2023's kind of upended tradition by packing its first summer month with a lion's share of big releases, when really the summer's meant to be peak time for backlog-clearing and beating the heat with some chill "podcast gaming" a la long RPGs and open-world collectathons. Not that I particularly mind a busy release month but I'm not letting that change my usual schedule here; my first Indie Game of the Week for June will be Haven, a relaxing planet-exploration game from French studio The Game Bakers (perhaps best known for 2016's Furi, a future IGotW candidate). Haven sees lovers Kay and Yu escape an oppressive futuristic society where people are matched up by an algorithm and forced into arranged marriages, instead opting to elope to an obscure distant planet and live out their days together in peace. The planet they found, Source, is one that was previously abandoned by colonists and is in a state of instability due to copious seismic activity and a strange, toxic substance covering half the landmasses; even so, the pair are determined to build their new lives here and work through problems as they occur. Kay's a biologist and an accomplished researcher even in their youth, while Yu is the scion of a corporate CEO and an inveterate gearhead who knows spaceships better than anyone: combining their skills, they've been able to survive whatever Source has thrown at them so far.
The general loop of the game sees the pair—who are controlled simultaneously in battle, much like the Mario & Luigi games—explore the planet by riding its flow streams, blue energy waves that connect planets together but in this case also Source's many "islet" landmasses, while working towards both short-term goals like finding food and long-term goals like fixing up their ship, the Nest, so they can travel around the planet more easily. After exploring a while, the player might return to the Nest to rest up, eat a meal, create new medicinal consumables, or otherwise just let the two lovebirds hang out for a while. As experience is tied to the progress of this central relationship, almost anything the pair do together—from fighting enemies to sampling a meal to pillow talk—will increase their levels and make them more effective in battle.
The game's battle system involves real-time attack inputs on timers that can be combined for stronger versions, with "impact" and "burst" moves that affect enemies differently depending on the foe. Some enemies, for example, might be stunned after a burst and can be hit with an impact for significant damage during the stun's brief window; so the strategy there would be to use one character to burst attack while you charge up and hold an impact attack with the other in preparation. You can also use a shield with one character to intercept attacks aimed at a less healthy character, or otherwise have them firing off attacks with impunity. Each enemy type and the game's handful of unique boss encounters all require specific strategies to take down quickly, though as you keep playing more tools become unlocked to make the combat easier; many fights can be skipped or evaded early on for this reason, letting you tackle hostiles in your own time when you're in better shape or have more resources to fall back on. That's true for the exploration as well: some traversal upgrades are directly connected to the progress you can make in much the same way they might in an explormer or Zeldersatz, allowing you to reach new locations, while others offer much-desired conveniences like an in-game mapping tool or fast travel. The game smartly rolls out these new powers gradually to constantly shift the way players approach the gameplay loop, ensuring that the exploring and fighting never feel too repetitive.
However, much of the gameplay exists to serve the narrative, which isn't so much a plot-driven thing than it is an exploration of two characters and their deep relationship. It's a very cute game from a writing standpoint: the two playfully bicker, enjoy exploring together, talk through troubling or deeper subjects, reminiscence about how they got to where they are today (which serves to let the player in on what life was like for them before, what kind of backgrounds they have, and what drove them to escape an otherwise comfortable life to a danger-filled one), and, frequently, get in the mood for some smoochin'. The game is also designed for multiplayer, and focusing on the relationship as much as it does makes me wonder if playing as a couple isn't perhaps the ideal approach to a game like this, much like Hazelight's It Takes Two (though, thankfully, a single-player mode exists for Haven). I think it's very smart, and this is coming from a terminally single person, to start promoting games that couples can play together: it's a way to draw a partner into a hobby they might not necessarily share with their SO, presenting an organic opportunity to do so and grow closer. Of course, they can do this with any co-operative game with a low skill barrier to entry, but to have it be a low-stress game explicitly about a couple perhaps makes a co-op playthrough easier to pitch to a loved one. Haven also recently incorporated an addition that allows you to determine both Kay and Yu's genders, choosing to play as two guys or two gals instead, without fundamentally changing Kay's earnest and curious nature or Yu's playful and resourceful one; not only does this give the game a more welcoming feel but it also extends that whole "let couples play games together" vibe to also include same-sex pairs who might balk at having to roleplay a straight couple rather than something closer to what they have (speaking of which, happy Pride Month y'all).
Haven's an uncomplicated (but certainly not rudimentary) game about whizzing around an alien planet with your partner being all lovey-dovey between spaceship repairs, improvised cooking with alien fruit, making brand new discoveries, resolving sudden emergencies, petting cute xenomorphs, hoverbooting across mid-air energy flows while doing flips, and cleaning up toxic glowy goop like it's Super Mario Sunshine. There's a certain unhurried pace to the whole game and a huge number of cutscenes where the pair chill out and discuss their day like a couple would, so it some ways it feels like a more naturalistic take on one of these life-sims where you can choose a marriage partner and together take on the daily challenges that come with just being alive in an imperfect world. Wholesome, deceptively deep, and a real relaxing start to my summer just floating around and doing some extraterrestrial sight-seeing.
You know what's nutty? I update the current year's "Games Beaten" list every month and usually average about five or six additions (mostly Indies for IGotW) along with a summary mini-review and score. This month I'll be updating the list with 28 new entries. I'll also have to go back and add wiki pages for a lot of these, obscure as they are. My intent, of course, was never to pad out my game completion scorecard like any of that matters in the long run but to play as many of these smaller charity-contributing Indies as possible during May as I'd really no other opportunity to talk about them, at least with my slate of ongoing features this year.
Dang, though, I could get used to this. Just a firehose of short, intriguing experiences from various budgetary tiers of the Indie circuit, pushing the boundaries of the genres we know well or revisiting those that have long since fallen by the wayside or else just stretching their creative muscles for a Game Jam of some sort. Even so, I think for June I'm going to start some hopelessly long JRPG (I'm side-eyeing my unopened copies of Tales of Arise and Xenoblade Chronicles 3) and just veg out with something structurally familiar for a while. This month's been a long one, after all, and I also don't want to do a lot of thinking when it's this hot.
Links to previous May Magnanimity entries can be found at the bottom, along with a list of games they cover. The first entry also goes into more detail as to why I spent a month doing all this but I'll say it was certainly not time wasted even with the games that didn't quite click with me. My thanks once again to Itch.io and the many creators who put up their babies for honorable causes.
Yo, I found another explormer in my Itch.io library. Who'd have thunk my eyes would be immediately drawn to that? Strange. Anyway, Sector 781 is much like Xeodrifter in that it's a very barebones 8-bit example of the genre that, while it does have a handful of upgrades, is so rudimentary as to resemble something you could play on a graphing calculator. The game is comprised of three 5x5 zones played consecutively, built around the usual loop of exploring what's accessible, finding an upgrade, and then exploring what was previously inaccessible. Each region culminates in a boss fight that doesn't require much strategy (stand somewhere safe and keep shooting) but I guess as micro-sized explormers go—ones boiled down to their absolute fundamentals—it's not too bad. The challenge level is fairly decent at least.
My big issue with the game, and this is probably owed to the fact that you can play it within a browser too, is that hitting the escape key at any point will kick you back to the title screen. If you resume from here, you start from the beginning of the last zone you visited with none of your health upgrades, which sucks. If you hit escape again while on the title screen the game shuts itself off and you have to start over from the very beginning since it doesn't save between sessions. Since I was trying to pause the game halfway through the last zone and panicked when I saw the title screen let's just say I wasn't particularly thrilled with what happened next. Fortunately, the whole game takes somewhere in the region of 45 minutes tops, but that's still a lot of backtracking. More so than is customary in an explormer, anyway. I try not to let these little technical issues affect how I view a game as a whole but at the same time this particular decision detracted quite a lot from the overall experience. Otherwise, Sector 781's just kinda cute and unremarkable like so many "lo-fi" explormers before it though I won't argue it doesn't have the core of the explormer experience figured out. And, hey, if it's a platformer with a map I'll probably end up playing it at some point regardless of how dinky it may or may not be. I'm just broken like that.
Signalis really opened my eyes (and irises) as to how much the Indie horror game crowd has embraced PS1 low-poly visuals over the past half-decade, and The Black Iris is the second horror game I've covered this month with that style (after last week's Fatum Betula). The Black Iris is a more conventional horror experience though still one that is purely driven by exploration and adventure game puzzles rather than any deeper stealth or combat mechanics. The atmosphere it's able to generate does most of the heavy lifting as far as the horror aspect is concerned, at least. Sent to a remote research outpost in the north of Scotland—having visited Aberdeen, I can attest that it really can feel like the edge of the world up there—the protagonist is to decommission a series of subterranean probes while recovering any video tape logs the station's scientists made about their research. Said researchers themselves are scattered across the area too; you soon learn their current coordinates after starting and can go find them, if you'd like, but given they're not part of your mission here the writing's mostly on the wall about how well they're doing. Turns out, whatever these scientist types were doing up here they ended up drilling too deep, to paraphrase the Lord of the Rings, and there's something not all together wholesome lurking beneath the surface.
If you're familiar with Roadside Picnic, The Color Out of Space, or Annihilation there's a similar oppressive vibe to the landscape here, the feeling of being in a place trapped in a bubble where the laws of reality appear to be breaking down due to a malign, otherworldly presence. The danger is unknown but all too apparent from the general atmosphere of the place and it takes some digging, and a few really messed up corpses wearing the same hazmat suit you are, before anything starts clicking into place. When it's finally time to enter the north cave and track down the titular Black Iris that your former comrades have written about in a state of near madness, there's a heavy sense of something very wrong afoot. The ending actually kinda made me laugh a little, but I'll admit it was a cool way to end a tension-building narrative like this. What playing The Black Iris did do was make me want to watch the Alex Garland movie adaptation of Annihilation, which I'd been meaning to get around to for a while. Not that the movie was a direct influence on this game, probably, but it's certainly of a similar alien mutant vein right down to the little stock video on abnormal cell duplication. No fucked up bears in The Black Iris though, at least none that I could make out.
So this is something I've been seeing more often: prologue games for bigger projects. That is, a small team works on a game that requires so many years needed to develop and so in the meantime they simultaneously work on a smaller game with similar tech and release that as a teaser of sorts for what's to come. Happened to Bloodstained with Curse of the Moon and with Eiyuden Chronicle: Rising, to name two examples. Smart, from a development standpoint, to have something out there generating a modest profit to support the ongoing larger project while also giving people an idea of what that larger project might entail along with building their hype for it. Gunmetal Arcadia Zero—the prologue chapter for Gunmetal Arcadia—is going for a sort of Zelda II/Faxanadu 8-bit side-scrolling action-RPG angle with some occasionally circuitous level design (detours are mostly in aid of earning cash and consumable items, and the occasional hidden shop). You spend the money you earn fighting enemies and finding chests on consumables and new equipment, the latter either replacing your current weapon or otherwise adding to your combat or traversal abilities somehow, say with higher jumps or an immunity to lava. It has a lives system, pretty old-school, but it saves after every stage and checkpoints after the mid-stage mini-boss: losing a life knocks you back to the checkpoint, but losing all of them means restarting the stage.
I ran into the same issues here as I did with Infernax, played at the start of the year, where managing your health and fighting monsters is only around a moderate difficulty level but some squirrely platforming over bottomless pits presents a disproportionate challenge. Definitely close to Zelda II's foibles where you can masterfully take down a boss after a tough internecine battle only to instantly die and be kicked back to the start because of a single mistimed jump or an enemy bumping into you in mid-air and knocking you into a spike trap. In that regard, at least, Gunmetal Arcadia Zero's done its homework. It also has a stronger than average emphasis on story, with multiple NPCs that you keep bumping into with an overarching narrative about two groups of elves—one communing with nature, the other forming a city and trading with the outside world—being forced to contend with an almost alien incursion of strange monsters, led by a hive queen deep underground. The player's even given the choice of guild to join: the warrior-like Gunmetal Avengers or the rogueish explorers the Seekers, the choice of which determines the prices from certain allied vendors (the former's better for weapons, the latter for traversal upgrades). Its punitive platforming irked me more than a few times, but for a brief prologue chapter for a larger game it's robust enough and offers a decent challenge albeit one that seems much more predicated towards not jumping into spikes more than the easy combat.
