The Difficulty Gateway

I usually say that I feel my reviews as Indie Gamer Chick represent the average gamer, but the truth is I’m probably above-average in skill-level for most genres. Some, like puzzlers, I chew through so easily that I usually hand games off to my family to make sure they’re not too easy for normies. But being a fairly hardcore gamer since the age of nine and being a game critic is a tough balancing act. One that doesn’t get discussed enough, because we’re all probably better at games than Fred and Ethel shopping for something on payday to kill a weekend with on their dusty Xbox One. When a game doesn’t have adjustable skill-levels, challenge is hard to quantify on your own. You’re playing the game based on decades of experience, and can only assume how others will take it. Even if you have friends or family to observe, it’s not like you’ve been studying them in a laboratory your entire life and can fully approximate the ceiling of their ability.

Of course, being a game critic, if I’m not being told that the only reason I didn’t like a game is because I wasn’t “objective enough”, the most common thing I’m told is that I just suck at games. I didn’t like Cuphead, ergo I suck at games. I didn’t like Hollow Knight, ergo I suck at games. I didn’t like Hotline Miami, ergo I suck at games.

Ah yes, Battletoads. A game so fondly remembered that it could go completely dormant for twenty years because it was so prohibitively difficult that very, very few would ever remember it as an all-time great.

I don’t think I suck at games. Maybe some games. Like fighting games aren’t my thing, and an early running gag at Indie Gamer Chick was me noting that I couldn’t ever get the hang of throwing a Dragon Punch with Ken or Ryu (I’m proud to report I can now, suck it Kris & Jesse). It doesn’t mean I don’t like fighting games though. I got Mortal Kombat XL for Christmas and took delight in violence so awesome that it would make even the most dead-inside grizzled veteran become physically ill. But something like Cuphead? I actually don’t think I was that bad at it. I got all the contracts (IE I beat all the bosses on the standard insanely crazy hard difficulty) for the first world and beat all the bosses on the lowest difficulty for the first three worlds, something nearly 90% of all Cuphead owners either couldn’t do or couldn’t be bothered to do. As for Hollow Knight, I’ve heard fans of the game tell me how hard a boss was that I downed without breaking a sweat. I wasn’t dying all that much while playing it and only once did I die without retrieving the shit I dropped, thus losing it.

By the way, I sucked at Spelunky. I really sucked at Kingdom. They’re both IGC all-timers. Trust me, if talent was required for me to enjoy something, I wouldn’t have any hobbies at all.

I’m not a fan of the notion that games are supposed to be hard to prevent undesirables from playing them, or any game. That the measure of a true gamer is being able to finish these hard games. What an absurd notion this is. It’s snobbery of the lowest order. For games like Cuphead, I’ve come up with the phrase “prohibitively difficult” to describe them. I think Cuphead crosses the line where even above-average players will be gated-off from large sections of content without any hope of ever being good enough to reach them. And for those who say “practice harder”, this isn’t an activity where increasing your skill level will lead to greater things in life. It’s a video game. I’m not going to put in eight hours of practice a day just so I can fight a giant animated stack of poker chips.

By the way, Cuphead wiki, this is based on Amarillo Slim. Only the Babe Ruth of Poker. “Duhhhh, we think it’s based on poker. You can tell by the chips.” Good lord, you people need to get out of the house sometime.

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to make their games. If you feel your dream project should only be able to be finished by 2% of all gamers, so be it. But, maybe you should consider telling your fans to stop calling those who can’t beat it a bunch of pussies. I’ve seen players far above my skill level who enjoy quality run-and-spray games walk away broken and shaken from Cuphead, wondering if their skills are depleting as they grow increasingly decrepit or if it’s the game. It’s the game.

And what’s the point of gating, anyway? Contra is an all-time classic, and one of my personal favorite NES games. It’s kind of a travesty that it wasn’t part of the NES Classic. Instead, we got inferior sequel Super C instead. Contra is hard, but it has the most famous means of overcoming that difficulty in the history of gaming: the Konami Code. If that wasn’t in the game, nobody would talk about Contra today. The Heart of Contra wouldn’t be one of the most legendary bosses of all time. It’d just be one of those NES games people say “cool, I remember it. It was hard” and then talk like blowhards about how games were better back in the day while reminiscing about all the titles they never got around to beating.

Has it ever been confirmed this is actually supposed to be a heart and not, you know, the Gonads of Contra?

So how is someone like me, an above average player, supposed to quantify the value of a game that didn’t just destroy me, but destroyed even better players I know? Indies are dependent on word of mouth, and “this game left me blistered and defeated” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement to your average gamer. A critic isn’t an asshole for telling people the game is too hard to recommend, nor are they a pussy. You’re who gated the game off. And for what? So a small percentage of players who will never help you move a single unit outside their clubhouse can have a secret handshake “we’re the only real gamers” crowing moment? If they tell you that you’re selling out for including adjustable difficulty, you tell them to pony up a few hundred thousand dollars so your kids can go to college. I’m sure they’ll get right on that.

