Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap

I love making my readers feel old. There’s something satisfying on a primal level about sending them to their bathrooms to cry and check their hairlines when I mention things like how I was only ten-years-old when the Sega Dreamcast released in North America. In that spirit, here’s me reviewing a remake of Wonder Boy III, a game which released for the Sega Master System in July, 1989. Do you know what else released in July of 1989?

Me.

Into the world.

From my mother’s vagina.

Yep, you’re old. I’m not. Suck it.

Of course, it’s kind of bizarre that I’m reviewing a game that was, at the time of its original release, clearly not an indie. It was a major tent-pole console exclusive. Sega’s answer to Super Mario 3. Not only am I reviewing it, but I’m counting it as an indie game. For my new readers, I have a rule: for the rare non-indies that I cover here (South Park: Stick of Truth, The Simpsons Arcade Game, or Peggle 2 among others), win or lose, I don’t count them towards the IGC Leaderboard’s percentile rankings. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap will count, and spoiler alert, I’m giving it my Seal of Approval. But wait, you say: how can a major first-party game (it was published by Sega for the Master System) that was their best weapon in their war against Nintendo before the Genesis possibly be an indie today?

I’ve been doing Indie Gamer Chick for six years. I’ve reviewed over 550 games. I was, and probably still am, the defacto face of an entire indie gaming platform (rest in peace, XBLIG). If anyone would know what exactly makes a game “indie” or not, it would be me. But the truth is, I would have an easier time defining the meaning of life than defining an indie. (By the way, the meaning of life is that cream cheese mixed with powdered sugar makes a delicious frosting. Everything else is meaningless.) At one point, the gang at Zen Studios protested that I denied their Chick-Approved genre-smörgåsbord Castlestorm a spot on the Leaderboard on the basis that they made video-pinball games using the Star Wars IP. Star Wars clearly is not and never would be considered an indie game, and I felt at the time any studio big enough or reputable enough to be selected to develop for that license shouldn’t be considered for indie status. Zen Studios challenged that and convinced me otherwise. So while their work with the Star Wars IP wouldn’t qualify, Castlestorm certainly did.

I often complain about action-adventure indies that forget to make the hero “blink” long enough after taking damage. That’s not an issue with Wonder Boy. Actually, it goes to the other extreme: sometimes you blink so long it could take as long as a minute before you stop being juggled by enemies and regain the ability to, you know, move and fight back. But at least you’re not taking damage during that shit. This is the final boss, and I spent more time recoiling from damage during it than actually fighting it. Look closely to the right of it and you can see me stun-locked.

Which brings us to Wonder Boy III’s remake. The new one, not the old one. Uh, yea, in case you didn’t know, it’s already been remade once. Because of ambiguous rights issues that practically require a flow-chart (the original Wonder Boy was remade as Adventure Island for the NES and THAT spawned a completely different series, making it the Power Rangers of video games), Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap was released a year after the SMS version on the Turbo Grafx 16 (PC Engine in Japan) under the name “Dragon’s Curse.” This is the version I bought on Wii Virtual Console in 2007, so I was already familiar with it. And I quite liked it back then. I mean, the controls were so slippery that it felt like someone had buttered the floor, and this was also around the time my epilepsy developed and I had to look away from the screen quite a bit. But still, really nice game. As someone who grew up in the PlayStation era, it was one of my favorite lost classics the Virtual Console allowed me to rediscover.

This remake is actually reverse-engineered from the SMS original. So, yea, it’s a $20 ROM hack. Only there’s never been a ROM hack like this. The guys at Lizardcube painted absolutely gorgeous facades over the original graphics. While I’m fairly sure that all the original collision boxes were retained, the effort is so admirable and so striking that you have to tip your hat to them. You can switch back and forth between the original graphics and the 2017 remake on the fly, and sometimes I found myself doing it just so I could be gobsmacked by how much work they put into it. Here’s what the game looked like in 1989.

And here’s the exact same shot, only with the 2017 graphics.

Wow.

Of course, being a ROM hack that aspires to faithfully recreate the original means all the warts are along for the ride. Wonder Boy has terrible platforming controls. Floaty, loose, laggy at times. The weird thing is, the developers did fix a few things, including the most obvious flaw. In the original game, you needed to acquire and equip a sword to break some of the stone blocks. Pausing the game to equip this killed the pace and was just tedious busy-work, especially when you acquire a sword that lets you create breakable blocks that you then have to switch back-and-forth with. Even for its time, it’s such an obviously stupid design choice that it’s astonishing it took nearly thirty years for someone to fix it. In the remake, they’ve eliminated the block-busting sword. Instead, the stone breaking thingy is a charm that, once you have it, is always equipped regardless of what sword you’re using. But besides adjustable difficulty (very welcome since the bad controls made the original a maddening experience), the block-breaking issue is the only major fix. It’s like a dermatologist saying “well, you’ve got a lot of moles, but we’re only going to remove the one on your nose. Because it’s cancerous. And also, we’re going to need you to pay in cash from now on.”