This was a cool idea for a game, if a little frustrating in parts. If you were to say "Skyrim horse mountain climbing" then enough people would understand precisely what you mean. That is, the process in which you climb incredibly steep cliffs by running at them until your model is magically transported up; the only requirement is that the incline is pointing away from you rather than toward (nor is perfectly vertical). Same general idea behind the gameplay here. You start by getting hatched from an egg, a minor event that lends the game its name but has little bearing on what the game's about, and are then told by a paternal figure to make your way to the top of an impossibly tall nearby structure that reaches all the way up and out of sight. The only rule is that you can't spend too long in view of the half-sun, which causes you damage when its viewpoint isn't blocked much like that one late-game area of Bloodborne (or The Sentinel, if anyone's old enough to remember that). You then have to find a path up, hitting any of the correct inclines to make upward progress. I'll describe what kind of "correct inclines" I mean with some crude ASCII art (the dot represents the player):
. / = Good
. I or . \ = Bad
Doing this, while avoiding the sun's gaze, will eventually get you to the second half of the game where the sun is lower than you are and no longer applies damage on sight, but the climbing part becomes that much harder to compensate with some tricky 3D platforming. Your progress is routinely checkpointed however, and you'll always return to the highest checkpoint even if you should fall to the very bottom of the map: this is not a Bennett Foddy game, after all, but rather one created by a human capable of empathy (I'm just kidding, Mr. Foddy; at least you try to cheer up the players you routinely torture). It's yet another of those low-poly 3D PS1 aesthetic affairs too, which uses its oblique graphics and some great sound design (the sound of the sun burning you to death is appropriately unpleasant, since it's meant to be a deterrent) to give the game a vibe that is somehow both chill and slightly disquieting. I lost track of how long I played but it couldn't have been more than a couple of hours; something about gradually climbing something so massive has a way of causing you to lose track of time. Very interesting and serene experience and I'm glad I gave it a shot, though fair warning that it's a tad on the vertiginous side if that's a dealbreaker for anyone.
Hey, guess who's back on his GL-themed VN bullshit for one last time this month? The Light at the End of the Ocean is a story about an amnesiac woman, referred to by the game as "Guest", and an ornery lighthouse keeper who peels her off the beach after her ship capsized and keeps her company while she recovers. The island's only other occupant is a bubbly woman calling herself "L" who works as an archivist at a nearby subterranean data storage. Though by all appearances a small and unremarkable island, the Guest has been discovering strange things happening to her as soon as she came to, including the ability to touch an item and receive a memory sense of its past by way of a sudden vision. These visions relate to a woman who looks a lot like her, as well as others about a woman who looks a lot like the lighthouse keeper, though set some unknown time in the past. The game's fairly short at around a couple hours in length so it doesn't let the mystery of the island and its inhabitants linger for too long—it's fairly obvious where it's going, especially as a portrait of L and her two sisters spinning thread is a big giveaway to anyone familiar with the classics (or God of War, in my case)—but there's a few branches that allows for some additional endings and other revelations to encourage replays. Man, it feels like I've spent this whole month looking for a visual novel that does the story branching thing to a more significant extent than "pick which one of these love interests you want to pursue".
The ending I eventually received was a sad one, probably the "bad" or "normal" one, and yet it felt so appropriate to the story and its themes of depression and self-destruction that I'm satisfied with leaving it there. Some love stories have that eleventh-hour moment where everything seems to fall apart, only for the finale to kick in and fix everything, yet I've always been drawn to that "this isn't going to work" "false" conclusion because it's somehow more true to life. I realize romance fiction is a form of escapism as much as anything else, and I'm probably revealing way too much about my own love life if failure reads more normal than not, but I think the strength of the genre is that sometimes it feels like everything should go right for the protagonist lovebirds and sometimes it feels like it probably shouldn't. Like maybe the pairing wasn't a healthy one, or one that neither party deserves if there's been lying or manipulation or infidelity involved, or that ending on a break-up or something even more extreme like a Romeo and Juliet tragedy makes it all the more effective a conclusion. I'm really talking out my butt here since it's not a genre I have any keen interest in, just that it happens to be very popular with VN writers if the handful that showed up in these bundles is any indication of a trend, but in this case I'd say the game leaves a strong enough impression with its characters and writing that I could get this invested and be content with a choice like this, for as much of a downer as it might be.
That's going to bring this feature to a close, just as May itself draws to an end and the summer lies before us. Thanks to anyone who has followed along so far and the developers who indirectly contributed, and I'll restart the process of piling up the backlog for next year's May Madness equivalent.
May has a lot of days in it, turns out, and so I've been filling it with as many playthroughs of smallish (1-4 hour) Itch.io Indie games as I can manage. This is all in service of honoring the huge charity bundles Itch.io and its power users started curating around this time three years ago, though really it's an excuse to cut some of my Itch.io backlog down to something could be laughably described as manageable. I didn't even have any Itch.io games this time three years ago, and now the site claims I have almost 250 of them; the easy solution would be to ignore it like I do most of my Epic/Steam/GOG libraries, but anyone who volunteers their creative endeavors for the sake of raising cash for good causes deserves at the very least a shout-out. Albeit the kind of shout-out that might also include a heap of (hopefully constructive) criticism.
As always, links to previous weeks and the games covered therein can be found at the bottom of this and all the May Magnanimity entries. May's just about over now, but I'm going to give myself a little victory lap with the three days that remain and come back for one last half-update on the 31st with whatever I'm able to squeeze in. May's not over until it's over, as we've never said around here.
This was cute. Vignettes reminds me of a little game called GNOG I played a while back, in that it belongs to a very visceral type of puzzle game; visceral in the sense that you're figuring things out by experimenting with objects that you can move around and play with. Like a Rubik's Cube that you'd need to hold in your hand and fiddle with to make any leeway with it, or as close to that sensation as a non-VR game will allow. The goal of Vignettes is to fill a series of paintings each with a collection of random knick-knacks: the way you do this is by taking an object, moving it around in such a way that the angle you're looking at it from makes it appear like something else, and through this perspective trickery you find yourself holding a new item connected to other gateways and secrets to uncover. Progression is as simple as choosing an object from a chest—this chest fills up with more "starting point" items as you complete portraits and earn the keys attached to them—and then using a helpful flowchart to track the objects you've yet to discover. A single object might transform into three or four others depending on the way you look at it.
However, this object discovery process only represents the first layer of the game. There's a page you can visit that shows you a selection of images that include objects you may or may not have already seen. The objects look different in these images and it's your task, optionally anyway, to figure out how to get them into that state. One example would be a little concert hall inside a shell with an orchestra playing: when you find this shell, it's devoid of its main act and by interacting with other objects in the same series (that is to say, all part of the same portrait) you'll free musicians who'll dutifully float off to the concert hall to prepare. Other challenges might involve opening up a locket box by finding a key elsewhere, playing a tune on a trumpet, filling a photo album, and so on. Apparently, completing all these special challenges provides you with a secret website address to check out except it was unfortunately already dead for me; even so, the way you'd have to bounce between several objects to figure out these solutions made for a more engrossing time than simply seeking the objects themselves. The simple visual style and equally simple mechanics would make this a suitable game for little ones, but it also has enough depth to how its perspective puzzles work that I'd recommend it for anyone, especially if they've previously enjoyed chill visual puzzle diorama type of games like GNOG, Windosill, or anything from Amanita Design.
I poked my head into Clash Force back when I was doing my 2017-focused feature Dredge of Seventeen but never got around to finishing it. Turns out it was a pretty short game, so I guess I just got stuck on a tough level. Clash Force is an homage to "Nintendo difficult" NES "run-and-gun" platformers such as Contra and Mega Man, letting you pick from one of three mascot characters that would've fit into any early '90s radical anthropomorph superhero cartoon as they take the fight to the evil robotics genius Crackman and his legion of mechanical minions. It lets you know exactly what type of experience it's aiming for with a difficulty screen offering three options, Normal being the easiest. To reduce the high challenge level there's no lives and you respawn endlessly from the start of the current level, but that's not to say you're in for an easy time: there's a few boss fights in particular that were real swine, and they weren't made any easier by the fact that you always respawn with the base peashooter.
To expand on that, the game follows Contra by offering you several power-ups that change the type of firepower you can project. These include lasers with higher offensive capability and a spreadshot that offers greater coverage. You can also acquire shields which will absorb one hit: if you get hurt without one, you'll lose one of your three hearts (these can be replenished with power-ups too) and lose whichever upgrade you had. As with most shooters with power-ups, you'll have an easier time of things as long as you don't get hit but a single mistake will quickly snowball into a series of them as you lose the benefit of a powerful weapon that can take down enemies quickly before they can retaliate. Worlds are split up into three stages followed by a boss, and there's a small bonus area between each stage that lets you take one power-up with you (though it can be tough to grab the one you want). The game really gets punishing towards the end, especially with the Sonic 2-inspired last world where you have to ride on missiles to get into the boss's flying headquarters. One trouble with the difficulty is that it can frequently feel a bit unfair due to how enemies will spawn almost on top of you depending on where you are on the screen; the high-speed missile sequence is full of those, requiring some shoot 'em up style memorization of the hazards to eventually pass. That said, the infinite respawning and the overall brief length mitigate much of what would otherwise make this game a frustrating and difficult ordeal and it actually felt pretty good to finally beat one of these types of run-and-gun games. Contra and I do not get along, generally speaking.
The Indie horror scene has really become attached to PS1 aesthetics of late. I'd guess in part because several of the biggest survival horror franchises—including Resident Evil and Silent Hill—got their start on Sony's original console, but I also suspect there's something about the surreal obliqueness of those blocky early polygonal models that made imaginations run wild, tapping into our collective fear of the unknown. Fatum Betula isn't a survival horror per se but it's certainly drinking from the same well as those many recent PS1 horror homages with its initially intimidatingly obtuse direction and disquieting visuals. Waking up in a church of sorts, the player finds a tree floating over a pool and a letter in their inventory inviting them to seek a "face in the wind". Hesitate in front of the pool long enough and sure enough a creature emerges from the air, assigning you a task: the sapling you see, the birch of fate (a literal translation of the game's Latin title), is linked to the world state. By changing the type of liquid it rests in, you can change the entire world around it. The goal, then, is to find an alternative liquid source to the stagnant water that sits there now.
The game world is an assembly of zones that may have NPCs, items, and other exits to visit, some of which are more obvious than others. Following any typical adventure game chain of these items and NPC interactions will eventually result in a type of liquid you can use to change the world, with those liquids that are harder to get resulting in more interesting transformations. An easy one would be to kill a poor catperson who is starving to death: they want a fish, but there's one orange-colored fish that is packed with enough poison to kill an immortal. Taking the catperson's blood is a viable option for an ending, though it transforms the world into one of survival of the fittest where no communities or civilizations can form due to the violence in peoples' hearts. Another option I found was to brew a potion of immortality, which in turn can make it so every living thing continues to live forever, eventually floating off into space without memories or sanity after the heat death of the universe. Fatum Betula has a handful of these philosophical conclusions to the game, and extends its longevity by tasking you with finding all of them. Unfortunately, there's no tracker for these endings nor any way to know how many are yet to be found (at least as far as I've been able to tell; maybe it's there's some very subtle markings on the title screen or something) and since most of the routes require the same chain of items and NPCs, you're often required to repeat a good portion of the game over and over to reach the branches that matter. There's a run button to make it easier to get around, but it still involves a huge amount of walking across the same areas and solving puzzles you've solved several times over, so I'll admit to only having enough patience to earn a few of the endings. The ending with the highest number attached to it that I found was that immortality one, considered the seventh, but whether there's an eighth or ninth beyond that I can't say without spoiling myself. Even so, I was pretty much set after three or four. Definitely an interesting spin on a 3D adventure game with plenty of trippy lo-poly visuals to create an unnerving environment, but it's hard to maintain an uneasy atmosphere built on the unexpected and unknown when you're repeating so much of the game again and again.
