pit.

The real question is whether or not Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon and next year’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night are indies at all. It’s not as if Igarashi was some nameless, faceless coder working at Konami who finally worked up the courage to go off on his own. He’s a legend of game development. Oddly enough, even after seven years of running a moderately popular indie game review blog, I still couldn’t tell you exactly where you draw the line between “indie” and “not indie.” For Bloodstained, it just seems off to me that the guy who went from making real Castlevania games leaves Konami to make games that are still Castlevania games in every way a game can be except the name and characters, and that counts as an indie. This isn’t someone taking a huge risk trying to mimic a game designed by his hero. He’s already the hero, making exactly the kind of game we would expect from him if had never gone off on his own and Konami mandated a direct sequel to Castlevania III with NES-style graphics. I put Curse of the Moon to a vote among my fans. 88% said this should count as an indie, but I was going to go against this and make a judgement call that this isn’t right.

Real super quick: see that whip? It sort of implies that you’ll have full eight-way attack options, just like in Super Castlevania IV. I think that’s why this picture is literally the first picture shown on the Steam page. But actually, this is a special attack that uses the game’s weapon-juice that you might not even be carrying because the game’s version of the holy water could fill its spot. This character’s default weapon is a short-range sword that fucking sucks. When myself and others bought this, we thought there’d be eight-way attack options based on these screens, so it’s kinda skeezy on their part. Also, this is the best sub-weapon for most bosses besides the Sypha clone’s magic homing missiles, which completely make bosses a cakewalk.

And then something unexpected happened: developers started contacting me, some I had never previously interacted with, saying they wanted the game ranked on the Leaderboard. Why? So they could aim to beat it. It was universal. They wanted Bloodstained: Cursed of the Moon to be declared by me an indie game and placed where I felt it should be (in this case, as the eighth-best indie I’ve ever reviewed as of this writing) so they had something to aim at. I like that. And, if this could serve to bring out the best in a new generation of game development heroes, hell, why not? So Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is an indie. And now I’ll remind those who pushed for this that next year, the real Bloodstained will arrive. A game in my favorite genre (Metroidvania) by one of my favorite producers (Igarashi) that will presumably take all the best parts from those classic games, clear up the warts inherit to those, and combine what’s leftover with modern game design principles. You want to be compete with that? Hey, your funeral.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon was developed by Inti Creates
Point of Sale: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Vita, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$6.99 (normally $9.99) sang ♪ this isn’t the greatest game in the world, this is just a stretch goal ♪ in the making of this review. Thanks @luvcraft

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Cuphead (Second Chance with the Chick)

Nobody wants to be that one person who isn’t having fun at the party. It’s awkward. People stare. They wonder what the fuck is wrong with you? Can’t you see how much fun everyone is having? But that’s me with Cuphead. I think it’s boring. Sure looks pretty though. I reviewed it a year ago and you would swear I’d gone door-to-door and sodomized every Xbox fan’s dog while making their grandmothers watch by the way people reacted to my opinion of it. The cries of “how dare you review it when you didn’t even really finish it” rang through the land. Which I think is bullshit. Hey, *I* paid for my copy, fellow critics. Did you? If you buy a gallon of dish soap from Costco, are you not allowed to complain about the shoddy quality of it until you’ve emptied the entire container in a futile attempt to get that last bit of crusty shit off every plate in your sink? Of course not. And besides, as I took delight in pointing out, I made it further than 95% of Cuphead owners did at the time I threw in the towel. That number has since climbed to a whopping 88% of people who didn’t make it as far as I did. Apparently the 12% of those who outlasted me were all game critics. I’m sure.

It still boggles my mind that, in a game that so closely resembles vintage 40s cartoons, the story is laid out in static screenshots. How come nobody else finds that weird? It’d be like doing a tribute to Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood on the back of packs of cigarettes.

Anyway, as a responsible game critic, I do have to take into consideration things like if patches have fixed titles I previously disliked. And Cuphead has been patched a few times to clean up stuff like timing or glitches. Though fans of the game who understood why people like me wouldn’t like it did point out to me that the patchwork was so minuscule and insignificant that it couldn’t possibly change my opinion. And they were right, but I wasn’t happy with the original review, because it left some stuff out that I feel I probably should have talked about. So, let’s get this over with, shall we?

Gun to head, I’d probably name Cuphead as the best looking game ever. Any game, indie or otherwise. And I don’t take that lightly, even if I think it’s 2018 and we probably should be over graphics by this point. I’m not going to claim that I grew up some kind of vintage animation superfan or anything like that. I didn’t. I was a huge Superman fan growing up and loved the 1940s Fleischer Studios Superman shorts (there’s an awesome YouTube video on their significance to film history here, you actually owe lightsaber battles to them), and they’re one of the major studios that Cuphead drew inspiration from. Normally, I find referential nostalgia to be obnoxious (unless I’m doing it, YEA FOR HYPOCRISY!) but in the case of Cuphead, where so much effort was put into it, you can’t help but admire it. This wasn’t just assembling voxels in a way that looks vaguely like KITT from Knight Rider. This is authenticity in a way that nobody would reasonably expect from any game, except maybe South Park where the style isn’t hard to replicate.

This is a direct-tribute to “The Mechanical Monsters“, the second Superman short. Probably the best thing I can say about Cuphead is if I saw this screenshot ten years ago, I would never have guessed it was from a video game. Well, assuming the game stuff in the bottom corner wasn’t there.

That’s why I don’t understand why the decision was made to make Cuphead so prohibitively difficult. Some of the best character designs are gated-off unless you can beat all the bosses on “normal” difficulty. Here “normal” is in the sense of “I would normally expect it to be hard to swim across the Pacific Ocean.” I struggled enough trying to beat some of the bosses on the easy difficulty and they expect me to beat the same boss with extra phases added to it just to be able to see all the content in a game I already fucking paid for? After all the work I put into getting as far as I did (and I did beat all the bosses in worlds 1 – 3), having the game tell me I didn’t do it good enough was frankly a slap in the face. Like the break-dancing maneuver where you spin on your erect penis, it’s a dick move.

Weirdly enough, my favorite parts of Cuphead, the Contra-esq “run and gun” stages, don’t have optional difficulties. They start off fine, but they become maddening too. As in they make you angry. They don’t turn you into a perpetually sweaty ex-Raiders coach. Well, actually some of them might. But here’s what I don’t understand: they do have optional challenges. You can get an achievement by not killing anything in them, for example. So why didn’t they just apply that kind of design logic to the larger game and let people make their own challenges? This is an Xbox exclusive. USE THE ACHIEVEMENTS! Give someone who beat all the levels on one difficulty an achievement and let people who didn’t go that far enter the last level of the game. We’re not talking ONE boss people who could only beat the game on easy miss-out on battling. They miss eleven boss fights. ELEVEN! That’s one more than the first two (out of three total) worlds have combined! Having an extra final boss fight for a hard mode is acceptable and commonplace in gaming. Cuphead locks players out of nearly 40% of the content if they don’t have the ability to beat the game on the developer’s terms. So why even offer easy modes if you’re going to be that big a prick about it? That sort of makes me think the Moldenhauer brothers are pretentious fucking assholes.

Gamers are really cool about doing hard stuff if that’s what they’re into. Speed-running has become its own thing that people take notice of. We have an odd admiration for people who can beat games with their feet or holding the controller upside-down. Developers, you can cater to the insane-hardcore crowd and the people who just want a solid ten hours for their $20 investment. You shouldn’t want to lock anyone out. Especially a game like Cuphead, that put so much effort into the audio-visual presentation. Why divide people into two different groups and say “this is for THIS group, and not that group”? There’s something kind of heartbreaking about Cuphead. That it’s something that should be admired by everyone, but actually only a small niche of gamers will ever truly enjoy it to its fullest potential. That’s actually tragic. I don’t have a joke to go with that. It makes me legitimately sad.

While the side-scrolling stuff were my favorite parts of Cuphead, they were also far too difficult for me in most cases. And again, I just don’t get why this was a shooter at all. It’s based around the Golden Age of animation, where slapstick was king. There’s NO slapstick in the gameplay of Cuphead. Just shoot, then shoot some more, and then shoot even more. It’d be like doing a tribute to Prince without having any of his music. It seems like nobody would think to do that, and yet, here we are.

