Mento's May Mastery: Day 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse

Man, today just kind of flew by. I know, that's my excuse for almost all of these so far, but it still feels like I barely got any progress done with today's game, as well as today's errands in general.

Part of this, I feel, is falling back into the IGAvania hole.

Yep, despite my better judgement and the fact I'm already playing a huge number of games this week, I've started a new game of Dawn of Sorrow. I'm already getting burned out hunting for rare souls, so it's really more the case that I needed to get it out of my system than it is something I anticipate will take over the free time I ought to be putting aside for these Steam games and their subsequent write-ups. Just one little binge to vent my SpaceWhipper addiction for a while. (A sensible person might've lined up some Indie SpaceWhippers in case something like this happened, but I appear to be fresh out of the things. Maybe I should grab that recent Strider reboot while it's still on sale...?)

Magrunner: Dark Pulse

So I neglected to play much of today's game, which is a shame because this is one I fully intend to play to its finale. A first-person physics puzzle game of the like I'm sure we've all seen before, Magrunner: Dark Pulse got a lot of buzz near release due to the way it goes off the rails at a certain point and becomes fully Lovecraftian weirdness. I'm getting hints of that already where I'm at, though truth be told I'm barely any further than where the QL finished.

Magrunner is the tale of a young engineering prodigy named Dax who manages to qualify for an exclusive Gattaca-style project in a private corporation's space program. In order to win such a coveted position he must complete a gauntlet of challenge rooms centered around the corporation's new technology that will allow for affordable space travel and colonization: magnet technology, or magtech. Using two magnetic fields, the player can imbue certain objects with a magnetic charge, allowing them to attract and repel each other. There's been numerous applications for this concept so far, from moving platforms to springboxes to sending cubes flying through glass walls, and it appears the first act of the game (in which Dax is earning his stripes) is intended to teach the basics to me before the game begins in earnest. Not unlike the part in Portal where Chell goes off the grid, in fact.

Now, I'm no physics major, but the fact that magnets with the same charge (depicted as either red or green, though this can be changed) are attracted to each other while those of different charges repel one another seems kind of ass-backwards. Maybe the game thought it was making it clearer by putting it that way around, but I wonder if they underestimated their player base just a tad by assuming they would not be able to get their heads around the idea of "opposites attract". They could always pipe in that Paula Abdul song if people are having too much trouble.

So, funny story, I thought I didn't have The Swapper for Steam and thus had to rely on Giant Bomb's image gallery. Actually, I did own The Swapper on Steam, but not Magrunner. I guess I confused the two? So back to defaults we go for the time being. (I'll take some Bandicam shots tomorrow, I swear.)

Despite dealing with that counter-intuitive magnet weirdness, which occasionally feels like playing the game with inverted controls turned on, it's been quite fun so far. My usual bugbear with action-puzzle games - a lack of precision and order with its moving parts - isn't quite as bad here as I was anticipating. While magnetically charged boxes tend to have a mind of their own, there's a certain method behind the randomized madness. Currently, building a chain of on-off-on-off magnetized boxes has been the hardest to manage, but I suspect I'll get a feel for it eventually. It helps that the game has a button that allows you to see the radial area of effect for the various magnetized items in the vicinity, giving you an idea where an item's magnetic influence terminates. It's a little messy from a visual standpoint to have all those opaque colored spheres everywhere, but it's another case where you'll get a feel for what's going on soon enough. I always like a puzzle game with a strong intuitive element to it; ones where you might fiddle with trial and error for a while until you get a sense for when something's "just right". It's a staple of all those Artillery games like Scorched Earth and Worms, for one thing.

Anyway, definitely sticking with this one for a while, and I'm fortunate that it actually runs fine on my less-than-stellar PC (unlike NaissanceE), mitigating any worries I might have about trying to do precision first-person jumping with a host of hitching and framerate issues around to put me off my timing. Maybe I'll do a double catch-up episode tomorrow for Magrunner and Dokuro, get a little closer to a conclusion for both of those.


Mento's May Mastery: Day 20: Dokuro

It's the twentieth of these! I'm starting to suspect I won't be able to get through the list I've prepared, though all the same I'm happy with the progress I've made so far. I have plans for the final week - they involve starting games that'll take longer than the three days to beat, with the idea being that I can continue to plug away at them after May is over - so really there's just a handful of days left for odd little games like the one I'm covering today.

I'll come clean before we begin, however, by saying I have a vested interest in this particular Indie game because it was developed by a Japanese developer that once created a lot of JRPGs of which I'm very fond. The game I'm about to cover was their attempt (and that of their publishers, the obscenely rich publishers of the Puzzle & Dragons franchise GungHo Online Entertainment) to "test the waters" of the modern PC market, I suspect, and are preparing at this moment to release more of their back library on Steam. Of course, the JRPG is oddly well represented on Steam already, with many Nihon Falcom games like Ys and Trails in the Sky (explicable, since they've been computer game developers since the MSX and PC-8801), Square-Enix's various Final Fantasy PC ports, Sega's Valkyria Chronicles (where's Skies of Arcadia, dang it Sega) and those weird and vaguely porny Agarest: Generations of War/Hyperdimension Neptunia games. Even so, couldn't hurt to throw a bunch more classics from the PS1/PS2 era on there.

The company in question is Game Arts, and the games they're best known for are the Lunar and Grandia series. I'd love nothing more to see those two represented on Steam, especially Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete and Grandia II. The latter, it appears, is now an inevitability, so I figured I'd celebrate by looking at the charming little Indie puzzle-platformer they put up at the end of last year, converted from a 2013 Vita release.


Dokuro ("Skull") is a fairy tale-like game about a lowly henchman of a Dark Lord. His master kidnaps a beautiful princess one day, and since the henchman is treated like dirt and goes unnoticed by everyone, he decides to help the princess escape. The princess is a tad on the oblivious side, so she also tends to ignore the henchman as well as the castle's many, many traps. It's up to the hen- (you know, I'm just going to call him Dokuro. It fits) It's up to Dokuro to get her safely through his master's castle, stopping the other minions and henchmen along the way.

The point where this game gets cute is when Dokuro drinks a tonic that unleashes his heroic alter-ego, who appears to be a handsome if still partially skeletal prince who fights with a rapier and is generally more dashing and heroic than his little henchman form. Not only does the princess seem to acknowledge his presence in this form, but she can be carried past dangers and obstacles for as long as Dokuro can maintain the transformation. Both the prince and the henchman form have their uses - the henchman can fit through smaller gaps and has a double jump; the prince can permanently eliminate enemies, carry the princess and survive small pools of water - and the player needs to switch between them fairly regularly. In addition, the game introduces a magic piece of chalk that is needed for a handful of puzzles, though it seems to mostly take a backseat to the transformations. Dokuro's storybook aesthetic is already heavy on the chalk drawings, so it stands to reason that more chalk can summon whatever is drawn into being.

Dokuro definitely doesn't look the hero type. If I had to describe his mannerisms in a word, it'd be "furtive".

I've gotten through the first three worlds (actually different parts of the Dark Lord's castle) as of this blog. They're fairly short, ten stages apiece, but it looks the game has around 15 worlds in total which makes for 150 stages. It's not a bad number. I'm enjoying what I've played so far, though it can be a little finicky with the precision aspects and the princess is as dumb as a box of hammers. She is, at least, predictable with her behavior, which is all you can ask for in an AI companion with "helper" puzzle games like this or something like Mario & Wario or, uh, Rocko's Modern Life: Spunky's Dangerous Day (sorry, I'm still working on a bunch of weird SNES wiki pages).

What's truly disconcerting is how the game is getting panned on Steam because of technical reasons. Not even bugs, as far as I can tell, but a lack of graphics/screen options and control remapping and joystick support and the sort of things only PC gamers care about. It's the sad state of the industry we're in right now where UI and technology trumps artistic merit and imagination when critiquing a game. (The controls really are a bit iffy though, to be fair, with A and D for lateral movement, the comma and period buttons for jump/act and the mouse for using chalk. It's impossible to have enough fingers to be prepared for it all simultaneously.)

"Fuck pretty flowers, where's my 1080p/60fps?! I can't 360-no-scope under these conditions! I quit!"

I could extend this Dokuro coverage to tomorrow, but I'm thinking I should move onto something else and keep playing Dokuro on the sly, like Life of Pixel and a handful of others so far. I'll keep you posted on developments, but it seems like a straightforward puzzle-platformer. Probably nothing too surprising ahead.