When a man reaches sexual maturity, there's a question he must ask himself: Do I prefer the dumpies or the bumpies? Well, thankfully here comes a game that caters to both preferences. Actually, I'm just being crude because it's better than being rude: For as much as I appreciate what Dumpy and Bumpy is doing here—hearkening back to a specific type of top-down action-puzzle game that was big on NES with games like Sokoban, Kickle Cubicle, or Adventures of Lolo—there's a certain trick they missed from those older games, and as Dumpy and Bumpy's challenge level increases it's proving more and more to be a fundamental weakness. A fatal one, perhaps. The NES had a limited amount of space on the screen to work with so character movement had a certain discreteness to it, for lack of a better term: characters and other animated parts moved in well-defined chunks. When you translate that to a game where there's a hundred pixels in a single "block" of the game map, issues arise with regards to precise movements and sprite collision and the player's perception of same. It's a hard thing to put into words, but it makes a huge difference to a game's feel when playing: an elusive quality for a designer to get right as much as it is for a reviewer to explicate in just a handful of paragraphs. As such, it's a little too easy to feel cheated by Dumpy and Bumpy when you fail something or are defeated by being off by a pixel, which happens all too frequently. Similar games have figured out this little trick in the past—Toki Tori 2, an excellent 2D puzzle-explormer from way back, is such an example of a game that had these discrete movement "blocks" to make intricate plans of the "pushing this block here while moving over there" type far easier to execute on despite otherwise having a modern resolution size.
With Dumpy and Bumpy you're hitting a wall of annoyance almost from the get go, especially as the game has you chasing a "par time" for each stage for the best result. Granted, the feel of a tough puzzle game like this a real hard balancing act that those developers from thirty years ago made look way easier than it actually was, but that's not to say Dumpy and Bumpy doesn't make some obvious errors too: for instance, going back to that par time thing, actually making the par time won't count as the game wants you to beat it; a minor "eff you" to the player that is entirely unnecessary since they could just decrease all the par times by a single second and let players be happy they "just made it" by hitting it on the dot. The game has its strengths too: the visuals, which are both delightful and have that clean look so important to the puzzle genre where there needs to be no ambiguity with how everything operates and interacts with each other, and the variety of objectives present that includes standard Sokoban block-pushing, quickly dashing around mazes, setting up a string of traps to complete a level in one attack, or those floor puzzles where you have to create an unbroken chain by walking over every tile. There's no questioning whether or not Progamancer has a firm grasp of this long-dormant game format and what makes it tick, it's simply a matter of execution.
Well, here's the requisite yuri visual novel. I'm not sure why I decided this would become a running thing, but at least so far we've had three very different stories even if Amelie belongs to the same supernatural horror sphere as last week's Pale Cachexia. While that game slowly built up the tension and interpersonal drama, this one's more like a short, sharp shock with a twist akin to an episode of a horror anthology show like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits (it was written for a Game Jam, so it's far from some multiple-hours-long VN that has time to slowly develop). The eponymous Amelie is a young woman from a rich family who has been trapped inside her mansion due to the pandemic—I guess that was a hot topic in 2021, or at the very least viral—but is eagerly anticipating the arrival of her first guest in many years, her penpal Sofia. Amelie's only had her friend Lilika for company, her parents and the mansion's staff having travelled elsewhere when the outbreak happened, and wants to hear more of what's been going on in the outside world. Sofia and Amelie spend some time together, retire for the evening, and then... stuff happens. Spooky stuff, mostly, but maybe a little bit of gay stuff too.
Amelie (the game) is broken up into three routes that play out simultaneously, each following a separate character. Amelie's route, the first, is unchanging in its progression and has Sofia mysteriously disappear the following morning, leaving Amelie devastated that her friend would suddenly depart without a word. Sofia's route, the second, then goes deeper into some odd turns of phrase that might've set off warning bells when you heard them in the Amelie route, such as how Amelie is surprised that Sofia attends university or has taps installed in her home, and can conclude in two different ways based on how "foolish horror movie protagonist" you feel like being with her choices. Lilika's route, the last, then lifts the curtain on what's actually going on (ghosts, y'all) and offers three conclusions. The Rashomon-like format presents a neat bait-and-switch device, while still a mostly linear affair, by using the routes to first lay down the groundwork, ratchet up the mystery, and finally knock down all the dominos. Visually the backgrounds are a little drab, with heavy use of image filters, but the character designs for the three women have this ethereal quality and are given distinct fashion senses that ties into something about their character and their role in the story: Amelie's is cute, graceful, but old-fashioned; Sofia's is contemporary but prioritizes comfort over glamor; and Lilika's is subdued and monochrome but for the long red string she uses as a ribbon. Know going in that it's going to be a bite-sized thing without a whole lot dedicated to colorful prose and character development, and you should be able to enjoy its few spooky twists and turns. (One complaint I have, though, is that it doesn't appear to be on DVD, nor do you cook an egg with a spoon.)
Finishing off this week with what proved to be a deeper explormer than I expected from its goofy title. A young woman living alone in the mountains adores her pet bunnies—all one hundred of them—but something causes them to get spooked by something in the middle of the night and, due to a moment of carelessness, they all escape through an open gate into the wilderness. The mountain is not a safe place to be at night—many shadowy monsters take to the pass when the sun is down—so the protagonist must quickly find and rescue all of her rabbits before the stars come out. The game doesn't so much truck in the usual upgrade-based progression as it does present a large map (four, to be precise) and has you explore as much of it as you want to hunt down the missing rabbits. It's not strictly necessary to complete the game with all of them but there's a special reward if you do. As well as the hundred titular lagomorphs there's also a set of palette collectibles that'll change the protagonist's color scheme, as well as several LGBTQ+ pride-related palettes already unlocked (each uses the associated flag colors). The palettes are a little tougher to reach, but the game mercifully tracks them along with the rabbits for each area.
With the rabbits, the goal is to escort them to a nearby tree stump that warps them back to your homestead. This is done through a combination of environmental puzzles and the protagonist's voice, which can be used to gain a rabbit's attention and then command them to stop and move. Some rabbits have special abilities that you can exploit—a flying rabbit doesn't have to worry about getting over wide gaps, for instance—and some rabbits are well-trained, which gives you a bonus set of commands to work with (a longer jump, a confidence boost that'll let them avoid enemies, etc.). The bulk of the gameplay is contained within these little escort puzzles (if you're trying to rescue them all, anyway) though there's still an ample amount of platforming too. The protagonist is not a high-leaping video game superheroine, so all she can manage is a moderately wide horizontal hop or vaulting up any block directly adjacent within a certain height threshold: the world is designed with these limitations in mind, often requiring you to think about the path you might need to take. Holding the sprint button makes the jumps a little wider, at least, giving you a few options. I'd definitely liken Oh Jeez, Oh No, My Rabbits Are Gone to some other mostly pacifistic puzzle-explormers like the aforementioned Toki Tori 2, Full Bore, or Knytt Underground. It's also probably my favorite of these May Magnanimity mini-Indies I've played so far this month, except it probably doesn't even count as "mini" since it took some five or six hours to find everything. Definitely a pleasant surprise and another lesson to not judge a game by its title (something I'll keep in mind with the upcoming Towers of Aghasba).
Something I've noticed after doing some three hundred of these Indie game reviews is that I've become attached to certain oeuvres: if I cover one game from a developer or a specific franchise of theirs for IGotW and enjoyed it, I'm more likely to eventually include everything else they've done for a vague sense of completion (excepting those that I'd already played/reviewed prior to starting this feature, of course). Playing The Cat Lady (IGotW #65) back in 2018 was a calculated risk because I'm not particularly into media with depressing or heavy themes, but I liked it enough and the bold decisions it made that I've since played its sequel/predecessor Downfall (IGotW #161) and was looking to play this game, Lorelai, for the longest time before running into technical issues (which, as of 2023, are no longer an obstacle). Developer Harvester Games has since put out another game—Burnhouse Lane, released the end of last year—so I've no doubt that'll show up on here too eventually. My approach to this feature is starting to feel a bit Wes Anderson-y with how I'm accruing a persistent group of familiar faces.
Lorelai operates almost like a lore linchpin for the loosely connected Harvester Games continuity, exploring a character that was central to both The Cat Lady and Downfall in a narrative sense even if she didn't appear on screen all too often. The Queen of Maggots, an avatar of death, was the entity behind the supernatural forces at work in both prior games, turning the titular cat lady into an immortal tool for revenge and Downfall's couple's retreat into a nightmare akin to The Shining. She's always been an enigmatic character, but owing to a larger presence in the story her motives are a little more laid bare here without necessarily robbing her of her mystique: a comparison might be something like The Outsider from the Dishonored franchise, and how the Death of the Outsider expansion made a once crucial but ancillary character more the focus. Lorelai does this through a new protagonist, the eponymous Lorelai, a young woman with a dysfunctional family she longs to escape from, taking on the difficult job of a carer at a retirement home for the necessary cash for a clean break. Instead, she finds her troubled mother hanging from the rafters and is inadvertently murdered by her nonchalant dirtbag of a stepfather. As with any aggrieved dead in the Harvester series, Lorelai's given a proposal by the Queen of Maggots to be her undead agent in the world of the living.
Much like its predecessors, Lorelai operates on a 2D plane with context-sensitive commands for hotspots in the environment. Inventory items can be combined or used with other hotspots, and there's usually an option to examine or interact with any given object even if some serve no other purpose than as set dressing. Standard point-and-click UI, in other words, and the overall challenge level of these interactable puzzles tends to be somewhere between easy and average; I generally don't have an issue with this in games where the story and characters take the center stage, Lorelai being such a case. This series has always been big on trippy visuals in particular, even giving its more quotidian backdrops a small surreal edge with unusual artworks and a combination of digitized photos and filters. Then you get to the purgatory world of the Queen of Maggots, over which she has almost total control, and it starts getting very Silent Hill-like. The Harvester Games series happily (if that's ever a term that applies to these games) walks a line between bleak Mike Leigh British domestic drama and surreal, gory, psychological horror, taking the everyday misery of these peoples' lives and giving them a supernatural twist. It can be a lot to deal with, and Lorelai's themes of the realities of elder care and infanticide (Lorelai has a frequently-imperiled baby half-sister, Bethany) create a couple new inroads to Bummersville, but for as emo as these games can be they usually treat these themes with the respect they are owed. The character designs and animations tend to be a bit gritty and jerky, but in a way that generally lends to the atmosphere rather than distract from it.
Lorelai's chief issue is that much of it feels like a lesser rehash of The Cat Lady. Like Susan, the protagonist of the earlier game, Lorelai dies and is resurrected several times over and in the process is drawn deeper into the Queen of Maggots's worldview and modus operandi. Rather than being an indifferent shepherd for the dead like any well-behaved psychopomp, the Queen acts more like a trickster or parasite that lives in the periphery of life and death and uses her considerable powers just to screw with people, giving the recently deceased a devil's bargain or whispering negative thoughts in the ears of those already on the brink of a mental breakdown. She invites Lorelai to do the same: one memorable chapter has you invisibly follow around a tertiary character, the recovering alcoholic carehome chef Al, and either push him back into alcoholism by messing with his life and undermining his confidence or do the opposite by encouraging him in his AA sessions and helping to avoid relapses. Lorelai's been promised more help to save her loved ones from her now very dangerous stepfather if she can corrupt Al to the point of an early demise by drinking, but it's up to the player to decide how pragmatically ruthless Lorelai is capable of becoming. Beyond this, though, Lorelai has her strings pulled the same way as Susan until she finally finds a way of emancipating herself from this control, and with only one villain this game doesn't quite have the variety of The Cat Lady. You could argue it's a little more grounded as a result, with Lorelai's vengeance reserved purely for a man she already despised, but it felt a little less eventful as a result.