I can’t really blame the developers on some of the more glaring issues with the original. But, because they clearly recognized that some aspects of the game hadn’t aged gracefully, I can’t give them a pass on them either. While the concept of switching between different animal forms was, and still is, inspired, Wonder Boy III didn’t use the idea to its fullest. The level design varies from decent to atrocious. Each animal-form is acquired by completing a dungeon. The mouse’s dungeon is repeating a series of identical zig-zag rooms on the left side of a giant pyramid, then dropping to the bottom of it and doing a repeating series of identical zig-zag rooms from the right side of a giant pyramid. Click the link. See that? Repeat that six trillion times, or at least it feels that long. Only the enemies might change, but otherwise it’s exhausting in its dullness. But that’s not even the worst level! The lion’s stage is series of flat rooms without platforms or puzzles or anything but ninjas (random). It’s incredibly lazy and uninspired. It feels like the original developers just gave up or lost their will, or surrendered to writer’s block. I don’t know the story on it, but Wonder Boy III came out after Super Mario 2, a milestone title in the realm of level design. Even for its time, these stages are the rice cake of game design: better than tofu and edible, but certain to leave you wanting something more. It’s a stripped-down Metroidvania, and it shows its age.

The lion’s animal power is being able to swing its sword in a top-to-bottom slashing motion, allowing you to break blocks above you. So the lion’s power is awareness that “up” is a thing.

Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Grinding up money is fun (assuming you don’t outright cheat the game by opening a treasure chest in the town, returning to the title screen and going back to the now full-again chest, which I, ahem, most certainly would not do, cough), the different animals are a blast, and the variety of weapons is nifty. I just wish instead of doing an artistic upgrade, they had just remade the whole game with new levels and new dungeons. In fact, LizardStation did add new dungeons called “The Unknown”, but they’re hidden and I didn’t find any in the three hours it took me to finish. I only discovered them because the final one unlocks after the credits and features you playing as the human Wonder Boy (or, optionally, Wonder Girl, which changes nothing but allows the game to be listed under the “female protagonist” tag on Steam, a tag which in no way feels like it’s mostly used as a cynical way of monetizing political correctness and equality. No sir or ma’am) and shows you where’s it’s located. There’s one of these new “Unknown” dungeons for each animal form, but I didn’t know they even existed when I played through it, let alone where they were hidden at. I tried to play the Human dungeon but literally the first screen was so poorly designed, requiring precision movement from a game infamous for shitty controls that I immediately lost interest in trying more. It felt like one of those, well, ROM-hacks.

When I first started playing it, I told Indie Gamer Team that this felt like a fan project that got noticed by the IP holders and made legitimate. As it turns out, that’s what 2017’s remake of Wonder Boy III actually is. That’s really cool. When we think of the nature of what makes something indie or not, something like The Dragon’s Trap doesn’t make things easier for us. It’s a fascinating anomaly that both suits and defies nearly every label. A former marquee console headliner that went on to become one of the most unsung indie gems three decades later. Just, weird. While I liked it, and I would love to see more remakes along these lines, I would have preferred Lizardbox fix the control issues and the stuff that actually matters to gameplay over painting over the problems, even though they were very good at painting. It would be like buying a 2017 Porsche 911 that has the option to transform instantly into the original 1964 Porsche 911. That would be fucking sweet, right? But what if it turned out the car’s specs, no matter which version of the Porsche it looked like, were the 1964 model’s, with the only modern concession being a CD player instead of a radio? I’m not sure that’s something most people would want. Hell, maybe not even fans of the original would want it. It’s why I have to give the nod to DuckTales Remastered as the better remake. It remembered that it had a chance to right every wrong, not just the really obvious stuff. Whereas DuckTales was a trip down memory lane for retro gamers but still modern and slick (granted over-produced to the point of annoyance), I don’t think Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap 2017 will be that for gamers of all ages. I showed it to my Godfather’s 10-year-old grandson C.J. and it didn’t hold his attention. His father said “it would have probably made a good rental from the video store back in the day.”

Then C.J. asked “what’s a video store?”

What’s a video store? Why you little twerp, a video store is a place that people used to go to..

OH GOD, IT’S HAPPENING TO ME TOO NOW!

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap was developed by Lizardcube
Point of Sale: Steam, PS4, Xbox One, Switch

$19.99 just won a $100 bet that she could work in the phrase “from my mother’s vagina” seamlessly into a review in the making of this review. Pay up, Dad!

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Debate if should be eligible in the comments.

Advertisements

Short Subject Saturdays: Dead Horizon

Dead Horizon is a light gun game without the gun. One that should probably take the average player around five minutes to finish. And it’s yet another free-to-play game that, despite a lifespan that would make a mayfly shake their head in pity, is probably worth at least a buck. In short summary.. really short since I don’t want to spend more time writing about this game then it took me to finish it.. you play as a farm girl who inadvertently finds herself as a legendary gunfighter. It has all the trimmings of a pretentious short-subject indie film, including the most cringe-inducing ending to any game I’ve played at Indie Gamer Chick with the possibly exception of the 4th Wall. This is a seriously weird game to review because it doesn’t even give you enough time to like or hate it. It ends before the point where the goo in my brain even begins to register stimuli. I guess I wish there were a few more stages, or something more difficult than lowering my mouse to the bottom of the screen and then raising it back up and clicking. And come to think of it, the game seemed really fickle about what constituted lowering the cursor and raising it back up. But otherwise it’s worth a look. Sorry if that doesn’t sound enthusiastic enough. It’s a five-minute long gunless light gun throwback. What do you want?