Mento's May Mastery: Day 19: Claire

OK, I have a few things to get off my chest today for this intro dealie. Don't mistake this as me suddenly getting my ass into gear and preparing ahead of time; that's only for the game appraisals. These intros are very much off the cuff, but occasionally something interesting will happen (by a certain limited definition of the word) and I'll have something to write about.

The first is that there are apparently spambots out there who are copying my title/text before tossing in the requisite links to colorjet printers that can get make you erect for six hours, presumably because I've been successfully spamming the forums for weeks now and they're all getting ideas. If you start reading one of these May Mastery blogs and I suddenly sound a lot more erudite and insightful than usual, maybe hit that flag button just in case. No, don't hit it now. I'm still me. I think? (Man, that The Swapper playthrough really did a number on me.)

The second is that I watched Mad Max: Fury Road today, and am happy to join the thousands of other internet voices in your cyber-ear in highly recommending it. It feels like a proper old-school action movie, the sort of romp you could only expect from the director of Happy Feet 2 Babe: Pig in the City The Road Warrior. It is pretty much that movie in a lot of structural ways, and I think it's been so long since the last one that no-one's able to recall just how weird and uncomfortable those movies are/were. We're used to seeing it through a filter of the massive amount of pop culture it inspired since the previous movie, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, was released 30 years ago. Heck, we just saw a massively popular fighter game release last month with a Master Blaster ersatz. Mad Max has always been about the sheer depravity of a completely lawless society, and the handful of people still yearning for sanity in a world where it's become as precious and rare a commodity as water and gasoline. Anyway, movie's great, you should go see it. And don't worry about those MRA goons, they clearly don't recall Tina Turner's ruthless but even-handed Aunty Entity, or Virginia Hey kicking ass in that white armor get-up. Max has always shared the limelight with tough-as-nails female characters who always seem to want to kill him the first time they encounter him.

(Also, I'm looking forward to that Mad Max game from the Just Cause creators even more now. Feels like I'm ready to jump back into that out-there outback.)


Talking of hardy female characters, Claire is a 2D side-scrolling Indie horror game that wears its Silent Hill inspiration on its sleeve. In that respect, it's very similar to the equally disquieting and perplexing Lone Survivor by Jasper Byrne. Claire might go even further with the Silent Hill parallels, including maps that edit themselves to account for blockades and locked doors, transitions that suddenly turn banal environments into creepy and potentially dangerous ones, and a stock of healing items that seems to deplete as quickly as it grows while exploring.

The game deigns to take the pacifistic (or helpless, depending on your view) hero approach where the enemies are unkillable and will pursue you, at least for a little while. There's places to hide, but you're better off making a run for it through several doors and try to move on from where you ended up. There also feels like there's a few side objectives, often finding NPCs and helping them with their problems, but for the most part you're simply exploring as many rooms as possible for supplies and to follow a string of objective markers to move the story along. Exploring also means you're greatly increasing the chances of finding a random white noise enemy too, but thems the breaks. (Fortunately, you can run right past them without getting hurt if your reflexes are quick enough.)

Don't worry, this is normal. Well, to a certain extent at least.

Claire also integrates some kind of sanity meter, but I've yet to discover what affects it. There's barely any items that reduce panic, and occasionally the screen gets all weird if you see too many jump scares in close proximity, but there's also times where I've gone into my inventory and seen it be perfectly calm. Either it recovers slowly in "safe" areas, or I'm triggering events that help restore Claire's calmness between the scary moments.

I should probably say what this game's about, huh? Well, I'm not actually sure, to be honest. The eponymous heroine begins in a flashback as her home is ravaged by some unseen force of darkness, leading to her waking up in her mother's hospital room. One quick trip downstairs for coffee later and everything goes nuts, the walls start to bleed and Claire wakes up strapped to a hospital bed with an enormous visceral abomination peering at her from the ceiling. Her faithful pup Anubis scares off the encroaching shadows, frees her and they're off exploring. Anubis doesn't offer a whole lot more than that, besides companionship, but he will start growling if enemies are nearby.

I think I'd be "dot dot dot" too if I suddenly woke up underneath Red Falcon.

For what I've seen of it so far Claire feels very much like an amalgam of elements from various big-name horror games, the sort that Konami and Capcom no longer feel the need to produce because earning money sucks or something. Many Indie games are taking the first-person route, closely following the example made by Frictional Games's Amnesia series, though it seems just as many are borrowing elements from the style of horror survival that has sadly fallen out of favor with the bigger developers. In particular, Claire shares elements of Clock Tower (female protagonist, pursuing invinicible enemies), Silent Hill (the aforementioned similarities), Alan Wake (a limited, battery-driven light source that seems to have some mild offensive power) and others I might recognize if I was a little fonder of the genre.

Unfortunately, I'm not a big fan of the "unkillable enemies" variant of survival horror. I understand the choice, of course, that in order to set the monsters up as terrifying they need to be utterly unstoppable. That's been a staple of horror media forever. It's just that, sometimes I want to be left alone to explore, to read notes and be fully engrossed with the bizarre horror world the developers have created. If I'm suddenly chased through a dozen doors and end up missing a bunch of locations to check out, it irks me. It's why I was thankful that Silent Hill (almost) always gave you the option to take down enemies if you were determined enough. It's also why I consider Fatal Frame to be so successful at what it does: almost every enemy in every game is vulnerable to the Camera Obscura, but the game's mechanics are predicated on unnerving the player as much as possible while fighting them. They can be exorcised, but you have to stick that first-person perspective camera lens right up in their eerie dead faces as they lunge at you in order to do it.

I love this sort of map system, and I don't understand why more horror games don't use it.

I'll say that dropping this game is largely due to personal preference than anything specifically wrong with the game itself. It plays well (or really, as well as a simple 2D side-scrolling horror adventure game can expect to, given you spend most of the time walking around and looking at things), it's not nearly as obtuse as Lone Survivor (for better or worse, I guess), it's fair with its items and telling you where to go (or, at the very least, where you've already been) and does get in a few good scares here and there. If you're into the sort of horror game where you'll wander into an enemy and have to book it and hide, it might be the 2D Indie horror game for you. As for me, I'm going to keep on moving through this pile.

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 18: The Swapper

I was going to start "ripping from the headlines" more often to fill these intro spots, as I appear to have made them a permanent feature of this season of May Madness (I won't be making that mistake again), but the most significant game industry thing I've heard today is that people are upset at the idea that there's an industry "fashion code". Plaid shirts, jeans, sneakers. Anyone else is made to feel like an outsider, apparently. I'm almost positive that this has more to do with the fact that industry people neither have the inclination nor time to care about what they're wearing, and simply settle on the above as an inoffensive, quick to put on and cheap to replace ensemble.

However, the notion that someone who might care a little more about dressing up for big industry events could feel like the one smart-casual person at a fancy dress party who clearly didn't read the invitation is curious (in a "I never thought of it that way before" sense), understandable and something to be empathized with. Twitter being Twitter, it seems to be either fully in agreement or fully in disagreement with these sentiments without appreciating the other party's viewpoint and meeting in the middle, but then that's nothing new.

I really should talk more about something actually video game-related before I turn this series into Kotaku Lite. I dropped NaissanceE for the time being, that's something. Might return to that either when I have a spare moment (not now - it's the start of the week, which means podcasts, which means wiki time) or way into the future when I have a better system that can run it without hitching all the time. I bothered to create a category in my Steam folder for that very purpose; it can join such rarefied company as the Arkham games that keep getting sold in bundles (that I've already played on consoles), that Thief reboot, FEAR 3 and a whole bunch of other stuff I'm sure I'll have forgotten all about in however many years it'll be before I can afford another PC. I should just rebrand that category "Limbo" and stop lying to myself.

The Swapper

It wasn't intentional to immediately follow one with the other (I actually took a list of backlog games I wanted to play and randomized it before starting the series) but Facepalm Games's The Swapper shares a lot in common with NaissanceE - moody atmosphere, excellent lighting effects, barren surroundings that suggest a past catastrophe, a female protagonist whose gender isn't emphasized and is fairly immaterial in narrative terms - but then adds a whole lot more. It's easier now to see where my apathy with NaissanceE was coming from, because the aspects I felt were missing, like an ongoing narrative, a series of well-written notes and journals that gets into some heady material and a framework of puzzle mechanics, are all elements that greatly improved my enjoyment of The Swapper.