I will say however, that the developer Rem Michalski (more or less the core of Harvester Games) has grown as a storyteller and a designer alike; Lorelai's a lot cleaner than the first two games with its UI and functionality with overall more intuitive controls and less bugs, and the little cinematic asides and needledrops feel more earned even if they can still be a bit silly. (As is, if I'm being honest, making the game's male romantic interest basically your own stand-in as a geeky but sweet Indie game developer.) I still reserve an amount of respect for these games for having such a distinct vision behind their bleak narratives and surreal presentations with enough of a traditional point-and-click experience to tie everything together, a genre I'm always happy to see persevere even as many other adventure game subgenres have started to dominate the Indie circuit. Horror adventure games come in all shapes and sizes these days, many also sticking to a 2D plane, but few do so with this level of overwhelming style.
Bienvenintendos, everyone, to the newest episode of 64 in 64: the surest way to convince anyone that the Nintendo 64 had many, many problems beyond its limited cartridge space. We've managed to reach our thirtieth episode so I've lined up something pretty special for the Pre-Selected game for the occasion. I have zero control over the Random game, of course, and nothing would make that more evident than scrolling down and seeing the nonsense it threw at me to deal with this time.
Before we get into any of the fun stuff, I've got some pre-amble to pre-ambulate. I'm a rare defender of the N64 controller: I think its three-prong design was a smart one, but like many Nintendo decisions regarding peripherals and console-specific features they never really communicated it well with the many third-parties they were looking to work with. I suspect this was the beginning of the end for them losing a lot of support from studios outside the Nintendo bubble, as they continued to alienate people by insisting they make games with two screens in mind, or with motion controls in mind, or a big dumb tablet in mind. The three prongs of the N64 controller were meant to create a hard distinction between 3D games, which would use the Control Stick, and the 2D games which could use the standard D-pad. The C-buttons, meanwhile, seemed like they were built specifically for camera management: having all four buttons look more or less identical but for their direction made sense for a camera-specific function but less so as four additional face buttons that can be put to whatever use the developers wanted. The Z trigger? That was a masterstroke for console FPS games. Odd to think the N64 was the first to figure it out (I don't count bumpers, since SNES got there first). It's remarkable to see Nintendo's first-party games use all these buttons in the smart and intuitive ways they were meant to be used, and then see a bunch of third-parties—many of whom had to develop with other consoles and their controller schemes in mind also—just take a big ol' swing and a miss at a logical set of control bindings. Maybe that's why a lot of N64 games outside of whatever Zeldas and Marios Nintendo was putting out feel a bit... off. Still, hard to say Nintendo's blameless in this; it's a little like inviting people over to your house to try out a video game only you know how to play well, and wondering why no-one can put up a fight.
Talking of unfair, we have some rules to impart:
We're looking at two games in this and most other 64 in 64 episodes. The first was Pre-Selected from a pool of notable games that I either have some affinity for or have been curious to try out. The second one got expectorated onto my shoes by a spiteful machine code that I wronged in a previous life, a Random pick in the truest sense.
Each game is played for sixty-four minutes exactly. Or, at least, whenever I remember to set the timer going. Not to worry however as my internal clock is pretty good, even this late in the day (wait, it's only 5pm?).
Rundowns follow the structure of an elucidating introduction, four progress reports taken sixteen minutes apart, a conclusive statement on how well it's held up, a furtive estimate at how likely it is to hit the Switch Online service with all the other N64 games of variable prestige, and how many Retro Achievements I inadvertently earned in the process, if any.
We don't cover games already on Switch Online or due to be released on there for what I laughably call legal reasons, as if anything I do here is legal. As if to lend a hand in this endeavor, Nintendo's been helping me avoid any embarrassing scheduling mistakes by choosing not to announce or release anything new for the library despite having many more N64 games in the can. Saints, one and all.
Previous episodes can be found in this contented table of contents:
: It's the return of Bring Your B-Game on 64 in 64 this episode, as our curated pick is the Notorious B.I.G. (Bee Infested Game) itself: Buck Bumble. Yeah, the one with the "bump to the bump to the bass" title track. A bizarre chemical spill has transformed the micro world of insects into one full of monstrously tough mutants and only a bumblebee cyborg has the skills to prevent an all-out war with the rest of Earth's denizens, even though we're way bigger and probably wouldn't need to put up much of a fight. British studio Argonaut Software employs their years of experience creating 3D dogfight shooters here, switching it up with this uncommon format of a cyberbee patrolling a suburban garden.
Argonaut should be a familiar name to both '80s home computer fans and Nintendo fans alike—an odd Venn diagram overlap shared only by Rare—as their input was instrumental in developing the SNES's Super FX chip as well as the most famous game to use it, Star Fox (or Star Wing, depending on who you ask). Though they released a handful of other console games over the years, like the Mario-killer Croc: Legend of the Gobbos, Buck Bumble is the only involvement they ever had with the N64. I guess why try to improve on perfection? (I don't need to introduce Ubisoft again, but I will say that this the fifth game they've published that's shown up on this feature. They got around, even in their pre-Prince of Persia/Assassin's Creed days. It's also the last of their dozen or so N64 games I have any interest in playing, so if they show up again it'll be for a random pick or because I had some barrels that needed scraping.)
This has the stink of inevitability all over it, huh? One of the handful of lesser N64 games to achieve meme status thanks in a small part to... well, OK, entirely due to its garage theme music which links it to a very specific time and place. (Not a musical genre that was easy to avoid in late '90s UK.) Giant Bomb's played it at least once in a stream that also featured fellow N64 meme generator Glover (punting that thing's 64 in 64 appearance as far into the future as possible) so I'm sure folks are familiar enough with the game. I actually own a physical copy, after I made one of my characteristic lapses in judgment. I don't recall it being terrible, at least not in an infamously bad way like some N64 games that regularly hit the "worst" lists, so I'm sure this won't be a painful experience. Well, if it is, I'll just game over and let it idle on the title screen for the remaining time.
16 Minutes In
Well, so far, so bee to the base. That is to say, I flew as a bee to the enemy's base and shot it up. For as perfunctory as the combat feels it's probably remarkable that a 3D aerial shooter made in 1998 can be as smooth as this game's been so far. As if understanding that this is still a relatively new genre for the console market, the game's full of handy conveniences like a radar that accurately displays both the range and direction of incoming foes. The reason that's helpful is because, like most N64 games, the draw distance can be detrimental to seeing anything that isn't right on top of you. Buck Bumble starts with a slow pistol, but can soon find a much faster plasma pistol and a grenade launcher, the latter useful for destroying slow-moving enemies or stationary targets like buildings. Most structures have a telltale weak point which looks like a blue ball of electricity (I actually thought it was a shield at first, and tried to aim away from it) which might mean maneuvering yourself to the right angle to destroy it.
As of writing I've completed the first mission, Shock Strike, which simply involved clearing the level of enemies. I'm most of the way through the second, Radar Run, which has me taking out satellite dishes that these irradiated bees and hornets somehow have access to, including one that's behind a "secret passage". Said secret passage wasn't all that secret so now I'm poised to head through it and destroy the last dish.
32 Minutes In
And here we see the game reveal its stinger, so to speak. Buck Bumble lures you in with the promise of a gentle time floating like a bee but right after wrapping up the first update I went through the passage and ended up getting stun-locked to death by tank-weevils. Their artillery strikes are incredibly accurate if you aren't moving, so the usual tactic of hitting the air brake and positioning myself to target incoming enemies was less valuable here. It also, along with the third mission, drilled into me the important of not hanging around: you're best zooming to each objective and taking it out quick rather than sticking around shooting everything, in part because there's usually some kind of timer and in part because your special weapon ammo is going to run dry if you waste it on inconsequential small fry. I've since expanded the amount of special weapons I've found to include "Multi-Bombs" which work like cluster grenades and seem a bit too inaccurate to be all that useful unless you're completely surrounded by enemies (or the enemy's so big that half the bombs end up hitting it despite the spread).
I fast-forwarded through the second mission and am now struggling with the third, Return Fire, which as you can see has you racing back to the HQ seen at the start of the game before its health bar disappears completely. That's where the "speed is the essence" lesson comes into play, because that thing was on its last pixel by the time I'd systematically cleared the way on my first attempt. The mission then culminates with picking up a nuclear bomb (again, how do these common garden bees find the plutonium for a nuke? Maybe the "Libyants"?) and carrying it back to a defusing station without hitting anything on the way. Worth pointing out here that the missions have no checkpoints and the game has a lives system for some godforsaken reason: since my last save was after losing the only two lives I had, I'll get game overs every time I fail this third one. Big question is, if I can save after every mission and I have to start over anyway if I get KIA'd, what purpose do these lives serve? Maybe some video game conventions were harder to drop...
48 Minutes In
With mission three complete the game resumes the same pace as before, letting me catch my breath and replenish some of my special weapon ammo by exploring the levels a little more thoroughly without the threat of annihilation breathing down my thorax. Mission four, The Sonar Tower, flowed much like the radar dishes in that I had to remove a group of buildings one by one. I'm glad I was able to stock up on some more grenade launcher ammo and multi-bombs, since they're effective against these durable mission targets. The fifth mission, Big Blips, was a mini-boss of sorts as I had to warp to a small pond and take out some tentacle-looking things. Not for the first time I was wishing for a strafe button, since the most effective strategy I found of "fly right at them while shooting" proved to be a little more internecine than I'd have preferred. I'm now in the sixth mission, Short Fuse, which has me blowing up another thing but with a small twist: I've got to pick up a bomb and fly it to the detonation point beneath the building's shields. Same deal as last time: if I hit a wall or the floor I'm dead, along with everything in a half-mile (or more like half-yard, or maybe half-backyard) radius.
I think I've adjusted to the game's fluctuating pace now. Some missions it wants you to go fast, others you're probably better off taking your time with and using long range and surprise to your advantage if those ambush weevils from the second mission taught me anything (besides what artillery shells fired from a beetle's ass taste like).
64 Minutes In
I very carefully and gradually removed all the opposition between where I pick up the bomb and where I am to drop it off, just to ensure that nothing would tamper with it en route to its destination. I then went all the way back to get said bomb—the level is enormous for some reason, and involves flying through the sewer at one point—only for it to graze the platform I meant to set it on, causing it to explode and the mission to fail. Next attempt? I just grabbed that football and ran to the end zone in one mad dash. Ended up beating the mission and earning my first of the time-based Retro Achievements. I guess fortune favors the bumblebold.
After that, I got a little into the seventh mission, The Outpost, before my time was up. I picked up all these cool weapons on mission six and never got to use any of them (I skipped them on the second attempt). I think I saw an auto-crossbow in there (I really hope there aren't stealth missions), a homing missile launcher, and something called the lightning gun. Started to feel very Quake-like all of a sudden. At any rate, I'm done with the game now so those weapons will have to remain a mystery. Can you believe I got through a third of this game's missions in a single hour? I doubt I'd have kept up that pace though.
: The Buzz Has Worn Off. If you asked me "What about now? Is it time to rock with the Biggedy Buck Bumble?" I'd probably look at you askew for a moment and then answer that the game's not aged all that great, but at the same time it's hard to find games from its genre that really worked back in that era due to the limitations of 3D graphics. Argonaut's always been able to do a lot with a little in that department, putting out wireframe 3D shooters on Atari ST in the late '80s despite theoretically being a long way away from supporting anything like it (which of course led to all the Super FX business). Granted, this far from removed from both the late '90s and this genre alike, it's hard for me to consider what this game's contemporaries were doing besides obvious PC stuff like X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, which is a much slower and tactical game over Buck Bumble's frantic bee action. It has my second favorite title screen music of any insect-themed shooter made by a British developer, if that counts?
: Du-bee-ous. If Ubisoft still has the IP kicking around then I'm sure they could do something with it, but unless they gave Buck a hood and some retractable wrist blades or could somehow turn its theme song into an NFT I can't imagine they have much motivation. Curiously, when Argonaut shut its doors back in 2004 many of its major figures went on to found Rocksteady Studios, which at this moment is putting their own finishing touches on a shooter game with lots of flying biomechanical enemies with obvious weak points. Time really is a flat circle, or at least a purple glowing one.
: 15 of 55. The game has twenty-one missions which offer two achievements apiece: one for beating the level and a second for doing so under a par time. Beyond that there's a freebie for every new weapon and a special achievement for listening to a full loop of the theme music (you better believe I earned that one).