“Blood and Piss” isn’t just about passing Kidney Stones anymore!

But I wanted to review this because, as much as I hate to keep harping on this, the developer really should have thrown a buck on this. I met him when he asked me to review this and he seemed nice. He was probably a little perplexed that I was brow-beating him for not charging at least a dollar for Dead Horizon before even playing it. Seemed like an odd thing to bitch about, especially for a game I hadn’t even played. He told me he felt he couldn’t justify the price because of the length.

You know, when I was younger, there was a little miniature carousel at the grocery store my parents took me to. It cost $0.50 to sit on it for a minute. Pretty solid investment for a minute of overwhelming joy. I asked my Mom if she remembered watching me ride it. She said “well yeah, it was like three weeks ago. It was embarrassing, Cathy. You’re nearly 30. For God’s sake don’t tell anyone.” My point is, nobody in their right mind expects that small of an investment to be a permanent investment that they can hit up again and again and again and again and hang on I think we’re out of milk……………..

Right, point. Sorry I, uh, needed milk. I wasn’t riding the carousel again. The one with the pink unicorn. Ahem. Forgot to get cereal. No point in getting milk without cereal!

Resolution? Ha, what’s that?

Okay, so, look, $1 is NOT a permanent investment in entertainment. You spend $1 for delicious Mega Fruit Gum, or to ride the miniature carousel with the pink unicorn while it plays Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star, or to play whatever shitty modern arcade games your local big box happens to have near the checkout counters. Because literally every single person who has ever been into an arcade has spent at least $1 in their lifetimes playing games that lasted under five minutes. Nobody in their right minds expects that $1 to keep giving them jollies years later. So put a $1 on your games, indies. For real, this is getting annoying. You can look at the graphics or writing for Dead Horizon and see that actual fucking effort was put into it. There are people who are putting no effort into their games and making actual fucking money. It’s really annoying when someone who actually tries doesn’t make any money on something they deserve to make money on.

I knew I would end up spending more than five minutes writing this review. Mother fucker!

Dead Horizon was developed by 14 Hours Productions (oh that name has got to be trolling)
Also annoying: free games deprive me of my price jokes. I’ve spent the last six years carefully crafting those price jokes into one of my most beloved running gags and you free indie games are fucking my schtick up. Anyway, get Dead Horizon on Steam here.

Oh, and it’s Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Gravity Quest

Think of a video game like a strand of Christmas lights. If one doesn’t work, the whole strand doesn’t. It only takes one thing being off about a game to make it so you can’t enjoy the rest of it.

So I haven’t picked up a new game in a while, but I had some downtime the other day so I grabbed Gravity Quest by Alexandr Krivozub. It’s a weird name since there really isn’t a quest, per se. It’s a first-person maze game. And I don’t mean like Pac-Man where it’s called a maze game even though you’re not really trying to get anywhere. It would be like calling my neighbor’s car a musical instrument because if I beat on it with a golf club in just the right way it would make noise that could be interpreted as music. That’s just an absurd way of thinking, or so the judge told me. I mean it’s literally a “get from point A to point B” maze game. With mazes. I like those. I wish there were more of them. And this one had a nice visual style while combining the maze concept with the getting-stale-but-not-quite-tired gravity stuff. So I gave it a whirl.

Visually it’s nice. I mean, gee, look at it. Pretty.

An hour later, with about 80% of the game completed, I couldn’t really stay energized enough to continue on. This is one of those really tough reviews to do because the game does almost nothing wrong. It advertises itself as a 3D gravity-defying maze game and that’s exactly what it is. There’s no jumping, no puzzle-solving, no combat, no platforming, or anything besides the maze and a few switches that will either take you to a different section of the level or reverse you to the other side of the walkway you’re on. That’s fine. It’s basically what I wanted it to be.

So why didn’t I like it?

Because the moving speed is far too slow and as far as I can tell, there’s no run button. Yea, that’s really it. That’s the only thing Gravity Quest did to fail at getting my seal of approval. That omission, the lack of adjustable speeds, turns the game into such a slog that it saps the energy out of your marrow. If you make a wrong turn into a dead-end or end up walking in circles, and you will because, you know, it’s a game with 3D mazes, it’s borderline painful. The levels actually are well designed and make use of both gravity and the limited first-person perspective. But it’s hard to appreciate those things when the pace is on par with watching erosion in real time. It’s sort of insane to think about: lots of things need to work right in a game, yet it only takes one little thing to render a game completely boring. But, in Indieland there’s nothing worse than being boring, and Gravity Quest is boring. And it’s boring because it’s lacking one simple, obvious feature.

Can’t stress enough though: it looks great!

This is Alexandr’s first game on Steam, as far as I can tell. And, as far as first efforts go, it’s not that bad. The one thing wrong with it is a deal breaker, but it’s the easiest thing ever to fix. Just add a run button. Once he’s done that, I’d be easier to appreciate the relatively simple but somewhat challenging mazes, the cleverness of the design and the visuals. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not in contention to be a top Leaderboard game or anything, but it would still be on the Leaderboard. So Alex, add that run button and let me know it and I’ll club your baby with my seal. I’m not sure that came out the way I meant it to but hopefully you get my point.

