GAMING: Half Hour Games – Crowtel, and Why Forethought is Important

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Crowtel is a platformer-adventure/corvid hotel ownership simulator released November 2, 2015 by Sink. You are a humble crow in charge of an extremely run-down hotel, and a surprise visit from health inspector cats sends you scrambling to clean up the place before you get shut down.

With six floors of hardcore chirp-’em-up platforming action, Crowtel is a throwback to memorable shooter platformers like Cave Story – but can it leap over the platforms of high standards? We’ll find out after the jump.

The half hour

In Crowtel, you play as a small bird (not really a crow – that yellow beak signifies a blackbird!) operating an extremely filthy hotel that gets a surprise visit from the health inspectors. The hotel is, of course, in no right state to be inspected. Our avian hero treks out into the depths of the hotel with the hopes of cleaning up the place before it gets demolished. This proves to be a lot easier said than done, with giant bugs, unruly guests, and acid-leaking pipes. What’s a poor bird to do?

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Well, the first thing to do is to scream at everything. Your primary weapon is your own bird song, which lets you yell at enemies to harm them. It’s a nice nonviolent alternative to guns, but it functions the same regardless. You can get an upgrade for this attack about halfway through the game, by acquiring a telephone that gives you a charge-shot dial tone that destroys a small amount of previously invulnerable enemies.

The hotel has six “floors” in all, and each one is marked with an individual theme. The first floor is a standard hotel, but the second one is covered in guests’ clothing due to a broken washing machine. The third floor is flooded, thanks to the same broken washing machine getting water everywhere. Not to mention the apparent problem of the supernatural within the hotel, as you will frequently be meeting ghosts.

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If there was one thing we truly loved about this game, it was its aesthetic. Visually and aurally, the game displayed an excellent veneer of graphics and music to keep it interesting. Although we found its gameplay to be highly frustrating, the adorable pixel graphics and catchy music kept us going. The soundtrack by Captain Beard is an absolute quirky delight that put us in the mindset of those timeless soundtrack classics like Earthbound and Katamari Damacy.

That said, the game doesn’t have a lot of surprises. Since the game is already very short and reuses most of its enemies and art assets, just about everything is covered by the promotional trailer, screenshots, and GIFs. We felt like the addition of ghosts would have been pretty surprising (it’s not a twist by any means, but it changes the gameplay and tone), if they weren’t on the front page of the game’s itch.io release.

After the fact…

We’re sorry to say that’s the end of the praise we had. Crowtel is fun in theory, but in practice it has a lot of problems. Almost all of them fall under the categories of poor implementation, rusty-feeling physics, confusing visual design, and lack of accessibility.

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The primary enemies are cockroaches that charge at you at great speed. These roaches are fast, and will quickly run into you unless you jump out of the way or shoot them down. It’s normally not a big deal, but you can only have two bullets on the screen at a time, and a roach takes three hits to kill. Combined with the cramped halls that these cockroaches are most commonly encountered in, it can be a surprising challenge to kill the roaches before they kill you.

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The balancing of a lot of enemies in this game seems very ill-implemented. In one area, you encounter pink jumping jellies that cannot be destroyed by any means; they are a timing puzzle that you must run under while they jump. After you upgrade your attack by gaining the telephone, you discover that the charged dial tone attack can destroy the pink jellies – only for them to be replaced by blue jellies that are totally invincible! We found the jelly timing puzzles to be a very frustrating break from the flow of the game, so what seemed like a permanent reprise turned out to be even more repetitive gameplay.

This game feels a lot more unfairly difficult than it should be. We had tremendous difficulty with the platforming. One section involving slippery ice platforms suspended by spouts of water took us over ten minutes to accomplish, due to hard-to-maneuver physics and a very nasty glitch. As the platforms move, Crow invisibly disconnects from them; with your feet counting in the programming as being off of the ground, you cannot jump. Since the platforms had a gentle up-and-down animation to visually display them being on a water spout, Crow continuously bounced, and half of our jumps failed for no reason other than shoddy physics.
On top of that, we would sometimes clip through the platform and get stuck in the water spout with no way to get back up. We’d have to eat the kill. A vast majority of platformer games allow you to jump in/on water and wind spouts: Mario, a vast variety of Sega games, Klonoa, Okami – you get the point. It would have been nice to actually be able to recover your jump, but the only thing the water spouts do is slow your fall.

