Endless Hellscape/License Hell: Ice Cream Surfer

I did not mean for every License Hell column to be on a webcomic turned video game, but somehow I keep falling ass backwards into them.

You may notice the screenshots changing resolution as this article goes on. I’ll get to that.

Playing around with the “random” button on Steam with a pal one night led to both of us discovering that a) this game existed and b) I owned it. In need of a quick mark in the win column, I figured a cute-em-up would be the ego boost I was after. Buuuuuuut there were two problems with that.

This game suffers from a lot of what I might call “fundamental design problems”. Can you figure out what my shot pattern is based on this screenshot? Hint: it’s not entirely consistent, which makes aiming monstrous. And this is POWERED UP.

The first is that this game controls impossibly poorly. There was a single patch note for the game on Steam which simply read “Error control solved – 3/8/2016. This new release solve the problem with the pad control.” This was a lie – no matter how I bound the controls (and this is an early Unity title, so there were control options in and out of game!), I could never get them to stop feeling floaty and stuttery. Seriously, it’s really hard to explain, because the framerate is pretty consistent, but you just don’t stop moving a lot of the time. Given that character hitboxes are also questionable, this leads to a lot of deaths.

I tend to agree with the opinion that in the shoot-em-up1 genre, you haven’t beaten most until you can one-credit clear a title, especially a lot of modern titles where this is the only way to unlock the “true” final boss. Just spamming “continue?” or pumping credits isn’t really a clear… buuuuuuut I absolutely did that on this game and I’m still going to count it because of the other reason.

See all those flames? They appear with no signaling whatsoever, and they are invincible.

The final two stages of this game are utterly hateful. The fifth of six introduces a lot of invincible enemies and culminates in a boss who is pure RNG, the is-that-a-sun you see in the above screenshot. All you must do to defeat him is simple on paper: he has 4 throbbing… somethings… appear on his face, you shoot them before time runs out, and he opens his mouth, a weak point you can shoot to lower his health bar at the bottom of the screen. (Which has 3 bars, I’ll point out.)

Did you fail to shoot the throbbers in time? Every one of them has now burst with no cue whatsoever, killing you if you’re still in front of it. Also, please notice that now that he’s down a few lifebars, he has a flame not-quite-a-shield around him. Aura? As far as I can tell it does nothing.

The problem with this is that if you die, you go back to a level 1 character, and this means that depending on your character2, you’re VERY CLOSE TO UNABLE to kill his throbbers before they explode. If he spread them out too far, I just killed one and got out of the way, because between movement and the fact that I had to be on top of them to fire fast enough, it was too risky. I would also like to mention at this point there is no autofire whatsoever in Ice Cream Surfer, so by stage 5 my thumb was real tender from mashing for every single shot in the game.

You can’t even credit-feed him to death because if you game over, this game is checkpoint based. Your three lives are your only three hits to take out this boss, and if you lose them, have fun restarting the entire thing from his lifebar at full.

Remember how I mentioned your hitbox is questionable? Do take a guess how I was supposed to navigate through attacks like THIS.
These teleporting pricks can and will appear right under you and cause a death you can’t react to.

And then there was the final stage, where credit feeding became even less workable because it had no checkpoints whatsoever and was a gauntlet of bad design. A recurring boss who has attack patterns these controls/characters were not designed for, teleporting enemies who can just gank you if they choose to spawn inside you, and it’s the longest one in the entire game, all to be done on three lives. I will be entirely honest and admit that because of this, I cracked open Cheat Engine and locked myself to a permanent 1 life for the rest of the game just to get this over with. Were it not for that I probably wouldn’t have any screenshots – it became incredibly challenging to hit the key and not die, and only with the ability to die at will did I not care anymore and F12ed away.

And then I cleared the game and got to see something that led me down a weird, weird rabbit hole.

I actually expected this domain to be dead, but I did look. And… it was a cute but aborted webcomic. But from there, I discovered the artist’s social media, and that this game was not a one-off vanity project by the creators. In fact, it was the first game from a still-present company staffed by two gentlemen from Spain, one of whom was the comic’s author, the other being the coder.