Gravity Quest was developed by Alexandr Krivozub
Point of Sale: Steam

$2.99 sang “Run Run GET A RUN, I wanna Run!” in the making of this review.

If you’re reading this anywhere but IndieGamerChick(dot)Com, you are reading a stolen review. Please head over to my site, read my stuff on my blog.

Volchaos and Hypership Out of Control (Second Chances with the Chick)

Full disclosure: developer Kris Steele of Fun Infused Games isn’t just a friend of mine. He’s one of my best friends. I treasure our relationship, which is one of the first I got through Indie Gamer Chick. Whether he’s helping me cope with Golden State choking away the NBA Finals (and when that didn’t work he simply yanked me off the ledge I was on) or we’re just talking about life stuff, I’ve always thought to myself “how lucky am I that I made friends like this from my silly little indie review blog?” While I haven’t always reviewed his games kindly, I’ve always respected and admired him, and my readers should know that, in the interest of fairness.

Got it? Good.

I hate Volchaos by Kris Steele and his Fun Infused Games. And it has nothing to do with punishers not being my genre of choice. It’s just a very unenjoyable game, far too concerned with dick-move enemy placement and leap-of-faith platforming than it is being entertaining. I first played it way back in December 2011, when it debuted on XBLIG. It was hampered by miserable controls that made it hard for me to realize just how bad the game is from a purely design point of view. And it really pisses me off because I know Kris is better than this. I never really planned on giving Volchaos a second look, and Kris never activated his automatic Second Chance with the Chick for it (refresher: it is my policy that every single game I review is subject to a no-questions-asked second chance upon developer request, provided the game has been patched in a way that addresses at least one criticism of mine). But, with the arrival of Volchaos on Steam with improved controls and minor cleanups of issues, I figured, why not?

20160814205553_1

The game is not glitching here. I’m standing on an invisible platform. It really came across as a glitch that the developer left in and called a feature, but actually Kris told me this was a design choice. I spent an hour telling him it was a bad one that the average player would think is just an exploitable glitch. He disagreed. But I’m right.

But no, it’s still not good. Don’t get me wrong. Volchaos on PC is much better than it was five years ago. The controls are still too loose, but they’re more responsive. The problem is level design is too brutal to be enjoyable. This is a punisher based on relatively short time limits, forcing you to charge through stages as quickly as possible. I don’t mind split-second decisions. Hell, anytime I made it two extra inches further on the Impossible Game per life instead of just one felt like an incredible achievement. But in Volchaos, the enemy placement is so unfair as to be infuriating. This was undoubtedly a case of a developer forgetting that he is the best player in the world at his own game, ramping up the difficulty to challenge himself and forgetting that nobody else has or ever will devote as much time to it as they have. In fact, Kris admitted as much to me. Note to all developers: get others to tell you how hard your game is. Do not attempt to judge for yourself. It is impossible to divorce yourself from your own development. Unless you have multiple personalities, and if that’s the case, make sure one of them isn’t a complete dick.

Oh I will, Hypership. Probably from overdosing on Hypership.

Oh I will, Hypership. Probably from overdosing on Hypership.

Skip Volchaos and take a look at Hypership Out of Control on Steam instead. The game retains all the charm of the mobile version. This is Kris’ masterpiece. A twitchy, lightning fast, scoring-based arcade shmup that’s so addictive that owning it on two platforms feels like it should be prosecuted the same way you would do so for doctor shopping. It’s basically the same game as the iPhone version. I prefer the super accurate movement of the mobile version, but the PC version has buttons and thus it’s easier to use bombs than the clumsy double-tap on mobile. The biggest news is that, once you’re carrying a maximum load of bombs, any extra-bombs you pick-up automatically detonate. It’s a small fix, but one that made me quite happy. It’s something I brought up in the previous review and Kris fixed it. Goody for him. It’s always nice when a developer, friend or otherwise, takes your advice to heart. Though it’s probably a good thing Kris didn’t listen to all my advice. If he had done with Volchaos what I told him to do, he’d probably be walking funny right now.
header

hsocVolchaos and Hypership Out of Control were developed by Fun Infused Games
Volchaos point of sale: Steam
Hypership Out of Control point of sale: Steam, iOS.

igc_approved$2.99 (Volchaos) said “it still doesn’t look like Chuck Norris” in the making of this review.

$1.99 (Hypership) said “hell, the fucking spaceship looks more like Chuck Norris” in the making of this review.

Hypership Out of Control is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Volchaos can go fuck itself.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters

Growing up the daughter of a cinephile (that’s someone who loves movies, not someone who has to stay 1,000 yards away from schools), I’ve seen my share of 1950s B movies and exploitation flicks. And I don’t mean in the form of Mystery Science Theater riffs. I mean sitting there, actually watching the original film with someone so deluded that he sees the movie as a work of art instead of a cheap, quick, badly acted, horribly scripted, cynical piece of shit created by and starring people who wished they were dead.  Which is not to say *every* movie of that era was without merit, but there’s nothing inherently sacred about B movies. To be frank, sometimes I don’t even like Mystery Science Theater that much, because it’s the low-hanging fruit. Fish in a barrel. “Oh come on, they’re campy! Camp is charming! Old B movies are camp!” Bullshit. Being old doesn’t necessarily mean being charming. Fred Phelps was pretty old before he was dead, and he had all the charm of a backed-up toilet.