: 64 Oozumou 2, or 64 Sumo 2 if we're being a little less obtuse, is a sumo wrestling simulation game exclusive to the N64. Naturally, this is one of those games that never left Japan for cultural reasons, since we've yet to adopt the noble sport of sumo overseas. Honestly, I think Japan should've swung for the fences and tried to make it an Olympic event back in 2021 to see how many heavy-set dudes showed up. The game's story mode has you train a novice sumo wrestler from their salad days all the way up to their wagyu beef days by closely controlling their diets, exercise regimens, and professional bouts. There's also a less intensive mode for battling it out with CPU opponents in single matches. Bottom Up, the developer and publisher, was founded by ex-Natsume folks and along with the two Oozumou games also put out on N64 a card game compilation unfortunately named 64 Trump Collection: Alice no Waku Waku Trump World (I believe waku-waku-ing Alice is what got him into this recent lawsuit trouble) and Onegai Monster, a monster breeder game.
I'm more than a little intimidated by the idea of playing a text-heavy simulation game based on a sport I don't know in a language I only barely know. (And it's a sequel, so I won't know the story either!) Where the heck is VoidBurger when you need her? If it doesn't look like I can muddle through a full hour of eating dumpsters full of rice and slapping dudes on their asses I'll have to think of some alternative solutions, possibly even breaking 64 in 64's cardinal rule of seeking external help. Heck, if that comment about the dumpster rice is as ignorant as I'll get today, I'll consider it a minor victory.
16 Minutes In
Haaaaaaaa what have I done? This game is absolutely impenetrable. Like an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a fundoshi (though I believe sumo underpants are actually referred to as mawashi, so don't claim I didn't learn anything from all this). I could read the menus, sort of, so I went ahead and avoided "Story" for now and tried out what I think is the exhibition match function. The game makes heavy use of the C-buttons—A and B don't seem to do a thing, which you always want from the two main face buttons—and from what little I can tell it might be doing a rock-paper-scissors thing where outguessing your opponent's next move disorients them briefly for a follow-up. The goal, as far as I understand sumo, is to unbalance your opponent long enough to throw them out the ring or otherwise force them out with brute strength, but I've yet to manage either so far. The "Renshuu" (Practice) mode I'm in now seems endless, either that or I set the CPU level so low it can't "ring out" me and I don't know the right buttons to "ring out" them. Truly a case of an impossibly weak force meeting an oblivious object.
Guys, I think I've made a grievous error in judgment here. I gave the random chooser app too much power and now it's trying to sabotage my life. AI was much easier to deal with when it was just stealing art and adding more fingers to it or writing factually incorrect responses to prompts to screw over every lazy schoolkid who gave up on doing their homework, not trying to torpedo well-meaning blog features with games I have zero chance of understanding. Well, we're here for a while, so I'll... just keep hitting buttons and hoping for the best. My deepest gomenasai to all sumo fans out there.
32 Minutes In
I switched over to the "Taisen Rikishi" (Sumo Wrestler Bout) mode, which looked to be the normal versus mode, but I was kicked out. I think it might only be for create-a-wrestlers, and I don't have any of those yet. Instead, I went for "Torikumi" (Fight Roster) and the two options here are what I'm after: a single exhibition match or a sixteen-character tournament. Choosing to kill two birds with one stone, I signed up as a powerful NPC wrestler and made the other fifteen the chumps with the weakest stats. This way I could fluff my own powerfully meager ego while also getting to watch a bunch of CPU vs. CPU matches to see what I could glean about the mechanics.
I'm still not copacetic about how anything works regarding the rock-paper-scissors system I only estimated at earlier (the Japanese love putting janken in their video games, in my experience) but I did note that the rikishi's stamina bar is a major factor. If you drain it fully with attacks—there's two types, roughly speaking, where there's those that sap the gauge and those that sap how quickly it can recover, represented by its color—and then attempt a throw or any kind of knock down it'll put them out of commission. Rikishi can collapse on the spot without being forced out the ring and it still counts as a win. I realize "drain the enemy's health bar in a fighting game to knock them out" isn't exactly some ancient mystical secret passed down from yokozuna to yokozuna but bear with me here as I don't play a lot of martial arts simulators. The plan right now is to finish this tournament, whether I reach the finals or not, and then spend whatever time I have left figuring out the story campaign mode. I hope I get to Monster Factory up one of these goofy looking fellows.
48 Minutes In
Well, I didn't win the tournament because I accidentally put a competent CPU competitor in there, so I missed out on being driven around in a convertible with no driver and being interviewed by a very chipper lady from the teevee, but no matter. Onwards and upwards. I spent the other half of this block jumping into the story mode and creating my own little guy. I made sure to make him look as stupid as possible, to properly reflect my level of understanding of the profession, and now I'm just staring at walls of numbers and hiragana trying to figure out what any of it means. I think it wants me to pick out a training schedule for my fledgling rikishi.
Yes. So. No closer to understanding this game. But to understand that you don't understand anything at all is true wisdom, I've found.
64 Minutes In
Poking around the story mode for a while I did get to see a few cutscenes—some real "no expenses spared" presentational quality on display here—and was able to enter bouts, but I couldn't find a way to increase my stats. You do get the choice during character creation to either distribute points evenly across what I imagine is strength, technique, and stamina values or leave it up to a slot machine to decide for those looking to live a little more dangerously with their simulation games. However, without being able to grow stronger, I hit a fleshy wall pretty quickly going after random matches. Maybe if you work your way up to a competition? Or perhaps there were training exercises buried in the menus somewhere. Either way, I eventually ran out of time and that put a stop to my sumo career before it even had a chance to bloom.
It's evident to me now that this is a super low budget effort from a smaller development team, especially if they're best known for lo-fi adaptations of poker and whist, but there's some fun ideas here. I like the silly expressions and chibi style of the wrestlers—the game evidently treats the sport with the pomp and circumstance Japan puts into its most noble of martial arts, though it's not above poking some gentle fun at these large meat-slapping men wearing next to nothing either—and the music and intro movie have some great fun sports anime level of dramatic. All that said, there's no getting past the fact that I absolutely no idea what I was doing. Less so than usual, even.
: Su-meh. I suspect this wasn't an impressive game at launch either, though maybe having a story mode in a sports game was still novel at the time. Curious to see what Spike Lee could do with the tale of a neophyte sumo wrestler earning his stripes in the saltéd ring to feed his family back home. If you can't read Japanese or you don't understand how sumo works, I don't think I could recommend it.
: Su-no. Anything's possible, sure, but Bottom Up went tits up in March 2000 and I don't think anyone stepped in to save the handful of IPs it had. Maybe Nintendo will get some sumo fanatic as a president someday that's going to hunt down and publish every ancient sumo sim that ever made it to a Nintendo console for Switch Online, but I somehow doubt it.
Hey all and welcome back to Week 3 of May Magnanimity, looking at the smaller games from Itch.io charity bundles that may have slipped everyone's notice, as they evidently did mine if I'm only playing them now many months (or years) later. Truth be told I'm stoked to be reviewing tiny Indies en masse again, as I'd often get through a good twenty or so of these bite-sized beauties in a single May Madness and find plenty to write about. It's not like May 2023 saw any big, genre-defining releases to distract me or anything...
Bit of a quieter week overall, dropping from the usual six games to four. Not that I'm trying to keep to a quota as such, it's just that I happened to pick games this time that proved to be longer and more involved than I thought. I've realized trying to eyeball Indies and sort them into size and simplicity—what's straightforward enough to qualify for a rapid-fire feature like this, and what could better use a 1000-word IGotW blog to fully review—is a fool's errand, since simple presentations can often belie a considerable mechanical depth (the reverse is often true in the highest AAA tiers too, of course). Regardless, despite what these brief appraisals might otherwise lead you believe, these four games turned out to be a lot more intriguing than a cursory glance at their Itch.io pages suggested.
(As always, links to previous entries/games can be found at the end.)
I took one glance at this game and figured it was some sort of riff on WayForward's Shantae; not necessarily an explormer but something along the same lines by way of puzzles based around alternative forms or powers. Turns out Crescent Isle's Arabic theme was hearkening back to a much older game: the FDS platformer Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic, the basis of Super Mario Bros. 2, in that all of Crescent Isle's puzzles revolve around the riding/lifting enemy mechanic from SMB2 by way of picking up enemies and using their abilities to make progress past various barriers. The story of the game concerns a kingdom enchanted by a curse and has you—as either the Prince or the Queen of said kingdom, another reference to Yume Kojo's close-knit family of playable characters—attempt to locate the Archmage behind the curse in order to lift it. He's also kidnapped your sister (or daughter) the Princess, due to be wed to a foreign royal, which is another incentive to chase him down. Because of the curse, the former denizens of your kingdom have all been transformed into creatures, which is why the game won't let you kill any of them. Instead, you simply abuse their innate powers to reach the end of each stage: an ice monster will freeze bodies of water, for instance, letting you cross over them safely. You can hold enemies either above your head or underfoot, both stances providing their own applications depending on the foe.
The game's a little on the glitchy side, where it feels like the ambitious mechanics maybe got the best of its developer and some issues proved unconquerable, but for the most part it takes this central conceit as far as it can go, throwing in some coin collectibles and a level select feature for longevity's sake. There's no splits in the path and I'm fairly sure the story with its late-game twist is the same no matter which character you choose. For that matter, the Queen does not have Princess Peach's floating jump or anything of the like to distinguish her from her son, so the choice of protagonist appears to be purely aesthetic. Visually it's going for that aforementioned 16-bit Shantae look with big colorful character sprites and backgrounds, which is a big improvement on the game's pre-"DX" artwork. It's a scrappy game full of minor imperfections and mechanical annoyances but is otherwise an imaginative (or let's say underexplored) idea taken to its zenith.
In what's becoming a recurring theme here on May Magnanimity, our second game is another GL-coded visual novel. This one styles itself as a "kinetic" visual novel, which means it has no interactivity of any kind save for the UI required to move to the next line of dialogue. It concerns Esther, a young woman afflicted with a wasting disease called the Pale Cachexia: operating similarly to multiple sclerosis, this condition saps the host's energy leading to days of chronic fatigue and muscle pain with no known cure and a limited number of ways to keep it in check. Esther, once a promising student, has been travelling around the world searching for a cure and in a last ditch effort has entered some foreboding woods to find the lost mansion of a brilliant, reclusive scientist who suffered from the same disease. Instead, she finds the house occupied by the long-dead scientist's teenage daughter, Seina, who has spent the last six years on her own and is excited to have a guest. The duo grow closer as Esther pores over the scientist's leftover notes for a cure, though she grows perturbed by how the former man of science sought answers from the world of the supernatural. She grows more perturbed still when she realizes he might've been onto something.
The game's going for a sort of saturnine Gothic melodrama angle, which had me recalling my time with The House in Fata Morgana, and while the game doesn't quite have the same pedigree it acquits itself handily with its writing, visuals, and music. The character designs for Esther and Seina (and Isaiah, Seina's father, who appears in several flashbacks) are expressive and detailed as are the many background scenes of Seina's mansion and the surrounding forest, the script is flowery and well-edited with a handful of $10 vocabulary words like "finical" and "conurbation", and the understated orchestral music nicely complements the story's tone. Understated might also be a word I'd use to describe the game as a whole, given it's an unhurried, gentle semi-love story between two lonely and self-defeating people gradually getting to know each other, at least one of whom is slowly dying. Definitely a night sitting in a graveyard drinking absinthe while listening to Bauhaus sort of vibe, though that's not to denigrate its subtle appeal if doomed (and mostly only subtextual) romances in vaguely supernatural settings are a thematic genre that speaks to you. I think I still prefer my visual novels to have more game in it by way of decision branches and such—a personal choice, not a grudge I hold against VNs that seek only to tell a linear story—but in spite of everything Pale Cachexia managed to keep my interest for its modest 3-4 hour duration, even if its pace was assuredly on the leisurely side.