I played Cuphead again this week, hoping to figure out why everyone at the party was having such a good time. And I did like it slightly more. This was mostly because my long-time friend Brad Gallaway suggested I take one of my hair ties and use it to hold the right trigger down, thus keeping the game perpetually firing without having to use my finger. It works, and it removes the physical pain I felt last year when I played through it. I put a few hours into my replay of Cuphead and was actually able to type this without pausing every few minutes to ice my hands. It’s the first time since the Atari 5200 where a rubber band is the best accessory in gaming (there’s like ten people in the world who will laugh at that joke, but trust me, they’re howling right now). But it begs the question: why didn’t Cuphead just include that in the first place? Hell, firing isn’t even mapped to the most obvious button. You have to do it yourself. It’s one of those things that made me once again step back and ask “who exactly was Cuphead made for?”

The answer was apparently “for the guys who made it.” And that’s fine, by the way. Chad and Jared Moldenhauer got to do what very few people get to do: they made their dream game. If anyone else happened to like that game, hey, awesome. If not? Meh, they still got to live their dream and nobody can ever take that away from them. Cuphead is one of those rare games that I really kind of hate, but at the same time, I admire the shit out of it. When I play it, I can almost picture how it came about in my head. “Nobody remembers the levels in Gradius or Life Force or R-Type. They only remember the bosses. Well fuck it, we’ll have side-scrolling shmup stuff in here but ONLY the bosses. I mean, why not?” And, yea, actually that isn’t the worst idea when I think about it. If people will only remember certain aspects about a game as the years pass and the game fades into memory, why not just build a game around those things? Cuphead is memorable. I’ll give it that. Nobody who plays it will ever forget it. It’s characters are like a 1940s cartoon, grainy filter and everything, as animated by someone sleepwalking through a fever-dream. There’s not a single boss that feels like they phoned it in. A lot of games that are prohibitively difficult feel lazy or under-developed. Not Cuphead. You really walk away from it feeling like the game turned out exactly as it was intended.

And that’s why I hate it. I was bored so much by the endless replaying of boss fights without checkpoints that gets tedious. The controls are mostly tight and responsive (assuming you remap most of the buttons) but I could never get the timing for the parry down. And the item you can buy that automates the parry takes the spot that could be used for the invisibility-dash, which you absolutely DO need (all the pros use it from what I can tell), which is a shit move by the developers. Why not just let people equip all the items available? Why have to choose? Why are so many enemies in the run & gun stages bullet sponges? Ones that don’t have to be, either. Those tree stumps that are stacked like totem poles aren’t exactly a challenge, but the amount of bullets they soak up just kills the pace of the stage dead. That happens a lot in what limited amount of levels there are. Why bother when those stages are treated like an afterthought anyway? Eh, you know what? Fuck Cuphead. I just didn’t have fun playing it. It’s not really meant to be fun, apparently.

Every single boss is unique and memorable in their design. The sheer creativity on display, even when a character is based partially on something, is astonishing. Beppi The Clown is based on Koko the Clown from old Betty Boop cartoons. Only if Koko had taken lysergic acid first.

Honestly, I think a lot of people who say they like it really didn’t either. I think people claim to like it so they don’t become that person that isn’t having fun at the party. The achievement percentages for the game back me up that. As of this writing, only 12.36% of all Cuphead owners on Xbox One have beaten every boss on Inkwell III on any difficulty. That’s as far as I made it, by the way. That’s not even the final level of the game. That’s as far as you can go without beating all the bosses on the “normal” (IE quite hard) difficulty. Compare that to Dead Cells, another game noted for high difficulty that came out nearly a year after Cuphead, where just over 14% of all people have beaten the final boss on any difficulty. So, more people have beaten all of Dead Cells in a lot less time than Cuphead has had people beat two-thirds of it over the course of its first year of release. 56% of Dead Cells players have beaten the 2nd boss, about two-thirds through a run of it. For Cuphead, only 21.56% of players have beat all the bosses in the game’s second world on any difficulty. So again, I question whether everyone who claims to love the game really does love it as much as they say they do. When almost 80% of all players aren’t even making it half-way through the game, really, how much fun can they be having?

Dead Cells became my choice for the best indie game I’ve ever played, and that’s despite the fact that I hate roguelikes and I don’t understand why some games don’t have adjustable difficulty just for the sake of making sure EVERYONE can admire your work. So actually, it’s kind of lazy on my part to say Cuphead “isn’t for me.” I actually don’t think it’s a well designed game. For Cuphead, the entertainment value is based entirely on the sense of relief felt when you finally clear a boss after your fiftieth-bleeping-attempt. And yea, those feelings are legitimate. When you spend an hour memorizing the attack patterns of a boss, come so close to beating it only to come up short and see that you were a fraction of a second away from victory, then FINALLY hit your stride, it’s going to feel good when you beat it. Well, no shit. For those who say “DON’T YOU FUCKING GET IT? THAT’S THE POINT!”, my question is “why can’t everything that leads up to that moment be fun too?” Because it is for games like Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, or Dead Cells. Yea they’re frustrating as all fuck, but the difficulty never supersedes the fun to the point of becoming demoralizing. Hell, dying can entertaining in some games. There’s nothing fun about dying in Cuphead. It just means you have to start all the way over again, doing that thing that wasn’t fun to begin with. Besides the side-scrolling levels, I didn’t have fun with Cuphead at all. It’s all pain and no pleasure besides “well, finally beat that one. Yea?” And that makes me question whether Cuphead is a work of art or not. I somehow doubt da Vinci only showed off his paintings to those who allowed him to beat the shit out of them first.

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

$19.99 noted IGC won’t be buying the DLC unless MDHR opens up the final bosses to those who only beat the world 1 – 3 bosses on easy so they can play all the content they already fucking paid for in the making of this review. Oh and making a boss named “Chef Saltshaker” to mock those who had the gall to say this $20 game they paid for is too hard? Yea, not giving people the stuff they paid for is hilarious guys. Keep it up.

Sonic Mania

I don’t like Sonic. That’s kind of obvious at this point. Five months into my tenure as Indie Gamer Chick, in December 2011, I wrote a review of Sonic CD. Now, it was quite stupid of me to review a non-indie that I was fairly certain I wouldn’t like (though I swear I went into it with an open mind, just like I do with every game I review) that would certainly get me hate mail for the rest of my existence. This is one of those things you have to learn growing up. I was 22-years-old when I wrote that, and I wouldn’t do something like that today. It’s a “look at me” review and a bush league move, even if I stand by my opinion that it’s not a very good game. The funny thing is, at the time of its resurrection on XBLA, everyone knew FOR SURE that Sonic CD was the legendary “really good one” of the series. They never actually played it back in the day, because their parents didn’t fork over $300 for a Sega CD. And let’s be real here: if their parents could have afforded that, they’d been a Super Nintendo house anyway. You know it’s true.

Okay, maybe I didn’t completely grow up.

For me, the only part I ever found to be genuinely revolutionary about the series was the rings. That you stay alive as long as you can keep grabbing just one. That’s a great idea. I wish the real world was like that, although I’m sure I’d manage to somehow fuck it up anyway.

Then Sonic CD came out on Xbox Live for the astonishing price of 400 Microsoft Points (that’s $5 for you kids that didn’t have to suffer through Microsoft Points). What a steal, right? Finally a chance to get your hands on the holy grail of Sonic. I mean, it was also already released on GameCube/PlayStation 2 in a compilation called Sonic Gems Collection, but that would have required owning Sonic R and Sonic Fighters (AKA Virtua Fighter with Sonic) and even the most slobbering Sonic fans aren’t willing to go that far so nobody bought it. $5 for Sonic CD though? Sold. And then consensus from the Sonic super-fans was “it was alright. Seemed like it probably should have been better given the hype and vaunted status. Actually, it wasn’t really that good. In fact, it’s toothless and kind of sucks.” I’m guessing no game has ever failed to live up to its own towering reputation quite like Sonic CD did. It does have some fans, but for the most part people had the same reaction they did to any Sonic game for the last two decades: incredible hype, a dopamine-fueled ecstatic honeymoon period, and then the realization that what they just experienced really wasn’t what they were hoping it would be.