Arriving on an abandoned spaceship after a brief visit to the nearby planet it was mining/excavating, the player is thrust into a mystery involving a bunch of telepathic rock aliens and a gun that allows the player to create clones and swap places with them. To say anything more might be spoiling the experience, as the entire narrative flow is predicated on the slow burn as the player starts to appreciate who they're controlling, what went wrong on the ship, who is in this other spacesuit wandering around and how they might find a way off the ship and back to civilization. Though the game is dark and foreboding, the game rarely goes the horror route, instead preferring to build on the suspense and mystery. In that regard, it feels a little bit more Metroid than Dead Space. Of course, the only thing you're shooting (and shooting at) are clones of yourself.

For all its perspicacious ratiocination about the nature of consciousness and identity, neither it nor the company that made it have particularly intelligent names. (I know, I know, I'm named after a candy.)

The game presents its puzzles by creating barriers which need a certain orb collectible to power them, and then presents a surplus number of these orbs in the vicinity each with its own puzzle to solve, the idea being that if you find one particular puzzle too difficult you can (temporarily) skip it. The game continues to add inexplicable wrinkles like colored lights (red light stops the beam that takes over clones, but allows you to create them in that space; blue is the opposite; magenta prevents both) and anti-gravity platforms, but they're worked into the puzzles so gradually that the player shouldn't ever feel overwhelmed. In fact, the first big puzzle epiphany doesn't even involve the puzzle rooms: there's a certain technique possible with the swapper gun that the game never deigns to tell you about. It's simply left to the player to figure it out if they hope to proceed. Oddly enough, this technique then takes a backseat for the next 60% of the game. I want to say that the developers did this intentionally; to create that wonderful breakthrough feeling you get in puzzle and adventure games in a scenario outside of the designated puzzle rooms where it can be felt more keenly. It's one thing to solve a specific room's puzzle and grab the shiny at the end, but another to completely change the way you get around the map. Almost like figuring out there's a double-jump.

The Swapper more or less continues on like this, providing consoles that move doors out of the way or turn on vital systems, but needs a specific number of orbs to do so. It's a contrivance, as is the number of rooms on the spaceship that seem to be purposely built solely to make an object harder to reach without owning a magic clone gun that presumably didn't exist before they built the ship in the first place. Don't worry about it. Instead, soak in the atmosphere, marvel at the stop-motion look of the visual design, take in the weirdness of those talking rocks and try not to think too hard about creating and killing hundreds of your own clones and whether or not they can feel pain. I mean, until the game asks you to ponder it.

I like the "Neverhood" vibe with some of these environments. (I neglected to take any screenshots myself, because I don't actually own the Steam version. Whoops! I wonder if GOG Galaxy will have a screenshot key...?)

Oh yeah, important note: I beat The Swapper in a single day, and for all my high-falutin' word wizardry I'm not actually all that bright, so caveat emptor on that if you wanted a game like this to keep you busy for a while. It can be challenging enough later on, but it's not the most difficult 2D puzzle-platformer on the Indie market. Lends to its appeal, I suppose, since it means you can expect to finish its story without too much trouble and/or looking up video walkthroughs.

Man, I'm starting to appreciate why it was hard for Patrick to talk about this game. Everything about it - from figuring out what's going on with the story to discovering new uses for the swapper - will ultimately detract from the reader/viewer's own experience. I'm glad that I skipped most of the hubbub about this game and could appreciate it fully, and I'd also highly recommend anyone who hasn't played it to do so. And to think, I was mocking it at the time for being a less whimsical The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom copycat.


Mento's May Mastery: Day 17: NaissanceE

...I kinda want to play an IGAvania. The Grumps are on a typically disastrous SOTN run right now, and Two Best Friends Play are pretty deep into an Aria of Sorrow playthrough (that one's pretty good. Liam, the most skilled of that particular crew, is going over popular speedrun tips as he plays). Other LP channels are no doubt covering the IGA game of their choice as part of this ambitious YouTube LPer-affiliated promotion the Kickstarter has going on. Personally, I just dug up my copy of Dawn of Sorrow and am halfway tempted to jump back into it. I then remembered that I have plenty of games to play this month already, and even more the following month.

Still, though, I had to think for a moment just how many of these 2D IGAvania games there are. There's three for the GBA and three for the DS, many of which tended to sneak in under people's radars or were released too close to the previous portable Castlevania to be a tempting purchase. Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, Order of Ecclesia. And, if you can find them for a reasonable price, the PS2 Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness. I've talked about these games elsewhere, as a staging ground for an abortive VinnyVania journey of my own.

Despite the silly anime portraits and "magic seal" shoehorned-in touchscreen functionality business, Dawn of Sorrow's a pretty good one. It's also the only one I seem to own besides the XBLA SOTN, so I'm really spoiled for choice. Well, maybe after all these LPs end I'll be too sick of Castlevania to worry about it.


Talking of awkward jarring segues, NaissanceE is one of those first-person adventure games that is light on the action and heavy on the exploration and jumping puzzles. There's been a whole lot of these for the PC in the past eight years, most of which have been inspired by Valve's Portal; a game that taught game designers that they could create a neat first-person game in Source or Unreal without filling it with guns and explosions. I'm no game designer (anymore), but it feels like it would be relatively easy to do one of these types of games, especially if you decide to not include any sort of clever puzzle gimmick whatsoever like NaissanceE.

You might notice that these screenshots are from the wiki. That's because I'm playing it on 600x800 right now to maximize the framerate. At least all these bare walls means I won't have to worry too much about Unreal's usual texture pop-in problems.

There's not much of a story in NaissanceE. You're a young woman named Lucy who is lost in an enormous maze of blocks and unknown, possibly manmade, structures. There's not a whole lot of color besides the occasional blue or red tint: the game instead uses its stark monochrome to enhance some incredible lighting effects and make the already sterile environment even more uncomfortable and alien. It sometimes feels like I might be inside a computer, or some sort of abandoned future arcology, or the fevered dream of a cubist painter. Either way, there's no answers to be found in the immediate landscape: no dialogue to be heard, no hints to perceive beyond the contextual, no diary entries of people talking about what cubes they ate for dinner before hearing a loud noise outside their cube-house and dropping their cube-pens to go investigate. If the game has a story to tell, they're going to wait until the end of the game to tell it, not unlike QUBE or Antichamber. As if to ground the bizarre maze-like environments you're wandering through, many of which I feel are deliberately trying to confuse and disorient me, the protagonist is strictly limited to a crouch, a jump and a limited sprint that makes longer jumps possible. Most of the game's "puzzles" have simply involved jumping from one platform to another, or using nearby light sources to change the properties of certain blocks. That's really been it so far.

Remember when I talked about awkward jarring segues earlier, like it was some sort of meta joke about how I wasn't segueing into anything? Well, this game has those. Every time you hit a checkpoint, the game lets you know by suddenly freezing the game for a few seconds before letting you run off and have fun outside. These jarring freezes may well also double as transitions, loading the next part of the world while removing the previous, in which case they're a little less inexplicable but still just as irksome. The fun part is that reloading the game (say, because you fell off the world like a klutz) will drop you off just before this transition, rather than just after. That means every time you die, you wait for the character to slump to a stationary bloody position, hit the button to reload, wait for it to load, start forward and then hit the transition for another brief loading time. It truly is fantastic checkpoint design.

I wonder if the game's title is meant to be pronounced "nay-sons-ay", like fianceé. That extra E is weirding me out.

I'm really not sure about this one. It looks great, and I'm fascinated by how it respects the player's intelligence (if not their time) by creating a number of these confusing little mazes to follow around, but I'm not sure it's actually any fun. I am sure that I'm not doing it any favors by playing it on a PC that's clearly struggling to run it (a fairly ubiquitous sentiment with these May Madness blogs, I'll admit), as the resulting jerkiness is greatly deleterious to the timing of the more difficult jumps. I might bash my head against it some more tomorrow, though it's just as likely that I'll skip over it and try the next game on my list. I'm not short on them, believe you me.


