Castle Invasion, Life of Pixel (Second Chance with the Chick), and Super Skull Smash GO!

I figured it’s time for another kick at the PlayStation Mobile can.  While my previous efforts to didn’t turn up any original games that I could point to and say “see, PlayStation Mobile is off to a decent start”, I figure it’s worth a second look.  At least it would be, if games weren’t priced like this.

PSM Store 2

Or like this.

PSM Store 3

Or this.

PSM Store 1

Okay.  Just to be clear, you guys want people to actually buy your games, right?  And you also realize that you’re on PlayStation Vita, where a PlayStation Plus subscription can net you AAA games for free?  Or where standard discounts can get you some really great games for around that price?  Hell, you’re also competing directly with Android phones, where you can get some of the best games of this generation for $0.99 or less.  You should make some effort to be competitive.  You already have no demos, making your games high-risk to consumers.  Why make them so out-of-bounds high risk that nobody in their right mind would take a chance on them?  I would gladly fork over $3 for what looks like an FMV fishing game, because that sort of quirky weird shit is right up my ally.  $5?  That would be a tough sell for actual fans of FMV fishing games, which is a large and robust fanbase to alienate.

So instead, I grabbed Castle Invasion for a measly 49 cents.  And I definitely got what I paid for.  Simple concept: shoot dudes before they reach the castle wall.  Gallery shooters like this are a bit relicy (that’s a word as of right now), but I figure there’s all kinds of neat twists developers can slap on them.  Not here.  Dudes run at you, and you shoot them.  Stronger dudes run at you.  You shoot them.  Faster dudes run at you.  You shoot them.  Sometimes you use arrows, sometimes you use spears that can penetrate multiple enemies, but otherwise it’s the same shit over and over again and it’s boring.  Not only that, but it had a tendency to crash.  Spring for the extra penny and sink your money in a gumball.  The flavor will last about 90 seconds, which makes that a longer-term investment than Castle Invasion.

Castle Invasion. The most excited thing since buttered toast.  Which I don't find to be particularly exciting.

Castle Invasion. The most excited thing since buttered toast. Which I don’t find to be particularly exciting.

Up next was Life of Pixel ($1.99), which has been patched.  I played it last month, and found the graphics to be authentic, but the control was sketchy and the level design focused a little too much on leap-of-faith gameplay.  That’s mostly fixed now.  Controls are silky smooth, double jumping never failed, the frame-rate never dropped, and some of those leaps-of-faith are now a thing of memory.  Some.  There were a few sections of the game where you simply have to leap blindly and hope for the best.  Some call this “trial and error.”  Bullshit.  The “trial” part suggests you have a fighting chance.  Blind luck is not a fighting chance.  It’s fucking blind luck, and there’s still a lot of it in Life of Pixel.  I call this “gotcha gameplay.”  And I’m sick of it.  It pops up too much on the indie scene.  Yea, I know games used to be like this, but that doesn’t mean they still have to be.  And I’ve got a solution.

I’ve arranged for every indie development kit, across all platforms, to come bundled with a man named Roberto.  Now, Roberto will pretty much stay out of your way.  Just leave some bread and something to drink out for him, but otherwise you shouldn’t notice him.  Unless you start to put “GOTCHA!” moments into your game.  Unavoidable deaths, blind leaps, hidden traps that are impossible to see or avoid, etc.  When you attempt this, Roberto will come out of hiding, place a pot on your head, and bang the pot sixteen times with a five-pound, stainless-steel soup ladle.  After this, he’ll remove the pot, look you in your now vacant, concussed eyes, and scream “GOTCHA!”  Then he’ll slink back into the shadows and allow you to undo the mess you just made of your game.  I think this idea is a good one.

I fucking HATED HATED HATED this level of Life of Pixel, which featured more blind jumps than Lighthouse International's annual hurdles race.

I fucking HATED HATED HATED this level of Life of Pixel, which featured more blind jumps than LensCrafter’s annual hurdles race.