A company that is apparently putting out physical versions of Ice Cream Surfer on PS4 and Vita this Christmas. Seeing that this game got ported made me real curious if the Steam version was just abandoned and it had been improved for consoles, and… uh… It looks like it controls just as bad, at least. The UI has a slight improvement but otherwise, this is the exact same game I went through in an evening, with the same much too loud volume that can’t be tweaked in-game, and spritework that looks about the same as it does on my PC at higher resolutions if I don’t turn the game to “Fastest” out of spite.

Although I have to give the PS4 version this: the video there doesn’t constantly shift resolutions. Every time the game loaded a new scene it’d go to fullscreen in a hitchy fashion, and I’d have to alt-enter it back to windowed. It’s really hard to express in words how poorly coded the game is – every time you close it, it unlocks 30/31 achievements for you on Steam, all of which have no icons or descriptions. I’ve mentioned the control problems. Volume seems to be maxed on every possible sound that comes out of it – I turned the game down to 1% on Windows’ own mixer and it was still way too much for me to listen to after a few stages.

Since I mentioned the other characters, do take a look at ’em. You may also notice the character select icon is not in any way centered on these characters.

If anything, I’m most curious about what in the absolute hell deals Dolores Entertainment has made to become the publisher for the titles they have. Somehow this is the team who ported indie darling Nihilumbra to Switch and they’ve worked with a few others in the same role across a variety of platforms now. Reading reviews tells me that not everything is as questionable as this game, so now I’m only left wondering what in the hell happened here?

Or I would be if I wasn’t going to absolutely scorch all traces of this game from my hard drive and open tabs when this post goes up, because pee-yew.

  • Remaining clears before hiatus ends: 25/36
  • Remaining titles to be written about: 4

License Hell: Blade Kitten

Not a single one of you who knows me should be surprised that this is where I began this column.

Blade Kitten is a once-upon-a-time1 webcomic about a catgirl bounty hunter named Kit Ballard, who has a floating weapon known as a Blade, so… yeah, the title is a bit obvious.

I’ll be honest, despite the fact that I actually own the complete2 collection of the strip, I don’t think Blade Kitten is a very good comic at all. The action scenes are photoshop filter disasters, even in the last, best-drawn stories…

…and the dialogue is not great.

But I’m not here to praise the comic, thank god. I’m here to tell you about how I blundered into this property and it is a spectacular success. In September 2010, Krome Studios, a small Australian developer, put out their first digital title (which was not a raging tire fire – burn in hell, Game Room) on the Playstation Network (for PS3), Xbox Live (for 360, obviously), and on Steam.

It wasn’t a visual masterpiece, but it was actually a pretty solid budget release on its own right. The game had more than a little depth to it, between hidden secrets aplenty, a combat system that had moves you never get told about but will probably discover by accident, and quite a lot of traversal possibilities. I know at one point I was trying to best my times for a speedrun, especially when I learned how insanely fast you could fly through levels with the blade leap (shoving the sword into a wall and using that to fling yourself upwards like a pole) and careful abuse of wall climbing.

And then I realized that the developers very clearly intended for that, because at least one level let you skip half of it with a well placed blade leap instead of having to crawl through sewers. It even dropped you right into the miniboss afterwards. It was a delight! And the game was clearly a labor of love, because…

Oh, right, “Space Captain Steve” is the second in command and co-founder of the whole company.

Unfortunately, the saga of Krome and Blade Kitten takes kind of a shite turn at this point, because it wasn’t long after the game’s release, to incredibly rocky reviews3, that Krome Studios shuttered its two studios and laid off all employees in October. It was a month out and for all the teases that the game had a second episode in the wings (with, at the time, entire trailers of new material for that back half being on Youtube), nobody was at the company to release any of it.

For what it’s worth, there was definitely talk of “Captain Steve” and his vision of bringing his baby to life in video game form being a fatal blow to the company, including some quotes from ex-Krome staff in this IGN piece at the time taking him to task. If you aren’t of the type like me to enjoy three page dry articles about the behind the scenes of a closing work for hire dev:

“When questioning former staff about their theories on the company’s downfall, some recurring themes emerged. Among them: a too-heavy emphasis on work-for-hire projects on behalf of American publishing houses instead of their own IP; the creative Director’s self-destructive obsession with his Blade Kitten game, at all costs; a lack of government support for the Australian gaming industry; the tumultuous relationship between the American and Australian economies in recent years, poor management decisions; and the emergence of international studios whose significantly lower project costs are unable to be met by their Australian competitors.”