Scenic Routes: Super Mario 64 (Part Six)

I've been thinking/talking a lot about 3D platformers recently, for one reason or another. I stated at the offset of this particular series that I was compelled to jump into Super Mario 64 after watching the Game Grumps YT channel struggle with it, and how similar games have evolved in various directions from that original source as if they all saw what they wanted to see and went away to craft their mind's eye's ideal successor. Many focused on the collectibles, of course, and the idea of creating a series of big cuboid stages with lots of different areas to explore and puzzles to solve. Fewer tend to exhibit the sheer experimental chaos of this genre originator, however, possibly considering that aspect to be the inevitable growing pains of a trailblazing product that had to throw everything against the wall to see what stuck: the more apparent palatable/adhesive elements eventually becoming the staples of the genre. That's largely why I wanted to cover this game in this much detail: there's a certain depth of unbridled (by necessity) creativity to the game that is so rare to see in any big tentpole release these days, most of which play it safe in order to guarantee a return on their heavy investments.

But then, completely irrespective of my desire to revisit Super Mario 64 after watching some goobers fail to get anywhere with its obtuse hints and as-yet-uncodified controls, the Yooka-Laylee announcement came about. A game developed by a large number of ex-Rare employees to be an overt homage to the N64 era in which the company made a name for itself, producing Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark and their Banjo-Kazooie series, the latter of which being the model for this new Kickstarter project. Rather than just reminiscing about N64 platformers on my lonesome, everyone was suddenly talking about them again. It's a serendipitous coincidence that this Scenic Routes series suddenly became a lot more relevant to where people's minds are at, but then it also feels like the Kickstarter did so well because these games have never wandered far from the thoughts of gamers of a certain age.

We'll explore the last two courses of the second floor today, and then attempt to squeeze everything on the top floor into the last edition of this series. It'll be a little back-heavy as a result, but I'd prefer to stick to some obvious cut-off points for simplicity's sake. I recall these two courses in particular being very stressful, especially for the 100-Coin Challenges, as the game is completely committed to instant-death pitfalls and other terrifying hazards for its final four courses. Of course, that's also what makes them a fun challenge.

Tall, Tall Mountain

The Course

Well, there's the log and there's the flume... think, Mario. How do we build a theme park ride out of this?

Like many courses in Super Mario 64, Tall, Tall Mountain is constructed as a vertical spiral, requiring that Mario run around its base and continually climb ever upwards via its slopes and platforms. This also exacerbates the natural party-pooper that is gravity, where failing to make it through one of these sequences either causes the player to drop to an earlier point of the course and lose some progress, or fall off the world entirely and have to restart from scratch. I believe this is where the game came up with the idea of calling these things "courses": though hardly linear in many respects, there is a natural start and end point to each one, usually involving the summit of a taller structure: a mountain; a fortress; a spookhouse; a giant snowman; or the inside of a volcano or pyramid. Invariably there's always a Star to be found by taking this "course" to its zenith (or nadir, in the case of some underwater courses), but you rarely see everything there is to see by sticking to this direct path.

"Anyone can miss Tall, Tall Mountain, all tucked away down there."

Tall, Tall Mountain also hosts the game's third and most difficult sliding sequence and is the home to a pair of mischievous "Ukiki" monkeys and the game's only Fwoosh enemy: a dickish cloud that will blow Mario and his hat a fair distance away, like the Giant Snowman. Tall, Tall Mountain also has the smallest portrait, which feels like some kind of ironic joke about the height of the actual course - though it might also be a trick, to make its portrait seem less significant compared to the many other, larger portraits in the castle's hall, all of which besides Wet-Dry World are fake. I think my favorite element about the course is that the summit has a railing around it, as if it were some kind of tourist observation point. It felt like one of those elements drawn directly from a designer's vacation nostalgia, like Shigeru Miyamoto's stories about how the original The Legend of Zelda was inspired by his exploring caves and forests near his home as a child.

The Stars

I haaate log-rolling. (Man, right after I made a Canada joke too.)

Funny I should mention that one Star you always find by reaching the end of the course, because that's the first one for Tall, Tall Mountain too. Like many Stars of its kind, it's meant to introduce the majority of the course's tricks and traps to the player, presenting a goal that's simple to grasp conceptually but not quite as simple to actually reach. No weird tricks here: just ascend past all the boulders, all the narrow paths, the log rolling lifted from Lethal Lava Land and a handful of enemies. There's a shortcut past the ivy vines, but whether attempting to climb that Aggro Crag is easier or faster than the log-rolling is entirely debatable. At least it isn't quite as dangerous.

Mario, pictured here choking the monkey. Wait, that's not the expression, is it?

The second Star features the monkeys, or Ukiki, the first of which the player will have met on the way to the top of the mountain (unless they took the ivy shortcut). The monkeys have different personalities: the first you meet, by the log, will deliberately allow itself to get caught by walking up to Mario and pestering him. Once picked up, it snatches Mario's cap and becomes a lot harder to grab, not unlike MIPS in the castle's basement. Rather than outspeeding Mario, like MIPS, the monkey outmaneuvers him, leaping over his head when he gets close to an edge and always moving directly away from wherever Mario is standing. The second Ukiki on the summit will be in this "hard to grab" mode initially, and will promise to help Mario if he lets him go. This Ukiki is a little less mischievous and is in fact entirely innocent of any wrongdoing, making the fact that Mario has to grab him seem a little unfair, but the game's banking on the player having been tricked previously and treating this second primate with a similar amount of caution. Once let go, the monkey frees the Star from the nearby cage, dropping it to a lower location. The malevolent player can then pick it up again and drop it off the cliff, like the baby penguin of Cool, Cool Mountain (wow, they didn't spend much time thinking up names for these courses, did they?).

Ain't much room for error here. Ha! Mycological humor! I'm such a fun guy. (I should button it already.)

The third Star involves the red coin rush, their number evenly split between the precarious mushrooms underneath the rest of the mountain and the ivy shortcut where the moles are. The mushrooms, gracefully, are presented first and are the only real dangerous part of this red coin Star. The ones along the ivy wall not only give you a safety net in the form of solid ground underneath, but also serve to inform the player of the possible shortcut here if they didn't already discover it an don't particularly enjoy crossing the rolling log part of the course. Even removed from imminent danger, the wall coins might be harder to get than the mushroom coins, due to the odd way the platforms jut out of the wall and require very careful jumps to reach.

I don't have a good feeling about this decision.

The Mysterious Mountainside Star gives nothing away with its hint/title, other than giving the player an idea that there might be a secret passage hidden within the walls of the mountain. Once the player reaches the right spot, near the cloud enemy Fwoosh, another wobbly transition appears (like the portraits on the outside) and leads to the course's slide. While this slide begins like the others, it pulls a mean trick halfway down by presenting a wood-panel detour off to the side that might be hard to spot on the initial run (and just as hard to reach in time for the subsequent ones). Were the player to ignore it and continue down the slide, they'd quickly reach a dead end, marked by a large skull icon to indicate that they've inadvertently doomed themselves. There's definitely something ominous about this mocking "too bad!" mural, and it's an element that would later find its way into those diabolical "Kaizo" Mario hacks whenever the player misses a difficult timed sequence and loses a life.

Clever girl.

The fifth Star, Breathtaking View from the Mountain, is even more cryptic than the previous. However, we have here another Star that a perceptive player can find before they're given the hint to do so, because it can be clearly seen inside a waterfall on the way to the summit. The trick is finding out how to reach it: it's possible but not easy to jump to it from the narrow ledge at the top of the waterfall, but the solution is once again another "bait-and-!-Switch". The exclamation point switch is a little further back and appears to only create a single corkboard block to reach a handful of coins a few inches away. What it also does, and is secretly the reason it's there, is create a second block at the mouth of this secret waterfall cave, making it way easier to get into it. Like the "Fall Onto the Caged Island" Star of Whomp's Fortress, there's both a hard but obvious way - jump off the cliff (Tall, Tall Mountain)/use the cannon (Whomp's Fortress) - and a slightly better hidden easier way - use the block switch (Tall, Tall Mountain)/use the owl's help (Whomp's Fortress). Sometimes it pays to experiment a little before settling on a particularly circuitous way to do something solely because it seems like the only recourse. It's been a common sentiment expressed to criticize the way Drew plays Metal Gear Solid games too.

It's doable, but...