Well, that didn’t happen with Sonic Mania. It released a year ago, and those who liked it in 2017 aren’t struggling to convince themselves in 2018 that it actually had merit and didn’t suck as much as their brain is trying desperately to tell them it did. That’s probably a good sign that they might have actually made a decent game for once. In fact, I’ve heard people accuse me of deliberating ignoring it because I was afraid to admit there was finally a good Sonic game. Two things: (1) I’m guessing they don’t realize what they’re saying when they say that. It’s kind of hilarious when you think about it. (2) They actually made a good point that I should have reviewed it, if I fancy myself as an indie enthusiast.

Mutliplayer is done in Squish-O-Vision™ and isn’t really all that entertaining. I hated it, and can’t imagine anyone enjoying it unless all players are equally familiar with most of the levels available. Someone who played through the game will have a significant and unavoidable advantage over someone who hasn’t. What’s fun about that? It’s like beating someone with Osteoporosis at Twister. The odds were kinda stacked in your favor.

So, in case you didn’t know, after Generations face-planted, Sega sort of threw up their hands and had a guy named Christian Whitehead, an up-jumped fangame creator who they hired previously to do porting work, round-up a posse to make the ultimate fan-service Sonic game in time for the little blue shit’s 25th anniversary. Which was a smart move. If a franchise is struggling and recent installments of it feel like cynical hatchet jobs that totally miss the mark because the people in charge have zero passion or attachment to the IP, the logical thing to do is find people who will bring that passion and desire to do right by fans to the table. Christian Whitehead (I love that name, it makes me think of a pimple on its knees in prayer) and his crew were like “we have a lot of ideas, and can make you a whole new Sonic game!”

And then Takashi Iizuka (who I picture being the type of guy that has to be jabbed in the ribs with a pen during meetings by his assistant because he keeps nodding off) was like “uh.. that sounds like a lot of work. Can’t you guys just do half that? And, like, cut and paste the rest from old games? Maybe tweak them a bit. Not too much though. Just enough that we can legally get away with calling them remixes? That cool? Cool, I’m going back to my nap now.”

Okay he probably didn’t say that, but really, this guy claims with a straight face that Sonic fans are “hard to please.” Dear reader, have you played a recent Sonic game? Yes? And have you ever had a digital mob show up with pitchforks and torches to explain to you that the physics you just complained about are supposed to be bad? Yea, he claims those people are hard to please. I know, right?

Besides stuff like beating the game or getting all the Chaos Emeralds, most achievements in Sonic Mania are based around mundane tasks, such as burning one of those twisty spiked bridges. This is either more laziness or a scathing commentary on achievement hunting culture.

For Sonic Mania, there’s twelve zones (plus another that you unlock by getting all the Chaos Emeralds, which I didn’t, but I hear it’s brand new). Two of them are completely original and one of them is a deleted zone from Sonic 2. For returning zones, one act is a very Iizukaized remix of an old Sonic stage while the other act let the actual development team (that required Iizuka’s supervision so that THEY didn’t “take the series off the rails.” He’s the guy that made Sonic Lost World and they’re worried about someone else taking the series off-the-rails?) show off what someone who actually gives a shit about the subject matter can do.

Right from the first act of Sonic Mania, you should have a relatively good feel for what to expect. The first level is a nearly beat-for-beat remake of Green Hill 1 from the original Sonic. Because by God, Sega is fucking proud of that stage and will keep throwing it back into everyone’s face until the end of time. If you’re not a really big Sonic fan, or especially if you didn’t grow up with the series, you might not be able to tell what exactly about the first stage was remixed. I couldn’t, and I have played Sonic 1 a few times. The boss at the end is different (and better, but we’ll get to that), but otherwise it has the same loops and same springs that send you up in the air into the same cluster of rings. Yawn.

And then in the second stage, the new team took over. I must have said “hey, wait” four or five times playing it. It wasn’t that new, but it certainly felt like a fresh approach to Green Hill and made me optimistic about Sonic for the first time in this decade. That optimism was paid off in the second area of the Chemical Plant Zone, which introduced ideas like injecting Flubber into water to make it bouncy, all while keeping the focus squarely on high-speed platforming. These stages tend to be clever and sometimes even original, but pay proper homage to Sonic at his most idealized: fast-paced, white-knuckle platforming action.

The game literally ends with you going to the Church of Sonic or something like that. Which makes sense. If your fans are going to behave like a cult, you might as well go all the way with it and then file for tax-exempt status.

Unfortunately, the decision was made to bring all the warts of the original series along for the ride. The primary way to keep players from doing too good is by placing enemies in a way that nobody could reasonably be expected to dodge on their first place-through. This sort of “gotcha” level design displays a lack of talent and vision. It’s creating a challenge not through ingenious use of traps or precision-jumps but by putting up a brick wall for players to crash into, then implying this somehow adds replay value by forcing players to memorize where the enemies are. Great games notable for difficulty don’t need to do this. Dead Cells didn’t, and I don’t think anyone can accuse that of holding hands. For how Sonic creates difficulty, they might as well put gateways throughout levels that automatically take all the rings you’ve accumulated up to that point. I mean, why not? That’s essentially what it does anyway.

And here “gotcha” really can be insanely unreasonable, like enemies that burrow up from the ground with no animation warning, or rocks that fall from the ceiling with no warning. That is NOT challenging. That’s just stopping the action and making a player start-over. That doesn’t mean the player sucks. It means the game sucks. If I walk up behind someone and shoot them with a signal-flare, I can’t then tell they suck at not catching fire. Or so my probation officer says. And Sonic diehards defend this shit. It’s baffling to me. They use terms like “it doesn’t hold your hands” or “it’s what Sonic is supposed to be about.” I want them to put their money where their mouth is and pay someone $19.99 to periodically jump them from behind and steal their wallet.

Because when Sonic doesn’t do this stuff, it can be quite breathtaking. But it constantly wants to unfairly fuck players over, to the point that you have to wonder if the developers want to make a good game or if they just want to troll players. You’ll notice that the Super-Speed Shoes or Invincibility power-ups are usually located in places designed for players to get as little quality use of them as possible, placing rocks or spikes or gotcha-enemies in the path directly in front of them. It’d be like offering someone to let you take their Porsche out for a test drive, and letting them go through all the motions of getting in the driver’s seat, turning on the ignition, offering you a high-five, and then right as you’re pulling out of the driveway they slash the tires to their own car. Why go through all that effort of making people think they’re about to go through a level at blazing speed just to be a dick? And how can anyone defend this type of design? I don’t get it.

That’s what I don’t understand about Sonic’s level design in most of the 2D games, especially this one. Sonic is at his best when he gets to run really fast and do all sorts of unexpected momentum-based progress. Corkscrews, loops, being shot out of a revolver, etc. That shit is crazy fun. But then they want to rope players back and remind them that life is shit by putting up wall after wall, and the stop-and-go gameplay starts to wear thin. Sonic doesn’t do exploration or basic-platforming all that well. The mechanics aren’t suited for it. He’s wired for adrenaline, and that’s what people are here for. If fans are saying they like it when the game just shits in their face, ask yourself if that fan is someone you value over the people who are giggling with delight while running at warp speed through your levels. And while I’m tempted to say that NASCAR would be a lot more entertaining if they made the tracks spring-up brick walls on the drivers at random, Sonic isn’t NASCAR. People come for the speed, not the crashes.

This is not a bonus game included with the package (though you can apparently unlock it if you do well enough in the special stages). This is a boss fight. And that’d be neat, but it’s like playing Mean Bean Machine against the computer with the difficulty set to “very easy.” And actually, inconsistent boss difficulty is a major issue with Sonic Mania. Hell, during the Robo-Sonic battle’s first phase, my NPC Tails kept killing the enemy that I needed to knock-back at the boss, making the fight roughly a million times more frustrating than it should have been. But then, during the final phase of the same boss, the NPC Tails got stuck in his ball-bouncy motion up against the wall while doing all the damage against the boss. So, while I was completely shitting the bed and doing terrible in the fight, Tails was accidentally beating it for me. It was so weird to watch.

Being married to Sonic when he was relevant (IE twenty-years-ago) was probably more of a curse than a blessing here. There’s a lives system, which gets annoying as all fuck. If you run out of lives on the second section of a zone, you have to go back to the first section. Again, this doesn’t really increase replay value or difficulty. It just creates busy work. Quality developers figured this out a while back. Lives were created so that players couldn’t park themselves on an arcade machine all day (but also so they didn’t spend a quarter only to game-over in five seconds). If developers great and small want penalize dying, how about instead incentivizing surviving? Remove the lives from Sonic Mania and instead reward players who ace stages with achievements or access to bonus stages. If you’re going to force replaying stages, those stages better be amazing. And for Sonic Mania, about half of them are. The other half? Well..