Despite Life of Pixel being my inspiration for the Roberto Policy, I have to say that the game is vastly improved.  By that, I mean it’s playable, and hey, even a little fun.  They even included a soundtrack that, gasp, somewhat matches the classic gaming eras that were the inspiration in the first place.  I mean, it was downright boneheaded to not include such soundtracks in the first place, but I’ll let it slide.  I did just give the team at Super Icon  multiple instances of brain damage by testing the Roberto Policy on them.  They deserve a break.  They also deserve an Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval.  They took a shitty, broken game and made it fun.  That’s a sign of a developer with true talent, and I salute them for it.

Roberto, pot their head one last time.  Just out of principle for making me eat my words.

Finally, Super Skull Smash GO!  It’s a retro-style puzzle-platformer that was priced at $3.29 last week, but it’s down to $2.79 this week.  Is that a good price for it?  Hmmmmm not really.  I can get better games on my iPhone or on XBLIG that offer more play value at half the price.  Is it a bad game?  Not at all.  You play as a dude who has to hop on skeletons, grab their skulls, and smash them against a giant, golden cross.  Glad to see Yale’s fraternal initiation turn into a full-fledged video game.

Super Skull Smash GO

I would call the graphics fossilized, but considering Super Skull Smash GO! stars a bunch of skeletons, I’m guessing that was the point.

Despite the primitive graphics, Super Skull Smash GO! is a fairly clever puzzler that keeps throwing new twists in until the end.  Having said that, the collision detection is too sensitive, and the jumping physics are a little heavy.  By far the biggest thing I had to struggle with was jumping through narrow corridors and repeatedly fucking up because the spot you can jump from or to is so small and unforgiving.  Plus, lining up a skull to throw at just the right height can also be troublesome.  The game seems to have issues with following parameters.  I’m not going to be too hard on it for that.  I can relate.  I have the ankle monitor to prove it.

I still recommend it, because it’s a fun little game with puzzle design unlike anything I’ve ever played.  And hey, I’ve now found two original PlayStation Mobile games that are priced to afford and worth your time to play.  It’s a step in the right direction.  I do wish developers would be smarter about how they market their games.  That overhead airplane fighter game thing above, Blue Skies.  For all I know, it might be a good game.  It looks like it’s based on some classic games that a lot of people would be interested in.  You know, the type of games you can routinely buy on platforms like PSN, XBLA, and Virtual Console for under $7?  This is one of those “what were they thinking?” moments.  Without the benefit of demos (and hell, most PSM games don’t even bother with trailers on YouTube), all PSM games are a risk to consumers.  How many people will take a $7 for one game risk when the same $7 can net them multiple games, some of which they’re bound to like.  I got two pretty decent games in Super Skull Smash GO! and Life of Pixel for $5.28.  That’s $1.71 less than the risk of buying Blue Skies and hating it.  Fuck that.  That kind of money buys a lot of gumballs.

Super Skull Smash GO! and Life of Pixel are Chick Approved

IGC_Approved

Life of Pixel

Update: Life of Pixel received a Second Chance with the Chick and is now Chick ApprovedClick here for the updated review

Indie gaming fans keep asking me to look outside of Xbox Live Indie Games for material to do my reviews on.  However, my loyalty remains with XBLIG, so I only hit up other platforms when I’m suffering from complete and total burnout of XBLIG due to the endless mountain of shit that populates the platform.  That’s the only time I look elsewhere.

So um..

Let’s see what’s on PlayStation Mobile this week, shall we?  What have we here?  A Super Meat Boy-esq punisher with the hook being you’re a pixel who journeys through gaming history?  Interesting.  Of course, I’ve already played a game where you journey through game history, and if that one had been any bigger a disaster they would have to scrub the Titanic from history books just to make room for it.  However, as a concept, a stroll through gaming history is not only sound, but enticing.  That’s why I chose to pick up Life of Pixel, even though it’s one of those godforsaken punishers.

Life of Pixel

Looks Atarishi, I guess.

I want to start by saying that artistically, Life of Pixel is mostly a triumph.  The eight worlds presented authentically capture the look of each era they pay tribute to.  I’m guessing at least.  Some of the platforms covered are vintage UK-only PCs such as the Spectrum or the 2X81, along with such American relics as the Commodore 64.  As an American born in 1989, I have never touched those platforms, nor do I plan on it.  But, comparing screenshots to games from those devices, they look spot-on.  However, no effort at all was made for the games to sound like their respective platforms.  There’s a single awful chip-tune that plays no matter which era you’re in, and all stages make the same bleeps and bloops.  Why go so far to look authentic but not sound authentic?  It makes no sense at all.  It would be like having the most accurate-looking Elvis impersonator on the planet performing hip-hop.