So yea, old movies aren’t my thing. Yet, I’ve always wondered why that era of films haven’t been used as source material for more video games. Sure, you have Destroy All Humans, It Came from the Desert, and Zombies Ate my Neighbors. But, no hit games, except maybe Destroy All Humans and even that got ruined with the sequel. I’m guessing you can add The Deadly Tower of Monsters to that list, since its ceiling is probably “cult hit” at best. That’s a shame, because it’s one of the most clever games in years. You’ve played games like it, like Gauntlet Legends or the Dark Alliance series: a (mostly) top-down sword and gun button masher. DToM should be tired and tedious right out of the gate. However, a novel framing device immediately freshens it up and keeps things interesting from start to finish.

They have pills for dick malfunctions these days.

They have pills for dick malfunctions these days.

The idea is, you’re actually listening to a DVD audio commentary from the director of the “movie” that you’re playing. The director is a hilariously out-of-touch sexist prick with passive-aggressive disdain for every person who he’s ever worked with. The gimmick works, making this a rare example of a comedic video game where the joke doesn’t become stale before the credits roll. The B-Movie setting works too, with bad “special effects” such as clearly visible strings on cheesy enemies. The “actors” are talentless hacks that have no charisma and deliver every line without any sense of emotion. The “plot” is laughably thin and random (apes! dinosaurs! brain creatures!). The trees look plastic. Deadly Tower of Monsters was clearly made by a team with actual fondness for 50s Sci-Fi movies. And a big twist at the end of the game that I didn’t see coming at all works wonderfully.

The setting feels almost authentic, but there are a couple of things that take me out of it. The director sounds too young, for one thing. I don’t mean in terms of vocabulary, but literally he has too young sounding of a voice. I sort of wish they had hired an actual B-director like Lloyd Kaufman or Roger Corman. I mean, come on. Those guys would have taken one look at the script and asked how soon they could do it. I also wish the game had focused more on really bad stereotypes of those cheap films. Flubbed lines, actors bumping into the set, props falling over, etc. There are a couple of gags like those, but not nearly enough. Heck, even the game’s attempt at cheap stop-motion animation with some of the creatures wasn’t close to right. The movement was too fluid and not jerky enough, though I appreciated the effort. Finally, while I hate to bust on this in any game, the graphics are not really that good at all. The theme doesn’t cover-up for that either, because the issues that ruined my immersion were decidedly “video gamey” instead of failing the spirit of the B-Movie angle. UPDATE: The PS4 version has much sharper graphics and a better sense of vertigo, though at a trade-off of some minor slowdown issues that I didn’t experience on Steam.

I'll be honest: I was in need of a good fisting at this point.

I’ll be honest: I was in need of a good fisting at this point.

As for the game, it’s a lot of fun. For the most part. While combat and shooting feels button-mashy (again, it reminded me of Gauntlet Legends in feel, not quality. Because this game is fun, and Gauntlet Legends sucks), there’s a wide enough variety of weapons (both short and long distant) and upgrades to keep things relatively fresh throughout. I do wish the game had a wider variety of moves though. What’s here is certainly not perfect. Deadly Tower of Monsters often relies too much on spamming the screen with enemies, and with no block-system beyond an awful rolling move, you’ll be subjected to more cheap shots than a $5 bottle of off-brand whiskey. Meanwhile, enemies can be too spongy, upgrades can require too much trinket-collecting to unlock, I really wish you could switch between the three-characters and their different moves on the fly instead finding pods to do it in, and boss battles can drag on too long without checkpoints. There’s also an AWFUL mechanic where you have to lean on a ledge and shoot down at enemies coming at you from below. The cursor is too small, too hard to see (and I can’t imagine how colorblind gamers will be able to use it), too loose, and staying “glued” to the mode is hard because even slight movements can pull you back to the normal mode of the game. Even when it seemed like I was only moving left and right, sometimes the shooting would end and I would go back to the normal game mode. This mechanic alone was the fatal flaw that prevented Deadly Tower of Monsters from becoming a top-five game on my leaderboard. It’s clunky, it’s ill-advised, it’s frustrating when combined with enemies in “normal” view that you can’t really defend yourself against while shooting at the “ledge-enemies.” It pissed me off so bad because Deadly Tower of Monsters is really fun, but I guess it had to include it’s legally-mandated percentage of indie badness.

Hopefully nobody stopped and said “sounds like a shitty game” after that last paragraph, because Deadly Tower of Monsters is genuinely fun. One of my favorite indies ever, in fact. While the combat is nothing special, the pace of acquiring new weapons is damn near perfect, and there’s so much hidden stuff to do that it never becomes a slog to progress through. Plus, the script is very funny. It’s what I call a “snicker ‘n smirk” game because while none of the gags are roll-on-the-floor funny, the jokes hit consistently enough that the smirk and the sound of a faint snicker will never fade throughout the game. And the creativity isn’t limited to just the concept. The gameplay centers around climbing a gigantic tower. While I was disappointed by the lack of a sense of vertigo, I was very satisfied with a neato play mechanic that allows you to BASE jump from the tower and fall to the bottom. This stuff reminded me of Pilotwings 64, in a good way. It’s the Yin to the ledge-shooting’s yang, with the only sour point being the same issues with the crosshairs in the ledge-shooting are present for the free-falling. I actually might go back and jump off the tower more, just for kicks. It’s that fun.