Even those who’ve turned their love of Sonic into a fetish tend to hate the underwater stages, and why wouldn’t they? They turn a fast, twitchy-reflex platformer into a slog. It feels less like water and more like you’re moving through invisible jelly, controls lose their responsiveness, and deaths become even cheaper and more agonizing. Insisting these type of stages be included in a game that’s supposed to be Sonic at it’s best is fucking absurd, but yet again, the diehards say that it wouldn’t be Sonic without them. Are you fucking kidding me? That’d be like telling someone who barely squeaked into college with a 2.0 GPA “you better not make the honor roll there, or I’m cutting you out of my will. I expect consistency, even when you fucking suck.”

Mostly, I was just left with a lot of questions. Like “why do they still have large sections of the game that can be cleared by not pressing anything?” Or “why can’t I change which character I’m using between levels? You know, that thing that Super Mario 2 did in 1988, three years before Sonic even came out?” Or “did anyone play-test this fucking thing?” One time I died a crushing death when the platform wasn’t anywhere near me, or sometimes I would just straight-up not blink when taking damage. Or “why are the Chaos Emerald bonus stages based around a shitty Mario Kart clone (Sonic R for the Sega Saturn, which really did suck) with horrible control and uglier graphics? I thought this was supposed to be a 2D platformer?” Speaking of the bonus stages, what were they thinking using the awful “special” stages from Sonic 3/Sonic & Knuckles where you navigate a sphere trying to collect blue balls? Maybe it’s a metaphor for Sonic fans being blue-balled by one disappointing Sonic release after another. Why not let the development team do something truly inspired with them? I know Iizuka wants to earn that lifetime achievement award from AT&T for unwavering devotion towards phoning it in, but why force that upon people who actually do give a shit? Oh, because he’s horrible and should have been fired a long time ago. I forgot.

Sonic Mania is brought to you by the good people at BALCO!

Oh, and there’s DLC, which costs $5, further “remixes” the stages and gives you two more characters. One of them does a butt-stomp (you know, that thing Mario does in every game without having to pay extra to do it) and one can glide using the same mechanics Mario does when he has a cape in Mario World (which again, doesn’t cost extra money to do). The Encore mode does have a nifty idea of letting you accumulate all five characters and switching between them, but really, that should have been an option from the start. Also it turns the horrible 3D special stage from Sonic 3 into one of the worst video-pinball games in recent memory. This is supposed to be a bonus, mind you. It makes me think Sega is one of those households that gives trick-or-treaters Tootsie Rolls. I beat the normal mode with Sonic & Tails and really felt happy and satisfied (and to all those that say my hatred of Sonic is based around sucking at it, hey, I beat the final boss on my first try. Did you?) and really had no desire to go back and get all the Chaos Emeralds. Maybe if the method of getting them had been fun, I’d been all for it. It wasn’t, so I wasn’t.

Having said all that (and trust, I could go on), I’m nothing short of floored by the fact that I enjoyed Sonic Mania more than I disliked it. The good parts are really good. I especially loved most of the boss fights, which is shocking because I never liked any in previous Sonic games. Here, they can be pretty fricken awesome. There’s one where you take on a giant capsule-toy-dispenser that unleashes mini-versions of original Sonic bosses that made me smile so hard it caused the corners of my mouth to hurt. And, once again, the worst ones are stuff lifted from the original games. Like the first boss of Titanic Monarch Zone, which has nearly invisible spikes that are so hard to see that I honestly thought Sonic had suffered massive heart failure. I was livid. Why copy anything at all, especially when the new stuff is so damn entertaining? It’s astonishing that at no point during the production of Sonic Mania, someone in charge didn’t say “these boys sure seem to know what they’re doing. Maybe we should step back and let them make their full Sonic dream game like they originally wanted.” Because Sonic Mania ain’t that, and that’s a fucking shame because it should have been.

For all the snark I’ve said in this review, I do want to say completely sincerely that I’m so happy for long-suffering Sonic fans. Sonic Mania is fun game, and you don’t even need to quality that statement. It’s just true. Period.

Ultimately, it just feels like the new team prioritized fun above all else. Playing Sonic Mania is like being part of a sports team that snaps a losing streak. You feel relief that something good finally happened, but then you remember that winning was what you were supposed to be doing this whole time. There’s no reason Sonic should have taken this long to put out a game that even a hater like me must concede is good. And to think, all it took was having the guy who has no passion for character or the franchise hand over the reins to a team of programmers who do. Funny how that works. It should be no surprise that Sonic Mania is as good as it is. It’s a product of love. And it’ll keep getting better, unless Sega keeps caving into fan demands that all the bad shit be kept intact, or else. That’d be like the Warriors fans insisting we shitcan everyone who can shoot 3s, because it was better back in the old days of Nellie-Ball, when we never won anything. If your fans demand you not reach your fullest potential, you need to go out and find new fans. And just keep appeasing the ones who will never grow up by re-releasing the same old shit that’s slightly tweaked so it can be sold as “new”, and just hope Nintendo doesn’t sue you for stealing their shtick.

Sonic Mania was developed by a lot of very talented people. Kudos, gang.
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Steam

$19.99 + $4.99 (DLC) suggests for the sequel that the development team consider a viewing of the barely watchable 1980 “comedy” 9 to 5 and take notes on how to deal with Iizuka’s “supervision” in the making of this review.

And I looked as the lamb opened seventh seal, and there was silence in Heaven for half an hour, and Indie Gamer Chick awarded her seal of approval to a Sonic The Hedgehog game.
Revelations 8:1

Sonic Mania, despite being half-made by indies, is not a true indie and not ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. It’d be in the top 100 or so, probably.

Jack N’ Jill DX

Auto-runners aren’t exactly my thing. Once upon a time, it was cool when developers figured out the solution to getting platformers on buttonless mobile phones without the use of a fake controller on the screen. “Why don’t we just have the game move for you, and the player can tap the screen to do all the jumping?” And this worked well enough. But then everyone was getting in on the auto-runner fad. Even Mario did, though that should be a surprise to nobody. Mario being the most insecure of all gaming heroes, OF COURSE he would do an auto-runner if that’s what’s popular. He has no shame. He’s golfed, he’s go-karted, he’s raced Sonic The Hedgehog at the actual Olympic games, he became a drug pusher, a baseball player, a street fighter, a typing tutor, etc, etc. If games where you performed back-alley abortions became a popular genre, I promise you within twelve months you’d see Nintendo fans lining up to play Super Mario Coat Hanger and talking about how Nintendo would finally show these newbs how to do a proper unlicensed pregnancy termination game.

What point was I trying to make again?

Oh, that I’m over auto-runners. Well that sort of went off the rails a bit.

It’s my policy to know as little about a game as possible when I go to play it. That rule has bit me in the ass more times than bed bugs and it struck again here. When I bought Jack N’ Jill DX, I didn’t know it was an auto-runner. I didn’t know anything about it besides the fact that it was black-and-white and the screenshots gave off a Game Boy Kirbyish vibe. Then I fired it up and discovered it was an auto-runner with one AND ONLY ONE action button that was almost certainly going to be another lazy console port of a mobile game. Then I went through the level-select screen to see how many stages there were, counted 140, wept for the next twenty minutes, then bit my lip and sat down to play.

Probably the best thing I can say about the graphics is that if I had to guess who made this, without any prior knowledge, I’d guess Nintendo. Isn’t it strange how so many people hate me for assuming I hate Nintendo when the best compliment I can give a game is that it could be mistaken for a Nintendo-developed title? But hey, I occasionally notice when Nintendo does something sucky or lazy and actually say that out-loud instead of doing logic-yoga to bend my way of thinking so much that shit like naming their 3DS follow-up “NEW 3DS” seems like a good idea. Clearly I must hate Nintendo, right? Anyway, Jack N’ Jill DX is Nintendoish, and that’s a good thing.