Bless the Indie devs looking to resurrect as many ancient game models as they can in their pursuit of the elusive "nostalgia plus" state of being, where archaic-style games can feel just like they used to if only because of years of subtle game design improvements are working hard in the background. Jetscout recalls Lunar Lander and its many imitators: a very specific style of aerial platformer where mastering thrust, momentum, and inertia are key to avoiding collisions with the surrounding environment. Jetscout has you tackle a series of vertical linear levels as a daring space explorer, carefully adjusting your speed and angle to move around obstacles and hazards. Those obstacles and hazards are distinct to every planet you visit, each of which can have two or more levels of increasing challenge, and the game tracks deaths when determining a score out of a possible three stars. Naturally, only a zero-deaths run qualifies for the full three stars. Thankfully, the default Normal difficulty gives you a single-use replenishing shield so as long as you make it back to a checkpoint (either the next in the sequence or the previous) after getting hit once there's no harm done. You also have to keep an eye on your fuel: this is also replenished at checkpoints, but too much thrusting can be deleterious to your well-being. Glad I paid attention to that lesson in health ed.
This is the sort of punishing, precise game where perfect can often be the enemy of good. It's similar in that way with RedLynx's Trials franchise, where you'll eventually learn to accept a few mistakes in the later courses because the skill ceiling required to achieve zero becomes prohibitively high. That said, perfectionists and completionists will probably hit burnout trying to max everything, and I'm in the same boat: there's the deep frustration faced with leaving a game incomplete or imperfect jutting right up against the equally deep frustration of spending hours trying to ace increasingly insane challenges. Either I conquer my brain worms long enough to settle for a satisfactory result over an ideal one or I drop it like I've done so many masocore games in the past. For now, I'm going to switch my main focus towards other games and will probably hop back in occasionally for as much as I can handle in a single session.
Playing both this and Curse of the Crescent Isle this week has produced a curious pair of bookends of innovative platformers expanding on a concept last explored several decades ago. Many years back Pac-Man wranglers Namco put out an arcade obscurity called Yokai Dochuki (localized as Shadow Land) which based itself on Japanese mythology and in particular that of Jigoku, the Japanese Buddhist equivalent of Hell. To escape his fate, the protagonist had to pass through levels inspired by different regions of Jigoku, but right at the end of the game the protagonist's soul was judged according to various factors, one of which was how much money the player had accrued. It seems Buddhism has a similar take as Christianity with regards to the pursuit of money being inherently sinful so earning too much throughout the game would stick you with one of the "bad" endings, like getting resurrected as an insect. Rising Dusk has a similar theme of Japanese yokai and yurei and other spirits as well as a similar moral lesson about the evils of greed: each of its levels are built in such a way where collecting coins can be detrimental as often as advantageous.
Styled like Super Mario World, complete with alternative level exits that open up its world map in surprising ways, Rising Dusk has you running around yokai-infested levels attempting to reach the end in one piece. A lot of the obstacles and platforms have numbers attached: this indicates how many coins you'd need to exorcise them, which can be useful if they're blocking your path but less so if they're the only thing stopping you from falling down a pit. It's been good practice so far to play a level avoiding every coin and taking note of what collectibles or critical path items require how much (or how little) cash on hand to reach. The thing is, you also need money to buy consumable items and a few other collectibles from the store, so it's not always a bad idea to grab a few coins on the way to the exit. A lot of the levels have special rules as well, often based on the kind of yokai they feature: if a level has tanuki, they'll try to steal coins from you and run off, and depending on the situation you might be totally OK with that. A level full of nurikabe (wall mimics also seen in Nioh, where they need to be placated with the right gestures) flips the rules where it's the other enemies that exorcise them with a touch rather than the player, which might mean drawing an enemy close enough to dispel a nurikabe sitting in the way. The game has no shortage of these ideas and it's been a great deal of fun sussing out each level's rules and how to reach its collectibles, even if the platforming itself can be a little rough. (Also, don't believe its HowLongToBeat entry: it's much longer than a two-hour game, easily double that.)
It's been a hot minute since I last checked out a Swery game. In fact, I'm pretty sure the only other game of his I've played was Deadly Premonition, which I blogged about almost nine years ago. Dude's been busy since then, of course, focusing on smaller-scale Indie/doujin games since forming his own studio, White Owls, after leaving Access Games (with whom he made Deadly Premonition, D4, and others). White Owls's first game is this, the loquaciously-titled The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, a puzzle-platformer with a dark psychological horror bent and a mild vein of black humor running through it. It concerns the titular J.J. Macfield, a student vacationing with her girlfriend Emily on the equally titular Island of Memories, an accursed New England isle that operates similarly to Silent Hill with its bespoke illusionary torments for its visitors. Emily vanishes from their campsite and J.J. takes pursuit, though it's clear the island is nothing as it first seemed.
The game typically gives you environmental puzzles to deduce in order to make progress, with J.J. capable of pushing and pulling boxes, jumping across gaps and lifting herself up ledges, and either crawling on all-fours or on her stomach (the latter putting you even lower to the ground) in order to squeeze through tight spaces. An unfortunate gift, provided early on, is that she is effectively immortal: she can, and does, take considerable physical damage but can use this undying state to solve puzzles. For instance, setting herself on fire means being able to ignite other flammable objects as well as light up the surroundings. There's a few of these, and you'll be regularly putting J.J. in harm's way to take advantage of them both out of necessity and for collectibles (though severely injuring her just for the latter feels a little insensitive). At any point, you can hold the resurrect button and regain any missing limbs and heal all flesh wounds. The only true death state occurs when J.J. is reduced to just her head and she loses that too, presumably as losing your head in a psychological horror game generally spells the end.
The game does what it can to mitigate the level of gore you'll be witnessing on a regular basis through a set of visual filters—J.J. becomes a silhouette if she's taken lethal damage—but you still get a full audio suite of pained screams and squishy noises which can be... a little much to deal with sometimes. You're eventually inured to the pain, much like J.J. herself is, but because the game takes steps to make her a sympathetic protagonist that's had a hard life it's a rough time for any player's emotional investment. That's not to say The Missing is the only game with a similar mechanic—the much-derided NeverDead and the forgotten 3D mascot platformer Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy also used the flexible undead states of their protagonists to allow them to survive perils that would kill anyone living—but it's one of the few to play it as the serious detriment to one's mental health that it would be rather than for laughs. That said, for as much as the game tends to stick to a grim tone Swery's eccentricities are all over it, as might be expected: J.J. is obsessed with donuts to the point she'll injure herself to get at them, and the game has Twin Peaks-style backwards speaking from both the missing Emily and a strange deer doctor I'm half-convinced is a projection of a real doctor looking after a comatose J.J. in a hospital somewhere.
I'm also starting to grok that there's a whole symbolism side to the game's narrative. The game establishes right after booting up the game that its development was made with LGBTQ+ representation in mind and the right for anyone to be what they are, and J.J.'s same-sex relationship with Emily might not necessarily be the extent of that: during the game, the player is able to unlock more of J.J.'s chat history on her phone (which doubles as the pause menu) and it slowly reveals her troubles with transitioning genders, receiving loving support from Emily and strong opposition from her conservative mother. The whole physical deformation aspect presumably ties in with latent feelings of body dysmorphia, lending more credence to the idea that the events of the game are all in J.J.'s head (or the island's targeting her neuroses). I haven't reached the end quite yet, but I'm guessing I'm close to its conclusion if the achievement trackers for collectibles are anything to go by, so I figured I'd try to talk around the game's revelations before it spells it all out for me.
For as gruesome as the game can be the puzzles are generally well thought out and it's visually sharp with its use of 3D characters and level design in a fixed 2D perspective. It's usually pretty easy to tell what items and hotspots you can interact with due to their orange sheen and I've missed several collectibles so far, which speaks to how well they've been hidden (fortunately, I can swing back with a level select feature if I feel like it). The game can be a little visually glitchy and I've been stuck a couple times due to doing something the game perhaps didn't anticipate a player would do; hitting the restart chapter button on the pause menu means having to do those puzzles again, but it'll always save your collectibles at least and leave ghosts for those you've already found, helpful for anyone following a guide during a post-game clean-up. It's accommodating in a way Deadly Premonition rarely was, for as much as I love that game for other reasons, and I'm heartened that Swery put just as much of his personality into this one via the optional chat logs, the Stephen King-esque setting, and general weirdness. Maybe reined in a little more compared to Deadly Premonition or D4 due to the game's heavier themes, but still very much present. I'll be sure to check out some of White Owls's other games at some point in the future also, like the kitty transformation game The Good Life and Hotel Barcelona, a mysterious collab with No More Heroes's Suda 51 and Silent Hill's Keiichiro Toyama.
I'm still over here throwing darts at my sizeable (humblebrag?) Itch.io bundle backlog to see what gaming morsels I've been putting off for far too long, as a belated means of thanking those developers who put up their creative efforts to help with various charitable efforts over the past few years (and also to clear out a whole bunch of Indies this month, which used to be how I spent most Mays). The first week is over here and gets into more detail about what we're up to with this feature, but suffice it to say I'm knocking out a bunch of smaller Indies in one fell swoop that wouldn't really benefit from the huge write-ups offered by my usual Indie Game of the Week feature.
Always a good sign when a game takes longer to download than it does to complete. I kid, of course: this was more the flavor I had in mind when I started looking through all these Itch.io games for those that might serve a quick-fire feature like this. Summer Gems presents a sudden friendship that strikes up between two kids, one a native to a picturesque seaside village and the other a summer tourist to same, and sees them bond over the handful of days they have together as they play on the beach collecting knick-knacks deposited by the tides, followed by summarizing their thoughts with a written letter to each other as the sun goes down.
The player's influence is minimal—you select which of the three found items per day is your favorite, and then direct the letter's content through emotions rather than directly choosing the wording—and the game's over in just a handful of minutes, but the goal of flashing its audience back to a youthful age where a summer friendship is somehow both meaningful and incredibly ephemeral is one it accomplishes adroitly. Nostalgic, cute as a button, and taps into something maybe universal about childhood that most of us may have already forgotten about. It's only because my brain has been so broken by video games that I found myself longing for some kind of collectibles encyclopedia for all the beach trash I kept finding.
MM08: The Adventures of Wolf and Hood - A Jigsaw Tale
Developer: Stone Baked Games
Nothing too special about this jigsaw game, save a few medium-unique elements like some (but sparingly few) animated parts to make it easier to figure out where they fit in the scene and a format that has pieces "click" into place for good once in their correct locations. There's also a feature where you can highlight edge pieces mixed in around the unsolved pieces if you're looking to finish the circumference before starting on the interior. Beyond that it's otherwise real straightforward and the art's mostly OK if not spectacular, with not nearly enough background details for my liking beyond what is spared for the central characters of any given scene.
There's a story to follow, which is distinct enough for a jigsaw game, with each image adding another step to the narrative. It's set in a reimagined world of fairytales where Hood and Wolf aren't enemies but a bounty-hunting duo whose most recent target is Jack the Giant Slayer, wanted for the slaying of several giants. He's initially allies with Rapunzel but she turns on him towards the end, choosing to help Hood and Wolf bring him to justice. I'm all for turning fairytale characters into little Samus Arans. Length-wise the game offers multiple sizes from 24 pieces all the way up to 296 pieces (or 21x14), the latter of which can take a good half-hour or so to solve, with a total of 20 puzzles. I can relax with jigsaws in much the same way I can with picross where I'm familiar enough with the process that I can do it on autopilot all Zen style, but the best jigsaw games tend to be those that take advantage of the medium more often. More animations, more surprises, more detailed artwork, and possibly a few extra features would make for a more confident sequel, but I'm overall satisfied with what was here. (Now I'm curious if there's ever been a hidden image game that had you assemble the scene of random junk as a jigsaw puzzle beforehand. Might make it too easy to find stuff afterwards, though.)