Heavy Recoil

Heavy Recoil harkens back to the good ‘ole days when games would kick your ass with a steel-toed boot.  This is also known as the period before I was born, so the nostalgic value of Heavy Recoil does absolutely nothing for me.  And yet, when I see a game that does a pretty convincing job of looking like an 8 or 16 bit era title, I usually get excited.  That’s typically because such games seem to go that extra mile towards having good level design and awesome play control.  So does Heavy Recoil succeed?  Yes, at least when it comes to looking like a Super Nintendo game.  If I hadn’t known it was on XBLIG and saw a trailer for it, I would have thought for sure it was an SNES title that I had never heard of.  And after playing it, I would have guessed I had never heard of it because it was shit.

Heavy Recoil really does look the part, which is commendable.  But the gameplay is boring, limited, and frustrating.  Retro doesn't have to mean shallow.

Heavy Recoil really does look the part, which is commendable. But the gameplay is boring, limited, and frustrating. Retro doesn’t have to mean shallow.

Heavy Recoil is a 2D platformer/shooter where you play as a robot that must shoot other robots.  While I’ve recently developed a love for robot-on-robot violence (courtesy of Brian introducing me to reruns of Robot Wars), I question the logic of building a weapon that is so damn limited or worse than what the enemy is using.  The protagonist robot can only shoot whatever is straight ahead of it.  I’ve had a lot of people say “some games were like that!  Would you call Mega Man shit?”  Apples and oranges, people.  Mega Man was more nimble than the robot you play as here, which wasn’t given a name or any back story at all so I’ll just call it “Phil” because that’s about the most boring name I could think of on five seconds notice.  Phil can barely jump, unless you get a power up that allows him to do it.  Given the fact that many valuable items are placed well above your normal jumping range (along with plenty of enemies), this was a bit of a dick move.

In order to get jumping, you have to pick it up in an item drop.  This in and of itself is a problem.  The item that has it rotates between it and a useless dash upgrade, requiring you to time when to pick it up.  Typically, that’s not too hard, but sometimes it’s obscured by something in the foreground and you can’t see it.  It’s frustrating enough that the game considers decent jumping to be a bonus that players have to pick up without having to deal with blind-man’s bluff.  I had the same problem with the secondary weapon upgrades.  There’s four: grenades, lasers, homing missiles, and rockets.  No matter which you have, they’re weak.  They can’t even break apart the barrels that you pluck them from.  Grenades are probably the most useless of the bunch.  They’re good at blowing up annoying landmines, but otherwise everything they can kill is already right in front of your gun anyway.  Of course, your bullets can only travel about four or five character-lengths in front of you.  Why?  I have no fucking clue.  I can fire rubber bands further with my thumb-and-index finger pistol than Phil can shoot ballistic weapons.  To fix this mistake which should have been corrected out of the fucking gate, you can pick up a laser that shoots all the way across the screen.  Well la dee dah!

Rockets and homing missiles are more useful, because they can attack things above you.  They still mostly suck on account of them doing about as much damage as popping an inflated paper-bag next to your target.  What really sucks is, like the jump-or-dash upgrade, you can only have one.  Why?  I don’t know.  Using these items doesn’t require a special button press.  They just fire when you shoot your gun, which has to be repeatedly mashed because holding down the button would be too convenient.

I get that games like this used to be a big deal and people long for the days when you had three lives and if you lost them you got to start all the way back at the beginning.  But even then, sometimes those games could be fun.  Contra for example.  I could never quite put my finger on what exactly made Contra fun, but now I’m guessing being able to shoot upwards might have something to do with it.  And mind you, Contra had that whole “shoot in directions other than straight forward” innovation down three fucking years before I was born, so Heavy Recoil can’t really claim the retro-mandate for pretending that upward mobility doesn’t exist.

The two boss fights that I encountered were downright easy.  I didn't encounter more because I got sick of single-hit deaths, no continues, bad jumping, lame items, and dick-move level layouts.  Over an hour put into Heavy Recoil and not once did I have any fun.  Unless the game has a magical "get better" section, I'm guessing that wouldn't have changed.

The two boss fights that I encountered were downright easy. I didn’t encounter more because I got sick of single-hit deaths that take away all your weapons, no continues, bad jumping, lame items, and dick-move level layouts. Over an hour put into Heavy Recoil and not once did I have any fun. Unless the game has a magical “get better” section, I’m guessing that wouldn’t have changed.

But even if you could, it wouldn’t be very fun.  Everything here is just so bland.  The levels, the enemy design, Phil.  That’s why I said Heavy Recoil would be remembered as a bad lost game from a bygone era.  I’m not saying I expect neo-retro games to be better than the classics they were inspired by.  What I’m saying is don’t make a retro game in a retro costume.  Make a modern game in a retro costume.  Take advantage of what we’ve learned over the last twenty-five years of consoles.  Some concepts are more popular than others.  Firing in more than one direction is such a concept.  Do you know what happens when you forgo technological innovations in favor of rehashing old shit that nobody cares about?  That’s right: you sell 400,000 units of your latest hardware on launch day.

Okay, bad example.

xboxboxartHeavy Recoil was developed by Wide Pixel Games

80 Microsoft Points admit Heavy Recoil is an awesome name for a game in the making of this review. 

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