Blast to the Lonely Mushroom is another Star that players might spot early on if they spend some time taking in their surroundings: the mushroom in question can be spotted from the starting location, with its Star out in the open. What isn't quite as obvious is how to reach it, with various red herrings like the nearby bouncing block or attempting to get higher up the mountain and leaping over to it with the height advantage (which is actually possible but extremely difficult). Rather, the player needs to find the secret Pink Bob-Omb, fairly well-hidden this time near where the first Ukiki is, and reach the cannon underneath the ledge that is parallel with the scary red coin mushrooms. The player can once again take the hard but obvious route to the ledge underneath, long-jumping from the mushroom that holds the red coin Star, or use the handy warp that occurs if Mario stands on the smallest of the mushrooms where the red coins are. The latter isn't exactly obvious, but it's possible the player might try to reach that tiny platform for the bragging rights. I remember doing exactly that for that exact reason back when I was younger, so maybe the designer behind the warp took the hypothetical youthful player's swaggering into account.

100-Coin Challenge: The game posits a clever strategy here for anyone perspicacious enough to pick up on it. The slide, which only factors into a single Star, has more than 60 coins up for grabs (though you can realistically expect to get 50). If you die on the slide, it'll send you right back to its start again, so by procuring a decent total of coins here, you can use that as a launching stage for the 100 coins needed for the bonus Star. Once out of the slide area, the player simply needs to hop the railing to be back near the start of the course, and from here can collect whatever coins remain. They won't even have to risk the dangerous mushroom red coins; if they go for the red coins on the ivy wall, the thirteen coins near the start and various lines of five along the route up, it shouldn't be as tricky a proposition as it would at first seem. Mitigating the difficulty of this particular 100-Coin Challenge is still contingent on realizing that strategy beforehand however, which is why I consider this to be one of the better-designed instances of this feature where so many others feel tacked on.

Tiny-Huge Island

The Course

The "Tiny Island" entrance.

Tiny-Huge Island is another portrait-determinant course, as its portrait room provides two feasible options: one medium-sized painting or an enormous painting. Depending on which you enter, you'll arrive in either a island full of huge goombas, or a very small version of the same course with miniature enemies. The fact is, though, that this only determines the initial state of the course: there's pipes scattered throughout that will allow you to switch between the two on the fly, and it's often necessary to go from one to the other to acquire Stars. What's cool about the portrait room is that it uses forced perspective: an optical illusion that makes both portraits seem equally near and equally large from the center of the room when one of them is in fact a lot further away and larger than it initially appears. It's odd that very few 3D games ever attempt this sort of visual trick; developers wouldn't discover more gameplay applications for it until Indie games like Perspective or Antichamber. Like the Snowman's Land mirrored portrait room, it's one of those unique scenarios that some bright spark thought to include for no other reason to say "Hey, this is what's possible with 3D world design" and the sort of thing I was talking about in the lede regarding how developers building on Super Mario 64's innovations mostly stopped at the obvious gameplay mechanics like collect-a-thons and the player character's versatile maneuverability.

Or... maybe this was the Tiny Island entrance, and the last one was the Huge Island entrance. I probably should've labelled these screenshots.

It's not a big "developer insider knowhow" secret that Tiny-Huge Island is really two courses, rather than one. No weird size transformations are happening here; the pipes simply move you from one course to the other. It's a cool effect though, even if all the game's doing is tinkering with the scale of the geography and replacing the enemies with bigger/smaller versions. There's a few significant changes beyond the size of enemies too, as various "Huge Island" portals adopt different roles and certain creatures, like the Boss Bass, suddenly go from harmless to potentially fatal.

Speaking for enemies, as well as the hungry Boss Bass (which wear those hoodlum triangular shades popular in all the animes), there's the first instance of a hostile Lakitu. The camera Lakitu doesn't seem too phased by the fact that you're killing his kin, and it seems odd to include both a hostile version and the peaceful one that's following Mario around. Then again, if you've bothered to make a model for one, might as well take full advantage of it. The huge goombas and piranha plants will come up later, when I start discussing the course's Stars.

The Stars

These things always creep me out. At least they aren't speaking to me in Levi Stubbs's voice.

Which will be right now. The first Star requires that the player make their way to the piranha plants. In order to reach them, the player has to work out how best to traverse this course: namely, by jumping to the Tiny Island to quickly move to any other point in the course with a pipe, then popping back into the Huge Island. The piranhas only appear in the Huge Island, but you need to drop into Tiny Island to reach the platform they're on and use the pipe there to return to Huge Island and defeat them. There's five in total, and they have the annoying ability to shrink to microscopic size and then grow huge as soon as Mario gets close. They're hard to jump on when fully-sized mostly due to the sticky ground, and Mario's punch is a little too short-range to be reliable, so it's easy to take damage while fighting this quintet. A few creatures pull off this trick of phasing into existence whenever Mario gets close, and it doubles as both a programmer's trick to minimize the number of moving parts active at any given moment and as an effective ambush tactic for the enemies themselves.

Hold me closer, tiny goomba.

The second is the requisite "reach the top of the course" Star. I feel the designers missed a trick here, as the first Star will have already taught them how to skip most of the course by using Tiny Island and the pipes. While it's possible to somersault shortcut up from the piranha island, this path isn't particularly obvious; what's more obvious is using the pipe past the beach area and using that to skip the boulders, jumping up to the next height level where the boulders originate and using the pipe there to hop back into Huge Island. From there, it's a simple run to the peak. The course is not particularly easy to navigate without skipping chunks of it one way or the other, but as the first Star stresses this island-flipping maneuver, reaching the Star at the summit of Tiny Island becomes just that little bit more trivial.

Koopa the Quick is a lot more complimentary than Il Piantissimo ever was. Flab biscuit?!

The third Star revisits Koopa the Quick, the speed-obsessed Koopa of Bob-Omb's Battlefield. He challenges Mario while on Tiny Island and tasks them with taking a short but perilous race through the "Windswept Valley" part of the course. (If you visit the spot where he's standing in Huge Island, there is a smaller Koopa which can be defeated for coins. Whether that's actually Koopa the Quick or not is debatable, as Koopa the Quick will still be there.) It's not as difficult as it seems, as Mario's running the same direction as the boulders and therefore doesn't have a whole lot of obstacles in his face on the way to the flag. The only tricky part is the plank of wood near the end, where the winds are strong and Mario is forced to slow to walking speed. It's possible for Koopa to simply barge past Mario at this point, either winning the race or pushing Mario off the course to his death. Neither is a good result, as they both mean starting over.

Heeeey, what's in here?

Five Itty Bitty Secrets is another Star that tasks Mario with finding five arbitrary secret triggers on the course. However, there's a big hint with the words "itty bitty" and once the player has found a couple it's not difficult for them to figure out the pattern that links them together. I feel this is a lot better handled than the equivalent "five secrets" Star from Wet-Dry World for that very reason. The hint description suggests that Mario should start searching in Tiny Island, and each of the five are the now impassible doorways and holes in the course. While the door linking the beach area to the start, the cannon pit and the gap that spits out the cannonballs shouldn't be tricky to find, it's the door to the red coin Star (coming up next) and the summit that might take some additional poking around. Fortunately, finding both of these at this juncture ought to give the player some additional inspiration for tracking down the final two Stars.

The literal translation of the Japanese name for the movie Jaws is "Cool Delinquent Fish". That might even be possibly true.

With the fifth Star, the player will have hopefully found the cave that goes into the side of the cliff above the beach as part of the Five Itty Bitty Secrets Star. The player must simply find a way back up there while on Huge Island. There's a couple of ways to do this: finding the cannon Pink Bob-Omb (he's on Tiny Island and hard to miss), and using the cannon to blast up onto the ledge that connects to the wooden walkway leading to the cave, or by climbing up the mountain and jumping down to that same ledge from above. It's cleverly designed to be almost impossible to find without the player actively searching for a route to get there, but once they've determined that there is a cave to explore in that area, there's a few paths open to them. Once inside, there's just a few tricky jumps to collect the eight necessary red coins. The player also can sneak a glimpse at Wiggler's home above with its skylight, providing another contextual hint on how to access this area of the map if they hadn't figured it out from the previous Star.

Wiggler's not exactly the most intimidating boss in the game, but he makes up for it in complaining.

