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.

Hotline Miami

I’ve always hated using the cop-out “it’s just not for me” in relation to anything.  It just seems so non-committal.  And yet, after putting a few hours into Hotline Miami and simply not getting what everyone else is raving about, I feel “it’s just not for me” is the only answer I can give, because it really isn’t for me.

And that has nothing to do with the violence.  I like violence.  I’m proud that I live in a time where the violence on television is so awesome that it makes even the most grizzled of war veterans become physically ill.  People are talking about the violence in Hotline Miami like we’ve reached the zenith of virtual murders.  Where have you people been the last few years?  There’s shit in the latest Mortal Kombat that would make even the most fetishistic psychopath go limp with shame.  Hell, I’ve played a game that gives you an achievement for tying a nun to railroad tracks and letting her get hit by a train.  And I loved it.  Sorry Hotline Miami, but your eight-bit violence is just not cutting it with me.

The typical after-party at the MTV Music Video Awards.

The typical after-party at the MTV Music Video Awards.

I think the raving is based mostly on the novelty factor.  Violence was never this masterful when games looked like this.  With modern indie gaming, we can take all the theatrical bloodshed we’ve accumulated from years of premium cable shows and modern M rated titles and apply it to games that seem like they could have existed in the 80s.  So the thrill comes from “hey, it’s an old game but it’s really gory.  Neat!”  But it’s not an old game.  I’m not saying Hotline Miami isn’t extraordinarily fucked up.  It is.  What I’m saying is, shouldn’t everyone over the age of twenty  be desensitized to this type of shit by now?

What turned me off most about Hotline Miami was the difficulty.  I just could not make any progress, often repeating stages several dozen times to no avail.  Hypothetically, the game is a bit of a puzzler, a bit of a brawler, a bit of a shooter, and a bit of a stealthy dungeon crawler type of thing.  It’s a cavalcade of ideas and it doesn’t always blend together smoothly.  This also helps mute the violence that is, let’s face it, the chief selling point of the game.  For example, the scalding water thing.  Everyone had been telling me about the water thing for the last year.  Grab a pot of boiling water off a stove and throw it on some dude.  Pretty brutal, right?  But the act of throwing boiling water loses its sting when you have to repeat that upwards of fifty times because of any number of reasons, such as having one of the enemies randomly move off its preset path and blow you away.  Or having enemies that can turn and fire on you faster than you can react.  Or clearing out a room only to miss one dude who gets up and casually blows you away with a shotgun.

My guess is Hotline Miami would have played better if I could have played it with a mouse and keyboard.  Using the PS3 controller was an exercise in frustration.  Locking on to an enemy requires lining up a cursor somewhere near them.  Of course, sometimes enemies bunch together, so trying to line up exactly the right is tough.  The game probably needed something along the lines of Metroid Prime’s lock-on system that generally lined up the closest person to you.  Not that it would have mattered.  The AI is a crack shot every time from seemingly all distances, and it can process information faster than you.  Thus the moment one centimeter of your body is exposed, you’re dead.  The puzzle aspect doesn’t really work right because the AI can be so brutally unfair but also prone to fits of randomness where guys break off their preset paths.  Or sometimes they just wouldn’t play along at all.  I would play rounds where I would fire a shotgun through a door and set off every single dude in the place to come and murder me.  At other times I could fire from the exact same location, killing the exact same guy, and have nobody react to it.  There was no consistency from one life to the next.

As a full disclosure type of deal, I had to play Hotline Miami in shorter play sessions (about 30 to 45 minutes at a time) due to epilepsy concerns.  But I was never bummed when it was time for a break.  The repetition can be exhausting.

As a full disclosure type of deal, I had to play Hotline Miami in shorter play sessions (about 30 to 45 minutes at a time) due to epilepsy concerns. But I was never bummed when it was time for a break. The repetition can be exhausting.

I will say this: if you absolutely do not want to play the PC version and you have Vita as an option, go with it.  It’s a trend I’ve noticed with these cross-platform PS3/Vita releases.  The Vita version always has superior control.  For Miami, movement isn’t as loose, aiming is more efficient because targeting is handled via the touch screen, and scrolling is done by dragging your finger around.  By comparison, the PS3 port is clunky, cumbersome, and imprecise.  As if the too smart, too quick, too accurate AI isn’t enough of a problem, you have to deal with controls that never feel intuitive or smooth.

I can’t really explain how I could enjoy a game like Spelunky and not enjoy Hotline Miami.  Both had control issues.  Both are based around frequent dying, trial-and-error gameplay and unfair design.  I wish I could explain it.  It would probably save me a lot of grief that I’m already getting from fans of this game.  I can’t even say I hate the game.  Maybe it’s been the year of crushing hype that everyone has been showering me with.  People talked about Hotline Miami like it was the second coming of Grand Theft Auto.  But I don’t think it’s that.  I really don’t think this game is as good as everyone is saying.  What it does do is meet the three rules for an indie game to get critical acclaim no matter how flawed or broken it is.  They are:

1. Have retro graphics.  Because if you hate a game with retro graphics, you’re pissing on gaming’s heritage and thus your opinion is invalidated.  Even if you’re talking about a brand new game released this year (or the port of a PC game released last year).

2. Be insanely, unfairly, unreasonably difficult.  Because if you hate a game that’s all of those, you’re just a low-skill gamer whose opinion is invalidated by the sheer force of your sucking.  Or you’re too young to remember a period when all games were this hard (there’s no such thing) and thus your opinion is invalidated because you’re a whippersnapper used to be coddled by games that hold your hand from start to finish.

3. Be gratuitously violent and shocking in ways so brazen that if you were to describe them to a psychiatrist out of context, you would be committed.  Disliking games like this means you’re a prude at best, and an anti-gaming sissy in league with the Jack Thompsons of the world at worst.  Clearly someone whose opinion isn’t valid.

Me?  I’m a neo-retro loving, violence embracing gamer.  Okay, fine, I’ve never understood the whole “be as insanely difficult as possible” thing that some people thrive on, but I can put up with it if I’m having fun.  I didn’t have fun with Hotline Miami.  Not just for the controls or the unfair AI.  I just didn’t like it.  It was boring to me.  Almost everyone else seems to like it.  Which is fine, because the groundwork for something spectacular is laid here.  I just couldn’t get into it.  So I’ll chalk this one up to “it’s not for me” and move on.  By the way, Brian is noting right now that I’ve used the “it’s not for me” excuse to avoid watching F1 with him, so I can’t claim this is my first use of it.  Fine.  I’ll you what Brian: when drivers start throwing scalding water on each-other and are allowed to use firearms during the race, get back to me.

imageHotline Miami was developed by Dennaton Games

$9.99 admits that I didn’t make it very far, but not for a lack of trying.  Having said that, I spent five hours failing again and again, so I feel I have enough room to talk about this game in the making of this review. 

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