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For a platformer, jumping itself felt very clunky and heavy, which was a huge surprise for us given the game’s assumed feather-light protagonist. The movement upward is fine, but you move down like your feet are full of lead, making mid-air navigation a chore. We weren’t wild about the jumping puzzles for that same reason – one mid-game enemy was a simple puzzle where it would copy your jumps and you would get a brief window to run underneath it. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time jumping directly into the enemy due to the misjudged weight of jumps.
Some enemies are placed directly on the edges of pits. Avoidable, right? But if you miss a jump and fall into a neighboring pit, you lose a hit point and are placed on the ledge before it to try again. If an enemy is on that edge, however… you take another hit point of damage! You only have four hearts of health, so if your health bar is halfway full and you fall into a jelly-lined pit, it’s back to the previous save point with you!

We love difficult platforming gameplay; Bill especially has spent full days playing Cave Story and many of its derivatives, and enjoys the personal thrill of watching others play the notoriously hand-cramping La-Mulana. We’re not strangers to sadistic gameplay. But we just can’t stand unfair gameplay, which Crowtel is full of.

Really, there are a lot of questions we could ask about the decisions made in this game that left it functionally inaccessible. Why do some of the hardest areas in the game not have saves after them, causing you to have to redo large areas of the game? Why is the button to progress in dialogue the Up arrow key, a choice that took us both over a minute of keyboard-mashing to figure out independently of each other? Why are the cutscenes before bosses unskippable, requiring you to play them out in full each time?

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This game lacks a crucial degree of polish to make it player-friendly, with a lot of attributes that left us feeling frustrated. We get that these things would have added time to the development process, but we felt unwelcome while playing it, which is directly at odds with its easygoing and friendly atmosphere.
Bill was left with actual physical pain in zir index finger joint for days after playing due to the button-mashing required to beat boss fights unscathed, and ze’s still the same person who would play and create “hard mode” mods of platformer games whenever applicable. Turbo buttons are trivial to configure in a PC environment, but it’s a little extra trouble to go through when there could have just been a “hold down button to scream” checkbox in the control menu for less-able players.

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This is a bad junction of a lot of different unfair things, which isn’t entirely the game’s fault. Still, the indie platformer genre has always been filled with a degree of pretentious machismo. Every game furthers to ask the questions “How far can we push the player?”: Cave Story has Hell, La-Mulana has Hell Temple, Eversion has World 8, I Wanna Be the Guy exists as the video game equivalent to cutting off a finger for betraying your brethren, and all of these games have been used as the gamer equivalent of fraternity hazing.
This attitude does inevitably lead to in-community verbal and emotional abuse. It’s at the expense of women and the disabled, naturally; the former are put to sadistic tests to prove themselves, the latter are ostracized when they inevitably can’t meet expectations, and God help you if you’re both. We feel 100% certain that game developers do not realize the degree to which this progresses, because even professional companies continue pumping out imbalanced and unfair games for a demographic that will then privately use them as a badge of honor.

It shouldn’t be a surprise at this point that we’re going to discuss ~gender politics!~

Now, throughout this article, or even your own time spent playing Crowtel, what gender did you imagine Crow to be?

We didn’t imagine them to have any gender while we were playing! The titular crow is a girl, which was nice, but we weren’t very impressed to find that this is stated a whopping zero times in the dialogue.
We’re sure that’s the point, and we’re not going to dock the creator any points for not affixing a pink bow and a neon “I AM A GIRL” sign to Crow at all times, but it would have been nice if this was stated anywhere at all. Woman protagonists with agency of their own are rare, and as women, we would have appreciated knowing this. As it is, it felt like a footnote at the end of an unrelated story. At the time of publishing this article, it’s only possible to discover this through Sink’s Twitter, where she laments that people assumed the main character was male due to lack of context.