Wiggler is the boss of Tiny-Huge Island, but his fight isn't particularly difficult. He doesn't go into full red-tint anger mode, like he did in Super Mario World and will do in Super Mario Sunshine, but his increased speed and the odd arena can sometimes make it difficult to follow him. Reaching him is simply a matter of breaking a hole in the summit while on Tiny Island and then running back up there in Huge Island and hopping inside. One odd element of this fight is the idea provided by Wiggler's dialogue that being given a Power Star has somehow corrupted the poor caterpillar, turning him violent and angry against his usual genial nature. He'll also shrink after he gives the Star up, as if to suggest that he's normally the size of any regular bug without its pernicious influence (in fact, he shrinks so much he falls through the grate to the abyss below, which doesn't seem right). The game doesn't really explore this story conceit with any of the other bosses; you simply get the impression from those guys that they were big and mean to begin with, hence why Bowser gave them all Power Stars to look after. It feels like an aborted story arc, if anything. The second thing that's odd about Wiggler is that he's created from multiple yellow-brown spheres, rather than a 2D sprite, which makes one wonder why they couldn't do the same for the Pokeys in Shifting Sand Land. Pokey's really just a vertical Wiggler if you think about it...

100-Coin Challenge: The 100-Coin Challenge of this course initially seems insurmountable, as the player has to cross the various precarious gorges and pits across both Tiny Island and Huge Island (as well as explore that difficult red coin cave again) in order to reach the needed number of coins. Really, though, there's a few hidden tricks that the player will have to be fortunate to discover that'll make this Star way easier. The player doesn't even have to visit Tiny Island if they play their cards right: if they ground-pound the large goombas (and there are many), they'll earn a blue coin every time. Add this to the blue coin from the beach Koopa, the five from the Lakitu, another secret ten coins from running around the two wooden posts in this course and the thirty-six coins from the red coin cave (including the blue coin switch and the five coins leading to the cave), the player can hit the goal target fairly quickly without endangering Mario too much. It makes me wonder if the designers didn't think of some last-minute ways to make this challenge easier without being it too obvious about it, like a blue coin block that spits out a dozen blue coins.

And with that we're done with the intermediate floor of the castle, with only the top floor left to conquer. I'm going to try to squeeze in the remaining three bonus Stars, the last two courses and the final encounter with Bowser in the next update to finish this series off. It's been quite the stroll down memory lane though, and I'll be sad to see it end. Maybe I can start another similar series with Banjo-Kazooie down the line? Possibly closer to the release of Yooka-Laylee? Getting waaaay ahead of myself.


Mento's May Mastery: Day 16: Stick It To the Man!

It's the weekend, which means I get to hit the backlog even harder for the next couple of days. It's a good thing that writing a thousand word blog every day doesn't ever feel like work.

It's weird, but I feel like that IGA Kickstarter completely stole the thunder of Yooka-Laylee. I'm aware that the latter has nothing to worry about, having hit all its stretch goals and then some (though I'm hoping they still hit that $2mil so I can get some free DLC out of it), but both are based on games released on two dates within very close proximity. While the new IGA game is far more reminiscent of Order of Ecclesia, what with its tattooed enigmatic heroine, the ludicrous promotional push for the project seems to be focusing on the 1997 game-changer that was Symphony of the Night; IGA's first Castlevania game and the SpaceWhipper model for those to follow. Banjo-Kazooie, Yooka-Laylee's more than overt inspiration, was released the following year of 1998. It's entirely coincidental that the two projects should happen this close together, given the amount of planning needed for such elaborate Kickstarter campaigns and how both projects were underway long before the crowd-sourcing even began, but it does present an interesting pattern with recent nostalgia-driven Kickstarters: I recently played Pillars of Eternity, which was inspired by a game engine that was first seen in 1998's Baldur's Gate, and am presently looking forward to a spiritual sequel to 1999's Planescape: Torment. (Plus, Tim Schafer last made an adventure game in 1998 with Grim Fandango before Broken Age happened, which is what Broken Age's KS used to suggest what a new Double Fine adventure game might be like. I mean, if we're going to shoehorn in a link to every big video game KS to this dumb little observation anyway...) I'm starting to wonder if there isn't something wistful about that specific period that's conducive to Kickstarter projects.

Eh, probably just overthinking it. It was a great few years for games, and the kids who grew up with those formative titles now have the disposable income to make reboots and re-imaginings happen. I guess what I'm really curious about is what game from 1997-99 is next to get a Kickstarter reboot/spiritual successor. (Probably something inspired by 1998's Metal Gear Solid, if Kojima has any plans beyond twiddling his thumbs until MGS5 is out.)

Stick It to the Man

I was initially drawn to Zoink!'s Stick It to the Man after seeing it on Giant Bomb where it was made out to be some kind of combination of Psychonauts and Paper Mario. Lovable dimwit Ray ends a terrible day with a giant clonk on his head, unleashing heretofore unknown psychic powers that manifests as a gigantic pink spaghetti arm poking out of his head. The hand can use telepathy, reading the minds of NPCs and seeing their true heart's desires, and is also able to physically propel Ray towards grapple points in the environment and can collect objects both corporeal and abstract. The game has a sketchbook aesthetic, so these grapple points are push-pins and the player is often tearing away a leaf of paper to reveal the contents of a building, or are snatching stickers from people's thoughts for some adventure game style puzzles. It's quite a bizarre game to explain in words, which is why I'm not particularly pleased that Giant Bomb never bothered to Quick Look it; the Giant Bomb video of it I saw was part of an episode of Unprofessional Fridays, which won't help anyone here who doesn't already have a membership.

Sorry to drop yet another comparison to a different video game, but I swear that this one has a little more relevance: Airtight's Murdered: Soul Suspect. Both are supernatural-themed games, both deal with solving adventure game puzzles via unusual circumstances and both are what I would consider to be merely average. What's more, this averageness is due to one shared facet: superfluous stealth action sequences. If I'm invested in an adventure game, it's because of its puzzles and its story, which also includes narrative elements like a good script and well-developed characters. Both games clearly focused on these components and did them well, so they didn't need to listen to the jerk at the back of the room yelling, "Hey, I'm bored as hell with the witty writing and puzzles and character moments, where are the forced stealth sequences to jazz things up?".

So yeah, Stick It to the Man, despite having a brilliant - if only occasionally laugh-at-loud hilarious - comedic script (penned by Ryan North, better known by the internet for his erudite clipart dinosaur wrangling), some neat ideas for puzzles and a striking art design of flappy-jawed grotesques in an eerie, sinister world of loose leaf walls and cardboard cutouts, felt the need to every so often force the player to run and jump past a bunch of guards, evading their line of sight and using the grapple pins to out-maneuver them once they're on your tail. Like in Murdered, the first time it happens it's a neat little diversion to shake up the standard graphic adventure game trappings and adds an element of suspense and danger to the gameplay. After the fifth or sixth instance, it had lost its novelty and simply became a tiresome chore to deal with before the next part of the story could be reached. Even so, the sad fact is that without these sequences the game is almost as paper-thin as its environments. The puzzles don't take a whole lot of sussing out, given that the game helpfully points out every relevant hotspot and NPC with a pink question mark on its map, which narrows down where to go next to perhaps the point of redundancy. There's a few optional sidequests that mostly lead to cute story moments and more jokes, and an ongoing collectible sidequest to read the minds of every NPC in the game (the game will log this statistic on the chapter select screen, in case you miss a few somewhere), but the game's chiefly concerned with a handful of brief scenarios with an amusing script that's interrupted with obnoxious action sequences every few minutes. If that still sounds like your kind of gaming experience, by all means check it out.

That's one heck of a pull, game. I don't think I've even touched that wiki page yet.

Also, the game makes heavy use of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition's "I Just Checked In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)", i.e. that one song from the dream sequence in The Big Lebowski, and I'm really wondering how many more references we need to that movie. It's not like Stick It to the Man's light on dream sequences either; they take up approximately half the game. I'm just surprised it never asked me to find a stranger in the alps.

Wait, when did The Big Lebowski come out, again? 1998?! Oh nooooo.


Mento's May Mastery: Day 15: Bit Dungeon II

Whoa, hey there. You snuck on me. Well, to be more precise, today's May Mastery episode did. I'm getting really lackadaisical with the timing of these entries, and it didn't help that we had like five hours of livestreaming today siphoning my free time. But hey, excuses.

