It’s always Pizza Time.
Welcome, finally, to the text reviews for SAGE 2019. Things have been a bit rocky for us figuring out the logistics of this stuff. Last year, as you may recall, I handled all of the reviews by myself while the rest of TSSZ was focused on Comic-Con coverage. Normally that would have been fine, given most years, SAGE tops out at 30-40 games, but last year that meant writing about 87 games. I should have asked for help then, but I wanted to challenge myself, and it was definitely a challenge. Too much of a challenge, as it turns out. With this year, we’ve got around 83 games to talk about, so I’ve enlisted the help of other TSSZ Staff: Lou and Noah. You may have already seen part 1 of Lou’s playthroughs on Twitch, but while Noah gets his stuff ready, I figured I’d go ahead and kick things off here with our first 14 games.
This game caught my eye on Tumblr a couple years ago, and I’ve been following it ever since. It feels a little rude to call this out specifically as a “Wario Clone”, because much in the same way games like Freedom Planet or Spark the Electric Jester are “Sonic Clones”, they, along with Pizza Tower, own their identities to where they are way more than simply clones. It also helps that Pizza Tower is a hyper specific type of Wario game — it’s Wario Land 4, a game that came out 18 years ago. Nintendo has never revisited that style of game since, giving Pizza Tower plenty of room to stretch out. There’s more going on here than just a reskinned Wario game, though. Peppino has plenty of his own moves; the game is much more focused on running really fast, so if you sprint and jump at a wall, you’ll begin running straight up. There’s also a move that’s basically a Shinespark right out of Super Metroid, and that’s not even touching on how different combat feels. Point is, this feels like it’s own thing, with its own identity. And the animation, gosh, the animation is incredible. There’s a really sort of manic Ren & Stimpy energy to the way everything moves that just looks amazing in motion. I could keep gushing about this, but just go play it for yourselves, it’s worth it.
If you want to see me gush about a game, I’ll gush about XF Drive, too. I love driving games, but it’s easy to get tired by the driving game genre. Things just haven’t changed in a long time. As such, I’ve started gravitating towards more games like Distance, or GRIP, which change things up. XF Drive changes things up a lot, too, and in a way I absolutely adore. An easy reference point for this game might be Trackmania, but given its from LakeFeperd, I think it’s easier to see the influences of Sonic the Hedgehog (and by extension, Spark the Electric Jester). Point is, it’s fast, REALLY fast, and it feels like a blast to play. About the only bummer is that Lake says this isn’t his next major project — understandable, I guess, given XF Drive is mostly built from Spark 2 assets and music. Various racing game prototypes carrying the “XF” branding have popped up from Lake more than a few times over the years, too, so it’s obviously cooking slowly. And not to belabor food metaphors with games, but what’s cooking is starting to smell really good and I’m starving. (I mean, just look at it in motion)
I really liked Rodea the Sky Soldier (review here), but the game had problems, and it was kind of sent to die. The last thing I ever expected to see was a Rodea fan game, but here we are — and its less of a fan game and more of, like, a semi-remake of the Wii version? The benefit now is having proper mouse control instead of a Wii pointer, which is more accurate, but I’ll admit you miss something by not having the iconic “flick” motion with your wrist that you’d get with Nintendo’s remote. But that’s the least of this game’s concerns. While it’s very functional, there’s almost zero customization options whatsoever — it’s stuck in a 800×600 window, and camera control is mostly limited to exactly what the original game had. You CAN move the camera with the keyboard, but only with the arrow keys, and that means scrunching yourself on to the right hand side of your keyboard instead of the far more comfortable (and standard) WASD setup other games use. You also don’t seem to be able to move when on the ground, something I’m pretty sure the original Rodea did. It makes for a game that’s surprisingly functional, and I’m actually really happy it exists, but there’s definitely some rough edges that need to be smoothed out. But it’s definitely early, still.