And honestly, I don’t know what I was worried about. Jack N’ Jill DX ain’t bad at all. I’m prepared to go so far as saying it’s the best auto-runner to make its way to consoles ever. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s like a “best-of” compilation of the genre, all wrapped up in one package and then polished to a mirror-shine. Responsive controls. Forgiving collision-detection. Very forgiving. There were times I should have died when jumping onto clouds but didn’t because the game gave me a pity hug and said “that’s okay, you really should have stuck that landing like a champ, so look, there you are. You made it! You’re a winner!” when really I shorted it by a good foot or two. And Jack N’ Jill DX keeps adding new mechanics from start to finish to keep things fresh even after 100 levels have come and gone. Actual effort was put into this one. It’s a keeper.

Especially the level design, which often left me saying “well that was clever.” Jack N’ Jill is really fond of making a player hit a wall to reverse their direction, and often utilizes the entire length of a map to go back-and-forth as you make your way to the goal. Of course, when you get down to it, you’re really only pressing the A button and doing nothing else, which means you’re playing a game that’s barely more interactive than a Sega CD FMV game with command prompts of when to press the button to make the actors do something replaced with the appearance of being a platformer but HEY SHUT UP it’s better than one of those. A lot less Corey Haim among other things.

Oh, it’s not perfect. And actually, this is one of the strangest complaints I’ve had to say about any game, but Jack N’ Jill DX has too many levels, and most of them just repeat the same concepts. It gets to the point where sections of it feel cut-and-pasted to the point of skimming the line of being dull. Ideas repeat themselves so much and players get so much practice at perfecting them that Jack N’ Jill’s first 110 levels are far too easy. I never once needed more than three tries to beat any of those stages. Hell, the tension was removed entirely when, about halfway through the game, I said “you know what? I wish this game had checkpoints just because I wouldn’t have to sweat every jump that way.”

And then suddenly the game had checkpoints starting the very next level after I said that. I’m not even kidding. This is not a joke I came up with for comic effect. I wished for checkpoints and suddenly there were checkpoints. Then I realized the Golden State Warriors have become a championship dynasty and Brian’s penis miraculous grew four inches overnight and I realized that I probably had acquired three wishes at some point over the last five years without knowing it and had just used up the last one. Damn. I swear everyone, if I had known, I would have used that third wish on ending world hunger. But hey, for those of you starving out there, take comfort in knowing that halfway through Jack N’ Jill DX you won’t have to start from the beginning of levels if you mistime a jump.

The mini-games all feel like they were mechanics that were considered for inclusion in the main game but didn’t make it past the drawing board. All of them suck, but thankfully they’re optional. And I didn’t even realize you could unlock new costumes or colors playing them. The game doesn’t call attention to the presence of a shop. You access it through the mini-game menu, with a teeny-tiny little icon in the bottom right corner that looks like a shopping bag that has “X” next to it being the only thing to alert you of its existence. It’s weird.

The biggest issue with Jack N’ Jill DX is the sameness starts to wear thin and by time I was five worlds into the game, I was sort of ready for it to be over with. And then, with thirty levels left to go, something weird happened. The level design, which was already more than acceptable (if insanely repetitive), dialed up a few more notches and was suddenly an enthralling experience. Some stages even took on a puzzle-game feel, where you had to figure out a way to hit buttons to change the position of cannons (functionally the same as barrels in Donkey Kong Country) in order to reach the next area of a stage. Funny enough, Jack N’ Jill DX started life as a mobile game (hence the DX part) and these longer levels would not be suitable for the type of “knock a level or two out while in-line at the supermarket” style that the best mobile action games tend to have. But that’s fine, because Jack suddenly grew teeth, required concentration, and went from an acceptable time waster to a genuinely good game. Of course, this consequently made every level that came before it feel like a glorified tutorial. 110 levels of tutorial. Yeesh.

That’s what makes it so hard to quantify the value of Jack N’ Jill DX. Its biggest problem is poor pacing, but never in a way that’s a deal breaker. The first twenty levels are a bit of a bore, but not painfully so. The final thirty levels were my favorites in any auto-runner ever, easily. Everything in-between is decent, but never great. And when the game finally goes for the throat, it still has to take the time to point out every single button you have to press, as if it has no faith in players to be able to figure out that if there’s a button on stage, it’s probably a good idea to figure out how to press it. And then it tucks you in at night and reads you a bedtime story. It’s really condescending like that.

Jack N’ Jill DX doesn’t really do anything original. Instead, it’s like it took every notable platform game mechanic, retooled it to work in a single-button game, and then polished it to make it play near flawlessly. It’s impressive. Really and truly.

There’s seven optional minigames that you can unlock by beating each world, though they cost 100 coins to play and range from terrible (the first minigame, where you must control the baddies as they jump, has unresponsive controls and was just awful) to bleh (like one that’s a near-copy of the bonus levels from Balloon Fight). Playing minigames earns tickets which let you customize Jack & Jill’s appearance or change the black-and-white graphics to some other pallet, similar to Super Game Boy. Hell, beating the game even unlocks a mirror mode, were you can play all 140 stages in reverse. $5 gets you a LOT of game. That’s why I had to sock it to VideoKid, which costs the same but has only one level and doesn’t work half the time. You’ll speed through the first 100 or so stages of Jack with minimum effort, then spend the same amount of time finishing the final two worlds. It paces like a marathon runner with narcolepsy.

Still, I have to give developer Rohan Narang credit. Jack N’ Jill DX is the best auto-runner ever made. Which is like saying Wonder Woman was the best DCEU movie, but still. It’s never fully boring, and when it finally starts to come to life, it’s actually a very fun game. Does it belong on platforms like Xbox One? Probably not. I’d recommend the Switch or Vita versions. I played on the Switch and spent about a week knocking it out. Even then, I probably played it wrong. Jack N’ Jill is meant to be played a couple of levels at a time. Maybe the sloginess would have been muted if I had played through the 140 stages over the course of a few months instead of just under one week. But hey, Indie Gamer Chick played a game wrong. Not exactly something you stop the presses over. And yea, I’m known for complaining that people shouldn’t have to tread water waiting for a game to “get to the really good stuff”, which Jack N’ Jill unquestionably does. But, at least everything here that comes before the really good stuff is still enjoyable. Maybe someone should buy a copy of this for David Cage so he can take notes.

Jack & Jill DX was developed by Rohan Narang
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Vita, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Steam

$4.99 rhymed:

Jack and Jill
Is hardly swill
To quench a fail spotter
Some levels let down
But I can’t go to town
Great ones follow thereafter

In the making of this review.

Jack N’ Jill DX is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

The VideoKid

Paperboy isn’t exactly a game I hold up as one of the all-timers. My first experience with it was actually the worst you can possibly imagine: the Nintendo 64 follow-up. That version is so obscure and forgotten most people I’ve met aren’t even aware that a 3D Paperboy exists. It does, and it’s awful. So honestly, The VideoKid had nowhere to go but up. So, as bad as The VideoKid is.. and it’s horrible.. it’s genuinely better and less broken than an actual, official Paperboy release. So it has that going for it. Which is like telling a diabetic “we have to amputate your left leg, but hey, this will bring you under 300lbs, so there’s that!”

Later, I got to play both a port of the arcade game via Midway Arcade Treasures on the GameCube, and the real McCoy arcade version, complete with handlebars. I thought both were shit. The isometric view. The unfair enemies. The fact that aiming and timing is so unforgiving. It’s one of those games that I think people like the gimmick more than the gameplay. I’ve also noticed that most people who file away fond memories of it primarily played the arcade version, which at least had a unique control method (because what child of the 80s ever had the rare opportunity to wrap their hands around bicycle handlebars? Only at arcades could they experience such a far-fetched fantasy), whereas people whose experience is limited to the NES or PC ports of it tend to agree with me that it was always kind of shit. Still, it’s a franchise that IS remembered, and that’s the key to stoking that sweet, sweet nostalgia fire. Eventually, someone will make the definitive Paperboy indie tribute.

This isn’t that game.

I won’t lie: The VideoKid started behind the eight ball with me. I’m not nostalgic for Paperboy, or anything really. The “anything really” especially hurts VideoKid, which relies fully on the player being one of those people who find references to things you’ve heard of to be comedy gold all by itself. And I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a game take that to such an absurd degree. Even though there’s only one randomly-generated level in VideoKid, there has to be over a hundred mostly 80s pop-culture references that hit one after another. This is the shotgun blast to the face method of reference-based humor.