I can kind of see their point, to be fair – there’s a mass of stuff in this game which seems exclusively tailored for fans of the comic (and I guarantee that was a niche of a niche if there ever was one), and in fact, I don’t even know if some of these characters appeared in the series itself outside of brief cameos or mentions by name. I could wager by a huge margin the most recognizable bonus outfit was Ty the Tazmanian Tiger himself, rewarded in the original release for finding every chest in the game. It obviously wasn’t the greatest motivator, though – Steam tells me I’m one of a mere 2.3% of people who ever did4.

I do not know a lot of the Krome Studios story during the intervening years. At some point, it returned from the dead with a skeleton crew again, and releasing the completed Blade Kitten content became a high priority as a way to get some quick cash. The only problem? Their publisher for the original release had been Atari, a company who you might know to be a four alarm fire at the best of times post-2000s, usually bought up from the last people who ran the brand into the ground, slapped on whatever the parent company didn’t want to put their own name on, and sold off in time for quick cash. It would take four years of struggle for Krome to get the rights back to their own property, and likely more than a little money involved too.

In May 2014, Krome got the license to their own game back, and proceeded to tighten up the engine and fix the bugs that had been sitting in the code for nearly half a decade at this point… on Steam. Two-thirds of the releases of the game would never see closure, and for what it’s worth, Atari is still listed as publisher on those platforms to this day, so lord only knows what the deal was that let them get this far. It would take almost a full year before Episode 2 was released on PC, finally coming out in March 2015. To their credit, a few months later, they would take the already lowered price of $6, and dump the base game down to a mere $3, with the entire package, episodes, soundtrack, and comics thrown in as well, for $7 off-sale.

Doing all this research is probably going to get me to pick it back up and try to finish 100%ing5 the game, which I was already incredibly close to. It’s actually funny, I can definitely see that I was a little less thrilled with it by the time of the Episode 2 release, or maybe I was just burned out from the speedrun practice beforehand – all my level times from the first episode are 2-4 minutes apiece, and then my lone runs of the Ep2 content were scouring for every secret I could find, putting me at 20-30 per. I would still wholeheartedly recommend the game, for what it’s worth, I’m just a lot less obsessive than I once was with it. And I do mean obsessive.

See, I would do this thing where I’d buy copies for friends at the slightest provocation, because I was frothing to the point of going “IT’S SO GOOD IF YOU JUST TRY IT, C’MON”. This was not the only title I did this with, actually, but that’s a story for another column… and for now, all I’m gonna say is give Blade Kitten a shot sometime. $7, c’mon. There are plenty of worse things you could spend that on, especially on Steam.

And if you hate everything that comes out of Kit’s mouth, like 99% of the people who I bought it for, don’t worry – there’s a separate volume toggle for voice alone. (I actually think the soundtrack’s pretty good, for what it’s worth.)

License Hell: Introduction

My name is Fletcher, and I have a licensed game problem.

To be more specific, I have a “problem” in that I’ve spent about five years now hunting down every licensed title I could find, for ill or for good, and playing them to completion or whatever passes for it. Legally, when possible. I’ve probably dumped 4-digit sums into this task at this point just on the games alone. When I began, the plot was to try and turn this into a let’s play series, but for the most part that’s not a thing I do anymore1. As a result, these posts are probably gonna be weird. Some will be multimedia, some will just cover titles in general overview if there’s nothing interesting, and more than a couple are going to be actual historical dives into what in the hell led to the existence of such a thing.

But wait, there’s more! I’m one of those broke-brained Amiga fans from the olden days, which means that like it or not, we’re all going on a trip to Europe for their microcomputer madness, where there are so many of these games from bedroom coders making 5k quid from a publisher who didn’t give a shit what went on the tape as long as it played!

And to top it all off, I’m doing this more to satisfy my own horrible obsession, so what qualifies as a “licensed” title is going to be fast and loose. If I can wiggle it in, it’s making the column2. So strap in and get ready for the first one of these to land this weekend!