I'm sure some humorless white-knight types will be offended by the incredibly chauvinistic commentary from the director. I hope not, but in today's environment the thin-skinned fly off the handle for any slight. Hell, I'm sure calling someone "thin-skinned" is a micro-aggression. Like, it would be "dermatology shaming" or some such bullshit.

I’m sure some humorless white-knight types will be offended by the incredibly chauvinistic commentary from the director. I hope not, since the point is he’s supposed to be out-of-touch and a relic of a long-gone era. But, in today’s environment, the thin-skinned fly off the handle for any slight. Hell, I’m sure calling someone “thin-skinned” is a micro-aggression. Like, it would be “dermatology shaming” or some such bullshit.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters now holds a rare distinction in my gaming history book: it joins Portal 1 & 2 as the only comedy-centric games that stayed funny after multiple hours. There are so many wonderful gags here that complaining about the lack of other B-movie tropes seems nit-picky. I only did it because ACE Team (the studio behind Rock of Ages, an unsung multiplayer favorite of mine) clearly has the talent to pull it off. Yea, I’m sure budget limitations played into some of the nits I picked here until they were scabby. I also didn’t get to play it with multiple players, which I think probably would have taken the sting out of some of the more annoying aspects of combat. But, make no mistake, Deadly Tower of Monsters is a damn good game. Original, inspired, and hilarious. Do you know what annoys me most? It should have been a contender for the top spot on the IGC Leaderboard, but the flaws piled up so high that it instead barely missed the top 10. Regardless, it’s worth your purchase. Ironic, isn’t it? This tribute to B-movies is an A-quality title. Now, someone get cracking on a Robot Monster game. Hey, it’s in the public domain!

headerThe Deadly Tower of Monsters was developed by ACE Team
Point of Sale: Steam, PS4

igc_approved1$9.98 (normally $14.99) said “Simon is from the 70s, not the 50s you fucking numbskulls” in the making of this review.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Volume

Quick disclosure: I’m buddies with both Volume creator Mike Bithell and actor/critic/celebrity mime Jim Sterling.

Disclosure over. Yea, I didn’t like Volume. But not because it doesn’t stack up against Thomas Was Alone, Mike’s previous game. Anyone who went in expecting something like that is probably being a bit unfair. I should also disclose that I’ve never played the NES Metal Gear, which is what inspired Volume. I’m not quite sure why you would want to mimic a nearly 30year-old game’s mechanics, especially in a genre like stealth. I’m sure the retro fans will hate me for saying this, but being like something old isn’t necessarily a good thing. Metal Gear isn’t inherently better because it’s older. You only think it’s better because you played it at an age where video game stimuli caused your body to generate higher levels of dopamine than playing games today as an adult does. When you look at one of your childhood favorites, those memories alone could possibly trigger something close to that desired effect but not quite there, which essentially renders the experience the gaming version of chasing the dragon.

By the way, that whole dopamine rant I pulled it out of my ass for comic effect not knowing the science probably backs me up on it. Also, put down the pitchforks, retro fans. Tongue firmly in cheek. I’m not suggesting old school gamers would turn to heroin because they can’t get their copy of River City Ransom to boot up.

Okay, fine, maybe Patrick Scott Patterson would.

The dogs in Volume can alert the guards to your location but can't actually attack you. Oh COME ON, this totalitarian regime couldn't afford a couple angry Dobermans?

The dogs in Volume can alert the guards to your location but can’t actually attack you. Oh COME ON, this totalitarian regime couldn’t afford a couple hungry Dobermans with a taste for human flesh? Because if not I know a guy..

I actually like games inspired by the legendary titles of yore. Inspired being the key word here. Actually being like them is sort of the pits, since gaming has come a long ways. That’s why Volume fails. It’s married too much to being like old school stealth games. You know, the ones where actual stealth wasn’t required. It also wants to be a puzzle game. And an action-arcade game. These three styles really aren’t compatible, and some aspects of them also get in the way of delivering an in-depth story that tries to be a modern take on Robin Hood. The hero’s name is Locksley, while the villain is Guy Gisborne. Also known as the Robin Hood villain nobody gives a shit about. Given the totalitarian regime angle, the bad guy should have been named John Prince. Guy Gisborne sounds like he would be a back-up drummer for Winger.

So why didn’t I like Volume? You can break it down into three parts.

1. I like my stealth games to be sneaky and tension filled.

Volume is neither. The enemies are so fucking brain-dead that I was able to set global record times on dozens of stages just by ignoring the stealth stuff and making a run for it. Right in front of the enemies. Sometimes I would be walking up against a wall, in full view of one of the guard’s line of sight, literally wiggle my body to try to get caught, and nothing happened. I made a mix tape to demonstrate everything I’m talking about. Take a look.