Kirk & Spock examining a red-shirt before being beamed away. I too remember Star Trek. Ecto-1. I too remember Ghostbusters. Michael Jackson dressed all in white, spinning around. I too remember Smooth Criminal. Tony Montana pulling out a tommy gun and saying “say hello to my little friend!” I too remember Scarface. “He’s Heating UP and “He’s on Fire!” I too remember NBA Jam (which is from the 90s and makes no sense in a game that is a tribute to the 80s). The Mystery Machine being chased by a ghost. I too remember Scooby-Doo. Rambo. I too remember Rambo. Johnny-5 being chased by an Indian scientist. I too remember Short Circuit. The time-traveling DeLorean. I too remember Back to the Future.

Everything I said above? That all happened in a span of less than 30 seconds. Here’s the clip.

Big Bird. Fraggle Rock (or they might be Gummy Bears). Thundercats. He-Man riding Battle Cat. Clark Griswold’s Family Truckster complete with dog tied to bumper running behind. Reference, reference, reference. A conveyor belt of references. No context. No effort made past the character models. Just “hey, you know that thing you know about? I too know about that thing you know about, and I put it in my game so that you know that I know about that thing you know about.”

And for a lot of people, that’s all you need to make them happy. I don’t get it myself. The “pop” part of “pop-culture” stands for “popular.” For a thing to be part of pop-culture, it has to be seen by a lot of people and make enough of an impact that it becomes part of the public consciousness and thus will be remembered by the collective masses and cement its place in culture for generations yet to come. Pop(ular)-Culture. Get it?

So, when you see Optimus Prime show up in a random video game, it shouldn’t really mean anything to me or you, or anyone. Transformers is very well-known and has been a major part of pop-culture for three decades now. That’s why it had multiple cartoons, a line of toys, and then long after the height of its original popularity had passed, was able to be adapted into a multi-billion dollar movie franchise. Of course people have heard of Optimus Prime. If VideoKid wanted to impress me, it should have had cameos by Armed Force fighting Saw Boss or a sign welcoming you to Eerie, Indiana (pop: 16661). Something obscure, you know.

Maybe if The VideoKid had done something clever with these references, it’d mean something. Michael Jackson throws a golden coin to you, which lights you up. Or you ride next to the bike that’s transporting ET and suddenly you start to fly. Something more interactive that actually utilizes the references. But other than being able to do things like knock Care Bears/Fraggles/California Raisins/Alvin & the Chipmunks off a park bench or make a car fall on Homer Simpson (complete with D’OH sound that actually sounds nothing like Homer), the references really just sort of pass by and serve as distractions. Things to avoid running into. You don’t get to collect them as trophies or stickers or anything noteworthy. You just see them. Well, I’ve seen all these things before. Lots of times. So I don’t get the appeal in having them here. They don’t do anything.

I don’t know what it says about me, that a dog being dragged to its death is the one pop-culture reference that made me crack a smile, but this really is the only one that came close to making me laugh. What can I say? The song “Holiday Road” immediately popped into my head and I started to mentally ask myself whether Clark Griswold left the dog tied to the bumper intentionally or not. To this day, I think he did. He later took a theme park hostage at gunpoint and then had a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve, which inspired his mentally ill cousin-in-law to kidnap his boss and hold him to ransom for a bonus. He’s a psychopath. I half expected him to be in prison for a killing spree as a throwaway joke in the Vacation remake, but that would have been too clever.

So, for me at least, VideoKid had to stand on its own gameplay merits. And honestly, I don’t think the foundation is inherently flawed. VideoKid takes place entirely within three lanes of action, with left and right moving you instantly from one to the other. I think this is a solid idea that could, presumably, fix a lot of the issues I had with Paperboy. In the original, it’s never entirely clear which trajectory to take to avoid enemies. By limiting the action to three channels, a player should be able to instinctively learn patterns and have strategies for avoiding obstacles be self-evident. It’s a more streamlined gameplay mechanic that should make VideoKid less frustrating.

But sadly, the lack of polish takes things a few steps backwards, then cuts off those feet to assure no more forward momentum will be had. Collision detection is spotty and inconsistent. Sometimes I’d hop on a car and score points. Other times it would seem like I had timed it right but still die anyway. Sometimes I’d get the power lace shoes from Back to the Future II, which lets you jump high in the air, but those seemed to turn the collision detection into random chance, where I’d die if I landed on a car or a bench (and other times I’d score points like normal). And the horrible play control just compounds the issues. Sometimes, after landing a large trick (which is done by hoping from obstacle to obstacle) the player would land and then be unable to move at all, no matter how much I pushed left or right. Other times I’d be going along not pushing any buttons when my character would veer left or right into a car without me pressing anything. Maybe it was a really delayed response to a button press. I don’t know, but in this clip, I didn’t press left at all and I still moved left into a car and died. And yes, I was using the D-Pad, not the analog stick.

This is developer Pixel Trip Studio’s first game, and it shows. Often, first time developers are so anxious to get their game published that they under-test it. I think that’s the case here. The VideoKid is clearly not finished. I bought the Xbox One version, which doesn’t have menus, doesn’t have options, and doesn’t even have a way to quit the game without using the guide button and going through the Xbox dashboard to close it. Perhaps because of that, it doesn’t properly keep track of your stats. Sometimes it would say I had delivered six tapes (after hours of gameplay), game-overed once, and only earned $0.02. Other times it would go up, but never in a way that was accurate to my actual playing. And while the game has tons of unlockables, if I quit out of VideoKid and then went back to it, sometimes (but not all the time) all the stuff I had just unlocked (or some of the stuff) would become locked again. That is not what you call buggy, people. That is broken.

I’ve played way worse first-efforts by developers. I don’t even think The VideoKid would rank in the bottom five of those. But it’s certainly one of the most unfinished games to find its way to the marketplace in 2018. And it just does lots of other bad stuff. It eliminates the challenge of Paperboy by giving you an unlimited amount of video tapes to throw at mailboxes and does not penalize you for missing or causing property damage, thus eliminating all semblance of finesse or strategy. And when you make more than two deliveries in a row (which is, you know, the main object of the fucking game), it spams the (already cluttered) screen with a giant notification. When you’re dealing with a glitchy, overly-sensitive-controlling game that takes place from an isometric point of view, the last thing on your mind should be making it even harder for the player to see what they’re doing.

Down in front!

So yea, The VideoKid is really horrible. No, I didn’t beat it. I got 90% finished a few times but was killed by Biff Tannen throwing something at me. If you’re one of those types that thinks people shouldn’t share their opinions on a game they bought unless they finished it, I’d like to point out that the developer is on the record saying HE only beat it once himself.

So really, I only beat it one less time than the game’s own developer did. I don’t know if he meant once on Xbox One or once ever. Because The VideoKid is on multiple different platforms, and considering all the really damning bugs and glitches, it seems like he probably should have played it a lot more than he apparently did before releasing it. I try not to review the developer, but I’m frustrated because there’s potential here for something satisfying. And not satisfying because I too have watched cartoons and movies and remember popular characters from them. The VideoKid didn’t need to be this bad. And it looks a small cut above your typical voxel game and effort was put into it. I’m guessing Pixel Trip Studios has talent. But the indie game market really shouldn’t become Mario Maker, where all that’s required to upload a game is to beat it yourself one time. The VideoKid costs $4.99. That buys you a LOT of really good indie games these days. Maybe even more than one for that price. Fans of the game think I’m being too hard on it. So what if it’s a little buggy? Look, there’s Lion-O! I too remember Thundercats!

Hey, there he is. Oh thank God, he didn’t get Mandela Effected out of existence.

Well so do I, and I wasn’t even born until the original series had been off the air for a year. But a game reminding you that Thundercats is a thing and they too have heard of it shouldn’t be a proper substitute for polish or refinement. If someone buys something expecting it to work and it doesn’t, they’re not assholes just because the broken product has Inspector Gadget in it. We’ve had video games for over fifty years now. If we’ve reached the point where people’s standards are too high for expecting a game to properly keep track of your score or progress without shitting the bed, what incentive do developers have to get better? Why should the next generation of indies put in effort at all? Just blast players with context-free pop-culture references and phone it in, and nostalgia-drunk fanboys will defend you to their dying breath. The VideoKid is critically acclaimed and very popular on social media and it shouldn’t be, because it’s unfinished and genuinely terrible.