Where the game falls apart completely is level design.  There is cheap design, and then there is Life of Pixel.  Every bad possible design choice is given center-stage here.  Leap of faith platforming, blind jumps, no checkpoints in slow-paced large levels, erratic enemy movement, and an overall sense that the game really wants you to not have a good time playing it.  It ultimately comes across like a poor Super Meat Boy clone.  The main character even looks like Super Meat Boy.  But this is yet another case of a developer not grasping why that game was so popular.  Nothing in Super Meat Boy was unfair.  It required little to no guess-work from the player.  And dying wasn’t so bad because levels were fast paced and respawning was quick.  Plus, death was sort of rewarded by the fact that you got to see a replay of all your failures play out simultaneously at the end of each stage.  The only reward in Life of Pixel is seeing a new graphics style when you open a new world.  A novelty that wears off on average in about 11.3 seconds each time you get a new world.

Actually, this looks slightly different from the Spectrum ports I've seen on XBLIG, so I'm not sure how close this is to the real thing.

Actually, this looks slightly different from the Spectrum ports I’ve seen on XBLIG, so I’m not sure how close this is to the real thing.

I can’t even complain about the controls really.  They’re mostly accurate, and offer non-slippery controls and decent jumping physics.  100% of Life of Pixel’s problems are level-design related.  The game is cheaper than a dime store whore and seems to revel in that fact.  There are one or two other design flaws.  Early stages are single-screen affairs, and during these the game is quite fun.  But once you get to the Spectrum era, the game does that thing where you have to walk to the edge of the screen to scroll the level over, and it scrolls a full screen at a time.  The game doesn’t pause while it does that scroll thing, and so if you have to jump to a platform, it’s a forced blind jump that often will result in your death.  It’s something that is horrible and cheap for the sake of being horrible and cheap.  Later stages avoid the “scroll a full screen at a time” design in favor of smoother scrolling, but the level design never strays away from “be as cheap as possible.”

There’s also spikes that retract into the walls only to pop out again.  These are weird because you can walk over them as long as they are like 75% buried in the ground.  It makes getting the timing down of when you can make a run for it nearly impossible.  I’m not sure why they didn’t just have the spikes retract and pop up faster than they did, except again, because it’s aggravation just for the sake of being aggravating.  Finally, sometimes dying is a slow process.  In the best punishers, death and respawning happen quickly.  Here, if you land in water (or quicksand), you slowly sink down and have to wait for your character to reach the bottom, linger for a bit, and then blink out of existence.  It’s absolutely amazing that a game that so clearly wants to be Super Meat Boy could end up getting wrong every single thing that made Super Meat Boy the beloved cult hit that it is.  Bad level design, lack of rewarding gameplay, blind jumps, slow deaths, and boring, sprawling levels.

Don't worry. Nothing about Life of Pixel gets me wet.

Don’t worry. Nothing about Life of Pixel gets me wet.

Yea, maybe trial-and-error platforming was a big deal thirty years ago, but we’re in 2013 now.  100% authenticity was obviously not a priority for Life of Pixel, as evidenced by the half-assed sound, so why make the game so cheaply frustrating?  I’m so pissed off because these guys obviously had talent.  There’s no way they could make a game that looks this good and controls this acceptably just by sheer fucking luck.  So what happened guys?  Why did you choose to make your game so unfair and unlikable that it’s almost certain to never catch on by word of mouth?  The amount of potential squandered here makes me want to cry.  And by the way, my friends are disappointed that there’s no Life of Pi reference here, but I disagree, because this game proves there is no God.

logoLife of Pixel was developed by Super Icon Ltd

$1.99 searched for a Life of Pixel trailer on YouTube and instead found a video series about a little girl named Pixel in the making of this review.  Who the hell would name their daughter Pixel?  I look forward to meeting her siblings, Polygon and Bit-Mapping. 

In all seriousness, I couldn’t find any gameplay footage of this on YouTube.  If someone finds some, give me a heads up.

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