Dimwitted guards operating like they recently had a full frontal lobotomy might have been a staple of gaming’s past, but why not smarten it up today? Wouldn’t that be the best way to pay tribute to those past games, by improving on their original intent? The lack of anything resembling intelligence really takes the oomph out of Volume. There’s no tension at all. That would require a fear of getting caught by the guards. But I often walked into tiny, dead-end rooms from which there was no possible way I could escape, have the guards follow me, peek into the room, and give up the search. If they worked there, surely they would know of the room and know I had no place else to go.

This was also the primary reason why I couldn’t get into the story. The idea is you’re simply running a simulator that’s teaching others how to break into these guarded buildings and loot treasure. I was sort of hoping the big plot twist in the end would be showing Locksley the pile of bodies the dictatorship had racked up due to his horrible advice on thieving. “Surely Locksley you didn’t expect us to hire guards that don’t know the layout of the building they work in you stupid fool!” A+ writing there, by the way. I’m for hire.

2. I like my puzzle games to be brainy.

You can certainly see the logic of Volume’s levels. Some of them might have offered some downright brain-bending moments. They would have, if you had to solve them the way Mike envisioned. But you don’t. I had pretty much figured out how to exploit the guard’s behavior only a few stages into Volume and was able to just plow through stages with total disregard for the elaborate puzzles set up for me. Two guards that I need to whistle for to distract and slowly move away from the diamond sandwiched between them? Yea, I could do that. Or I could just walk up, take the diamond, occasionally hug the wall to restart their aiming mechanic, turn a corner and sprint to the exit. I never repeated any level more than a couple of times. There’s no punishment for being caught by the guards, and because the global leaderboards reward fast times, you’re actually rewarded for ignoring that point of the game. I wasn’t just beating high scores, I was annihilating some of them by thirty seconds or more on my first attempt at those stages.

This cracked me up. Many stages in and the game just alerted me that new, dumber guards were added. As opposed to the guards from before? Ha.

This cracked me up. Many stages in and the game just alerted me that new, dumber guards were added. As opposed to the guards from before? Ha.

3. I like my arcade games to be fast-paced.

Volume’s moderately interesting story is told with a mixture of voice overs and text boxes that are placed in stages. Whereas Thomas Was Alone’s fairy tale-like narration was in perfect sync with the happenings of the game, Volume has a much more complex plot that requires your full attention to process. Then it throws you in a game where your attention will be anywhere but on the plot. When this isn’t happening, you might stumble upon a text-box that pauses the game (and thankfully the timer) so you can get more plot points that my brain processed as gibberish because it had broken my flow of not-giving-a-shit running from guards while cackling the whole time. Really, the text boxes should have more often been envelopes that you could read at your own leisure between the stages. I don’t want my not-a-stealth-or-puzzler-or-arcade game interrupted in the middle of a chase. Do you? Volume probably does a lot better as a fast-paced action/arcade title than it does anything else, but it still feels too slow and dull for that without the story interruptions.

Volume has some neat moments. I like how you’re still getting new items even after 90 stages, and the items are mostly fun to use. The voice acting is mostly fine, even though I can’t pick one British voice apart from another besides Jim’s, who I’d like to think has some sort of dolphin-like ultra-sonic thing going for him. The graphics are okayish. It controls fine. But, Volume just plain isn’t fun. Too dumb to challenge. Too long to say “at least it was quick.” And to those who say I’m not being fair because I didn’t play it the way it was intended to be played, I say this: it’s up to the developer to tighten the game to prevent me from doing that. Look, if you give an asshole a flamethrower and unleash them in the Jiffy Pop factory, I’m sorry but you’re an idiot if you don’t think there’s going to be a mess of popcorn at the end of the night. And in the case of Volume, I was given moronic guards and non-puzzles. I took the path of least resistance and said “fuck this, I could go for some popcorn right about now.”

Volume logoVolume was developed by Mike Bithell
Point of Sale: PSN, Steam
Only the PS4 version was played for this review.

$19.99 pumped up the Volume like it was a Fygar in the making of this review.

Shutshimi (PS4)

My intent with Shutshimi on PS4 had been to play it a little bit, see what (if anything) had changed since the PC original that I reviewed last year, and then move on to the pile of other indies that are waiting for reviews. Well, so much for that. I put 40+ hours into Shutshimi this time around, to go with the 40 or so hours I put in during my original run with it. I have to now concede that the improvements present are enough to bump it back into my top 10. Barely. Because there’s also some design choices so frustrating that I briefly considered raining bowling balls down on the development team, only choosing not to because helicopters pilots have an irritating objection to taking part in homicides.

Brief recap of the game: Shutshimi is a 2D shooter that takes a page out of WarioWare’s playbook. Each wave lasts ten seconds, followed immediately by ten seconds where you choose what will happen on the next stage. This might include getting items that are permanent until replaced, like different guns or hats (that sometimes have special attributes), special upgrades that you keep until you lose them (such as growing large or getting a school of fish to flank you), or stuff that only lasts through the next round. You’re given three choices completely at random, each with an over-wrought description that usually has only a couple relevant words telling you what the item actually does. That leads me to wonder if perhaps Neon Deity is using Shutshimi as a plank to get the job they really want: writing legislation for the United States Congress.