And I’m not pissed that it’s bad. I’m an indie game critic. If I can’t handle bad games I should just quit now. I’m pissed because people have decided that being broken doesn’t matter as long as the game speaks in 80s memes to you, and anyone who feels otherwise has a stick up their ass. This is not a path we want to go down as a community. Do we really want a future where most games, indie or otherwise, habitually release too early, full bugs, in dire need of play-testing that they never received, and.. uh.. shit. Hold on, I really need to think this argument through more.

The VideoKid was developed by Pixel Trip Studios
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$4.99 are ♪ driving down on a highway, and my wheels are spinning fast. I’ve been driving now for a long long time, and soon I will be there. KEEP ON ROLLING! KEEP ON ROLLING! There’s no turning back I’m going all the wayyyyyyyy aay aay aay! ♪ in the making of this review.

Now THAT’S how you use a reference.

Dead Cells

Before I get to the review, I want to take Dead Cells to task on how it promotes itself. Dead Cells calls itself a hybrid of a roguelike and a Metroidvania, or a “RogueVania” to be specific. Apologists for it will say that it’s NOT trying to invoke a Metroidvania, despite that term being thrown around everywhere. And I take it issue with that, because it’s just not true. Oh, the roguelike part is. The difficulty is high, the randomness is, well, random. Especially the level design, which can be so nonsensically assembled that you’d swear the game is set in the Winchester Mystery House. Doors open into empty rooms. Hallways can wind around only to lead to a dead-end. Chains and vines lead to nowhere. It never really gets as absurd as Spelunky’s “damsel behind ten feet of rock when you can’t possibly have enough bombs by this point to get to her” stupidity, but the algorithm leaves a lot to be desired. Still, Dead Cells is quintessentially roguelike. Nobody would deny that.

But saying or suggesting this marries that genre to Metroidvanias is utter hogwash. All runs in Dead Cells are fully linear, with no back-tracking. You can unlock runes that permanently upgrade your character, but once you have them you can’t go back to the stuff you missed in previous levels unless you die or finish the game. Dead Cells has levels, not one big, sprawling map. Some stages have more than one exit, but once you’ve used that exit, you continue on a linear path and can’t take a mulligan if you don’t want to play the stage you exited to. Calling the levels “interconnected” seems intellectually dishonest. It’s factually true, in the sense that if you beat level one, you play level 2 next. But going by that logic, you’re saying Super Mario 1 is a Metroidvania. Its levels are interconnected, after-all. Beat level 1-1, move on to level 1-2. Doesn’t get more connected than that, right?

I can’t possibly imagine where they got the “Vania” part from.

I’m fine if they want the “Vania” part to mean “in the NES sense of things”, because Dead Cells feels an awful lot like the Castlevania games of yore, where you would play one linear level at a time and there was no gigantic map to explore. The protagonist even looks like a Belmont, sometimes uses a whip as a weapon, and fights the undead. Really, it’s the closest an indie game I’ve played has come to feeling like a modern twist on a 2D Castlevania, especially Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse on the NES. Replace switching between different characters with switching between different weapons and make the game a roguelike and it would fit right in. But that’s clearly not what the implication is behind the “rogueVANIA” thing, and I find that to be a bit dirty. It’d be like saying the Chicago Cubs are essentially a basketball team. I mean, they wear uniforms and they play a game with a ball and the team with the highest score wins, so it’s pretty much indistinguishable, right? Well, no. Of course not. And it’s shitty of Dead Cells to imply in any form that it’s a Metroidvania.

Got that?

Good. Now onto the review.

Dead Cells is the best indie game ever made.

Yep. As of this writing, I’ve been Indie Gamer Chick seven years, three months, and twelve days. I’ve previously reviewed 568 indie games, and played thousands more that I never transferred my opinions over into review form. And Dead Cells is the one. I have never put more time into a game before I sat down to write the review. I’ve never cussed a game I intended to review more. I’ve never had an indie utterly own my psyche to the degree it has. When I thought I had played enough to write this, I deleted the game from my Xbox One and Switch in a futile attempt to force myself to sit down and start typing. But then I decided I “needed more media”, reinstalled it, and ended up tripling my time-in. I took my Twitter followers on a roller-coaster of eutrophic glee and bitter contempt, wondering out-loud if Dead Cells was the best indie I’d ever played or unworthy of my Seal of Approval at all. I’ll give it this: it was never uninteresting.

Magical Source, Mystic Force!

A big part of the reason I had trouble beginning the actual writing process was because I honestly don’t know where to begin. By this point, I’m sure anyone reading this review has heard of Dead Cells, gets the gist of it, and is here to figure out exactly why I enjoyed it more than any indie game I’ve ever played.

Would you believe I don’t fully understand it myself?

I hate roguelikes. In fact, I generally hate games where the difficulty is the main attraction. I don’t see the fun in it. I’m sure I could tunnel through my bedroom door with a spoon if I wanted a genuine challenge. It’d be dull and tedious and time consuming to do so, but it would be a legitimate challenge. Or, I can just open the door and avoid all that shit, and spend my time doing fun stuff. A lot of developers don’t get that. Many indies look at something like Dark Souls, where the first thing any fan brings up is how damn hard it is, and assume that’s attraction. But it’s not. If Dark Souls wasn’t entertaining, nobody would care about the difficulty. It’d just be another inaccessible game that blowhards use to claim they’re “real gamers” and everyone else is just a “casual”.

Motion Twin got it, and Dead Cells is never boring no matter how far you’re into it. The 2D sword-and-shields combat is exhilarating from the get-go. The initial grind of fighting enemies and collecting enough “cells” to unlock getting a random starting weapon or starting bow could have reduced the opening hours into a hacky slog. Instead, the first three or four hours, where grinding up cells is the focus, might be the most cathartic introduction to a game since Resident Evil 4. Attacking feels like it has an authentic weight behind it, while dodging, blocking, or countering feels like there’s actual urgency behind every move you make. Even low-level zombies can take you out if your mind wanders just a little bit (trust me, I was felled by them more than once, even 100+ hours into the game, just because I got distracted). You feel like there’s stakes behind every encounter. When does that ever happen in gaming anymore?

Combining fire and ice is surprisingly effective. Someone ought to write a song about it or something.

But then, as you unlock more weapons, you start to realize the depth and nuances of Dead Cells. So much time was given to differentiate most of them that utilizing them makes it feel like you’re playing an entirely different game. But, and this is the key, it almost always feels so natural and right and you would swear Dead Cells was meant to specifically be that kind of game all along. If you equip the infantry bow, which scores damage most from point-blank range, Dead Cells feels like it was designed specifically to be a 2D gun combat game where you’re busting a cap in someone’s melon. The heavy bow feels like a shotgun that appropriately scatters baddie-chunks all over the stage. You might pick up weapons like the lightning bolt, frost blast, or fire blast that make Dead Cells feel like it was designed to be a superhero action-platformer that you could believe is a 2D version of Infamous. I’ve never experienced this phenomena in any game I’ve ever played. It’s astonishing how natural it is no matter what you’re wielding. Don’t get me wrong, not all the weapons are satisfying. The broadsword is so slow and impractical that it became the white elephant of the game. I kept succumbing to the temptation of picking it up, especially when super-charged versions of it were dropped by bosses, and always ended up regretting it. I’m not sure why I kept giving it a chance, given how often I died as a direct result of trying to use it. It’s not like I have a penis that necessitates making up for the inadequacy of.

Cloud ought to sue.

The wide variety of unlockable weapons is supposed to help highlight Dead Cells’ “make due with what you’re given” core gameplay. But this can also be problematic. There were a lot of less-than-fun items that I regretted unlocking. Once unlocked, you can’t prevent items from coming up in the randomized rotation. Items are broken up into three different colors: red, purple, and green. Red is brutality (and also grants you arbitrary leadership of the Power Rangers), purple is tactics (and also indicates you stand in support and dignified solitude with the gay Teletubbie), and green is for survival (and prevents you from being pinched on St. Patrick’s Day).

Because the best secondary weapons (IE turrets and traps) are purple, plus the best “mutation” (which shrinks the cooldown time on those traps) gets better the more you boost your purple, I preferred to combined the Ice Bow or Frost Blast (which are purple and freeze enemies) with a colorless melee weapon (colorless/gold weapons have their stats dictated by whatever color you’ve boosted the most), or with the “Frantic Sword” which is the only practical sword-type of weapon that purple boosts. In my early runs on Dead Cells, putting together a reasonable four-weapon combo based around these was relatively easy. But, as the game went on I started to acquire blueprints for more items that I could then unlock. And being the curious type of chick I am, I succumbed to that curiosity and wanted to take the new items out for a spin. Well, my friends call me Cat, so I guess it’s fitting what curiosity did to me.