I appreciate what this game is going for, because recently I’ve come to think that maybe having big, pseudo-open-world levels is a good thing for Sonic. For me, Sonic games get better the more you learn the levels, so dropping the player in to a Super-Mario-Odyssey-style level with multiple objectives breeds that kind of familiarity. But Sonic needs a lot of space to run around in, and that’s where I feel like Sonic Explorers stumbles. There’s an interesting level here, but I never feel like I get a chance to cut loose and go fast because everything’s compacted together and all the roads are super narrow. You get kind of a focus mode that slows down time to help you deal with that fact, but that just makes Sonic feel even slower. There’s also just not enough variety to the objectives — all of your objectives require completing a race course to collect gems before time runs out, which feels kind of repetitive. I feel like this is SO CLOSE to being something tremendous, but it’s just ever so slightly misdirected.
Here’s a bun that’s not ready to be taken out of the oven yet. This takes the Hedgephysics/Bumper Engine Unity framework and attempts to port it to the newest version of Unity with a handful of new improvements. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly rough — trying to play any of the included demo levels is difficult, not only because they aren’t really “levels” themselves, but because the engine itself is buggy and clearly not finished. Characters get stuck in animations sometimes, slopes don’t seem to always work correctly, the light dash is jittery, moving platforms don’t transfer their momentum to the player, and so on. Everything needs a little bit more work. To be fair, despite being an engine, they aren’t even releasing the source code yet, so obviously they know it’s not ready yet. Good luck!
I may be in the minority here, but I feel like Mega Man could translate to 3D somewhat well. Third person shooters have been a thing for a long time now, and while that might mean downplaying the platforming elements, a pure-shooter Mega Man could work. That’s what Makeshift attempts, but unfortunately its maps are far too repetitive and its enemy roster is much too small. All of the levels included right now are big, boxy, similar-looking rooms containing the same three or four enemies repeated over, and over, and over. There’s also not a ton of strategy either. There’s a lot of stationary turrets that just home in and unload on you. I like being able to customize the look of my Mega Man with different colors and armor parts, but it needs more interesting levels.
I actually had to look this game name up, because while it comes in a “klonoa.zip,” it loads up as a totally different game altogether called “Sega Brawlers Megamix.” Confusingly, this is a Beats of Rage mod, which are so-called “belt scrolling” beat’em’ups. Which is… not what Klonoa was. At all. Equally confusing is the fact that the description for this game says they are taking inspiration from games like Super Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger. I mean, I get it, they’re trying out how Klonoa works in a different genre I guess, but at the same time, all of these Beats of Rage mods that turn up at SAGE always play nearly identically and I get the feeling the engine isn’t very flexible. Maybe it’s just not for me.
This was such a weird game last year, and it’s still a pretty weird game this year. Technically, there’s nothing really wrong with it, but there’s something about its dark, washed out color palette, and the strangely haphazard art direction in general that feels extremely alien. Consider the level “Bright Brook,” which is neither bright nor a brook. Instead, it resembles something closer to a slimy swamp, full of dead trees and lakes that belch neon green gas into the sky. It ends with a riff on the whale chase at the end of Sonic Adventure’s Emerald Coast, but instead of a whale, you’re being chased by a gigantic killer Flicky. Some of this was also in last year’s demo, but this year feels both more polished AND more weird, in a sense. Give this a look out of morbid curiosity, if nothing else.
It’s pretty incredible to see Streak Thunderstorm still kicking around, though I guess at this point maybe he’s not going by that name anymore. His project, Sonic Smackdown, has been gaining quite a bit of traction leading up to SAGE, and it’s easy to see why: it’s actually kind of awesome? This is a Sonic the Hedgehog fighting game, but unlike past efforts using Mugen or whatever, this uses Unreal Engine 4 and it’s incredibly solid. The main issue I see right now is there’s no way to play by yourself. Right now, this demo is strictly for two human players, meaning it’s difficult for me to get a feel for balance or anything like that. But what I can tell you is that visually it’s sharp as heck, characters animate really well, and hits feel appropriately meaty. I’ve played lots of janky Sonic fighting games made in Mugen and this is definitely many steps above any of those.