Stare at this picture for 10 seconds. Did you do it? You're now legally mad.

Stare at this picture for 10 seconds. Did you do it? You’re now legally mad.

Last time I reviewed Shutshimi, I called it a drug. I stand by that, but now it’s even worse. It has online leaderboards. Sure, they’re not exactly competive right now. Once upon a time, I envisioned giving out an award called the YOU HEARTLESS BASTARDS award for games that were awesome that nobody bought or played. I suspect Shutshimi would be a contender for the YHB. Although I’m proud of the scores I posted (I’m #9 on normal mode, #2 on hard mode, and #11 on Boss Rush as of this writing) I have a sneaking suspicion they wouldn’t hold up if Shutshimi was selling at a decent rate. In fact, the names on those boards have barely changed at all in the week I’ve played. Shutshimi is a quality game, and the fact that nobody is playing it is pretty heartbreaking. Though really, it’s possible it’s too weird for its own good.

And yea, it’s a lot of fun. But it can also be fucking agitating as hell. Especially some of the “hats” you get. Some of these simply change your physical appearance. And there are also items that are hugely beneficial. Some make weapons more efficient, or others allow you to score more points. Sounds great! And then there’s the Robin Hood cap, where if you have it on, you score less points. I got this hat so often that I wondered if the development team had coded “anyone with IGC’s user name gets it one-hundred times more often than anyone else” because this hat ruined multiple high-score runs I had. One time I was playing hard mode, had 20,000 points, a full fishbowl (the most valuable item in the game, especially on hard mode), the weapon I wanted, and I was unstoppable. Then I got that fucking Robin Hood hat, and it was like “start loading the penis-shaped boxes into the penis-shaped U-Haul because this is officially a DICK MOVE!” Call me crazy, but in a game that is completely based on high scores, I don’t think there should be score modifiers. That includes those hats that give you more points.

Dude in third place had temporarily displaced me from second place, but much like Kim Davis, I'm determined to keep him from coming in #2.

Dude in third place had temporarily displaced me from second place, but much like Kim Davis, I’m determined to keep him from coming in #2.

What irks me even more are instances where the game clearly wasn’t tested enough. The most obvious example is how some of the achievements simply do not work as of this writing. It took me all of three minutes on my very first attempt to beat Boss Rush mode, which is supposed to earn you a trophy. I didn’t get it. I guess it’s tough to find three minutes in your schedule when you’re busy high-fiving each other for figuring out a way to shoehorn a “Guile’s theme goes with anything!” joke without coming across as too desperate. I’m also not fully convinced some of the hats (like the pirate’s hat, alleged to make cannonballs stronger) actually work. Finally, and somewhat annoyingly for me, there’s an effects intensity option, but it doesn’t always seem to work. Bright lightning strikes still happen, especially when you’re wearing the Jason Voorhees mask. This causes “a horrible night for a curse” (click, BANG, yip yip yip) which in reduced sensitivity mode normally mutes the flashing of the lightning. But, with the mask on, sometimes it doesn’t seem to work, like if you end up in party time for example. On one hand, I’m proud that two straight games I’ve reviewed featured effects intensity options, but on the other hand, devs who put this in really need to check every facet of their game to make sure it doesn’t just partially disable such effects.

It takes a while to see everything Shutshimi has to offer, but I’m fairly certain I have now. Despite all the issues I have with it, I still love this game. I wish it had more enemies, I wish it had more weapons, I wish it had even wackier shit to encounter, and I wish the absolutely shitty multiplayer mode had any value outside of breaking up relationships. It’s actually remarkable that a game I like so much can leave me wanting so much more. I guess this in theory opens up things for a sequel, assuming anyone but me buys Shutshimi. I wouldn’t bank on that. The funny thing is, I’m normally not a big fan of games where randomness and blind luck factor into successful runs. In fact, Shutshimi is one of the few games, along with something like Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, where the game is more fun because of how the luck is handled. It was suggested to me that I’m a hypocrite for complaining so much about punishers where survival is based on luck but not complaining about games like this, where luck is all that matters. But that’s not entirely accurate. A blind jump in a punisher is something the player can’t do anything with. Whereas in Shutshimi, you’re given the luck, good or bad, at the start of each wave and have to make do with it. I think this is why Shutshimi works, or why Spelunky works. It’s fun to make do with bad luck. Well, except that Robin Hood hat. That’s not fun at all. I would suggest they go to the office and fix it right away, but the forecast is calling for a light shower of bowling balls.

Shutshimi logoShutshimi was developed by Neon Deity Games
Point of Sale: PS4, Steam
This review only covers the PS4 version.

$9.99 noted that technically the game is called “Shütshimi” and that fancy “ü” makes it so a search for “Shutshimi” on PSN comes up empty handed making the developers fucking morons in the making of this review.

igc_approved1Shutshimi is Chick-Approved and ranked on the IGC Leaderboard.

Special Note: For some reason, I’m in the special thanks credits in Shutshimi. I have no clue why. I’m not on the development team, and to the best of my knowledge I’m not pals with any of the devs, only friendly with them on social media.

%d bloggers like this: