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(Disclaimer the first: I apologize for the title. This blog was originally entitled "Indie Metroidvanias" but something about that combination of annoyingly prevalent video gaming-derived neologisms must have set off something deep in the ol' psyche and caused me to go fugue for a moment. Just so we're all copacetic: we're only expounding on the first two words in that list.)

(Disclaimer the second: In an effort to curb the further proliferation of a term no-one seems to like but everyone instantly comprehends, I'll be calling this type of exploratory platformer action game "SpaceWhippers" going forward, regardless of whether or not it actually has whips or is set in space. It's equally stupid terminology, if not more so, but since it has yet to take off to the same omnipresent extent it should therefore be easier for us all to cope with. You all brought this on yourselves by complaining about the term in discussion. You made this happen.)

Ah, Metroid. Why the hell wasn't this on NES Remix? I still submit that it was a fine game, but its exclusion of Metroid remains a sore point.

Indie SpaceWhippers are perhaps the most prolific genre of Indie games after the more puzzley-oriented platformers like Braid or The Swapper, and those strategy types where you defend places with towers in a tower defense-y sort of way. The reason for this is fairly self-evident, and is also the reason why there's so many Indie horror games bumping around (in the night): major studios no longer give a shit about them, but it's clear that a huge audience of us still do. You'd be hard-pressed to find any game with this specific make-up from any larger studio made within, say, the past five years. I mean, we had that Order of Ecclesia DS Castlevania, and Shadow Complex had a bunch of people behind it, but for those jonesing for a big map of collectibles and power-ups behind arbitrary barriers that can only be destroyed long after you first come across them, the Indie market was pretty much the only place to go. And the Indie market was in turn, as always, eager to please (as long as it's a 2D platformer if you wouldn't mind, because those are relatively easy to put together).

I love SpaceWhippers. Can't get enough of 'em. However, they're deceptively difficult games to get right: there's a lot of hidden design rules that need to be obeyed, more so than perhaps in most other genres due to how specific the SpaceWhipper formula can be. I wrote a little while back that the actual specifications of a SpaceWhipper (I might have referred to it by its inferior former name at the time) could do with being a bit more broader for the sake of accessibility, but there's still a huge number of considerations that need to be properly addressed before a game of this type can really start to coalesce into something respectable. Most of these involve what you can and can't do within the formula, and that's where a few of these Indie games can trip over their own feet in their enthusiasm for the format. At the same time, it's in bucking these laws that many Indie SpaceWhippers can break the mold in some really exciting ways.

I miss these 2D Castlevanias. You know, back when Castlevania was good instead of a joke involving the calling of Zobek.

I'll be covering this and a few other Indie SpaceWhipper games in more detail below, but Valdis Story: Abyssal City - which I completed this week - was one example where the studio behind it had clearly played a fair number of games in this genre, but still made broke quite a few unwritten rules of the format. They trapped collectibles in an area which permanently seals itself off after you've done what you needed to in there (not much of a spoiler, but there was a load-bearing boss down there). They weren't as transparent about completion % as they perhaps could be. The transportation system was very limited, which meant a lot more tiresome backtracking through whole areas. There was no way to either label or have the game automatically label areas in which a power-up was necessary to grab an item or open the way to a new area. Valdis was also rife with typos and the like too, so there was a certain feeling of carelessness to the whole package which did it no favors. It's a fairly solid SpaceWhipper in the Dust: An Elysian Tail or Guacamelee model of combo-heavy combat and minimal platforming mold, but quibbles like these are the sort of things that build up and persist in one's memory long after the game is over. No SpaceWhipper - even the big AAA developer studio ones - is entirely perfect, but there's a lot of smart tricks that Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night pulled off which most inexperienced game designers might simply overlook, and that's even more often the case when a project only has one or two designers on the team in the first place.

Still, though, as critical as I am about some of these smaller SpaceWhippers, it's a little renaissance that I'm quite thankful exists. As long as its clear that I only want games of this format to improve going forward, I don't think this blog will come off as too negative. If nothing else, most of these games at least look and sound really damn fantastic.

Cave Story (2004-12-20)

Cave Story's really only partly inspired by SpaceWhippers; it takes a few elements from the genre and then goes off the beaten path just a little. While it does have power-ups and stat boosts ensconced in the landscape and places to visit and revisit, the game's mostly a linear affair that has you teleporting off to consecutive areas to follow an ongoing story arc.

Cave Story is particularly memorable for three reasons:

  • The first and most evident is how the weapons in the game work: the first thing the player does is steal a gun from a sleepy old man in order to defend himself, and it's little more than a pea-shooter. By killing enemies and avoiding damage, the gun steadily grows more powerful. In a sense, the game rewards you for keeping out of the way of enemies but doesn't punish you too severely in turn for failing to do so, as you take minimal damage (which can be quickly restored) but are momentarily weaker until you climb back up that upgrade ladder. It's a great little system and perhaps the most notable innovation (well, in this context at least, as something similar has been in shmups since forever) that the game brings to the table.
  • The game was originally in Japanese and the developer had no intention of getting it localized or released in Western territories, or rather if he did it was slightly beyond the scope of a small Doujin game developer making a fun little SpaceWhipper shooter about rabbits and robots. However, its quality inspired quite a few fan translators, like Aeon Genesis, to create a translation patch so people could follow its quite elaborate story. Importantly, though, the translation allowed for the third memorable aspect...
  • The game's considerable number of secrets. All good SpaceWhippers have secrets of course, but in Cave Story's case they all relate to story twists and other in-game events. There are characters that can be saved with a little extra work, for instance, as well as regions and new abilities that can be found if the player's a little attentive to sub-textual clues and NPC hints, or is just the type to probe anything suspicious for the sake of discovery. The game's entirely playable if you don't understand a word, but to get the most out of it you sort of need to understand what's going on in the world around you. In that respect, it's not unlike a certain other mysterious pixel-based game I'll feature a little bit later in this blog.

I overall didn't like Cave Story too much, perhaps because I felt cheated by the number of bridges I was burning without realizing it (I'm sorry, Curly Brace. If only I'd known). It's still a neat game and if you're not too bothered about having a graphically updated version (which doesn't add a whole lot), you can find it for free on the internet easily enough.

An Untitled Story (2007-08-26)

This is the only image we have on the site for this game, for whatever reason. It's representative enough, at least.

Another trailblazer in what would become a valid market (read: Indie developers will actually start to get their stuff sold on Steam and other places), An Untitled Story is a very rough looking SpaceWhipper from one Matt Thorsen, who is himself something of a prolific name in the pre-big Indie renaissance era and beyond. He created the simple yet fun Jumper series, one of many games name-checked by Super Meat Boy via an unlockable character, and the intensely tricky platformer MoneySeize, which might well have been Thorsen returning the favor to Team Meat. Most recently, Thorsen made the Ouya hit (which aren't two words you often see together thus far into the system's tenure) TowerFall - one of a wave of really cool local multiplayer games we've been seeing of late. Along similar lines, I kind of want the Giant Bomb crew to check out something called Starwhal for the next UPF, but I'm digressing really hard right now you guys.

Back to An Untitled Story. Like Cave Story, it's completely free on its developer's site, and while it's graphically not the most intense visual experience you'll ever sigh in wonder at, it ticks off all the correct boxes for a SpaceWhipper: There's power-ups to collect in out-of-the-way places, you explore more of the map as you grow stronger and earn new abilities and there's a giant map with many interconnected regions to go explore once you feel like you can survive them. Thorsen definitely did his homework, though I have to say it's probably the hardest game on this list to complete. I'm not sure I ever reached its conclusion.

Aquaria (2007-12-07)

Aquaria perhaps set the template for the Indie SpaceWhipper, in how it has some glorious art and sound design but the actual core tenets of the genre are understandably a little bit diminished due to the smaller development team. That development team does include Derek Yu, however, he of the compelling yet entirely unfair Spelunky. Aquaria doesn't quite share the challenge level of her little brother, but it's still got an array of tough boss fights and clever little touches that it takes a while to discover.

The most notable thing about Aquaria is that it's a SpaceWhipper that lacks platforming of any kind. As with another entry on this list (the one about maddeningly entangled dark globes, up next) the protagonist is free-floating throughout the entire game. This doesn't eliminate instances where you have to make your way through rooms filled with traps and obstacles, or most of the other challenges often posed by platformer games, but it does mean that you don't have to worry about gravity nearly as much.

Aquaria's also impressively big, given its small team. While the whole "barriers and power-ups" dynamic is a little threadbare, the game makes up for it with its oodles of aquatic beauty and a really intriguing plot about a forgotten Cthulhu-esque deity at the bottom of the ocean and its influence on the annihilation of innumerable underwater civilizations, most of which left ruins behind for the protagonist Naija to stumble across. A good SpaceWhipper needs a good mystery behind it to spur the exploration, and Aquaria is no slouch in that regard.

Outland (2011-04-27)

I'm sure there were more SpaceWhippers from the Indie community between 2007 and 2011, but I'll be darned if I can recall any. Maybe they took a break to collect themselves, possibly across a wide area with a variety of power-ups, because they would come back in force and then some over the next couple of years. If you haven't noticed yet, each one of these Indie SpaceWhippers tries to add their own twist to the Metroid blueprint. In XBLA/PSN hit Outland's case, we have a polarity-switching gimmick akin to Treasure's Ikaruga, where switching one's color from orange to blue and vice versa allows you to damage certain enemies or progress through similarly-colored barriers. Often these switches require split second timing, and so Outland is a curious amalgamation of a SpaceWhipper and a bullet hell shooter. It's not quite as severe as most bullet hell games, but Outland isn't shy about throwing out waves of enemy projectiles to weave yourself through. Its inspirations are apparent, but it's ultimately a unique combination of genres.

It probably doesn't deserve to work as well as it does. Rather than a deeper emphasis on combat, the game derives its challenging encounters from the player's ability to switch their color palette on the fly, and many of the game's more difficult instances come from getting to grips on the necessary timing. It's still also every bit a classic SpaceWhipper, with open-ended areas to explore once the requisite yadda yadda yadda. You've heard me explain what goes into a SpaceWhipper often enough now, so take it as read that Outland follows most of the basic rules for one. Or take it as orange. Or blue.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (2011-08-03)

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet isn't perhaps the Indiest of Indie SpaceWhippers, since it apparently took two whole development studios to put together, but its Henry Selick-esque sci-fi shoot 'em up has an eclectic mix of genres that provide something that, like many games on this list, wasn't something you saw a whole lot full stop, let alone from major studios and publishers who are generally already too scared of their own shadow planets to make something this eccentric.

ITSP bucks the SpaceWhipper trend in many meaningful ways but is still the same genre deep down: paths are blocked until the necessary power-up is found, room-based instances of enemies or puzzles need to be cleared before more areas become accessible and you grow stronger by poking around every nook and cranny for upgrades. Sure, you float around and shoot stuff in your dinky UFO, but it felt like the setting of this game was your oyster the moment you were dumped into it. A dark and foreboding oyster, perhaps, but one that compelled you to dig deeper into its secrets.

I guess I can't really move on without talking about the Lantern Run either. While a considerable departure from the measured pace of the main game, the Lantern Run offered something akin to a multiplayer co-op version of the self-destruct escape that usually punctuates any of Samus's adventures like a big exclamation point. Girlfriend can't help but blow up any planet or space station she happens upon, whether it was an inadvertent happenstance or deliberate sabotage. The Lantern Run has become infamous on Giant Bomb for many reasons, largely because we frequently saw everyone involved in the multiple failed attempts at their most raw (and let's not fill the comments discussing that one particular unfortunate instance. I am a mod now, please recall).

Unepic (2011-09-30)

Unepic's humor is atrocious. You might wonder why I would lead my discussion of this SpaceWhipper with a scarcely relevant knock against its comedy, but it's really the first thing that hits you when playing the game. It has some of the worst referential humor and gross comedic sexual politics of any interactive product I've played this side of a Postal game. It's a shame, because it serves to overshadow many of the game's finer qualities.

Those finer qualities tend to include how impressively expansive the game is, and how each screen is comprised of multiple corridors filled with traps and monsters and treasures. It feels like a colossally-scaled dungeoncrawl adventure, almost like a 2D platformer version of a roguelike (an actual one, like NetHack) in which there's crafting, spell management, armor and weapons, leveling and skills, vendors to purchase some or all of the above from and plenty of disparate locations within the castle to explore. It's a game packed to the gills with features and content, and there's plenty to explore and backtrack to as you grow more powerful.

However, the game sort of peters out like a damp squib towards the end. The final "boss" is a juxtaposition of a speedrun through a tricky forest stage while simultaneously holding off an invasion using summoned creatures in a manner not unlike the tower defense that I despise so much - the goal being to juggle the two modes, making progress through the first while ensuring that you don't lose control in the latter. The worst part is that there's nothing to prepare you for any of this, beyond making sure you're as overpowered as possible by fully exploring the rest of the game for the best gear and spells. No strategy elements existed up until this point, and because this is the final obstacle of the game it's also the most difficult sequence of the game. Were there a bit more a build-up, say with a few similar instances, I might even say it was possible to do without frustrating oneself to the point of quitting. Figures that a game with a bad first impression would end on a similarly sour note.

Fez (2012-04-13)

Polytron's pixelly SpaceWhipper is something of a wolf in sheep's clothing. Fez is ostensibly a collect-a-thon, with the be-hatted protagonist Gomez running around collecting golden cubes via his ability to shift his perspective of the world around him by 90 degrees. Twisting what seems to be a 2D map around on its axis leads to all sorts of discoveries, and in some ways feels like the next logical step after Paper Mario's various methods on turning a 2D platformer made in a 3D era on its head. Or at least around its head. You know what I mean.

Obviously, or perhaps unobviously, Fez isn't all it appears to be on the surface. Hell, you learn this quickly enough by shifting Gomez's village around and seeing what lurks on the previously hidden sides. Fez's true depth as a game filled with hidden cryptograms and nebulously defined mechanics come to the fore once the discovery of the first "anti-cube" is made. From there, the player either continues hunting for the golden cubes - which is rarely as difficult as finding a new area and exploring it thoroughly - or going hunting for these elusive darker cubes, understanding the tricks to coaxing them out from their hidey holes via hitting some combination of directions hinted at by an ideogram or some other meta-puzzle. It's not uncommon, from what I've both heard and experienced first-hand, to end up with entire sheets of notepad paper filled with notes and observations. The effect has been diminished in the years after the game, now that full documentation on all its secrets can be found across the internet, but it's one of those cases - like a new Souls game - where being in on the ground floor does wonders for the game's appeal.

Hell, it's still great fun today. If you're a fan of games that employ logic puzzles - the type that you have to write down and think through, rather than the usual adventure game "use everything on everything else" spiel or most Indie puzzle games' insistence on moving boxes around - then Fez is worth a look into. Cut yourself off from any guides if you want to make the most out of the experience.

Dust: An Elysian Tail (2012-08-15)

Dust: An Elysian Tail was created by a single game designer - Dean Dodrill - over a number of tense years when he was struggling to make ends meet while also ensuring he had as much time as possible to work on his dream project. The amount of blood and tears put into Dust really shows, with its numerous novel features and carefully crafted presentation. The game melds a combo and juggle-rich combat system with the standard SpaceWhipper exploration, but does so in a manner where the alacrity of your character and the way he whizzes through the air is as conducive to getting through areas quickly as it is to pounding enemies in a satisfying manner. The game moves along at a pleasingly brisk pace as a result, but still has an impressive amount of content stretched across various nodes that the player can access from a world map, not unlike Order of Ecclesia or Metroid Prime 3.

I don't mean to keep harping on this game. I did rate it pretty highly on my 2012 GOTY list (spoilers: it came second), so its worth the accolades. Though it's hard to pick a singular favorite on this list of SpaceWhippers - as I've stated previously, they each feel very different due to the novel spins they introduce to the genre - I think I'd be safe in saying that Dust is my overall top preference. Don't be put off by its "furry agenda"; the game is a very solid SpaceWhipper and it really takes a playthrough of your own for the true depth of quality to become apparent. I can all but guarantee that twirling through the air and spitting out dozens of projectiles with the combination attacks never gets old.

Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit (2012-09-25)

Hell Yeah! is an odd duck, or rabbit, because it chose as its inspiration perhaps the most forgotten Metroid game of them all: that of the Game Boy sequel Return of Samus. The chief goal, rather than simply progressing through to an area's boss and procuring a new power-up (though this is definitely still a secondary concern), is to scour the area thoroughly for a series of monsters to destroy. The game's humorous introduction puts Ash, the eponymous Dead Rabbit, on something of a tear against all those who oppose him, or at least dare to embarrass him by talking smack about his rubber ducky. He's nothing short of a logomorph Laharl from Disgaea, proving his worth against the other vile creatures of the underworld through might and intimidation.

Having the focus switch from finding the boss to finding every critical target on the map changes the player's priorities to more overtly exploration-based goals. Rather than choosing to chase optional objectives by leaving the beaten path, it's now become the chief intent. New areas don't open up until Ash has slain a specific number of creatures, and because most of the game's power-ups need to be purchased there's little reason not to look everywhere for resources. It's not a system most SpaceWhippers opt to build their games around, but works in Hell Yeah's favor due to the amount of humorous content there is to be found with his many, many nemeses.

But sure, Hell Yeah! has its issues as well. The game's pretty lousy about checkpointing and I bumped into a few bugs here and there too. It gets a bit more frustrating as you head through tougher areas and need to deal with its few foibles even more frequently. Still, though, I highly recommend the game for its bizarre sense of style and humor if nothing else. You even get to put all the monsters you've killed to work on making you stronger! I can say with full impunity that Samus never thought to do that with all those dead Omega Metroids.

Knytt Underground (2012-12-18)

Knytt Underground is actually the last in a long run of Indie SpaceWhippers from Swedish developer Nifflas, though it's also his most fully fleshed-out and currently the only Knytt game on which he has put a price tag. Knytt Underground sets itself apart in two major ways: the first is the sheer size of the game. The world map is an enormous 30x48 square grid, which each of those squares being its own screen. That's 1440 screens total, for the mathematically disinclined. Of all the SpaceWhippers I've ever played, and there's a been a lot, none of them took me quite as long to complete as Knytt Underground. Not even Portrait of Ruin, with its absurd number of different painting sub-worlds combined with its already substantial main castle map.

The second notable aspect is Knytt's utter lack of combat. The game has something of a pacifistic streak in that regard, and neither you nor your fairy familiars have much in the way of defending themselves. Rather, the parts of Knytt Underground which are more overtly a video game instead set up puzzle-platforming instances where you need to use your wits, jumping ability and the game's uncommonly complex physics engine to get around elaborate traps. Most of these involve turning into a ball (which, in and of itself, isn't exactly unusual to SpaceWhippers) and using the gravity and momentum of an area to carry you past danger. Failure or death leads to being dropped off at the entrance of the area, rather than anything too permanent.

You might think with a lack of a health system or any consumables or equipment, since those would only strictly be necessary if you were fighting incrementally tougher monsters, that there wouldn't be a strong enough reason to explore a map this vast. The game is not lacking for stuff to find, though, whether they be quest items, trinkets or story-important valuables. There's definitely enough here to keep a SpaceWhipper enthusiast glued to the screen for hours. I've reviewed it in more detail here, if you need any further prompting from me to go check it out.

Guacamelee (2013-04-09)

I was fairly mixed on Guacamelee. I loved its presentational style, its whole mariachi and Lucha Libre world of vibrant colors and Mexican soul. Like Grim Fandango, it really takes those tenets and crafts an interesting (if a little generic in Guacamelee's case) adventure around them, rather than focus directly on their novelty too much. Its combat can also be quite fun, with the various moves the hero Juan (or alternate choice Tostada, if you were like me) learned doubling as both an extension of the combo and juggle heavy combat system that recalled Dust: An Elysian Tail and as a means of reaching new areas through previously indestructible barriers.

The game was also rather kind on the SpaceWhipper side of things, perhaps to the point of being overly simplistic: every barrier in the game is color-coded, and these colors are displayed on the game's map, so you would instantly know which areas were now accessible after collecting a new wrestling move and breaking your first red, blue, green or whatever colored tutorial barrier. That's not to say that the game isn't a bit sneakier with some of its other hidden treasures, but it also doesn't want you to go out of your way to make notes or remember that there was a power-up you couldn't reach and ought to come back for eventually.

Conversely, the game was very adamant that you mastered its elaborate combat as soon as possible, because the bosses steadily ramped up in difficulty and, perhaps more annoyingly, switched from cases where you could figure out the boss pattern and defeat them using what you had learned to bosses that required split-second reactions and a lot of skill. I don't mind a challenge that required pure skill - hell, I'm as much a fan of Dark Souls as anyone - but to drop a boss as insidiously tough as Javier Jaguar on a player when they'd been stumbling through the game on a gentle difficulty curve up until that point seemed a tad harsh. Some challenge inconsistency issues aside, though, Guacamelee is a wonderfully conceived SpaceWhipper with a fun combat engine and many convenient outs for players who perhaps don't appreciate too much backtracking and note-taking in their SpaceWhipper adventures. It looks and sounds great too, its dumb internet meme references notwithstanding. Hey, they included a reference to Giant Bomb, so I ain't buggin'.

Valdis Story: Abyssal City (2013-09-08)

So now we come full circle to Valdis Story. It's not a bad game by any stretch: as with Guacamelee and Dust, it's clear a lot of thought was put into its combat engine, even if it's not quite as complex in that regard as those two games. It's got plenty of RPG elements, looks and sounds great with its Skullgirls'-esque quality animation and over-the-top "anime metal" soundtrack and it certainly isn't lacking for places to see and quests to complete.

It all feels a bit too much like the development team had bitten off more than they could chew. A successful Kickstarter project, it's clear that the scope of the project grew exponentially as it surpassed its goal, and the stretch-marks can often be all too apparent. Typos and minor bugs are rife in the game, and some elements feel a little half-baked, as if the game spent a bit too long in development and rushed through quality control to appease its many backers as soon as possible. Kickstarter's often been criticized for being too kind on its project creators and in turn being insufficient in looking out for the many gullible but idealistic sponsors that want to put their money towards something that sounds far peachier than it often ends up becoming, but so rarely does one consider the extra strain even successful projects puts on developers who ask for the crowdsourcing. As more money flows in and additional stretch goals are provided to compensate, the project can become a juggernaut too big for a small team to deal with. I feel that's possibly what happened here.

Valdis Story isn't a complete write-off, of course. As I said in the first paragraph, there's many positive factors to the game which make it worthy of your time. I just hope people take its lessons to heart about how wildly successful Kickstarters can lead to unconsciously bullying developers into going above and beyond to a potentially detrimental degree. Sometimes too much is too much. Actually, I believe that's always the case. Logical statements are logical.

The End!

So that was a hell of a lot of SpaceWhippers to get through. I kept adding to the list I had as I recalled more and more of them, but this is still really only the tip of the iceberg. It's a testament to the lasting appeal of Metroid and Castlevania that even though those two series have either dried up entirely or gone in an unfortunate God of War direction, there's still so many proponents out there building and buying these games that it's almost an industry in and of itself. I can't wait to see what games like Chasm, La-Mulana 2, A.N.N.E., Axiom Verge and the Strider remake do to keep this relatively obscure sub-genre reinvigorated.

All hail the SpaceWhipper! And now you never have to read that word again. Isn't that wonderful?

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Player Choice, and the Illusion of Same

Player choice is one heck of an idea. It's also a bit ambiguous as far as fancy meta-ludology talk goes. I mean, the player really has all sorts of choices before even taking into account the game's breadth of narrative or progression options. They could even choose to stop playing, which is perhaps the sort of concern that should be at the forefront of a developer's mind before making any design decision.

Specifically, though, we're talking about the instances in games where the player is able to affect the story or their own character's development in a way solely of their choosing, preferably from multiple discrete and readily apparent options. Do they pick a mage or a fighter? If they need cash, do they help the village for a quest reward or pillage it for its valuables directly? Do they drop the nearly expended assault rifle for the less powerful SMG, or risk the chance that they'll find some ammo for the former soon enough? Ideally, games should have as many of these as possible, and be balanced in such a way that the solutions to these dilemmas have equally valid outcomes.

Balance is never an easy thing to get right, though, so sometimes a game will simply present the illusion of choice. The mage and the fighter can coalesce into the same class with the right stat management, or by using a weapon that scales with magic power or, conversely, self-buff spells which enhance the fighter's ability to take hits and lead the charge. They can both rob the village and help it, due to the NPC villagers' inattentiveness towards the status of their belongings and how they're really more concerned with the ogre stealing their children than they are with the three gold pieces they hid in a boot back in their home. And yeah, spoilers, there'll probably be another chance to grab an assault rifle later if you forsake the one you're holding now.

The following games have two things in common: I played them this week (or watched someone play them, at least) and they have an interesting approach to player choice. Specifically, they go out of their way to suggest that player choice is largely an illusion and that the course of history flows as it must. The future refuses to change, and all that.

Bioshock Infinite

Booker DeWitt, here being played by Zaeed Massani for whatever reason.

Bioshock Infinite's a new Bioshock, as made evidently clear by the reappearances of various characteristic tropes established in the first two games and their DLC side-content. There's a lighthouse, there's an enigmatic leading man, there's an innocent damsel or several in need of saving and there's an enormous and scientifically implausible utopia led astray by the socially destructive philosophies of its leader. The repressed lower classes taking down the idealistic and morally bankrupt upper classes. Fireballs and swarms of creatures summoned from one's hands. Looting food out of trashcans for minimal health gain. It's all here and accounted for. There was even an Extra Credits episode that took the game to task for being so blindly unwavering to the franchise's pre-established formula, as if the new setting would put it at risk of confusing people.

Bioshock Infinite already anticipated all this, though. It knows precisely what it's doing, adhering so closely to the existing Bioshock model. Maybe this is a narrative crutch to excuse some lazy parallel game design, but the nature of Bioshock Infinite and of Bioshock in general is inexorably linked to the idea of player choice. The game presents a plethora of options for each of its combat encounters, ranging from taking down enemies with special "magical" attacks a la vigors or plasmids, the numerous anachronistic guns, and using the hazardous environment or even their own antagonism against them, reflecting their bullets or press-ganging hostile machines to fight on your behalf. But you still need to kill all the enemies to continue. The story only proceeds once each of these encounters are dealt with, regardless of how you choose to conclude them.

Bioshock Infinite dumps you in an alternate timeline that you never actually return from. But it's not worth quibbling over the minor details, its point still stands.

Without getting into the game's ending, which is trippy no matter how you slice it, the game's central conceit is that things tend to proceed as they must and it's difficult to "break the circle". Numerous allusions to such are given throughout the game, though it's nigh impossible to comprehend their relevance the first time through. The narrative elements of fate and choice also apply to the player's experience as well, through as linear a tale as can be expected of the shooter genre. With these games, the story's often less of a concern than the gameplay after all (which I actually found kind of disappointing in many respects, but then I've never been a particular fan of FPS games in the first place and this is really neither the place nor time). Infinite's got something of a subversive, knowing edge to it and to its narrative limitations, and discovering that Ken Levine would rather work on a movie than games for a while came as no surprise given the underlying message of Bioshock Infinite: If everything's going to end up in the same place with the same people, regardless of the route it takes to get there, then why even present the illusion that the player has any say in where the story is going?

The Stanley Parable

This is me, posting a screenshot of The Stanley Parable. It's not called HD Remix any more.

The Stanley Parable is one of the most depressing games I've ever played.

Probably not a common reaction. I'll be darned if it doesn't go out of its way to either pontificate on the mundane pointlessness of life, the numerous problems that game designers must face in their craft or, most vitally for this blog, the limitations and illusions of player choice. Each successive ending that veers from the correct story, i.e. the one the narrator helpfully sets out for you to follow, leads to denigration of the player (well, specifically towards the protagonist Stanley, who is the entirely mute player cipher), endless contemplation on the nature of things and plaintive downer conclusions. I'd give you examples, but that would detract from the core of the game. Knowing one of Stanley Parable's endings before playing it would be like eliminating one of the better designed boss encounters from an action game - it's ostensibly the purpose of playing it in the first place, even if you wouldn't know that going in. It is, ultimately, the source of one's enjoyment of the game. Well, supposedly at least, because as you might've already ascertained from that opening statement I really didn't enjoy playing The Stanley Parable.

That's not to cast aspersions on the game itself, which has definitely been made with a lot of care and attention, and its vocal performance from the narrator is absolutely wonderful. It's simply a case of encountering a game that clearly wasn't right for me, that while chooses to interact with me on a comparative intellectual level does not do so with full regard to my mental state, which is generally shaky at best. So while I'm suffering through its many amusingly fatalistic interludes and diatribes on the meaninglessness of video game logic and of life in general, I stray ever closer to simply turning the game off and curling up the fetal position until I'm forced, via hunger or bathroom urgency, to resume the pathetic charade I call my existence.

Boy, I'm super cheery today. Thanks The Stanley Parable. You should all play it, especially if you felt motivated to get anything done today.

Ah, the doors. Which do you pick? Spoilers: You suck either way, and the game will tell you precisely why.

But I suppose I can spend a few more minutes here to discuss how this game pertains to the blog's central topic before I end up having a mental breakdown by giving any more thought to it. You see, the most important lesson The Stanley Parable has to impart is that player choice in video games, especially interactive fiction, is generally immaterial at best and a deceptive fallacy at worst. You can follow the game's clearly defined linear path, you can follow a different yet equally deliberate linear path to what you feel is an ending that's a better fit for your "subversive personality", or you can break it somehow and force it to start over or end abruptly absent any kind of resolution. TSP is a game in which all these considerations are anticipated and prepared for, with alternate endings for each decision made, even for the ones that would appear as if you've pulled the wool over its eyes. It's an impressive feat of covering all of one's bases, and might suggest that the original designer has spent a considerable amount of time doing game testing for a living, but what's important to note is that by doing this the game kind of inadvertently ruins all other games for you. It does this overtly in a few of its sequences, parodying a few major games and game features, but it's largely in the way it means to lift the veil over one's eyes that makes the experience nothing short of a thorough deconstruction of our favorite hobby. As a game designer, or at least someone who was one for a sufficiently long enough time to learn a thing or two, it's not like I hold any delusions as to the construction and the myriad technical hurdles concerning game development. I know how the sausage is made, so to speak. Yet it's still dispiriting to be reminded of gaming's current shortcomings, even in the lighthearted satirical manner that The Stanley Parable exhibits. Maybe that's what's bumming me out the most about all this.

You know what? I think I will assume that fetal position I was talking about earlier. I'll just leave all this in the word processor until I feel well enough to come back. See you soon, everyone.

Demon's/Dark Souls

It's us. The livestream audience. We're the dark souls. Well, us and Vinny.

Now Dark Souls is perhaps one of the least constrained games in recent memory, even compared to the many open-world games available like Skyrim or GTA V. Those games had far stricter storylines to follow, for one thing, and while Dark Souls does ask that you defeat certain bosses in a certain order to reach its end, it doesn't give you any particular guidelines for doing so. Almost to its detriment, even. So how does player choice and the illusion of same factor into From Software's gothic RPG series?

Well, in this case the player choice is illusionary simply because everyone who completes the game feels like they chose the correct path from a pool of multiple inferior ones. That the way they defeated the game is ideal; the rest all pale imitations of the "One True Path". It is an illusion, of course, because we know enough about the nature of Dark Souls (and to much the same extent its predecessor Demon's Souls) that the player is entirely free to choose whichever build and weapon and tactics suit them best and could still feasibly power through to the end regardless of the level of challenge presented. Tanking isn't for everyone, not everyone likes the weird little awkward lunges that the halberd makes nor do they necessarily appreciate the weapon's speed, not everyone's going to go fight the Moonlight Butterfly or go through the Catacombs immediately just because they happen to be accessible early in the game and people are still going to assume there are stats other than Endurance worth pouring their stat points into. And that's fine. But for some reason, so many of us have convinced ourselves of which is the better choice of equipment or the dominant strategy for a specific boss encounter based on the study of their AI and statistical weaknesses made by dozens of previous players, that we'll scream and yell, internally or externally, at those still in the midst of their journey to "play it right, goddammit".

Black phantoms usually take a more demonstrative method of proving why your current equipment load-out is insufficient.

This was never made more evident this past month than by watching the streams of Patrick Klepek, Jeff Green and Brad Shoemaker (the last of whom is playing Demon's, rather than Dark). Jeff especially, since he would often take to the Twitch chat or a NeoGAF thread on the topic in times of need. Everyone had an idea of what he ought to be doing, but so often these pro-tips would clash and contradict each other as everyone scrambled to put forward their preferred method for getting through a particular scenario. Whether Patrick was cognizant of this discordance or not, his laissez-faire approach to the game and its many advisers served him well, but a small fraction of his viewers would constantly wonder how much of the game he read up on in advance, especially when he would proceed to breeze through difficult encounters with ease. The grandest trick that Dark Souls pulls has nothing to do with its well-hidden treasures or illusionary walls, but in how it convinces players that their path, either divined by the ongoing internet groupthink or entirely of their own conception, is not only the correct one but the sole correct one. We know, deep down, this isn't true. So then why do we scream at Brad to go after the Crescent Falchion instead of attempting to fight the World 4-1 boss again?

That's enough words for today. I'm still too depressed from this morning. Good thing we have Unprofessional Fridays to look forward to later today, I could use it. Thanks for stopping by, and I'm sorry it was such a buzzkill. I'm usually so chipper I swear.

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The Comic Commish: The Previous Generation (Jul-Dec 2008)

Hello again everyone. Though I usually spend a few paragraphs setting up this feature and what it's about, I'm going to talk about how crazy all this moderator business has been. If you want the usual opening spiel, go check out one of the previous Comic Commishes.

So yeah, I was made one of the two new mods last week. I can't really talk about that process, beyond saying that the current moderators kind of decide between themselves who gets the figurative purple nurple, but now I'm zapping spambots and keeping the peace in chatrooms and such. It's cool and all, but it's probably going to end up cutting into my blogging time. I'll keep up the Commishes, of course, since I owe my friend for his generous donation but some other features might be falling to the wayside. Just a heads up, I guess.

Anyway, we're covering the second half of 2008 this time. This is also when we're entering the beginning of Giant Bomb in its current incarnation as an expansive video content/wiki website. Probably goes without saying, but feel free to click the games' links to see if Giant Bomb's Bomb Crew had anything to say about them. This is a recommendations list, after all, and those are some good second opinions.

I Spent Way Too Long On Some Of These

Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 360/PS3/PC, October '08)

Looking past its ending, and the latter third of the game where it become a 24/7 Super Mutant Jamboree, Fallout 3 was a compelling combination of the original series's post-apocalyptic, semi-satirical setting and Bethesda's trademark sprawling if broken open-world exploration. Some of the complexity of the original Infinity Engine (or close enough to IE, anyway) RPGs was diminished, as was the quality of its writing, but there's so much to see and find and shoot and craft and whatever else you want to do that you could potentially spend hundreds of hours in the wastelands surrounding the irradiated ruins of Washington DC. It also proved that Bethesda could take their big open world RPG template and create a game that was not necessarily about dragons and magic and still make it work. I've no doubt purists will be arguing the pros and cons of 3 and New Vegas against 1 and 2 until our world is eventually blown up as well, after which whatever mutated beings that are left will probably be arguing if the current world is better or worse off than Fallout's. Gotta keep your spirits up with ribald debate in the nuclear wastes, I suppose.

Infinite Undiscovery (tri-Ace, 360, September '08) (With apologies to Achewood)

Infinite Undiscovery is one of a great many seventh generation console RPGs which I only begrudgingly recommend due to my sponsor's (@omghisam, since I forgot to drop a shout out earlier) predilection towards goofy examples of that genre. Infinite's got a lot of problems, but is still a fairly decent RPG in the mold of the more recent Star Oceans (they share a developer) or perhaps a lesser Tales game. A bunch of stalwart heroes, and a considerably less courageous bard who happens to look like the leader of the heroes and is summarily drafted in as a decoy, travel around the world destroying the magical chains that are holding the moon in place and disrupting the natural order of things. Yep, another one of those realistic JRPG plots. I actually kind of like the twists and turns of Infinite's bizarre story, and the combat, crafting and character development systems are fairly good if largely forgettable. If you're a fan of really odd JRPGs and don't feel like they're represented much these days, either due to publishers balking at the idea of localizing some of Japan's crazier games or because this genre seems to have all but entirely migrated to the handheld market, then maybe check this one out. I can't imagine it's commanding a high price tag these days. (If you're wondering about the Achewood thing, click here.)

Valkyria Chronicles (Sega, PS3, October '08) (With apologies to Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall)

Valkyria Chronicles, along with Ratchet and Clank Future, was one of the first PS3 exclusives to really make me sit up and notice the system. While it is essentially a fictional anime take on World War II, Valkyria doesn't deserve such a simple and reductive descriptor. The actual means with which Valkyria presents its strategic, turn-based gameplay in a world full of armed skirmishes, cover positions and mad dashes across the field of vision of a sniper nest or gun turret embankment wouldn't work without a bit of real-time danger, so the game somehow manages to factor that in too. What it creates is this idiosyncratic combination of the strategic and the reflexive, where your every action point counts. The player can choose to keep moving the same overpowered unit with diminishing returns - the tank, for instance, costs twice as many "command points" to use, and characters have smaller movement bars each time you select them in the same turn, so it instead asks that you think tactically, using every soldier and exploiting every advantage afforded to you. The net benefit of all this is that each map mission feels like a cross between something like Fire Emblem and a Medal of Honor game. There's really nothing else out there quite like it, though that's partly Sega's fault for not bringing games very much like it (say, Valkyria Chronicles 3) over here.

Revisited

Right, so here's a new category for this Comic Commish going forward. A few years back I used to make comics regularly for the games I'd played that week, as such many of the games of the last generation have already been rendered into glorious MS Paint stickpeople stories. Obviously, it would be lazy for me to include them in the three comics I make each month for this thing, so instead I'm giving them their own separate section where I can re-upload the comic and talk about it with all the other recommendations.

This month I only have one "previously featured" game, but we'll be seeing way more for the Comic Commishes to come.

Tales of Vesperia (Tales Studio, 360, August '08)

I just had a pal of mine ask about Tales of Vesperia as it seems to be in the new XBLA sale for Gold subscribers, so this is as much for him as it is for everyone else: Vesperia's great. I would recommend it as the gateway to the Tales series, partly because it's cheaply available for 360 right now but also because it has the most relatable and down-to-earth plot of a series that's admittedly quite outrageously anime at times. I kid about dress up contests, but the main character Yuri (who is a boy, if that's not clear) is actually a well-defined and deep character with internal struggles which aren't so much "I hope senpai notices me" than "I should probably stop murdering people and claiming it as justice before I alienate the far more good-hearted people I travel with". It's around this point in the Tales series when they finally figured out how to make their 3D real-time combat system fun (Symphonia, which would be my second choice for the Tales newcomer intro game, was a bit rough in this regard) and it's a super long JRPG with a lot going on in the sidelines. It's also got some really nice cel-shaded graphics business going on too. Thoroughly recommended, and I'm almost a little apologetic that I had to talk about Infinite Undiscovery instead in the main article this month. (It also behooves me to tell you all that Dark Souls is also in the same sale, in case you still haven't taken the plunge into darkness. The 360 Dark Souls is not the best version, but it's certainly more competent than the PC port.) (Also The Witcher 2 and FFXIII-2 is in the same sale, so if you like RPGs Microsoft apparently has you covered this month.)

The Other Ones!

Here's a few more games from this particular period of time that I thought were pretty neat. Of course, you're free to suggest your own in the comments (I'm going by initial Western release, either US or Europe) - I've no doubt missed several, either deliberately (I never played them or thought much of them) or accidental.

  • Siren: Blood Curse (Project Siren, PS3, July) - The Siren series has always felt like this odd little brother to Silent Hill, built by many of the same staff including project lead Keiichirou Toyama. It's significantly more difficult than its spiritual predecessor though, as much of the gameplay revolves around the characters' ability to see through the eyes of their immortal zombified foes and use this advantage to avoid them at all costs. The series takes a chilling look at rituals and customs of smaller Japanese villages, in much the same way as Fatal Frame games, and manage to concoct several really quite disturbing stories of all-powerful supernatural entities. Though Blood Curse is really just a reimagining of the original PS2 game, it made the series more accessible to a wider audience through its presence on PSN. (I think I still prefer the second game on the whole, but given that it never came out in the US it kind of seemed like the "hipster" choice.)
  • Braid (Number None, 360, August) - Braid's a great little indie puzzle-platformer, released back when that combination of words didn't automatically elicit sighs of ennui. If anything, Braid's probably the reason why so many clever little puzzle-platformers with often melancholy stories exist. It launched Jonathan Blow as a figure to watch in the Indie game industry and does a fine job respecting the player's intelligence with its puzzles. The symbolism of its ambiguous ending sticks with you, as well.
  • Mount & Blade (TaleWorlds, PC, September) - Mount & Blade is a labor of love from a husband and wife team from Turkey that eventually managed to reach completion in 2008. It feels like it's been around a lot longer, though, due to the amount of hype early builds had been generating for years prior. Though definitely a bit rough around the edges, especially graphically, Mount & Blade presents a really compelling "medieval simulator" that allows players to fight in huge battles, develop characters and organize their own mercenary units, eventually growing a reputation for getting things done and becoming embroiled in the feudal politics of the game's fictional take on Europe. That it builds from a small party of warriors going around bashing bandits to allowing you to lead entire factions into wars against one another is one of Mount and Blade's most fascinating strengths.
  • Disaster: Day of Crisis (Monolith Soft, Wii, October) - Disaster's a really appealing mess of light gun sequences and motion control mini-games which are framed with a completely ludicrous action movie story of a man trying to rescue his dead partner's sister from ex-paramilitary terrorists while about half a dozen massive, consecutive natural disasters occur around him. Though the stages of the game can be very hit or miss (the driving sections fall squarely in the latter), they're always funneling you towards the next big stupid action scene. Neither the plot nor the action sequences are ever predictable, though, and it makes for an exciting game that I'm not too guilty about loving to pieces. It's worth keeping in mind that I'm kind of an unapologetic Monolith Soft fanboy these days, so take this appraisal with a grain of volcanic ash.
  • Dead Space (EA, 360/PS3/PC, October) - Dead Space launched what might have been the last big AAA horror game series to make much of a visceral splash, though it's lost its way somewhat in recent times depending on who you ask. Predicated on violin-screeching jump scares and absurdly gory body horror, Dead Space is a taut, suspenseful sci-fi third-person shooter that earnestly tries to be more Alien than Aliens, despite being a shooter from EA. Like BioShock, it's not simply a matter of running through corridors shooting monstrosities to literal pieces, but taking time exploring the surroundings, comprehending what has occurred from the subtext of audio notes and visual cues and enjoying a standard sci-fi horror tale. We aren't getting an Event Horizon game any time soon, so this'll have to suffice.
  • Saints Row 2 (Volition Inc., PS3/360, October) - Though perhaps dated by most people's standards of the sandbox city game, especially compared to its sequels, Saints Row 2 properly defines what the sandbox genre should be all about: unbridled chaos, entirely directed by the player's whims. There's a veritable plethora of activities to partake in, most of which are so hilarious and fun that you'll be sad when you've played through them all (though others were a bit more like a chore for completionist types), and the world is full of collectibles and incidental mayhem to busy oneself with. The plot's a bit on the dry side, especially compared to how insane the main story of 3 and 4 would eventually become, but the Saints Row series has yet to equal the sheer scale of what the player can get up to in the well-realized city of Stilwater. I think only Just Cause 2 pips it in open world content, and as fun as that game's grapple mechanics were it did not have side-missions where you chainsaw protesters in half in a police uniform to improve the ratings for a sleazy Cops knock-off TV show nor any where you're throwing celebrity stalkers through an airplane engine.
  • Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Konami, DS, October) - The last of the great 2D Castlevanias, Ecclesia takes the series back to its roots somewhat by presenting a series of sequential areas to explore, rather than dumping you in one huge castle and calling it a day. The tattooed and enigmatic Shanoa adopts a system not unlike the Sorrow games' Soma Cruz's soul absorption that allows her to acquire and employ the enemy's skills and attacks against them, and the game has you flitting around area to area with the requisite action platforming, back-tracking and exploration this and its peer series Metroid are known for. It's also a bit more challenging than most portable 2D Castlevanias have been, though if you've been gorging yourself on Indie 2D platformers with their inherent masocore leanings in lieu of any new 2D Castlevanias to play, I'm sure you'll manage.
  • Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts (Rare, 360, November) - There was a conversation going on in the chatroom of the most recent UPF, spurred by Brad's checking-in of Rare's Viva Pinata, about why precisely this spin-off game needed to use Banjo and Kazooie beyond the nostalgic fanbase when it chose to facetiously crap on its heroes' platformer legacy and instead present a game all about various vehicle-based missions. Though a perfectly serviceable game that presented a fairly innovative challenge with its almost puzzle-like approach in tasking players to create specific vehicles for specific objectives, to say it rubbed Banjo Kazooie fans the wrong way would be an understatement. Anyway, the nature of the conversation was why Rare couldn't have used any other member of the stable of characters they created for Diddy Kong Racing (which, allow me to remind you, was a game that also involved driving numerous vehicles around) to headline the game. Bumper the Badger's due for a breakout role, darn it. (Also, yes, these exciting deliberations are precisely the sort of thing you are missing out on without a premium membership. Sign up today! Sorry, site plugs are written into my moderator job contract.)
  • Mirror's Edge (EA DICE, 360/PS3, November) - Mirror's Edge was pretty divisive when it came out, and is probably still a bit divisive today, but its first-person parkour shenanigans were actually a lot better and more accessible than they had any right to be. The whites and reds of its stark visual design and the suspenseful roof leaping and disarm counters made for a game with a cool atmosphere that rewarded players who took the time to get to grips with its fiddly mechanics.
  • Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (Atlus, PS2, December) - Probably doesn't need much of an introduction from me, but the last sixth gen game to really rock the pillars of heaven was Atlus's RPG/Dating Sim hybrid Persona 4. An almost obscene amount of great character moments, challenging strategic turn-based combat and a bizarre story that twists and turns as the months roll by. But hey, there's around 100 hours of content on this very site that can vouch for its quality. Go watch that series (or hell, play the game) if you've been incarcerated for a minor offense or flying to Mars or somehow have a month of free time to fritter away on anime teenagers. You'll be glad you did.
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Co-Opting Co-Op

The term "co-op", when pertaining to video games at least, might carry a few ambiguous connotations but generally always means two or more people helping each other to reach the game's conclusion. Whether this actually involves a second human player or an AI partner is something that's become increasingly left to the player's discretion, as AI behavior has grown more sophisticated as newer generations have improved on the technology. A game like Army of Two, for instance, is a co-op game regardless of whether you have an actual friend in the room to virtually fist-bump or not. The level design and the manner in which you progress through the game is largely unchanged, and still requires that your partner assist you to proceed and vice versa. Singularity and Enslaved, as well, are games in which a second human player is not an available option, but the player is still assisted by an AI partner whom is required to proceed. Then you have games like The Lost Vikings, in which you're switching between multiple playable characters, and the definition of "co-op" starts to get a little obfuscated.

For the sake of simplicity, we'll just go with "two independently-controlled characters helping each other across obstacles" as our definition of a co-op game, either as two human players or a single human player with an AI companion. To that effect, the three games I've played this week take wildly divergent approaches to this co-op dynamic, and in lieu of anything else that could link the three games in question I'm just going to roll with it. Sure, a blog about subverting the co-op experience. Sounds fun, right? Yeah it does.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Melancholy almost to a fault and stunning to look at, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a puzzle-adventure game in the mold of ICO or Heart of Darkness which superficially seems like the archetypal co-op experience. There's two brothers, and there's a whole mess of puzzles and obstacles that the player must figure out how to solve or avoid using both. The subversion in this example comes from how both characters are controlled simultaneously with two halves of the gamepad: most of the puzzles are built around this system, with numerous instances requiring that the player react as both brothers at the same time to progress.

Brothers is a game with co-op in it, if you're one of those odd people who reads picture captions before the rest of the article. In which case: Hi, welcome to this blog! Keep reading!

It's not a game where switching from one to the other could necessarily work, and to make one of the brothers entirely automated would drastically change the entire game to a detrimental and unrecognizable effect. this control scheme does lead to a few problems - if the elder brother, the one controlled by the left side of the gamepad, is in on the right side of the screen the resulting left/right confusion can be too jarring to resume the game with until he's moved back to the left side where he belongs. Most of the game's puzzle instances make special care to always ensure that whenever the brothers are split up, they remain on "their" sides of the screen for the sake of accessibility.

Still, though, while Brothers has fantastic visuals and a moving and dialogue-free story, it lives or dies on this unique simultaneous control gimmick. It's remarkable more for its subversion of the usual tenets of the co-operative puzzle-adventure game than for its otherwise stellar presentation, and the effectiveness with which it pulls it off might well come down to an individual player's (in)ability to acclimatize to it. It's not like there's much precedent for a control scheme like this, barring a few multiplayer games with odd controller-sharing options.

Gunpoint

Astute readers might have already wondered aloud about what co-operative elements Gunpoint is supposed to have, and you smartypants types are absolutely correct: Gunpoint is not a co-operative game in the slightest. Richard Conway works alone, and always will. Rather, Gunpoint felt (to me) like a modern adaptation of the old Sega game Bonanza Bros., which also features gameplay focused around being hired to break into a well-guarded building and finding clever ways to elude the security. I mean, there are earlier 2D stealth espionage games (Impossible Mission, Spy vs Spy and Elevator Action immediately spring to mind, among others) but nothing with the sort of clever planning strategy and spatial awareness that Gunpoint shares with Bonanza Bros. Bonanza Bros., technically speaking, is not a fully co-operative game either but it's certainly a lot easier with a second player watching your back. Well, unless he's trying to get to the loot first anyway.

I think the thing I love most about Gunpoint are these diorama-esque stages. I wish you could import all these assets into Terraria or something.

Unlike its possible spiritual ancestor, Gunpoint does not have a second character to lend assistance. Rather, the player is sold a device that allows them to tinker with electronics remotely, giving them a semi-omniscient presence in each stage's location that allows them to set traps and make preparations before they even have to enter the (least secured) entrance into the building. So in that sense, the game subverts the co-operative experience by removing its necessity entirely.

Of course, it's entirely conjecture that Gunpoint takes anything from Bonanza Bros. I'm not sure if Tom Francis, Gunpoint's sole designer, has ever said anything official regarding the source(s) of Gunpoint's inspiration. It's possible the similarity between the two games was mine alone to acknowledge. There's also the fact of the matter that Bonanza Bros is considerably less complex than Gunpoint, without any of its electronics-rewiring or camera dodging. That game is... well, it's mostly hiding from guards. But in a very deliberate way through several cutaway floors of elaborate 2D buildings while chasing multiple objectives, I'll hasten to clarify. You can also stun guards by opening doors into them in both games, which might've been where all this "huh, that's kind of like a Sega game I played years back" comparison business started.

Even so, Gunpoint may have easily been one of those cases where a field agent is being helped by some hacker back at an off-site location, or at least someone standing next to a switch somewhere, but is cleverly designed so that the player is required to do everything in order to inconspicuously move towards whichever computer needs to be hacked or gizmo needs to be stolen. Switching to the electronics hacking mode, which comes complete with a different screen filter and a subtle music change, sometimes feels like you're controlling a separate character. It's a co-op game that isn't, if I haven't said something along those lines enough times already. It's also pretty good, has some amazingly detailed pixel art and is self-deprecatingly funny, so you guys should probably buy it if you haven't yet.

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite's minimal co-operative elements, which is to say Elizabeth throwing you shit occasionally, isn't really a notable example of the type. Rather, I've just played some Bioshock Infinite this week and am already curious about where they're going with Liz. She's clearly the most important character in the game, the few questions I have about Booker notwithstanding (I guess it's the nature of Bioshock to have somewhat nebulously defined leading men), but it seems Infinite is really all about "the Girl in the Tower". Whatever, I guess I'll find out. I somehow managed to avoid hearing any spoilers during the GOTY deliberations, which is why I'm in somewhat of a hurry to complete this blog and get further with the game. If there's more typos than usual this week, then... well, that's probably the excuse I'm sticking with.

I'm so gung-ho about avoiding spoilers that I just randomly selected one of these images without checking the gallery. I'm just glad I managed to pick one with Elizabeth in it, otherwise it wouldn't have been particularly relevant.

I'll tell you something about Bioshock Infinite that others have been saying that I didn't believe I'd be concurring with: I liked it more before all the violence started. I dunno, maybe it's because I played Dishonored between now and the last Bioshock, but I think I prefer these games when there's a less aggressive route. For now, it seems that the game decided to have enemies fly in whenever and suddenly turn it into a full-on FPS game for a bit. I'm otherwise loving running around looting trashcans like a reprobate, listening and watching the various goofy voxophones and kinetiscopes, marveling at the game's overtly self-aware anachronisms and wondering where that particular element is heading towards, and simply enjoying the sights and sounds of this amazing early 20th century cloud city. All the racism and evangelism is a little much, but I guess it's an easy if trite way to convince me to kill a bunch of innocent policemen and the assholes they work for. There's definitely stuff I'm liking and disliking about the game so far, to put it in way fewer words.

But hey, if you have to force a bit of an AI companion/co-op partner business into the game, I'm glad they're keeping them out of danger and letting them toss a few power-ups my way now and again. Not to be flippant about the role of a female deuteragonist that's entirely passive and subservient, but there's nothing wrong with a game that allows a defenseless character to play to their non-combative strengths. Unless it's nothing but making health-restoring sandwiches for the hero upon command, in which case a line has no doubt been crossed somewhere.

So there you have it. One game with a weird co-operative element and two games with significantly less going on in that regard that I've nonetheless shoehorned into the topic. Writing blogs is fun, you guys. But wait, dear readers, I have one more co-op-related thing to talk about this week:

Awesome Games Done Quick

For most of the past week, the Speedrun Demos Archive people have been putting on their biannual show (or should that be showing off? Thank you, thank you. Be sure to give your waitresses tips, as they're so close to a sub-30 minute run of Super Mario World and could use the advice), completing games really quickly and not necessarily in the way the original game designers envisioned. I've always been awestruck by how quickly and efficiently these players are able to completely obliterate these games, but it's become clearer as I observe these runs where their true strength lies: in co-operation.

I don't think I was able to comprehend half of what was going on in that amazing F-Zero GX speedrun. I have a hard enough time following the game itself.

Not the sort of co-operation where two players are playing the same game and helping each other, though I did note that the Secret of Mana run made a few interesting uses out of a second player at the controls. Rather, every trick, every glitch, every time-saving maneuver and risky gambit came about from a community of these dedicated gamers testing the limits of their chosen games and sharing everything they learned with the rest of their cabal. With each year, more and more skips and glitches are gleaned and employed by the communities at large, and the resulting total playtimes on the leaderboards get shorter and shorter. It reminds me of Olympiad Dick Fosbury, the guy who invented the method of jumping backwards in the High Jump, who discovered and shared a way for everyone to reach new heights (so to speak) in the event. (And not just because there's a Mazda commercial in the UK based on it that always seems to be on.)

Obviously, one could also consider these charity events themselves to be massive co-operative efforts to raise money to beat cancer. A room filled with speedrunners and their supporters, from evidently all over the globe if my limited ability to place an accent is anything to go by, are demonstrating everything they've learned and drawing massive crowds of impressed and magnanimous onlookers. I've been watching as much of it as I can between Vinny's Dark Souls streams, Jeff Green's Dark Souls streams and Patrick's Dark Souls streams (I might, might be watching too much streaming Dark Souls) and every year it's been exceptional fun to marvel at. I'm honestly surprised I've managed to play as many games as I have this week, given how many more I could be watching getting completely dominated with every coding mishap being exploited for all its worth. If you haven't been watching, stop by the Explosive Runs Giant Bomb community stream hub and make astonished noises with us in chat.

So all right, now I'm drawing this business to a close. Thanks for stopping by, folks. Maybe next time I'll have some actual co-op games to talk about, but probably not. I'm thinking it'll be more Bioshock Infinite, the Stanley Parable and possibly an RPG of some kind. Stay tuned to see what kind of weird thread I'm able to contrive to connect them together!

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U and Me vs. the World

We at Giant Bomb are no strangers to audacious claims and bold proclamations when it comes to our favorite games, and how the editorial staff's emphasis on open subjectivity (not that there's really any other way to review games...) and diverse personalities might pop out the occasional opinion that runs perpendicular to the norm. It's part of the site's strength that it can hold controversial opinions and argue them effectively, and its in the rare cases where you find yourself agreeing with an irregular viewpoint that you find yourself more receptive to that particular reviewer's stance in future debates. I might go so far as to say that this has been a semi-secret factor to the Bomb Crew's lasting appeal. I mean, it doesn't seem like a week goes by without a "which Bomb Crew member are you most like" type of thread.

Just look at this diabolical Machiavellian genius. More persuasive than Tom Nook and the eShop Rabbit put together.

Still, I imagine a few eyebrows were raised during the GOTY deliberations last year when Brad not only successfully argued a higher placement for a game only he enjoys playing (of those in the room, at least), but managed to bump off Super Mario 3D World, one of Mario's most beloved adventures yet, from the site's overall top ten. "It starts off too easy," I seem to recall hearing. "It has very few microtransactions, and Mario can only ever wear the same hat he always wears anyway," Brad probably followed up with. My memory might be a bit hazy on that one. Anyway, this is where I blow your minds and/or any small amount of credibility I might have:

Brad was right. And not only was he right, New Super Mario Bros. U might actually be the better Wii U Mario game.

Obviously, this requires a bit more elucidation. One can't throw out a statement like that and expect to get away scot-free with a generous "you're allowed to have your opinion" hand-wave or a similarly passive acknowledgement of an antithetical perspective. Some statements demand to be backed up, or you just come off like a crazy person. A crazy person who should be in crazy people jail. For crazy people.

I should begin by clarifying what I mean by "better"

Yeah, yeah, they're in cat suits in 3D World. They're in squirrel suits in the other one. Whichever mammalian fursuit rocks your boat.

It's not the graphics. Graphically I'd say the two games are about on par: 3D World has more going on visually, with its much larger range of locales and some clever effects like the silhouette stages, but the two games have been designed to take full advantage of the Wii U's HD capabilities and neither disappoints. Musically? Well, both games favor their own original soundtracks mixed with a few tracks from other Mario games, and that's nothing new for most recent entries to the series: Mario generally coasts along on callbacks and nostalgia, as averse as we are to admit it to ourselves. When I think of a Mario game making a splash in a musical sense, I think of Super Mario Galaxy's superb orchestral soundtrack, and how it seems to raise the stakes to a galactic level. While 3D World does have a bit of that, which is to say it directly purloined some of Super Mario Galaxy's music, its original soundtrack is merely catchy and not the big step forward Galaxy's was. Or, indeed, Koji Kondo's marvellous work with the SNES Super Mario World, which blew my mind when I first heard it. They sound about as good as each other, all in all. I'm not so crazy to suggest that New Super Mario Bros. U has better or more varied level design, though, nor will I argue that "a different-colored Toad" is a better player character choice than Peach or Rosalina.

If we can agree on anything here today, there needs to be less of this guy.

Really, and I should probably stop beating around the bush already, it's down to the game design. It'll always be the most important element of a game, as the game lives or dies on how fun it is to play. Both Mario U and 3D World are built on the backs of the predecessors of their respective series: so many elements from prior New Super Mario games end up making a reappearance in U as do many elements from 3D Land end up in 3D World. They're sequels, so I expect a certain amount of repetition, and both are as guilty as each other in this regard. Rather, 3D World just feels sloppy in some of its other design elements. Like how long levels don't have suitable checkpointing, or how many of its collectible Stars are placed just outside of reach of anyone without a cat suit, or how you sometimes need to be a certain character to hit a collectible switch and must re-enter the stage as that character, or how Peach is still immensely more useful than any other character and making Toad slightly faster so he can run off ledges because it's harder for him to slow down isn't really convincing anyone to try him instead, or how the bosses are as dull as dishwater (even though Wii U is also guilty for leaning on Boom-Boom at least eight times too many, it does at least have a bit more variety in the perennial boss troupe that is the Koopalings. It's not just a snake wearing a crown, a big rock, a guy flipping a spiky ring over, a guy that turns into a giant blob (oh hey Wind Waker's Jalhalla) or Bowser in a car. In a car! Why is he in a car?).

In truth, it's specifically the first part that is the concern, how the game is simply lacking in good difficulty balance. I'm sure it's been stated before, either by me or from some other design-focused soapbox, but there's a difference between good difficulty, the kind of compels players to keep going and lets them learn how to improve at the game before they can reach the goal set out for them; and bad difficulty, which is built purely to give the player a hard time, eliminating conveniences and boons the game has spoiled them with only to suddenly remove them as if to say "you're on your own now, bucko". Not only is this a lazy way to make your game more challenging, but it's an incredibly obnoxious way to treat the player. Regardless of how accurate you believe the adage "The customer is always right" might be (and if you've worked in retail at all I doubt you'd be too receptive to that maxim), creating an experience the player can enjoy is absolutely Goal #1 of any game designer. Nothing even comes close to being as important, except perhaps making sure the game works in the first place (which developers are having an unusually hard time doing of late, for whatever reason). It's a self-explanatory rule perhaps, given that their livelihood depends on their game being enjoyed and appreciated by as a large number of people as possible. That is, unless they're one of those "Hey, I've already been paid for my work, it's not my problem" types, which is the kind of negligent philosophy that leads to a very short career.

Hey, look, hey. Hey. Look. Someone's comparing something to Dark Souls again. Is there a Tumblr for this yet?

Checkpoints aren't created to make things easier for the player. It's to make things more convenient for them, more fun. It's to ensure that a player won't quit the game because they've been forced to repeat the same instance one too many times despite knowing exactly what is required to surpass it, because they've already done it several times and died to something further on that they're aching to get back to, and would be able to get back to sooner were there more checkpoints. This sort of "you died, start over" dynamic was acceptable during video gaming's infancy, of course, and many still hold a few nostalgic if entirely erroneous beliefs that games should return to those days (and then rarely ever purchase any deliberately old-school games because they're "hard as fuck"), but game design has grown and matured since then. Super Meat Boy effectively balances its difficulty by making you respawn instantaneously and ensuring all its stages are very short (well, until it crapped the bed towards the end). Dark Souls effectively balances its difficulty by affording the player the chance to make the game easier by learning its tricks, studying its combat, checking for shortcuts off the beaten path and, if all else fails, leveling up a bit. Rogue Legacy effectively balances its difficulty by allowing you to purchase permanent stat boosts and new skills, ensuring a smoother ride up its otherwise steep difficulty curve like some sort of figurative ski lift. "Skill lift"? I'll workshop that one.

I've got platinum armor, a diamond broadsword and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Do your worst, Castle.

Difficulty balancing in modern games is still one of those tricky-to-master concepts that only the truly skilled in game design can pull off adroitly - I'm not sure there's anything more difficult for a designer than finding a way to make a game challenging and also instilling a desire in the player to want to challenge it in spite of the trouble they've having, beyond simple hard-headed obstinacy. The player wants to beat that stage in Super Meat Boy because they've come so close to nailing that jump a dozen times in twice as many seconds. The player wants to get past a boss in Dark Souls because they finally, finally know how to avoid its attacks, what equipment is going to be effective against it and when best to strike. The player wants to explore that insta-death dark dungeon beneath Rogue Legacy's Castle Hamson because they've just rolled a character with great traits and bought a new vampiric rune to help keep them alive. It's a remarkable thing to behold when pulled off right, and when pulled off perfectly is almost imperceptible. It's also something New Super Mario Bros. U does better than Super Mario 3D World, excepting all other less vital comparative values by which one might measure the two. New Super Mario Bros. U has a gentler difficulty curve, checkpoints more frequently and doesn't demand the player attempt a much longer version of one of its levels bereft of power-ups or checkpoints, simply to make things more "challenging" for them. That shows a greater competency in game design by the staff of New Super Mario Bros U. and so - given we've already established that game design is the most important aspect of a game - New Super Mario Bros U. is the better game. Q.E.D.

Ah, I see you've gathered together a few bags of chicken feathers and a barrel of pitch while I've been talking. Fine, let's get this over with then.