Instead, we'll consider what we've visited so far in May Mastery in this, its midpoint. Despite the fact I must've written twenty thousand words or more these past two weeks, May seems to be flying right by us. I think everyone's waiting with bated breath for E3 and the announcements to come. I know I'm more looking forward to the Atari ST's 30th birthday next month, which is why after this daily blog series is over I'll be jumping into another one focusing on the very first video game system I ever played. More on that towards the end of the month, lest we get ahead of ourselves.

In order to keep my contributions to the Spotlight to a sensible number this week, I'm going to briefly summarize what we've looked at this week (8th-14th) here. This way, I can avoid dropping a huge number of links on poor old ZombiePie and his excellent weekly rundown of community content:

  • Day 8 saw us visit Nifflas' NightSky, a physics-based 2D platformer from the same Swedish dev behind Knytt Underground.
  • I prodded, pushed and pulled a bunch of Victorian panels in Fireproof's The Room on Day 9, and barely made any Wiseaucracks at all.
  • Day 10 involved Last Dimension's Metroid/Treasure homage Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge for a spin around the galaxy.
  • I fell over a lot exploring the world of IonFX's Miasmata on Day 11 while an antlered panther let me live, presumably out of pure pity for my diseased and uncoordinated pratfalls.
  • Day 12 and Day 13 was a two-parter for Botanicula, Amanita Design's (present) latest game. It's every bit as delightful as their previous, Machinarium, though considerably more... organic?
  • Day 14 explored the second Shantae game from WayForward, Risky's Revenge, which is presently selling for peanuts on Steam. Its sequel, Pirate's Curse, will be the next Shantae I'll look at. Some day, anyway.

So there you have it: the previous week explored six games and finished four of them. I'm hoping to keep that momentum going for the second half of this feature, but then I'm also eager to fit more games in that space of time. Talking of more games...

Bit Dungeon II

The original plan here was to start one of my longer games that I'm eager to see through, but I found myself short of time with today's livestream-mania. Instead, I decided to take a gander at one of a whole bunch of unusual pixel-style dungeon-crawlers which may or may not have roguelike elements. That's certainly the case with Bit Dungeon II, which I randomly selected over thematically and visually similar games such as Hammerwatch, Deep Dungeons of Doom, Legend of Dungeon and the (slightly less pixelly) Nightmare Cooperative - any or all of which might still appear in this feature further down the line.

From what I ascertained from about an hour with this game: you start off as a formless blob humanoid and must find equipment from the foes you chop down and treasure chests you find. Combat's both automatic and player-driven - close proximity causes minimal damage back and forth between enemies and the player, while the player can hit the action key to perform stronger attacks that drains their stamina gauge, which will refill quickly. The items you wear (and the occasional power-ups you choose) determine the playstyle you're going for; so rather than start by selecting a character class, the "clothes make the man" in this particular case. Stronger gear pops out of monsters all the time, and it's a simple case of choosing to switch to the new piece or sticking with your old (its stats pop up to make comparisons easier) depending on which better enhances your present character's build. If you grabbed a magic staff early on, you'll want Intelligence-boosting gear to increase its damage output, for instance. Likewise, the formless blue blob human starts to resemble an actual person as they pick up more pieces of armor, which all appear on the character sprite. Your character also levels up, earning stats apparently contingent on what you've been using in battle, so the game has a very fluid approach to character building. That said, it's not particularly deep either with regards to unlockable skills and the like (I didn't find any), and it seems like you're better off focusing on one sort of build (strength, dex, intelligence) rather than diversifying too much. At least, that's what I've picked up so far.

I don't even know what this is. It doesn't seem to get on well with samurais, at any rate.

The game provides you with an "extra life" initially: it appears to be the soul of a woman who wants you to take her remains somewhere, but in-game it acts as a safety net. Dying once causes you to leave this additional soul/life where your body lies, so there's a Dark Souls-ian element in trying to make your way back to where you fell without dying again. Rather than losing a bunch of currency, though, your character permanently dies and the game must be started over.

From exploring, it seems a lot of the game involves finding Zelda-like dungeons, finding a way to the boss and defeating them to unlock one part in presumably a longer chain that I'm guessing leads to some final confrontation. The overworld and (possibly) these dungeons are all procedurally generated with each new game, and the penalty for dying in a dungeon is more severe due to how tricky it is to get all the way back there in one piece. Fortunately, you don't lose any levels or equipment after dying (that initial time, anyway), so if you're powerful enough you can simply wade through enemies back to your downed form. The game could use a map function, really, unless I just missed the key for it which they don't mention anywhere on the pause screen with the rest of the controls.

The game has a lot of interesting ideas, many of which seem to be purloined from Dark Souls, Diablo and contemporary top-down Indie action-RPG roguelites, and it sort of works. However, I've found these games to be a lot more engrossing when some shared aspect of the prior playthroughs is carried over: whether that be permanent upgrades that apply to every subsequent game, like in Rogue Legacy, or maybe those dungeon bosses stay dead (I didn't go back to check), I'd be more inclined to stick with it. As it is, it seems rather conditional on getting a good run, and then playing through a bunch of procedurally generated dungeons one after the other for hours hoping you don't mess up or get dogpiled by the dozens of weirdo enemies the game generates in every room. At least the game's not too difficult if you're smart/lucky enough to find a ranged weapon, and being overly difficult tends to be another recurring element to these roguelites that usually puts me off.

Dungeons have switches, puzzles and keys, though I'm not sure how much of it is procedurally generated or if the game just generates the dungeons from a bunch of possible pre-built variations.

If you randomly bought Bit Dungeon II in the same bundle as I did (it's also presently in the new Weekly Humble Bundle as of writing) it might be worth a look. The combat and RPG elements feel a little too rudimentary to be a big recommend though (and I imagine people are getting a little bored by the Indie pixel look by now as well).

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 14: Shantae: Risky's Revenge

As I can't seem to stop creating new things this month, I'm in the process of creating a list of 3D platformers I've played in the past. I'm hoping to keep adding to it between now and Yooka-Laylee's release, because I'll be darned if it hasn't relit a fire inside me. I friggin' love that genre, for all its vast amount of risible licensed crap and scavenger hunting. Of course, I'm finding it fairly tough to distinguish the "proper" 3D platformers from closely-related sub-genres like open-world games and character action games. Mostly, I've been going by Wikipedia's list of 3D platformers in lieu of anything more authoritative (why is Uncharted on there?).

Anyway, let's scale back one dimension and talk about today's May Mastery game instead. I already broke the seal yesterday by getting a few hours in and discussing them, as I knew this one might take me a while. After all, it's the bigger and better sequel to a game released on a physical cart. Though, in retrospect, I wonder if that really means anything with regard to the volume of a game's content.

Shantae: Risky's Revenge

Actually, I may have overestimated the size of Shantae: Risky's Revenge last time. That's not to say it's too short; far from it. It feels exactly as long as it ought to be, and that's generally not an easy feat with games in the SpaceWhipper genre; because they tend to straddle the line between an action/platformer game and an RPG, the latter genre will demand longer runtimes to properly frame its incremental character progression than the former can reliably deliver while still maintaining a satisfactory player engagement level. My final playtime for Shantae: Risky's Revenge clocked in at five hours, and with three dungeons to explore in total (though one is really just a timed arena/challenge tower) and a lot of power-ups and treasures to find across the landscape once the right abilities had been unlocked there was plenty of content to keep me occupied. Still, five hours with 100% items on the first playthrough might sound a bit too short for some people. I dunno. It's one of the more subjective aspects of games to accurately critique. I'll fall back to what I said earlier about it being as long as it needed to be and just leave it at that.

As I predicted last time, Shantae eventually finds transformations that expand her exploratory repertoire. Her traversal skills, as it were. She can shift from a monkey (excellent climber), elephant (destroys rocks) and a mermaid (can swim underwater). Each form also has an additional power-up, expanding their utility: the monkey can now rocket across the screen from a wall; the elephant can stomp and create shockwaves, destroying nearby blocks and enemies; and the mermaid can shoot bubbles, which destroys certain blockades and leads into the game's gratuitous shoot 'em up sequence. The issue with these transformations is that Shantae needs to perform a belly dance to make it happen, and the length the dance determines which animal she turns into. This means that if you want to use the last transformation (the mermaid), you have to keep her dancing for several seconds before releasing the button, and it can become a little tiresome when you're frequently jumping in and out of the water while exploring.

The game can be a little front-heavy with the... front-heavies.

