Axiom Verge

Well, that didn’t take long. It was only 68 days ago that Shovel Knight dethroned Journey for the #1 spot on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Journey had sat as king of the throne for 1,048 days. And there’s MANY more amazing looking indies coming in 2015. I tell you, we’re in the Golden Age of Indie Gaming, and ain’t it sweet?

Axiom Verge certainly had an advantage over Shovel Knight. Metroidvanias are my favorite gaming genre. They factored hugely into my gaming upbringing. Meanwhile, I can probably count the number of times I’ve even held an NES controller on one hand, and I certainly didn’t grow up playing Capcom’s NES library. So maybe it was fate that finally a Metroidvania would take the crown here at IGC. Then again, I think it speaks volumes about its quality that I was (and still am) gaga over Shovel Knight despite having no heart warming childhood stories about the time I ran through Duck Tales in a single life or the hours I spent designing fantasy Mega Man bosses. Shovel Knight holds a special place in my heart, and it does so simply by being an incredible game.

But, Axiom Verge has beaten it. And handily at that. It is the best independent video game I’ve ever played.

I've seen a lot of tributes to the Kraid fight in Super Metroid. This one outshines the rest.

I’ve seen a lot of tributes to the Kraid fight in Super Metroid. This one outshines the rest.

Think of Axiom Verge as the evolutionary Metroid. The same basic concept and play mechanics are present. The same enemy placement sensibility, where each corridor has the same enemies that you encounter one after the other. It’s so close that if you re-skinned the lead character Trace with Samus Aran sprites, put bubbles around each door, and replaced a drone you acquire a couple of hours into the game with the Morphing Ball, you would swear this really was a Metroid game. It’s that seamless.

Really, I can think of nothing else that speaks as great a volume as that when it comes to praising Axiom Verge: that you could believe this was an authentic Metroid game, made by a team of veteran designers working for gaming’s most prestigious house. But it wasn’t. One guy made this. And it’s better than any adventure the house of Mario has given their super heroine. Whoa!

Sacrilege, you scream. Look, we (or at least, people with similar taste to me) whine about how Nintendo turns out samey games. Every Zelda has the hookshot, the master sword, a boomerang, etc. Every Metroid has the Morphing Ball, the Grappling Beam, the Wave Beam, etc. Nintendo can get away with this because we keep eating it up year after year. I’m guilty of it too. Now here comes along a game that could be a Metroid, but it does things different. No Morphing Ball, the Bionic Commando grappling hook instead of the Grappling Beam (you can grab pretty much any platform instead of designated grappling sections once you acquire it), no bubble doors, new gun concepts, new enemies, a deeper story, but the same core gameplay. This is exactly what we’ve been asking for. For years. It’s the twist in the formula we’ve all been hoping for. The logical evolution of the Metroid mechanics.

The platform Trace is standing on here is practical invisible. The game has since been patched to make it and others like it stick out more, but there's still some minor visibility issues in Axiom Verge.

The platform Trace is standing on here is practically invisible. The game has since been patched to make it and others like it stick out more, but there’s still some minor visibility issues in Axiom Verge.

And then comes the Glitch Gun. It’s not really called that. It has some stupid name like data disruptor. Just call it the Glitch Gun, everyone else does. Probably inspired by the types of graphic abnormalities that happen when you haven’t sufficiently blown on your NES cartridges enough, it’s sort of a more proactive version of Samus’s visor from Metroid Prime. When you shoot most enemies with it, you “hack” them, making them glitch out. This might make them simpler to slay, or it might make them useful, even able to open up hidden rooms. The gun will also interact with the environment, creating or destroying blocks, opening up new pathways, or unveiling secrets. It’s very clever and mostly well done. However, later in the game, once the gun is upgraded, I struggled somewhat in consistently clearing out the most advanced glitch blocks, often phasing some in while making others phase out. It’s a small niggling complaint, but it almost always happened when I was trying to clear the blocks out. Beyond that, the biggest mistake I think the developer made with the Glitch Gun was not giving it to players right out of the starting gate. It’s what sets Axiom Verge apart from its heritage more than any other play mechanic. You want to flaunt that stuff right off the bat. If someone has a flying car, I don’t want him to show it off to me by taking me on a trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. Even if it’s a nice ride, I want to see the car fly! And I want to see the Glitch Gun in Axiom Verge right from the start.

Actually, since I’m complaining about things right now, I should point out that I don’t love the graphics. The world Tom Happ has created for Axiom Verge hits similar notes to other games in this genre, but it lacks liveliness and color. The story explains it to some degree (my insane fan theory: Murky and Lurky are behind this), but the starkness of the color is kind of exhausting. And it occasionally gets in the way. It’s often hard to distinguish between the foreground and background. The problem is Axiom Verge is too married to the limited color palette of the 8 bit era. Although I’m quite fond of neo-retro games, I think developers should remember that you shouldn’t handicap your own game in the process of paying homage. Cheat the rules occasionally. Use shading and color techniques not available on classic  platforms, but do so in a clever way so that people don’t notice. Axiom Verge looks very convincing as a classic game, but that often works against it more than it helps it.