I kept expecting Teabat to reveal its twist to me in the 20 or so minutes I played it, but it never did. It’s just a very basic pixel art platformer with a very big HUD (it takes up 75% of the screen, really). Now, I don’t mean to sound TOO negative of the game. It’s definitely got a lot of charm. The music is a jam, the characters are cute, and the sprites are nice. It controls well. It’s seasonally appropriate, what with the bats, and the ghosts, and the spooky castles. And it’s not like I had to pay for this game. It’s here at SAGE for free. And yet, something in me wished there was just a little more to it, I guess. The level design is big and open in a way that necessitates the map, but then you largely seem to just run to the right and never explicitly need to explore. That creates an expectation that maybe there’s meant to be more here than you initially see, but it really is just a very simple platformer. And that’s… fine, I guess.
This game was a messy, weird thing of bolted-together Sonic levels meant for racing your friends online over the internet. This year, things appear to have been cleaned up a little bit, but in all honesty I chose not to play this online with other people. There’s a semi-confusing system where you must register an account with a master server and then link that account with the Sonic Battle R discord, which involves generating a special code in the game and pasting it into their chat. Why this is necessary is beyond me, even something like Sonic Robo-Blast 2 connects to its master server without needing to register or log in to any kind of account system, and there have been enough data breaches across the internet over the last few years that I’d rather not have a name attached to yet another password. Thankfully, it’s possible to host a private server (though even figuring that out was a little confusing), so I was able to run around in some levels by myself. My verdict, after all of the effort it took just to load into my empty server: it’s passable. It’s more polished than it was last year, but Sonic still doesn’t animate super well and you can tell some corners were cut visually on how these levels are presented. I’m sure it’s more fun with friends.
It doesn’t feel fair to be reductive enough to call this a “pixel art, furry Dark Souls,” but sometimes that’s just what you got to do. But, as always, there’s more to it than that. For starters, Dunkehr is much closer to an action game like Castlevania in its structure; there does not appear to be much in the way of new equipment or inventory to manage. But you’ve got your light attack, heavy attack, and dodge roll, it’s just now you’ve also got kind of a super meter (activated by pushing both attack buttons) that can be used to inflict huge damage when enemies are caught off guard. Honestly, I think it’s pretty cool, and the sprite work and animation is very nice. The combat has a nice sense of weight to it, and it’s nice when you an enemy go in for a strike and your weapons clang off each other, temporarily stunning you both. This will probably end up a really awesome game once it’s complete.
I always like seeing this game turn up at SAGE because it’s nice to see an early creator like this grow over time, and it’s important for there to be a welcoming environment where games like this are celebrated. This year, Lloyd the Monkey has the basics of an intro cutscene, though it’s mostly just an animatic this time. I remember the demo for LTM2 last year being a little hard to control due to the complexity of steering two characters at once, but things go a little smoother this time. The main issue I have is that… that animated intro has signified a considerable increase in story. Story in games isn’t bad, but this does the same thing people poke fun at games like Metal Gear Solid for doing: minutes of talking, followed by seconds of gameplay, and then several more minutes of talking. I definitely started to get impatient, because I just wanted to play the game. Putting the “talk” action on the same button as jump is also not a great idea, given I had an NPC get stuck against a platform I was meant to jump to, but I had to position myself in a special way as to do the jump without starting the conversation.
This is a match-3 puzzle game in the style of Money Puzzle Exchange. I assume, anyway; I’ve seen other people play Money Puzzle Exchange, but I’ve never personally touched it, so this is technically my first experience with a game like that. It’s functional, kind of, but still pretty rough around the edges. This is the first game I’ve played at SAGE that straight up doesn’t have any controller support to speak of at all, which is a bit of a problem given this kind of game lives on the console. Zups also seems to have trouble registering input — sometimes thrown pieces replace whatever’s under it, and similarly, I’ve been able to draw down multiple pieces despite already having one in my hands. Then there’s the board itself. As you can tell by the screenshot, a lot of the pieces come down the well already in sets of three, so you’re kind of just pulling down a piece only to return it back to where it came from in order to make the match. I guess maybe that’s the point, given the well drops pretty fast, so it could be going for more of a shoot’em’up-type game. Either way, it’s weird.
Stay tuned for the next article!