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The only thing Crow as a character sets out to prove is that a protagonist’s gender shouldn’t be assumed, which is true; still, it doesn’t do anything beyond that. Platformers have always had a deficit of female protagonists. The few that do exist (Samus, Curly Brace, Shantae, and Kazooie and her new counterpart Laylee, just to name the ones that came up on a cursory search) are objectified like clockwork, reduced to their visible features by a ravenous dissecting fanbase that will spend weeks to months churning out pornographic content dedicated to a few pixels worth of legs and cleavage.
Crow is nothing of the sort: she isn’t pure, doesn’t have a tragic backstory, and has no sassy one-liners that make her an ideal target for ‘female domination’ fanfiction. She’s a completely standard protagonist, and the game doesn’t shy away from stating that she’s a lazy person responsible for a sleazy motel. This is good by the standards of, say, RPGs or interactive fiction. But it’s completely lost on an audience that’s capable of spending months being titillated four pixels’ worth of a woman’s stomach.

Crowtel does very little to address anything outside of its scope, which is fine. It’s not trying to be revolutionary, or genre-defining, or anything more than a game about a bird yelling her foes into submission. We didn’t expect, or even want, anything political. It does a good enough thing, it does what it does, and it does it well. It’s for these reasons that we feel completely neutral about it. The premise is sound, and the concept is executed just fine, yet it makes no forward statements and eschews making major decisions.

Crowtel had the opportunity to surpass its fellow games by acknowledging the needs of its player base and the weaknesses of the sphere it resides in. Instead, there are no difficulty settings. There isn’t an easy mode that leads to a neutral ending. You don’t even get the teeth-grinding misogyny of I Wanna Be the Guy where Medium Difficulty affixes a pink bow to the player, or the Wii port of Cave Story‘s unabashed Easy Mode shaming via putting Quote in a chicken suit. No, you don’t get berated for needing your hand held. You just don’t get to play the game at all.

We have felt extremely reluctant to publish this article in the first place, as any criticism of a game of this genre is usually met by platformer fans to the gaslighting tune of “You’re just not playing it right!” (Again, not the fault of Crowtel by any means, but awareness of the genre is necessary for context.)

Yet, why? In what world is it fair that we should have to fear voicing our opinions on how games play?

There’s a lot of work to be done in the video gaming community, and we want to do our part with our critique. We don’t want to treat Crowtel unfairly for problems bigger than it – we just want to see the genre improve, and hopefully the discourse of the community as a whole. It wouldn’t be good to dissect Crowtel down to a pastel-coated mockery of itself just to make it more “digestible” for men; we just want to make it clear how we feel, as we have first-hand experience with the kind of in-community violence that results from games that refuse to acknowledge their player base.

Completable in half an hour: Maybe, if you’re lucky
Let’s cut to the chase: This game is hard. Really hard. Hard to work with physics, tough to kill enemies, and extremely difficult boss fights make this game a seriously unfair challenge. It took us 53 minutes to finish this game on our first run. We’re not complaining because it’s long, but the 23 minutes of overtime were spent on how many times we died to simple errors.

We would have fit it in under the half-hour if it weren’t for these excruciatingly infuriating problems, but we just didn’t; the artificial difficulty choked the flow of the game to a crawl. If you’re a real sharp hand at playing platform-adventure games, you might be able to squeeze this in under half an hour – try to clear out your schedule anyway.

3 out of 5 – Worth Trying (Wouldn’t Play It Again)
Crowtel isn’t a great game, but for everything it has going against it, it’s still got plenty going for it too. We liked Crowtel, overall, but its glaring errors and unawareness of its surroundings kept us from giving it a higher score. It’s a cute as heck game that turns the charm up to 10; we just wish it went a little further.

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You can download Crowtel from itch.io for free, or name your price.

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