But hey, talking of gratuitousness. I'm not sure why WayForward felt the need to exaggerate every female character's chest, especially when most of the game's sprites are working with something close to a 100x100 pixel window and finer detail is a precious commodity. It was... well, distracting is probably too Freudian a word for it, but it didn't seem particularly necessary? The character design is otherwise wonderful though, yet it was odd how the game went from its pixel-focused art design to hand-drawn cartoon portraits for cutscenes. From what I understand about games that use the pixel medium for its artwork is that it the medium often needs to be universal, because the idea is to suggest that the game is only available on a specific older platform and has to stick within certain limitations. (If you want a movie example, it'd be like watching a black and white movie - one that's a deliberate throwback, like The Artist - and have it suddenly randomly become colorful for a couple of scenes without it becoming a plot point like in Pleasantville.) At least, that was my interpretation before reading this screed from an artist previously dedicated to the pixel format who unfortunately feels that they must throw in the blocky towel, and goes into why artists choose to use pixels irrespective of any attempt to be "retro". This art juxtaposition is probably just overreacting on my part: the graphics that use limited pixel counts and the graphics that don't both look fine.

The music's great too. I mentioned that last time, right? Bears repeating. The vast majority of the game's music sticks to the game's Arabian theme and has sort of a bellydancer/snake-charmer feel to it, but each individual track also mixes things up by layering in something more thematic to the present stage and/or situation. So a more exciting encounter like a boss fight might employ yet another vaguely Arabian theme but also includes a higher tempo, louder instruments and a frantic edge to the proceedings. Jake Kaufman seems to do his best work when given a theme to work around; like "cheesy 1980s" for Double Dragon Neon. Compare this with the equally excellent but differently so Danny Baranowsky who just seems to create an endless amount of consistently great music that doesn't really have much in the way of thematic connections to whatever project he's working on. Just listen to the Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac and Crypt of the NecroDancer soundtracks all shuffled together and you'll recognize his signature style but be hard pressed to connect each track to its respective game, unless you're intimately familiar with two or more of them. Not a criticism, but simply an indicator of how the two musicians approach their material differently.


Anyway, I now feel suitably versed in the Shantae series to stick with it. Next up is Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, which only recently hit Steam. I'll probably hold out for a sale or something, as I'm sufficiently Shantae'd out for the time being.


Mento's May Mastery: Day 13: Botanicula

Hey there. I'm glad to report we've got another completed game on the docket, so I'm already feeling pretty good about May Madness this year. The intro got a little too waffle-y last time (and I sort of ran through a whole three day's worth of notifications) so maybe I'll just curtail this one.

I will say that I'm planning on writing a list on 3D platformers I've played, possibly with some kind of "collectible-o-meter" to distinguish the more scavenger hunt-y ones. That genre's due for a comeback, so I'd like to ensure I have all the touchstones accounted for. I'm sure I'm missing a handful, and it's going to be fun distinguishing "3D platformer" from "character action game" and "open-world game" and "whatever the hell Metroid Prime is". I'll be crossing that series of floating platforms when I come to it, I suppose.

Actually, this will be a short update all round, because I finished Botanicula in about an hour after finishing up yesterday. See what I mean about having no idea when you're close to the conclusion of one of these games? That's probably for the best though; since when does any game with a few surprises under its hat ever let on its exact length?

With that being the case, let's consider today a twofer: I'm only going to be talking a little about two games today, because there's hardly anything left to say about Botanicula and I've only got an hour's progress into my next game.


My stance on Botanicula hasn't changed since yesterday, nor has it rocked the foundations of my appreciation of Amanita Design. The last couple sections of the game get pretty spooky, but it's still full of that experimental whimsy and wonderful art/sound design that all these games have exhibited so far. I guess the Nifflas connection runs deeper than simply putting out Indie games that inevitably find their way into my purview: both make heavy emphasis on atmosphere, which is slightly harder to pull off than simply having good graphics and music.

Even though Botanicula is such a mechanically contextual game, in the sense that the player can only ever click things and the effects are almost always different every time, there are a few recurring deeper mechanics than simply clicking on objects until some useful item appears. These include puzzles as sophisticated as combination puzzles: hitting one object to start it moving and then hitting others with precise timing to interact with the first. It doesn't sound super complicated, but puzzles like these are notoriously difficult to get right. It's why most adventure games don't bother, feeling that a puzzle that requires such precise timing will end up being frustrating to those players without the reflexes to manage them.

It's for these reasons that Botanicula, and by extension other Amanita Design games, remind me of two very specific adventure game series: The Monty Python PC games and Coktel Vision's Gobliiins.

The Monty Python games are built around the idea of point and click adventure games as a delivery method for humor, but rather than take the LucasFilm approach of still sticking to parsers and action buttons, it relies almost entirely on the player randomly clicking on items on the screen. Occasionally this will result in an item the player can take with them, to remove some pressing obstacle that separates them from the rest of the game. Most of the time, however, something amusing or dumb (or both) will occur and contribute nothing to the player's ultimate goal. Often, the actual reasons for collecting items is never clear, and it's very possible to miss finer details if neglect to hit the same hotspot multiple times. They're built to be puzzle games as much as they are built to be complete wastes of time (which is literally the name of one of them).

The Gobliins games meanwhile are built around cooperative puzzles. Each game gives you a different number of goblins - creatures with little in common physically except being smaller than almost everyone else - and a number of screens for each of the game's "stages". Often, the solution is to use the right goblin on the right hotspot, as using the wrong goblin will usually lead to a goofy non-sequitur that aids no-one. Frequently, though, you'll have to use multiple goblins in tandem to complete a puzzle; distracting a guard with one so you can rob him of his keys with the other, for instance. It requires some timing, some preparation and some ingenuity, but these puzzles tend to be the most rewarding. And, like Amanita Design's games, there's no dialogue to be seen except when it's vitally important (or stuck in the menu UI). Creatures just murmur instead, and occasionally provide a speech bubble rebus of what it is they want.

I just call this room "in-joke central".

Both those series were staples of mine growing up, so that's why I think I'm drawn to Amanita Design's output, beyond their aforementioned wonderful art and sound design. Botanicula's certainly another one of those games they make, for better or worse. Mostly better.

(I am still slightly unhappy that I wasn't able to complete my bestiary, and that the game provided no way to revisit prior scenarios to go hunting for them. All it provides is a restart game button, and that also resets the bestiary's progress. A bummer, but perhaps it's for the best that I can walk away from this particular collectibles marathon than let it take up hours of my time. Most collectibles tend to do that.)

Shantae: Risky's Revenge

I have zero prior experience with the Shantae series, beyond cheering her on whenever she appears on WVGCW (she's one of the major faces on that network right now. Wrasslin' talk. It's inescapable on this damn site, huh?). I heard through the grapevine that her games are vaguely SpaceWhipper-ish - in this case, she's whipping her hair, possibly back and forth - so I've been eager to get into them. That's also predicated on the fact that a new game in the series recently came out (Pirate's Curse, for 3DS/Wii U) and another is on the way (Half-Genie Hero, apparently coming to everything) so the time is ripe for me to get in on the ground floor with this series.

Except... well, I say that, but Risky's Revenge is actually the second game. The SpaceWhipper elements are more pronounced in this one and there's a bunch of other extras, so maybe I'm not missing anything by jumping ahead like this. There's also the small matter that the original Shantae's not available on Steam presently, though it sounds like Half-Genie Hero will be. It wouldn't be the first series I've only done alternating games with.

First shot of the game and it already looks amazing. That's WayForward and their pixel art for you.

As for the game itself, it's your standard 2D side-scrolling platformer with hidden stuff and items you can't reach yet because you need some kind of upgrade from further into the game. Yeah, those SpaceWhipper elements I talked about. Shantae can collect money and buy new items and magic, and it looks like she'll be able to change shape later on, and tossing spells at monsters seems to be safer than getting close enough to hit them with her hair. It's not so challenging that ranged attacks are necessary quite yet either. I'm finding warp pillars (which is good), struggling with an inconvenient map system (which is bad) and am otherwise having a fine time with it so far, even though I haven't done much or faced much in the way of a challenge. At least it sounds great, and would probably look great if I could find a way to play it in a smaller window where the DSi standard resolution of the original won't be quite so blown up. No clue how long the game will take overall, but I'll keep you all posted.

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