One thing I realized when trying to get screenshots of Dead Cells for this review: action-screens are incomprehensible. This COULD be a screenshot of Dead Cells, or perhaps I just dumped paint onto a canvas and then blasted it with a highly-pressurized air-cannon. YOU CAN’T KNOW FOR SURE!

So basically, Dead Cells punishes you for unlocking stuff. The fact that you fuck yourself over for having the unmitigated gall to want to gain new abilities and items is just one of many insanely frustrating aspects, but it’s easily the one that stings the most. I’m to a point now in Dead Cells where I have so much shit unlocked that coming into possession of a truly exhilarating, fun-to-use loadout is rare. Too rare. And this is not helped by the algorithm for weapons apparently having no intelligence at all. During one of my last runs, the random starting bow I was given was the Duplex Bow, which is my choice for the most boring weapon in the game. But that’s okay, because I would certainly be able to change that as I went along, right? Well, I did.. with four other Duplex Bows. I’m not even kidding. The chest I opened in the first level had one, then I got one from a hidden pit in the second stage, one from a cursed chest in Stilt Village, and finally the second boss dropped a hyper-charged one. Each weapon has sub-abilities as well, but those are also based on random chance. Between stages, you can pay gold to randomly switch the sub-abilities, but the cost increases each time you do it and can drain your account fast. At no point during this entire run did I get the desirable “arrows pierce all enemies” ability, or even the “arrows leave a trail of fire” one. It kept assigning me the least useful traits for the most boring weapon, again and again. It was like Dead Cells was trolling me.

“What are you going to do, bitch? Stop playing?”

“Sigh…….. no. You fuck.”

And I didn’t. Nor did I when any of dozens of other issues crept up. Lots of technical ones, especially. Some of them have been corrected, but there’s an annoying one on Xbox One centered around the Daily Challenge. Every day a new pre-set challenge is presented, always a timed-race through a maze where you are given one starting weapon. Beating X amount of these challenges is supposed to unlock new items and abilities. I got one for beating my first daily challenge. But then the game lost the ability to count how many I’d finished. It keeps telling me I need to finish four more to unlock another reward, despite the fact that I’ve beaten the challenge every day for weeks now. Dead Cells released over two months ago, and the fact that this relatively simple glitch hasn’t been fixed yet is beyond shameful.

If you can get the machine-gun crossbow with piercing arrows, man are you in for a treat.

So are the hiccups with movement, where sometimes you’ll seemingly skip ahead several frames from where you should be. The overwhelming majority of the time, this was of no consequence, but I did die more than once as a direct result of this. Finally, sometimes the game would just shit the bed and dumped me back to the Xbox main menu. This screwed over a couple good runs I was having, as I had to start over from whatever stage I was on, but it also gave me a chance to correct a few bad runs, so we’ll call it a wash.

Besides the random weapon fiasco, the biggest issue is by far the cheapness. I’ve had decent runs ended instantly by having enemies juggle me from full health to no health in a matter of seconds. Sometimes its on me, like when I went so heavy on the purple boosts that the last boss was able to take me from full health to dead in under 10 seconds. But sometimes the RNG would spawn enemies who attacked in sync enough to unfairly end my run in a way I couldn’t possibly hope to defend. I’m sure I’d been laughing my ass off if it wasn’t me it was happening too. Hell, one time I opened a cursed chest (which always give you a booster, a colorless weapon, and money in exchange being “cursed” by having to kill 10 enemies in a row without taking any damage, or else you die instantly), certain that I’d have clean, easily sailing to lift the curse. Then I ran smack-dab into shielded enemies who can teleport around. My primary weapons were slow on the draw, so my only option was to leg it. The resulting video was so funny that people were making mix-tapes of it.

Now mind you, Dead Cells unlocks even harder modes when you beat it the first time around. I question whether it really needed to be this unforgiving at all. For anyone that says I suck at games and am a pussy or whatever, hey, guilty as charged. But I was able to beat Dead Cells and even score a few rare achievements along the way. The first time I beat the 1st boss, I took no damage doing it. And when I finished the game for the first time, I still held a “mutation” that brings you back to life if you lose all your health, something 95% of all people never did. Considering that I just named Dead Cells the best indie I’ve ever played, maybe I’m onto something when I say there should been two difficulty options from the start: the one I beat, and an easier version, and let people progress beyond that. I finished the normal difficulty of Dead Cells twice but could make almost no progress on the next difficulty. But hey, I’m satisfied. I just feel bad for those who will pass on the game because of the prohibitive difficulty. They’re missing out, but at the same time, I can’t blame them at all. When I got to the point that I wanted to make progress, the cheap deaths and the outright unfairness that sometimes rears its ugly head made me angry to the point that I questioned whether everything that led to that moment was worth it.

For me at least, answer was “yes”, of course. That’s what separates Dead Cells from something like, say, Cuphead. For all the effort that was put into Cuphead by StudioMDHR, and for all the effort I made to be good at it, I didn’t enjoy my time with it at all. Even as I was being gobsmacked by the presentation, the actual gameplay of Cuphead bored me to death. I was never bored with Dead Cells. Even when I had the most uninteresting items. Even when I couldn’t get into a good rhythm during a run. It was always entertaining. I think that’s because Dead Cells is whatever you want it to be. If you’re craving a fast-paced sword-and-platforming whack-em-up, Dead Cells can be that. If you want a slow, exploration-based adventure, Dead Cells can be that too. Hell, if you’re feeling silly and in the mood to just run around and literally boot enemies in their asses, kicking them off their perch and to their deaths like a Loony Tunes cartoon, Dead Cells still has you covered. It’s a “fill in the blank” game and it adapts to you just as much as you adapt to it. So many games promise to “never be the same game twice” but Dead Cells is one of those rare games that feels like it has the potential to that live up to that promise. If you want it to, that is.

I really should stop posting screens at this point. It looks so much uglier in pictures. Just watch videos. The graphics are more than satisfactory.

I got Dead Cells in August but didn’t truly get into it until September. Or, more accurately, it got into me. I’ve put so much time into it that my friends and family went from joking about me to being addicted to genuine concern that I was. I feel like I’m, at best, a day or two a way from “no, seriously Cathy, put down the controller. This is an intervention.” I’ve already asked myself questions like “if I shoot those who try to take Dead Cells away from me, would the cops let me finish the run I’m on before slapping the cuffs on me? Will they let me take my Switch with me so I can play more Dead Cells?” According to my lawyer, the answer to both questions is no, which is why I have to plan to leave nobody alive and then turn myself in later, after I play more Dead Cells. I’m planning on using the “Your Honor, as you can see, they interrupted me when I had a gold Ice Bow, a gold Balanced Blade, and two gold turrets” defense that’s going to rock the nation.

1,292 days before I published this review, I named Axiom Verge the best indie game I’ve ever played, and its held that title ever since. It’s stood #1 for over 48% of my game critic existence. If you had told me on March 31, 2015 that the game that would finally dethrone it would be a 2D roguelike action-platformer that I only gave a whirl because it erroneously claimed to be Metroidvania-like, I’d thought you were off your rocker. But, here we are. Dead Cells is frustrating, and unfair, and maddening.. And brilliant. And breathtaking. I choked up a bit when I beat the final boss for the first time. I never imagined I’d play games like this when I started this blog in July of 2011. Dead Cells is the best indie game of all-time. And I can’t wait to play the game that will unseat it. It’ll be spectacular.

But seriously Motion Twin, fix your fucking game. You have the word “motion” in your name. You shouldn’t be sitting still on this for this long.

Dead Cells was developed by Motion Twin
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Steam

$24.99 (really $49.98 since I bought it on XB1 & Switch) noted, and this really shouldn’t mean anything, but Dead Cells also has the single best trailer in gaming history in the making of this review. Watch it below.

Dead Cells is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. I mean, fucking duh. It’s #1. Kind of hard to miss its ranking.

Like the new Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval? It was designed by Kevin Willingham Creative. Hit them up for reasonable rates for your artistic needs.

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