If it isn't my old buddy Nifflas (real name Nicklas Nygren). Not that I've met the guy personally, but a lot of my early Indie game writing on this site often involved one of his chill, lonely explormers like NightSky, Knytt Underground, and Saira. The last time I encountered his output was with IGotW #55, the subject of which was his Wii U-exclusive tablet-driven survival-exploration game Affordable Space Adventures. Nifflas has always had a keen sense of both atmosphere and building a distinctive gameplay experience out of simple mechanics, and Ynglet very much follows in that vein. Set in a world you might only see with a powerful microscope, Ynglet has the player control a fish-like creature whose world is suddenly transformed by a meteor attack: this has scattered the geography far and wide, creating zones of relative safety surrounded by a ceaseless void.
The player gets around these worlds by swimming and bouncing between voids to the safety zones between, soon learning a mid-air dash that can be aimed (the game drops into slow-motion to help you aim) to close the distance. The game continues to expand its repertoire from that kernel, often giving you smaller tutorial levels between the larger standard ones to impart some critical info about how some new obstacle or technique works. These might include blue barriers, which will cause you to bounce off when travelling normally or can be passed through while dashing, and red barriers which have the opposite rule. The microbial world where it feels like you're hopping between amoebas is very cleverly done—it reminds me of that one level from Rhythm Heaven Fever with the synchronized bacteria—and the tricky mechanics combined with the quick resets recalled Flywrench and the way it has you dancing to a certain rhythm once you have the necessary steps down to complete a sequence. It's much more forgiving overall though, forgoing death penalties and allowing players to set their own checkpoints a la Fred Wood's Love series in the standard difficulty modes. A series of collectibles adds some extra challenges to aim for while playing, but it's otherwise a brief game with a handful of stages that bows out gracefully once it's explored all the ideas it has, which is the mark of a well-considered Indie game that doesn't have to conform to some publisher-mandated minimum "time to beat" requirement. It's also really pretty in an abstract sort of way, with Nifflas's ability to use visuals and music to set a tone that might otherwise be a little too elusive to grasp with just the simple graphics alone.
Created for a Game Jam, The World Begins With You is a game I'm sure doesn't have too many reviews out there on the world wide web so I'm going to spare its developer Fabian Denter a TWEWY joke and get down to brass tacks. Styled as an ICO-like (or an ICLONE if I'm being a dick), the game sees a little bald guy mysteriously rescued from his jail cell and has him wander around some vaguely Arabic ruins for a while in pursuit of answers. While very pretty—I believe Denter is an environment artist by trade, and is working on the upcoming dramatic road trip adventure game Forever Ago with a team—there's not too much substance to this short narrative adventure, barring a few sequences where you're navigating a maze or avoiding the neon-blue glare of automated spotlights by using the nearby scenery to block their view.
It's definitely more of a mood piece, as well as a technical demonstration of the creator's excellent use of lighting and cinematography as it alternates following the protagonist up close or at a great distance to punctuate the picturesque desolation of his surroundings. I mentioned ICO, which really set the stage for this type of moody environmental action-adventure game, but there's plenty of Journey here too especially with the sandy setting. For as brief as it is it's definitely a remarkable achievement if this was all created for a Game Jam.
A similar case here too, only this was created as a university project by its sole developer Carl Peters. Again, the visuals here are outstanding for a single-person team operating under a strict time budget, as it follows a forest sprite as it goes around a diorama collecting six well-hidden seedlings. The player needs to make ample use of the 3D camera to look at the environment from every angle and zoom distance to understand how everywhere is connected and where you need to direct the sprite to reach these out-the-way places.
Both the gameplay and the cute little protagonist reminded me of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, especially in how that game's puzzles were often predicated around changing your perspective to get a better sense of the level geometry. The game mercifully has a run button—the default walk is painfully slow—and with only one scene and six seeds to find, it's about an hour tops, yet I imagine for a university assignment it was more than enough. Definitely worth putting out there for others to see.
Itch.io has seen a lot of LGBTQ+ affiliated charity bundles in its time, so there's a crowd of developers working in that space that always seem happy enough to lend their support to other causes Itch.io might champion. Hence, there's more than a few queer-coded games in these bundles to the extent that I should start peppering them in more often. Ecchi Sketch—which I'll admit to selecting purely for the pun title—sees lesbian and struggling artist Yume join a yuri (i.e. girl x girl) adult comics studio staffed by three women: the cool but aloof author Megumi, the bratty but cute shader and colorist Rin, and the put-upon corporate scion Kyoko who founded the studio to follow her own niche interests. By choosing who to hold meetings with during the work week a total of three times, the player is fixed onto that person's route (using a similar simplified dating sim mechanic as Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~, which I LPed to mixed success way back when) and follows it to that love story's conclusion.
Since this was the all-ages version—I think the bundles had a rule to only allow family-friendly games to maximize their reach—there's nothing too salacious with the visual content but there's certainly a lot of sex talk, flirting, and romance-centric writing once locked into a route. In contrast, the game doesn't really spend a lot of time on its characters due to its limited duration and has precious little of standard VN interactivity like decision splits (besides picking a love interest to pursue, there are no choices beyond one that doesn't seem to make any difference to the following cutscenes) or bad/false endings or the stat-building/life-scheduling aspect that is often central to dating sims. Each playthrough takes about a couple of hours, less so if you're skipping already read text, and the artwork is mostly fine if unremarkable. Every route does have a bit of drama at the end, albeit the kind of drama that feels like it came out of nowhere as an eleventh hour grasp at dramatic tension, but it mostly works in making each love interest feel distinct and their own person with their own prior baggage and potential conflicts about dating another woman. It's all pretty cute overall so I wasn't too disappointed, but it could've used more of everything; the developer's gone on to make several more thematically-similar VNs of increasing confidence, so I wish them well in reaching greater heights with their writing and art.
I tell ya, nothing encourages you to check out a game in your backlog more than hearing about the release of its sequel. That said, Far: Changing Tides did come out more than a year ago, but then I never claimed to be particularly up-to-date with this feature's schedule. Far: Lone Sails is the predecessor of Changing Tides and the game we're checking out this week, developed by Swiss studio (maybe my first Swiss Indie Game of the Week? That's another peg in the world map) Okomotive which I believe also happens to be the name of the in-game caravan-boat your little avatar is tasked with driving halfway across the world for initially undisclosed reasons.
The premise is simple—drive the vehicle to the right, always the right—and the gameplay structure more or less the same, as you keep the engines fueled up and the ignition trigger mechanism pressed down to keep things trucking along. Eventually you acquire a few useful additions like the titular sails which, though damaged, can often serve to take over for your engine for a while or else add to its output. Running around the inside of your ship pressing various buttons brings to mind something like Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, albeit without the multiplayer aspect, as you spin a bunch of plates to keep your jalopy moving and in one piece. That said, the game's pace is (almost) universally on the sedate side and is happy enough to wait around for you if you want to take your time with whatever the next step might be. Forgetting to release the steam building in the engine won't cause the thing to explode, for example, but without venting it yourself you do miss out on the little speed boost it gives you. Fuel is repurposed trash you happen to find in the road, be it crates or barrels or old furniture, and you can choose to hang onto whatever takes your fancy with a selection of hooks around the vehicle to keep them from getting underfoot.
Frequently, you'll hit a snag and might need to exit the vehicle for a while to fix whatever obstacle's in your path. Sometimes that might involve activating whatever rusty mechanism is holding a door shut or might raise the platform your vehicle's on, while other cases might involve pushing or pulling an object with your vehicle's tethers to get it out of the way. These almost always boil down to some simple environmental physics puzzles, not too dissimilar to those in other wordless atmospheric 2D action-adventure games like Playdead's Limbo or Tarsier's Little Nightmares. Most of the time, though, you'll be gliding along watching the desolate but scenic background slowly pass by while occasionally refueling; there exist moments of peril and suspense, but for the most part the journey is a relaxing one, presumably by design to make those tense moments stand out all the more (a highly-damaging hailstorm is one such sequence). It finds a quiet serenity in what is evidently a world on its way out, passing empty homes and empty factories while driving across sand plains and valleys which once clearly hosted bodies of water. Beyond starting next to a portrait of a presumably dead relative the game is very bereft of story beats or lore, with the sole objective of moving as far right as possible being your only figurative Polaris as far as progress is concerned.
Therein lies a snag when trying to talk about the game's appeal, because it's elusive due to being a mostly vibes-based sort of gaming experience. There's nothing too compelling about throwing old chairs and boxes into an incinerator and holding a button down to keep a vehicle moving, nor do the parts where you get out and push other buttons to free its path forward offer any real brainteasers to ratiocinate through. It really comes down to those moments where something may or may not be happening, and you're just satisfied that forward momentum has resumed or is continuing unabated. It's a little like that loop of having chores to do and then relaxing after those chores are complete, happy to do absolutely nothing for a little while. Sounds like the most boring thing imaginable, right? I could certainly see someone walking away from this game feeling exactly that, but even if there's enough surprising events where the usual loop is interrupted for a spell and you're required to engage your grey cells again it's the quiet time between those events that ends up being equally precious. Dang, I sound so old. I'll play something loud with guns again after this, I swear.
Far: Lone Sails does feel occasionally like a bunch of other well-known Indies stitched together, but its mastery of quiet moments and its sense of place and tone are entirely its own. The particular way it makes the central ramshackle yet surprisingly adaptive vehicle a character in and of itself, where every action is served to help it keep moving as progressing on foot would be nearly impossible (or at least it would take a very long time). Small bonding moments like finding a new knick-knack to stash in your quarters or taking advantage of a new upgrade to make the journey a little easier and more convenient really help you connect with this lumbering lifeline. Without this, the game would probably feel too lonely, given there are no other characters and your own protagonist never speaks. It's pretty simple and pretty short but does plenty with what it has, especially in establishing a mood and keeping you guessing as you press onwards along an uncertain trajectory. Some day I'll have to see how the sequel goes about balancing all its new features without compromising that same low-key atmospheric expertise. Oh, and in case there's any doubt: Yeah, you do end up going pretty far. With the lone sails.
It's New Zelda Week and what better way to honor Nintendo's efforts than by talking about decades-old games released on the system of their greatest rival? We're back with the next entry of the Mega Archive: a chronological look at the games released on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis as their Giant Bomb Wiki pages are simultaneously polished up by this schlub over here. I'm still not entirely sure what's in store for our Wiki now that it dwells beneath the monolithic auspices of Fandom Incorporated, but it wouldn't hurt it to be a little more complete before the clandestine Council of Fandom Elders decide whether or not to pull the plug, right? If they spare it, you can thank me (if they don't, you can blame someone else. I love how that works). Either way, it's gratifying enough to learn more about a console and its library that largely slipped me by, even if Sturgeon's law is starting to hit the poor ol' Genesis pretty hard in its middle-age here.
It's pure serendipity that we're following the Mega Drive's May 1993 release schedule exactly thirty years later, but this synchronicity sadly won't last; we'll need at least six entries to cover the busy November-December holiday period alone. For now, though, we can sit back with our modern Zeldas and Jedi Survivors and whatnot this month and marvel at the crap Sega fans had to settle for back then. And boy howdy do I have some crap for you this week: four sports games, two licensed games, and a bad case of the crabs. Couple of highlights too, though, so it's not a total wash. Let's get into it.
But first! A table of past entries I really need to clean up:
Premise: The galactic superhero Ultraman has arrived on the Mega Drive, doing his usual schtick of getting real big for minutes at a time. I'm sure I've heard a podcast ad or two promising something similar.
Availability: A variation of this game was released on SNES overseas, but otherwise there's not a whole lot of localized Ultraman out there.
Preservation: This one-on-one single-player fighter game for the hugely popular Ultraman TV show license was originally released in arcades by Bandai back in 1991 with the SNES port following soon after, but it took another two years to make the same leap to the Mega Drive. As such, its already modest charms become even more modest with a two year gap during which the genre improved leaps and bounds (including the arrival of Street Fighter II in the summer of '92, the Special Edition of which would arrive on Mega Drive a matter of months after this game). Sources contribute this delay to some sort of dispute Sega was having with Bandai at the time; we actually haven't seen a single Bandai-published game yet for Mega Drive, though there's been a few from its subsidiaries. Speaking of which, we last encountered Ma-Ba with Kidou Keisatsu Patlabor: 98-Shiki Kidou Seyo! [MA XXII]; if you recall, they were a short-lived collaboration between transpacific toy giants Mattel and Bandai, originally established to sell Barbie to Japan. Like a fellow family-friendly license, Doraemon, Ultraman's presence on the Mega Drive was limited to a single game but instead saw many adaptations for the kid-focused Sega Pico. Human's involvement makes me wonder if they wouldn't have preferred making a FirePro Wrestling game with Ultraman characters instead but maybe they weren't allowed (too bad, really).