The controls are smooth. If there’s a problem with them, it’s that there’s just so much shit to do. By the end of the game you’ll be using pretty much every button on the controller, and unless you’re one of those freaks that can rub their head and pat their belly at will, you’re bound to slip up. I also felt the lack of ability to shoot at a downward diagonal angle while moving made the search for hidden rooms a bit more tedious than it had to be. I had to stop and shoot straight down, move a couple of spots forward and do it again while on the hunt for hidden stuff. It took me twenty-six hours to finish Axiom Verge, and you could probably shave at least an hour of that off just by giving me the ability to fire downward while running. Oh, and the dead zone for the right stick is too small. Combine that with my tiny hands and I kept accidentally bumping it, interrupting the game to select a new weapon. The dead zone should just stop short of maximum range, since it’s unlikely anyone is going to just nudge the stick to pause the game and choose a different gun. Then again, that might have been my fault. I have extraordinarily clumsy hands. Really clumsy. Dangerously clumsy. The last guy I gave a hand job to now goes by the name Sally.

Exploration and meaningful backtracking are the backbone of Metroidvanias. Something I’ve noticed about indies is they often just don’t fucking GET IT with that. Yea, you force players to go backwards, but when you do, you have to make it interesting by including hidden goodies along the way that were previously out of reach with the weapons and items you had access to the first time you were in that area. Huge props to Tom Happ for grasping this. There is so much hidden crap in Axiom Verge that I don’t think I went ten minutes between any pick-up. Even when I would occasionally get lost trying to figure out where the next event would take place at (some kind of Metroid Primeish GO HERE beeping spot on the map would have helped), I was stumbling upon so many goodies that I never got annoyed with it. By time I knew the game was getting ready to wrap up, I decided to take a stroll through all the previous stages just to see what I missed. Shockingly, it was a lot. Even in places where I was certain I had gotten everything, I was wrong. And I didn’t even get a 100% item pick-up, despite having 96% of the map explored. Holy fuck. As much as I’m grateful, I have to wonder if Tom has some kind of mental disorder that led to this. Dude is like a demented Easter Bunny.

I grew to love its story. The plot is problematic for some, because it fails to grab you immediately. This happened to me too. For the first several hours, when friends asked me about it, I said “you’ll want to buy this for the gameplay.” But once the story gets rolling, I actually did care. Quite a bit. I just don’t think the game handled the delivery of the story well. Part of that comes down to the lack of voice acting, because, once again, the game is married to being old school. Oh woe be it, if only we had access to the types of space-age technology that would allow voice acting in video games. Oh wait.

Notroid.

I called this the Ghostbuster gun. You’ll see why.

But, I did grow fond of lead character Trace, and skeptical of whether or not the mysterious giant mecha baby heads that drive the plot were friend or foe. I just wish it had been told better. Having said that, there’s a couple “okay, that was cool” story moments that are integrated into the gameplay that were very risky to include from a creative standpoint. They worked, grabbing my attention and leaving every gameplay moment that followed feeling like the stakes were higher, with tension added that was totally authentic. Axiom Verge might have one of the most interesting sci-fi gaming storylines I’ve ever seen. Saying it gets off to a slow start is an understatement, and I’m guessing many players will be so underwhelmed by it that they’ll blow off the remaining dialog, but they’re missing out.

I loved Axiom Verge. I can’t believe how much I loved it. I never expected to walk away from it having enjoyed it more than any of Nintendo’s entries in the Metroid series. Axiom Verge isn’t a Metroid game. It’s a tribute to Metroid. My expectations were set to “respectable tribute.” Not “better than the originals”. But it is. And yeah, I’m a whippersnapper who was in my twenties when I played Super Metroid for the first time, so I’m not nostalgic for those SNES and GBA classics. You know what? I think even those who would burn me at the stake for saying Axiom Verge is better than Super Metroid (and it is) would have to at least stop and think about whether I’m right or not. It’s that good. It’s for real. It’s the best indie of all-time, at least in this Chick’s book.

Special Note: I am friends with Axiom Verge producer Dan Adelman, whom I previously interviewed on this blog. My friendships with game developers do not and will never influence my opinions on their games. My friends are my friends because I give them my unfiltered, often blunt opinions on their games. Ask my friend Marc. They expect nothing less from me. As for me, I would never be friends with anyone whose friendship is conditional, based on me liking their stuff. That’s not the way real friends treat each other. But my readers deserve to know who I’m friends with, so I’m letting them know.

Axiom Verge logoAxiom Verge was developed by Thomas Happ
Point of Sale: PlayStation 4, Steam

igc_approved1$17.99 (normally priced $19.99) has a father who screamed at her for including the hand job joke in the making of this review.

Axiom Verge is Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

A review copy of Axiom Verge was provided to Indie Gamer Chick prior to the game’s release on March 31. Indie Gamer Chick has since purchased a copy. All games reviewed by Cathy are paid for by her with her own money. For more on this policy, check out the FAQ.

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Haunt the House: Terrortown

Haunt the House: Terrortown is sort of like that old GameCube title Geist, only it’s not a first person adventure, you can’t possess people, and the game doesn’t fucking suck. It’s not great either. Like Geist, the concept seems like it should lend itself well to a video game, but there’s not a whole lot you can do with it. Unlike Geist, the game doesn’t attempt to pad out a shallow, low-mileage concept. Haunt the House can comfortably be finished in under an hour. That includes the free Christmas-themed DLC. No, this doesn’t mean it qualified for Short Subject Saturdays. Being able to hypothetically finish something in under twenty minutes doesn’t make it short subject. You can beat Mario 64 in under fifteen minutes. Tell me with a straight face that makes it short subject.

Haunt the House 1

There’s actually a lot of objects to inhabit in Haunt the House, though I’m not certain how some of them are supposed to scare people. In the DLC, you can possess a bulb on the Christmas Tree and make X-Wings attack it like the Death Star. What the fuck? How is that scary? “Oh shit people, GEORGE LUCAS IS HERE! RUN!”

I guess I enjoyed Haunt the House. I mean, there’s just not a lot to it. You enter objects, you make them do something scary. As people become more terrified, you get the ability to make objects do even scarier things. To win, you have to get people so pants-shittingly scared that they flee the stage. It’s actually very family friendly, which is probably why I didn’t fall in love with it. It’s a children’s game, with just enough play time to hold their attention for an hour. I tested this theory on Brent, a friend’s ten-year-old. And then I became one of those people. You know, those people who can’t tell what forms of entertainment will be enjoyed by which age groups. The ones that buy Barbies for thirteen-year-olds, or complex LEGO sets for five-year-olds. At ten years of ages, even Brent was too old to really get an appropriate lark out of Haunt the House. I forgot that kids these days have access to shows like Walking Dead, and their video games are an orgy of terror and violence. I thought maybe I had been wrong about the kids will love it stuff, but then I tested it on seven-year-old Kelvin. He thought it was jim dandy awesome. Also, I’m using the terms like “jim dandy” and “kids these days” to describe anything. Christ, how did I get so old and out of touch so quickly?

Can adults enjoy Haunt the House? Sure, but they’ll mostly just complain that it’s too short, too shallow, or too kiddy. I liked it, but I wasn’t exactly disappointed when the game ended in less time than it takes to watch an episode of House of Cards. Hell, I even found a game-killing glitch in that short time. On one stage, one of the women you have to scare was somehow stuck running a loop on a staircase. She would get to the top of the stairs, then teleport to the bottom and run up it again. There was no way to get her out of it, and it rendered the game unbeatable. The only work around was to quit out of the game and come back. When you do this, all your progress is retained but the woman will be somewhere else on the stage. Just keep her away from the stairs. And other issues abound. When a person is terrified to the point that they’ll leave the stage, sometimes they don’t exactly take the best pathway to do so. It reminded me of Carlton’s freakout from Fresh Prince. The AI has one job: leave the fucking house. It should be more efficient at doing so.

This is the spot where the girl got stuck in the staircase.

This is the spot where the girl got stuck in the staircase. Or did she? Maybe developer Tom Vian was trying to show the theory of space and relativity, showing that if you travel faster than the speed of light, you could end up causing an endless loophole of misery and repetition. This is actually one of the best uses I’ve ever seen for gaming to explain the laws of theoretical science and natu.. oh never mind, it was just a glitch.

Is it fun? Yea. Is it on the wrong platform? Yea. I know it came out on PlayStation Mobile, but really, it belongs on Wii U or 3DS. Is it over priced? Ohhhh yea. $4.99 is too much for a game with this little going for it. But if you’ve got wee ones or you can grab it for under $2, Haunt the House isn’t bad by any means. Had I realized Haunt the House was a game best suited for the under-nine set, I wouldn’t have played it. Haunt the House wasn’t designed for me. It was made for children. I’m a sophisticated adult. One who hides clips of a Japanese children’s television show in every review she does, but, um, what were we talking about?

Haunt the HouseHaunt the House was developed by SFB Games
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$4.99 yelled at kids to get off my lawn in the making of this review.

Haunt the House is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Default Dan

Default Dan is a novelty platformer, the hook being the game does the opposite of traditional gaming tropes. Coins kill you. Power-Ups kill you. Pitfalls don’t kill you. Springboards can’t be jumped off of. Spikes act like springboards. Sounds wacky and weird. And it is, until you realize that really it’s just any other platformer with the enemy and traps being reskinned. The only such gag that kept getting me were the coins. My brain, like the brains of all gamers, is wired to be like “OH, COINS! YOINK!” Even an hour into the game, my mind would wander just long enough for me to get snatchy with the coins and die. Otherwise, the gimmick gets old really quickly. Even the story, which flips the roles of a Bowser lookalike and a princess didn’t really work for me because the princess looks too, well, psychotic. Actually, she looks like a grown-up version of Elmyra from Tiny Toons. Which, yea granted, she’s one step below Annie Wilkes in the “chick you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a room alone with” scale, but still.

Anti-capitalist hippies!

Anti-capitalist hippies!

Default Dan is a decent platformer. It takes only a couple of stages for the gimmick’s novelty factor to wear off. That’s an occupational hazard with comedy games. For Default Dan, really, the concept should have been done as a little three or four stage free flash-game, while the developers put their efforts towards something with a little more meat behind it. Strangely, it doesn’t quite feel like they got the most out of the idea. The boss fights, for example, feel just like any old boss fight in any platformer. You would think they would make the gimmick “you have to get the boss to kill you” or something to beat it. Really, the only difference is the boss throws power-ups at you instead of projectiles, but they’re the same power-ups you’ve spent the last few levels avoiding. Again, it’s all just a glorified reskinning and it feels like it doesn’t go far enough. They should have just gone balls-to-the-wall nuts here. Mushrooms that make you small instead of big (as it is, they just kill you. Really, Mario Lost Levels already fucking did that). Bosses that you have to let kill you. Ice levels with spectacular play control. What’s actually here is downright tame.

Thankfully, Default Dan does have some decent level design. Nothing exceptional, but the stages scale well, add new mechanics through-out, provide a relatively fair challenge, and the game ends before it wears out its welcome. If you want more after the credits roll, there’s a second quest with tougher stages, or you can challenge the leaderboards for previous levels (the second quest’s stages did not have working leaderboards when I played this). The controls are solid, if slightly unresponsive. The collision detection is the biggest strike against Default Dan. Most of the enemies are beaten by jumping up into them. You have to be square under them for it to kill them. Otherwise, you die. Against the final boss, there were a couple of instances where I would hit her and it would register as hitting her, but then I would immediately die because of either how I was positioned when I hit her or because it switched from her “can be hit” sequence to her “invincible, can’t be hit” sequence while I was still midair and touching her. Yea, that was a bit of a run-on sentence. Sorry.

I had an idea for how Default Dan could have been a little more substantial: some kind of mechanic where you switch between the conventional gaming and the opposites stuff. So like, sometimes the coins help you, but then other times the coins kill you. Maybe have like an evil witch cause the game to switch back and forth between the two.

I had an idea for how Default Dan could have been a little more substantial: some kind of mechanic where you switch between the conventional gaming and the opposites stuff. So like, sometimes the coins help you, but then other times the coins kill you. Maybe have like an evil witch cause the game to switch back and forth between the two.

So, kind of mixed bag for Default Dan. The concept did catch my attention on the Steam marketplace. But, the novelty isn’t really strong enough to carry a $5.99 game whose main quest ends in well under an hour. The bosses are boring and don’t really defy convention, which is a big disappointment in a game whose sole hook is defying convention. But, there’s some inspired level design here, enough extra challenge to keep players happy after the credits roll, and a couple laughs to be had. It doesn’t reach its potential, but I had fun with Default Dan, so it wins my seal of approval. And not just by default.

Default Dan logoDefault Dan was developed by Kikiwik Games 
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$5.99 conceded that for an ice stage to have markedly better controls, the rest of the game would have had shit controls, so it’s probably a good idea they didn’t use that one in the making of this review.

Default Dan is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Schein

This is the first official “Money Where Your Mouth Is Challenge” from Indie Game Riot. The idea is, they will select a game that has fallen off my radar for me to review. I purchase the game, and they match the price of the game as a donation to the Epilepsy Foundation (in one big donation at the end of the year). In theory, they’re looking for good games for me. But I’m not so sure. I think they might have been trying to cause my blood pressure explode and give me a massive coronary with today’s game.

Dick Move

Schein is a platformer with a neat idea: certain platforms and traps only appear if the right color light is being is shining on them. This could, and in fact did, lend itself to some nice puzzles. The problem is, Schein wanted to be a puzzler, but it also wanted to be a punisher. Not just a punisher, but one that subscribes to the “no warning instakills” theory of challenge design. Forcing players to die as the only way of discovering a trap doesn’t make your game challenging. It’s not really a challenge if you have no hope of succeeding. All it really does is make you repeat the same section, now with full awareness that there is something that can kill you in a specific location. A real challenge is having something there that can still take you by surprise, but you also have a reasonable chance of reflexively avoiding.

Dick Move 2

Some people call this trial-and-error gaming. Trial-and-error gaming is perfectly fine, as long as the game is based just around that mechanic, such as The Impossible Game. Otherwise, trial-and-error only works as long as there’s a chance, even a remote one, of clearing an obstacle on your first attempt without needing luck. When you can’t, that’s just making busy work for players, and it’s not fun.  In Schein, you’ll sometimes be forced to turn your light on to see a platform. Sometimes though, the spot you’re standing on has a vine that is only deadly when you can see it, when the light is on. You had no way of knowing that vine is there and you die. Schein does this a lot. It’s such a common mistake among indie developers of punishers.

Dick Move 3

In the above example, the vine isn’t challenging. When you learn about it and die, you didn’t die due to difficulty. You died because you had no way of knowing it was there. Let me put it this way: let’s say you have a game where you’re in a town and you talk to one person in the town. That person tells you they’ll only give you what you need if you go to a person on the other side of the town.  You have to walk across the town to talk to that person, grab what they had, and then walk back. Was that a challenge? No. It’s just walking across town. Well the unseen vines in Schein are pretty much that. Run into a vine to discover its awareness, respawn at the check point, walk back to the spot where the vine is and hop over it before turning the light on. There was nothing challenging about it. All the vine did was make busy work for you. Go from point A to point B, watch unavoidable event, return to point A and go back to point B.

I wish Schein had just been a puzzler. It does puzzles fairly well. But the platforming mechanics are not suited for the type of game Schein might want to be. It’s a confused game, unsure whether it wants to be a punisher or a puzzler. There’s too many instakill spikes and vines, and because the game uses rectangular collision detection instead of mapping it to the character, the margin of error is razor-thin. Combine this with the bleak, joyless visuals and I just couldn’t get into the game. It was practically exhausting.

Dick Move 4

I quit Schein after putting four hours into it and not really enjoying any of it. My early optimism that this was going to be a less bleak take on the type of platforming Limbo made popular was gone within just a few minutes. If this hasn’t been IGR’s challenge against me, I wouldn’t have played it as much as I did. I wanted to find something to complement other than the voice acting and character design. But even the puzzles that I slogged through the platforming sections to get to became tedious busy work. The concept behind Schein is really solid. But the forced-repetition of the puzzles, bad collision detection, and some just plain bad design choices sink this one. On the opening stage, the area of green “revealing” light is fairly small. Why? It doesn’t help the game. The light stuff becomes significantly better after you beat the first boss and the light becomes bigger. Also, the placement of the checkpoints is mind-boggling too. Sometimes a fairly simple puzzle is sandwiched between two checkpoints, while at other times, the checkpoints are spread out so far that you’ll be practically begging for one to show up, so that you don’t have to run through a dull platforming section more than once. I spent more time wondering why such design choices were made when they only serve to contribute to the game being less fun. There is a satisfying puzzler somewhere in this mess, but it’s buried under so many bad choices that I personally can’t recommend Schein. I like puzzlers. I don’t like Schein. It’s boring. I wish I could see why so many people are raving about it, but I guess I’m in the dark.

ScheinSchein was developed by Zeppelin Studio
Point of Sale: Steam, Desura, Indie Game Stand

$9.99 said Geoffrey Rush was unavaiable for comment in the making of this review.

 

8BitBoy

I’m reviewing far too many neo-retro games. 8BitBoy lured me with a siren song of colorful, convincing retro graphics and a modest $0.99 price tag (when it was on sale. Price is now $3.99). An opening narration eases you into the charming, Neverending Storylike setting of a man who discovers that one of his beloved Sega Master System cartridges from his long-lost childhood has a label with a missing title. He plugs it in, and suddenly he’s in the game. I loved the idea. So it’s a real shame that the storyline never pops up again, at least until you beat the final boss. Only it does the Bubble Bobble thing where you have to get all the correct items to unlock the true ending. I didn’t bother trying, but for those who purchase 8BitBoy, you’ll be happy to know that it put a lot of stock in replay value. That is, assuming you can look past some of the worst play control seen in a good indie platformer that I’ve experienced.

Sigh. No, I can't ship the dev off to the Turkish prison. They have no room left for people who make ice stages. Because that would be like 99% of all platform games. Nobody likes ice stages. Stop making them.

Sigh. No, I can’t ship the dev off to the Turkish prison. They have no room left for people who make ice stages. Because that would be like 99% of all platform games. Nobody likes ice stages. Stop making them.

8BitBoy handles awfully, at least with an Xbox One controller. Part of that is on me and my clearly-demonically possessed left thumb. No matter how many times I rest it on the d-pad and tell it “you will use THIS! The stick is no good!” the damn thing has a life of its own. Serves me right for smoking nutmeg that one time. But, actually, stick or d-pad, movement is ultra slippery. The best example of how movement needed a lot of tuning up are the Super Mario like vines. Sometimes you’ll hit a block and a vine will come out. The act of climbing this vine should not be a chore, but simply going up it in a straight line is agony. I kept wiggling to the left and right. I’m told this is much easier with a keyboard. Um, yea? So what? Who wants to play a 2D hop-‘n’-bop platformer with a keyboard? I don’t. I haven’t spoken with the developer so I can only speculate what happened, but I’m guessing he designed the game to be played with a keyboard and the controller support was only added afterwards. When you turn on the controller, the cursor for selecting stuff from the menu is also mapped to the controller, even though it still handles like it’s mapped to the mouse.

There’s a lot of other weird control issues. The game does the Super Mario “hit the block to reveal the item or get coins” thing. Only in 8BitBoy, you have to be perfectly lined up with the block or just bonk off it to no effect. There’s really no benefit to making a player be perfectly lined up. It’s just busy work. Like Three Dead Zed, 8BitBoy feels like the all the movement physics are transplanted from a different game. There is no one-sized-fits-all style of movement physics. Two of my favorite-controlling platformers are Super Meat Boy and Shovel Knight. Both couldn’t be more different. Take Super Meat Boy’s controls and put them in Shovel Knight and the game would be a disaster. Put Shovel Knight’s into Super Meat Boy and the game would be unbeatable. As a developer of a 2D platformer, you need to make sure the play control is perfect for your game, based on nothing else but how your game should handle. Don’t say “I like how (Game) controls. I’m going to make mine handle that way!” Because what you’ve designed might not lend itself well to that. And for God’s sake, don’t stop testing with complete strangers until the moment you go gold. Once you’ve released, you’re sort of locked in. Ask the Three Dead Zed guys.

I’m really frustrated with 8BitBoy’s loose controls because everything else about it is sublime. I almost never talk about the graphics of a game, but what’s here is practically an 8-bit siren call. 8BitBoy is colorful, inviting, and beautiful. Well, opening level rainstorm not withstanding. Seriously, why would you start your game with a rainstorm? Rainstorms are depressing. Christ, is there some kind of unwritten rule that indies must be at least THIS bleak? I shudder to think of what an indie reboot of Mappy would be like. “Act One: Mappy’s mother just died of cancer. Mappy laid down in bed and began to cut himself. Going too deep, Mappy nicked an artery. Our adventure begins with Mappy slipping into unconsciousness..”

Gene Kelly is the only person who made rain seem less than bleak. For everyone else, rain is like liquid sadness. What was the tummy symbol on the unhappy Care Bear? RAIN!

Gene Kelly is the only person who made rain seem less than bleak. For everyone else, rain is like liquid sadness. What was the tummy symbol on the unhappy Care Bear? RAIN!

And that level design? Sorry to quote Inspector Gadget, but I’m feeling it here: wowzers. Perfect use of old school tropes here. Excellent moving platforms. Well placed spikes. TONS of hidden pathways and rooms. No matter how bad the controls were, I wanted to experience these stages. When I found a warp zone early on and skipped to the midway point of the second world, I was kind of bummed out. But, the fact that the level design is so inspired only serves to frustrate me with the controls more. How could a developer get one aspect of the game so fucking right and completely and utter airball an equally important component? You know, a common theme in indie gaming is final stages that go out with a whimper instead of a bang. Where you can tell the developer rushed the finale out just so they could see the game released and hear what people have to say about it. 8BitBoy doesn’t have that. The last levels are some of the best in the entire game. Normally that would have me looking to give the closest person a tearful hug of relief. Here, that made me just shake my head and wonder, what if they had got it right?

8BitBoy by all rights should be a top 25 game on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Does it do anything new? No. Instead, it feels like an all-star version of an old school tribute. Every conventional 2D mechanic is here and damn near perfect. Even though I spent my entire run cussing the controls, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have any fun. 8BitBoy is a lot of fun. It’s yet another one of those “dream game come to life” titles. But this dream game is a bit of a nightmare. The controls are completely unacceptable. I do absolutely recommend 8BitBoy, both to love-sick nostalgic types and cynical nostalgia-hating cynics such as myself. But I also recommend it as an example of a game that does everything right except the thing it needed to do most. Giving a game like this to a fan of platformers (such as myself) is like handing someone a Porsche without a gas pedal that has to be started like Fred Flintstone’s car. Hey, it’s still a Porsche, right! Just be ready to pick glass and rusty nails out of your feet.

8bitboy logo8BitBoy was developed by Awesome Blade
Points of Sale: Steam, Desura

igc_approved1$0.99 (normally priced $3.99) didn’t note above that there’s a nasty glitch where sometimes you have a reserve item, go to activate it, and the item is lost with nothing happening. They really ought to fix this in the making of this review.

8BitBoy is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Super Win: The Game

You know, for someone who “hates” retro gaming (their words, not mine), I sure review a lot of neo-retro stuff. I think I know why I’m drawn to games that look and play like this. Because with stuff like Super Win, you just know that the developers had dreamed of making it since they were little kids. I think it’s cool as shit to see a dream play out like this. Just look at Super Win. It has elements lifted from games like Metroid, Zelda II, Super Mario Bros, and probably several more NES-era classics I’ve never even played. It’s a fan service, only it’s made by a fan, for fans. There’s something admirable in that. As if the person waited their whole life for Nintendo to make a game like this, then threw up their hands and said “you know what, fuck it! I’ll do it myself!”

Sometimes that’s a disaster. Their hearts are usually in the right place, but something goes wrong and the final product is not so fun, even if you admire the effort. Ultimately, it comes down to the talent of the developer. You either have talent to make games or you don’t. You can safely file J. Kyle Pittman, creator of Super Win: The Game, under the “talented” column.

I chose not to play Super Win using the old-timey TV effects. Are you old people really nostalgic for crappy picture quality? Yikes!

I chose not to play Super Win using the old-timey TV effects. Are you old people really nostalgic for crappy picture quality? Really? Yikes!

Super Win is a Metroidvania where you take the role of a wandering hero. The good King of the land’s heart has been ripped out.. presumably he was a Seahawks fan.. and it’s up to you to piece it back together and bring happiness back to the kingdom. The over-world system, towns, and dungeon layout most closely resemble Zelda II, also known as the weird one that nobody really talks about anymore. You see a lot of indies spoof it. I expected more lampooning here. But, Super Win isn’t a parody. When games like this play the material straight, it usually comes across as too serious, maybe even a little pretentious. Super Win avoids falling into that trap. In fact, the story actually gets very deep and self-reflective. It was so unexpected that I kept waiting for the game to flip the switch and turn into a self-aware satire. It never happened. Kudos for that, developer. In a way, I feel like I had the wrong mindset going in to Super Win. It’s not my fault. I’ve had game after game condition me to expect stuff like this to aim for repetitive NES jokes. It’s actually really cool that Super Win took itself seriously, played the material sincerely, and succeeded. It’s one of the better surprises I’ve had at IGC.

Not so successful is the gameplay itself. Super Win’s mechanics are stripped down to bare-essential platforming elements. There’s no combat. You can’t kill enemies. There’s no bosses. Upgrades are limited to items that let you access other platforms. Platforming by itself is too old a mechanic to keep things interesting for multiple hours of questing. Yea, yea, LaserCat had no upgrades and even less mechanics. LaserCat was a 90-minute-at-best experience. And it had a map. It was designed to be finished quickly and not over-stay its welcome. Super Win will often leave you wondering if you’re tackling things in the correct order. You’ll wish there was some kind of map that pointed you in the correct direction. If you know what you’re doing, you can probably finish Super Win in an hour or so. I put about six hours into it, most of which was spent sort of wandering around. When I found an item that I needed to progress, it never felt like I was on the right track. Instead, it felt like I had simply stumbled upon the item. There was really never a sense of accomplishment while playing Super Win. It seemed all the progress I made was purely by accident.

Show of hands: who spent at least a minute trying to figure out how to make the cat jump off the the balcony?

Show of hands: who spent at least a minute trying to figure out how to make the cat jump off the the balcony?

To its credit, the game handles really well. Controls are rock solid with an Xbox One pad. I just wish the level design took advantage of it. Stages are so conventional in their layouts that it’s hard to get truly sucked in by the experience. Part of that is because you can only do so much when you’re working with bare-bones platforming mechanics. You eventually get a double jump and a wall jump, the latter of which has some nifty little sections that utilize them. One spot stuck out to me. A wall of spikes featured a series of blocks that shifted in and out of existence. You had to time your wall jumps off the disappearing blocks up and over the spiked wall. That was awesome. Challenging. And sad, because over the course of the entire game, that’s the only spot that really stuck out to me as trying something new.

Well, except the dream sequences that usually come after finding an item. Those were unexpected, disorienting, and fucking awesome. They totally defy convention, which left me wishing they had made a game based around them. I started to look forward to them. But even those betrayed me. The last couple of them I finished in just seconds. Seconds! Super Win, you shameless tease of a game, you! I can’t believe I could accuse a game that utterly nails the retro feel the way it does of being unambitious, but I sort of have to. Another example is the key system. Finding or buying keys to open doors is a core mechanic of the game. You even have the ability to borrow keys from lenders, as long as you pay them back. Sounds great! But, you can buy a master-key that unlocks all the doors for only 30 gems. I had that after just an hour of playtime. It was too easy to acquire and it crippled what was an interesting concept. At first, I thought it was simply a case of being too cheap. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have existed at all. You can also buy access to other levels (a part that reminded me of Star Road in Super Mario World) after you purchase the master-key, but after that, there’s nothing really left.

I have this term that I use called “Late Development Anxiety.” It’s a theory of mine that, when a game gets close to completion, developers get so anxious to release their game that they just speed along the final bits of their project. While the writing at the end of Super Win is satisfying, and the level design does get slightly more interesting, it still feels like it was rushed out the door, ultimately ending with a whimper instead of a bang. This happens so much on the indie scene that I’m almost certain it’s a real phenomena. The end bits of a game should have a feel of finality to them, and Super Win super fails at that. J. Kyle Pittman is undoubtedly a very talented game designer. If this review came across as particularly harsh, it’s only because I don’t feel like he reached his fullest potential here.

♫Spikes, spikes, everywhere are spikes. Pointy and killy, impaling my mind! ♫

Spikes, spikes, everywhere are spikes! Pointy and killy, impaling my mind!

He will some day. For all the complaining I did above, Super Win is a very satisfying experience. A childhood dream project, fully realized and undoubtedly fun. I love playing games like that. And this comes from a hateful millennial that doesn’t even like the NES and thinks games like the original Legend of Zelda or Metroid aren’t fun at all when stacked against the type of games they make in 2015. I wasn’t its target audience, but I liked Super Win: The Game. I think you’ll like it too! I’ve spent the last week telling all my NES-loving friends that they really need to give it a try. It doesn’t do anything wrong, per se. Most of my complaints are about what it didn’t do. The level design is fairly straight forward, conventional, and honestly kinda bland. But the writing is top-notch, and when it gets ambitious, it gets really good. This is a nostaligic tribute done right. Congratulations, Kyle! You did it!

Oh, and now for the awkward part, Mr. Pittman. I checked with my attorney and he found out that I get to horse whip you for the slow underwater movement. Too Sonicy. Look at the bright side, I’m letting you off the hook for the ice level, but that’s only because the Shovel Knight guys haven’t finished their sentence in the Turkish prison.

Super Win logoSuper Win: The Game was developed by J. Kyle Pittman
Point of Sale: Steam

IGC_Approved$12.99 doesn’t even get nostalgic for games from her own generation in the making of this review.

Super Win is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

samurai_jazz

Today’s game is called samurai_jazz. No caps, and an underscore instead of a space. I think that’s meant to be a joke, because the game has 8-bit graphics. You know, back in the 8-bit days, people used punctuation. Get it? It’s an anachronism! Ha! Haha!

Or it wasn’t meant to be a joke, just a stylization thing. Well, I laughed either way.

What I’m not laughing at is the game itself. samurai_jazz is a prime example of how I can’t get into a game at all if it controls poorly. The basic concept is you hack-and-slash your way through enemies, occasionally taking part in key quests that open up more levels for you to hack-and-slash through. It gets dull really quickly, though that’s because you spend the majority of the experience fighting with the controls.

To the game's credit, it does make a joke about the name of the diner being "EAT."

To the game’s credit, it does make a joke about the name of the diner being “EAT.”