Wiki Notes: SNES double-dip, so just some screenshots.
Premise: Two robotic crabs side-walk into the ball-grabbing arena, but only one side-walks out.
Availability: Nope. Exclusive to the Japanese and European Mega Drive.
Preservation: Normally, a system-exclusive Namco game gracing the Mega Drive would be cause for celebration. Doubly so if it's one that released in Europe but not the States, as I have a fondness for that rare scenario. Yet, I'm struggling to understand who this game is for: there's a frantic competitive two-player aspect to it and it almost resembles a real-life board game similar to Hungry, Hungry Hippos as the goal is to use a claw-like device to quickly snatch and hoard marbles. Grabbing an opponent's balls causes them damage (not like that) if they should collide with them en route to your side, so often the play is to use both pincers and try to smack your opponent with their own balls until they get destroyed and are temporarily removed from the game with the ultimate aim to have all the balls in your court. As you might expect, games descend into a chaotic, messy free-for-all pretty rapidly that makes the single-player in particular too aggravating to deal with. Doesn't help that the big sprites gives you very little room to work with. I'd be curious to see if, in a match between two equally skilled players, it doesn't become something closer to a Windjammers but I suspect it's not nearly complex enough to be entertaining even as a spectator sport. What an odd thing. Looking forward to @jeffrud covering it for NamCompendium at least, maybe he can make more sense of it.
Wiki Notes: Just needed some body text. I tried not to make as many allusions to clutching testicles, since our Wiki is a semi-professional joint.
Availability: Just play a modern FIFA, they usually include the J.League.
Preservation: Of all the sports that exist, none are more internationally popular than soccer and Japan celebrated their growing attraction to the sport by creating the J.League in 1992: the top tier contest, equivalent to the UK Premier League, with teams that would compete against each other round-robin style for an entire season. Back then there were only ten participating teams so the game's going to feel a little light on content, but Sega wanted in on the ground floor of this new organization and chose to put their own fully licensed and endorsed J.League franchise together. They would only stick with the Pro Striker (which I keep wanting to spell as Pro Skater, force of habit) brand until 1995, switching it up with alternatives like Victory Goal for Saturn and The J.League 1994 for arcades. Maybe also worth noting that this wasn't the first J.League branded game for Mega Drive: that would be J.League Championship Soccer [MA XIX], a localized port of a British soccer game with the J.League shoehorned in.
Wiki Notes: A whole new page from scratch. Been a while. Surprising too, given it's a first-party game.
Availability: You could maybe buy this from a collector, but only after playing hardball with them.
Preservation: HardBall is Accolade's baseball franchise which originally belonged in the domain of home computers, perhaps explaining its more simulation-heavy bent. The first HardBall we covered way back [MA IX] but the second HardBall skipped consoles entirely. For whatever reason (I'm guessing financial) long-time ABC sportscaster Al Michaels decided to throw his name into the title, though only for the Genesis version: the other ports, including SNES, went without his blessing. Accolade and Sega were still having their little spat regarding Accolade's illegal manufacture of Mega Drive carts (a precautionary measure to prevent another Game Crash of 1983) so it's possible this is another unlicensed game of theirs, much like the first Genesis HardBall was, though I've seen suggestions the lawsuit was resolved and it was given its license shortly before it came out. We'll see Accolade pair up with their frequent contract partners MindSpan again just a little further down this same Mega Archive entry. (Shout out to @borgmaster; I think he had to suffer through a HardBall recently too.)
Wiki Notes: SNES double-dip, so screenshots and releases.
Theme: "The guys who made TMNT sure got rich and famous quick, huh?"
Premise: If you needed a dirty job done quick, no questions asked, why not hire three dinosaurs with guns? Probably several reasons why not, right?
Availability: No longer for hire. Or purchase.
Preservation: To be a child in the late '80s and early '90s was to be constantly inundated with various anthro superheroes, each more radical to the max than the last. This trend was of course kicked off by a certain pack of adolescent altered assassin amphibians but it might be hard for those that didn't live through those times to reconcile with just how many copycats (albeit not always cats) followed in their sewer water wake. Dinosaurs for Hire was a 1988 comic book by Tom Mason and published through Eternity Comics (later Malibu Comics, whom we've met before with the Ex-Mutants [MA XXVI]) and featured three wisecracking and gun-toting dinosaurs named Archie (a t-rex), Lorenzo (a triceratops), and Reese (a stegosaurus) along with their support pal Cyrano (a pteradon). The backstory, which the comics sparingly go into, is that the three are actually aliens that crash-land on Earth and decide to take on mercenary work to pay the rent. The game was the only other multimedia product that resulted from this franchise after a Fox Kids animated show fell through: despite the bigger audience for any dinosaur-related media following 1993's Jurassic Park, it sounds like the author and TV executives couldn't come to terms on a tone with the latter wanting a TMNT type show that was more lighthearted and goofy. Always a shame when people take their action hero dinosaur characters a little too seriously. And hey, a warm welcome to a new (sorta) Sega first-party studio: Sega InterActive. Sega of America decided it needed to bulk up its output of western releases and went out and acquired Interactive Designs, whom you might recall being the developers of tie-in games TaleSpin [MA XXIII] and Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude! [MA XXI]. Sega InterActive largely kept to the same licensed game beat for its brief existence, occasionally helping Sega with other projects like the 8-bit ports of Sonic Spinball and the 32X port of Sega's Star Wars Arcade. They are perhaps best known for Eternal Champions, Sega's homegrown pretender to the Mortal Kombat/Street Fighter II throne, which we'll encounter towards the end of 1993. (Man, I spent this whole paragraph on the history and nothing on the game itself. It's like a so-so Contra: Hard Corps? There you go.)
Wiki Notes: It could probably use more body text, but what little is there made me smile so I just left it. Added some screenshots and a header instead.
Availability: Nope. Both original creators Anco and the Kick Off franchise as a whole got red carded into the great beyond twenty years ago.
Preservation: Two soccer games in one update. Welcome to early summer, I suppose. Of the many UK-made soccer franchises developed for the weird home computers we were all so fond of, few had the pedigree of Anco's Kick Off save perhaps Sensible Soccer and EA's later FIFA. Euros couldn't get enough of its semi-realistic take on the sport where the ball never stuck to the player's feet but instead reacted like the indifferent orb it was, requiring a greater level of player skill to maintain control. For its console debut, where it received the compulsory "Super" to its title, the developers slowed down the action while making the controls more conducive to a gamepad user. The two 16-bit versions, for Mega Drive and SNES, had a few differences due to being ported by separate developers but largely retained what made the original popular. In theory, at least, since I can't tell any of these soccer games apart. It's another rare Mega Drive PAL exclusive, if that means anything.
Wiki Notes: SNES double-dip, so screenshots and releases.
Theme: Global unity and brotherhood through competing doping scandals
Premise: Accolade's over here making their own Olympics with blackjack and hookers
Availability: Nope. No-one's carrying a torch for this old game.
Preservation: Told ya MindSpan and Accolade would be back, and here they are producing this unlicensed (briefly) Genesis Olympics game. The Olympics connection is also unlicensed, hence the generic title. You might be wondering why this hit the summer of 1993 instead of 1992 when there was an actual Summer Olympics happening, but I guess it took them a year to get around to porting over the 1992 DOS original. Maybe they hoped people were still jonesing for pole vaults and pentathlons a year later? Anyway, yeah, typical Track & Field sort of button-mashing sports mini-game collection of the like most Olympics branded stuff falls under, notable only really for its early use of fake 3D, the odd timing behind its release, and that Accolade were still surreptitiously putting out these unlicensed games under Sega's noses.
Wiki Notes: Needed everything besides screenshots.
Premise: The Rahuna have invaded the peaceful Homeworld and only an experimental exosuit can push back their advance and defeat the bad Rahuna's big kahuna.
Availability: Never been rereleased, sadly.
Preservation: Ah, here we go, a game that doesn't suck. Ranger-X, much like the thematically similar Target Earth, is a mech game that has you running and gunning across levels while occasionally making use of vehicles and other modes. You wouldn't have thought a mech suit would need a motorcycle, but in a way it kinda does. Ranger-X is able to leverage the system's technical strengths to create a series of spectacles, enhanced further by the amount of action happening at any given moment. It does make the game a bit on the tougher side, as shooters tend to be when there's a lot to focus on, but I imagine its diehard fans (as opposed to the die easy fans) appreciate that level of challenge. The game was the first, and sadly last, game developed by Gau Entertainment, which was founded by former Wolf Team staff (Wolf Team, of course, having developed many of their own mecha shooters for Mega Drive like Final Zone and Granada). Shortly after Ranger-X's release Gau were bought by Nex Entertainment and the two together became Nextech. Though busier on the Sega Saturn, where they handled the Battle Arena Toshinden and Resident Evil ports among others, we'll still see Nextech's name a couple more times on Mega Archive including next to one of my favorite Mega Drive games.
Wiki Notes: Basically no work required. This is a well-loved game.
Premise: Do you have what it takes to survive the tumultuous Sengoku era as a rank-and-file samurai? What about a simple merchant? How about if you got isekai'd there somehow and were given a powerful cheat sk- wait, I don't think that was an option.
Availability: Oddly enough, many of Koei's early strategy games have recently found themselves on Steam including this one. They're in Japanese, but they're there all the same.
Preservation: Did anyone say "dry Sengoku sim from Koei"? Because that's how you summon Taikou Risshiden into being from the darkest corner of the Dull Dimension. The big departure from the Nobunaga's Ambition series (which are the more famous Sengoku era Koei games) is that it takes the conflict from a macro level of controlling a whole prefecture to the relatively micro, managing a protagonist with a variety of roles and their followers. It's sort of like Uncharted Waters (another Koei joint) in that you're just trying to make a living in a chaotic world, and ideally live through the final years of the Warring States period. By the by, its name means "Taikou's Success Story", Taikou being a nickname of major late-Sengoku figure (and eventual Emperor) Hideyoshi Toyotomi. The second Taikou Risshiden would release on PC, PlayStation, and Saturn so we won't be seeing this franchise again. Many more other Koei strategy games to come though. I'm all tenterhooks over here.
Wiki Notes: SNES double-dip, so just some screenshots.
Theme: Doing snowballs with your best bud. I just should've just said "making" there. "Making" would've been so much better.
Premise: In steamy 1980s Miami, the Moreno Twins take over the criminal underworld by cornering the cocaine market using connections to the South American drug cartels forged during their years as mercenaries. This... is not their story. This is instead a cutesy platformer about snowmen.
Availability: It's on the Japanese Sega Mega Drive Mini if you felt like importing one. Otherwise there's the Snow Bros. Special remake which released last year (2022) on Switch.
Preservation: Toaplan were well known for their many shoot 'em ups in the arcade and on Mega Drive, but that wasn't their only field of expertise—they could also rip off Bubble Bobble if they felt like it. Hence, we have Snow Bros., a single-screen platformer about a couple of color-coded brothers trapping monsters with their big, wet spheres (lotta ball talk this week...). In Snow Bros.'s case, however, those spheres are snowballs rather than bubbles. Once an enemy has been stunned by a snowball, Nick and Tom (the titular Snow Bros.) can then start rolling them around causing collateral damage to any enemies in their path. There were a few home console ports but the Mega Drive one perhaps stands as the most faithful, due to Toaplan themselves being the developers. As a bonus, Toaplan also expanded the game by adding twenty post-game levels to the original fifty in which the princesses the Snow Bros. are out to save then have to save their rescuers in a female-empowering role-reversal.
Wiki Notes: Power user Nes got here before me, so the main body was nice and fleshed out. Beyond that, just a box art image and a release.
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