I’ll give samurai_jazz this: it does feel like an early NES game. I mean, besides the tiny little squirts of blood that come from enemies. Not to mention the first thing you see when you start the game is a guy commit Seppuku. By the way, is there a more horrific act that one can do that has such an adorable-sounding name attached to it? It’s a cute word! It sounds like something you would name a baby penguin. But really, I’m over the whole “graphic 8-bit violence” thing. Was novel for a while. These days, it’s about as common an indie convention as it gets. I’m also still not fully sure what the opening suicide had to do with the game, since the story unfolds only in dialog and, as far as I can tell, wasn’t brought up again over the next three chapters. In fact, there’s not an actual lot of storytelling done at all. Weirdly enough, the marketing blurb brought up the writing, but what little is here didn’t exactly stand out to me. Most characters that do talk only do so to note that you need to fetch an item to proceed to the next part of the game. Maybe the story becomes more in-depth later. I wouldn’t know. I quit midway through the third chapter. I know some people don’t like it that I still go forward with writing reviews for games that I quit early. My response is I paid for the game, I put a couple hours into it, I didn’t like it and I know why I didn’t like it. I think I have a right to say why I didn’t.

I’m a control freak. I need accurate controls. Ideally, I should not even notice the controller at all when I play. If a developer accomplishes that, they’ve done a spectacular job. With samurai_jazz, the controls were so unresponsive that I actually thought my Xbox pad was broken. I switched to a different one. Then I switched from using Xbox One controllers to Xbox 360. I mean, maybe an elephant had gotten loose in my house and stomped on all my controllers. Well, something was broken, but it wasn’t them. Unlike a martial arts movie, enemies in samurai_jazz do the sensible thing with you: gang up and attack all at once instead of being polite and engaging you one at a time. That would be fine if controls didn’t have a massive delay. Turning to face the enemies you intend to slice-up shouldn’t be so difficult. But sometimes the inputs just do not respond to you. I don’t know what else to say. When you try to face an enemy and the controller is fickle about when it listens to you or not, that’s sort of a deal breaker for any action game. It’s not just movement, either. Often when you press the attack button, you don’t actually swing your sword. I think it might have to do with how the game requires you to stop moving before changing direction or going into an attack. If that’s by design, it’s a horrible idea, plain and simple.

Because movement is so inconsistent, it screws up almost every other aspect of the game. There’s a block-counter system in place, but you can’t possibly get the timing of it down because the inputs don’t always listen to you. There’s also timed spike-trap puzzles that become infuriating because the act of simply walking in anything but a straight line can be subject to the whims of the game. I figured maybe switching over to the keyboard would help. Although that does improve things (especially attacking), movement can still be sticky and unresponsive. The majority of my deaths playing samurai_jazz would not have happened if the character had done the stuff my button presses had told it to do. I’m sorry to say this, but yea, it does render everything else irrelevant. Someone argued against that idea when I posted my Shovel Knight review and said If the controls had been sloppy, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate all the other stuff that people have been raving about. It would have all been irrelevant, because the game would have been no good.”

These fireball-throwing ladies are indicative of everything wrong with samurai_jazz. How would you like to die against them? Option A: try to block their attack with your sword, press the attack button, not have your sword actually attack, die. Option B: try to dodge the fireballs. Press a direction to move out of the way of an incoming fireball, but have your character ignore your commands, sit perfectly still, and die. It's nowhere near as bad if you use a keyboard, but I would never want to play a game like this with a keyboard. I only bought it because it had Xbox 360 controller support.

These fireball-throwing ladies are indicative of everything wrong with samurai_jazz. How would you like to die against them? Option A: try to block their attack with your sword, press the attack button, not have your sword actually attack, die. Option B: try to dodge the fireballs. Press a direction to move out of the way of an incoming fireball, but have your character ignore your commands, sit perfectly still, and die. It’s nowhere near as bad if you use a keyboard, but I would never want to play a game like this with a keyboard.

I don’t understand how anyone can argue against that. If the controls are awful to the point of distraction, how can anyone say a game is worth playing? Controls for me will always be paramount. Get them wrong, and nothing else matters. This concept should not be controversial.

I don’t know if I would have liked samurai_jazz if it had decent or better controls. It seemed kind of dull. Light on story, incredibly repetitive combat, bland setting, and boring mechanics. But who knows? Maybe I would have appreciated the gameplay itself if I hadn’t been forced to repeat room after room just because I wanted to face an enemy to the right of me and kept facing anywards but the way I wanted to. It certainly would have made the pace faster, making it harder for tedium to set in. But, honestly, I don’t think it would have been my thing either way. The 8-bit violence thing is old hat by now. Everyone does it. I had the slightest hint of a smile when I killed my first enemy by literally cutting them in half. But then, enemies started showing up that had no actual attack animation themselves, and when you kill them, they don’t have any death animation. They just sort of blink out of existence. I can’t help but wonder if this is one of those games where the developer started the project all full of energy and enthusiastic to get the ball rolling, but just ran out of will halfway through. Instead of shelving the game or taking a break, they rushed it through just to say they finished it. No clue if that’s the case here, but I’ve seen it enough that I at least wonder if that’s what happened. Either way, it’s a shame. The concept is solid, and it certainly looks and sounds the part, but samurai_jazz had me singing the blues.

samurai 1samurai_jazz was developed by Blaze Epic
Point of Sale: Steam

$0.99 kept calling it “samurai_jack” in the making of this review.

 

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