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End of Year Resolution Report

I don't think I'll do resolutions next year. I mean, there's still plenty of goals I've set myself to accomplish in 2014, I just don't think I need to be as endlessly self-reflective with them as I have been with the ten resolutions I made at the start of this year. I'll keep on with all the blogging and list-making, focusing on the Indie stuff especially since it continues to be more interesting fare than the majority of the AAA stuff. Probably switch that monthly TurboGrafx-16 feature with something a little more palatable (the many fan translated SNES RPGs I'm sitting on, perhaps?) but I'll figure all that out when the time comes.

For now, though, I'm going to look back at what happened in 2013 using these dumb resolutions as a framing device. They were good for something, after all.

(Oh hey, fair warning: this might get a little self-introspective. But if you can't be contemplative on New Year's Eve, then when can you be?)

Beat One TurboGrafx-16 Game a Month

Reviewing this was not my proudest moment this year. One of the funniest, perhaps.

This was technically upheld and technically broken, depending on your perspective. I spent almost all of October looking at a bevvy of TG-16 games I never would've gotten around to with the three months remaining for the feature, just so I felt like I'd given the oft-maligned console a comprehensive once-over. After that I didn't feel like I had anything more to see, at least as far as the basic Hu-Card model goes. Hence the lack of updates past October.

I've always been fascinated by the TurboGrafx-16 as a European with zero access to one - it felt like a missing piece of 16-bit gaming history, which was the period when I really got into video games. My beloved Atari ST, the first game-playing device I ever owned, boasted a similar set-up to NEC's system: 8-bit computing power, but with 16-bit graphics to make NES owners just that little bit more envious. (Well, until you started directly comparing how playable the more action-oriented games in their respective libraries were.) I got heavily into the SNES and Genesis shortly thereafter and the rest is history. With that TG-16 retrospective (and Dr Sparkle's ongoing Chronturbo series), I feel I now have a better handle on that console and the period it hailed from. Even though VGK was usually the only other person to acknowledge those TG-16 screenshot LPs (apologies to others who commented), I'm glad for the impromptu history lesson. I'm definitely growing more fascinated with retro-gaming history in my old age.

Still deliberating on whether or not to cover the TG-CD this October. As one of the earliest CD-based consoles (maybe even the first), it probably has even more significance to gaming history.

Focus More on Downloadable/Indie Games

I fully intend to play this (and ten games that are potentially better) sometime next year for sure.

The distinction between the smaller Indie games and the big studio projects are getting ever more obscured, but I gave myself this challenge knowing it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Smaller games are simply more interesting and varied, and they're also more palatable because I can play through several in a shorter space of time. When it comes right down to it, would I prefer a $60 dollar game that takes 60 hours, or ten $10 games that take ten hours apiece? I can tell you it's almost certainly the latter, my cherished overlong JRPGs aside. While I'll probably still play through Ni no Kuni and Bravely Default sometime in the next year (not to mention games I've had in the backlog for a while, like Tales of the Abyss 3D and Trails in the Sky), my current pile of shame is considerably weighted towards the smaller stuff I've been accruing on Steam and GOG. I won't need to make this resolution again in order to follow it to the letter: it's pretty much a guarantee.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Gunpoint, The Swapper, Driftmoon, Eador: Masters of the Broken World, Toki Tori 2, Zeno Clash 2, Edna and Harvey, Legend of Grimrock, McPixel, Mark of the Ninja, Botanicula, Primordia, Thomas Was Alone, Dear Esther, Risk of Rain, The Stanley Parable, Papers Please, Gnomoria, SteamWorld Dig, Valdis Story, Evoland, Amnesia: a Machine for Pigs and, once it's completed, Starbound - I'm hoping to address as many of these in 2014 as possible, and that's not even including the huge number we can expect to see released (or, as the case may be these days, Early Access games that are actually ready to be sold to people) in 2014 as well, like that copy of Broken Age I feel like I bought eons ago. It's going to be a busy year for all the little guys, and I can't wait.

Review Every Game I Beat

One of my first Giant Bomb reviews of 2013. And it only took eleven months for a second Pandora's Tower review to show up.

I've been really lax on this one, deciding to really only focus on games that don't have a sufficient amount of coverage already. I'm eager to discuss any game I've played, and you can read my thoughts on my year's games in the regularly updated annual "Beaten in [Year]" lists, but once you take the time to properly address your thoughts on a game and put it out there, it can be a little dispiriting to watch it sink beneath a pile of user reviews with as much legitimacy and writing skill as your own. I'll admit to a certain degree of "Attention-Seeker Syndrome" (which is why a lot of my written material gives the impression that it came from my A.S.S.), but I'd also like my review to be helpful to someone attempting to make a purchasing decision, and that means focusing on the games that currently have nothing on-site - often, not even a Quick Look.

It's probably why most of my reviews in 2014 will continue to pertain to JRPGs (which the site roundly ignores, but I can't really fault a four-man editorial team for a few exclusions) and Indies I felt were significant, even if no-one else did. If you're eager for some opinions on Titanfall, say, I'm sure the site will oblige you with more than one viewpoint on the subject. Meanwhile, I'm going see if I can ensure that our site has at least one critical perspective on games like Bravely Default.

Wiki Completion Project: Famicom Disk System

Oh, Disk-kun. How you've been a thorn in my side this year. Still, if you were to show up as the last Super Smash Bros U secret character, I would not be put out whatsoever. You did more for the NES than R.O.B. ever did.

All right, this is when I'm going to be at my most self-congratulatory, so you might just want to skip over this one and hope my fat head's had some time to drain off. Likewise, if you aren't particularly interested in Giant Bomb's wiki, then I can't imagine this'll be too interesting for you either.

I've mentioned it a few times, and will continue to mention it until I've gotten you all watching it, but Chrontendo is one of the most informative sources of old video game ephemera on the internet. Well, it and Hardcore Gaming 101, but that requires a lot of reading and why do that when you can have the information read out to you? With video footage of old Famicom games? Right, exactly. While catching up with the substantial number of videos, I decided to put that information to good use and update our wiki with the same info independently verified. I'm still in the dark as to all of Doc Sparkle's sources (I've no doubt they're factually accurate, though) and have a considerably weaker grasp on Japanese than he does, but I've been going around checking a lot of pages have the right information, if not necessarily a fully in-depth text description of what these games are and where they came from.

The one thing I did notice was that I'd managed to complete something like 90% of the Famicom Disk System's library - the short-lived Japan-only NES accessory that allowed games to be run from bright yellow diskettes, which before the advancement of NES cart technology was the only way you could play a game and save your progress - from my Chrontendo-inspired wiki blitzes. Obviously, most of these pages were already quite complete absent any contributions of my own, with many games like the original Metroid and The Legend of Zelda having been FDS games originally and - as you might expect - already have wonderfully detailed wiki pages. There were still a few dozen with empty pages, or with no page whatsoever, so I figured I'd might as well complete the set. Giant Bomb can now boast to being the most comprehensive source on Famicom Disk System games on the (English-speaking) internet, for whatever that's worth.

Since finishing off the FDS library around the halfway point in the year, I've now been ensuring a similar degree of completion for the Super Nintendo - which continues to be my favorite console despite heavy competition from the PS1, PS2 and DS over the years. We're now fully up to date on every SNES game released between 1990 - its Japan launch as the Super Famicom - to 1992, which is around a third of its total effective lifespan. There's a hell of a lot of SNES and Super Famicom games out there, as I'm sure you're aware. Still though, it's a good way to keep myself busy while listening to podcasts. I mean, so would exercising, but then that would require getting up out of this chair.

Continue Blog Features

This chilly logo makes a lot of sense, given how little heat Desura blogs seem to generate. I guess there's such a thing as "too Indie".

While I did manage this, I don't feel like I need so many recurring blogs. I should probably go back to more free-form stuff, rather than keeping to a weekly schedule packed with "ongoing features" that I don't have to spend a lot of time thinking up. Dedicating one of four or five blogs every month to a screenshot LP of a TG-16 game really made things easier for me, if slightly less interesting for everyone else to read.

There's also the matter that these feature blogs tend to get the fewest comments. Again, my A.S.S. makes another perturbing appearance, but at the same time I want these little blogs of mine to entertain/inform people as well. If they're not interested, I'm getting less feedback and having less fun writing them, and so I might as well try something else. I'll probably be scrapping the Steam May Madness and Desura Dementia in 2014, and taking a more off-the-wall route. More videos is probably a good idea too.

Beat At Least Three PS2 Games, Including Yakuza 2

Beat At Least Three Wii Games, Including Fragile Dreams

Beat At Least Three Adventure Games, Including Gemini Rue

Beat At Least Three Other Games In My Pile of Shame

A lot of hits and misses here:

Hotel Dusk was less an adventure game, more a social awkwardness simulator.
  • While I did finish Yakuza 2, the only other PS2 game I beat this year was the risible A Dog's Life, after becoming inspired by a rather poopsome Unprofessional Fridays back when they still played wonderful weird old stuff instead of the games they forgot to Quick Look that week (or games that apparently needed Quick Look-ing again).
  • I got through a total of four Wii games, including Fragile Dreams. I still have a few to go: a Kirby's Epic Yarn playthrough has been a long time coming, and I'd like to finally experience Suda51's No More Heroes 2 before he completely eliminates the remaining vestiges of any motivation to play his output. I might just amend this one to "play three Wii U games in 2014", if only to justify my late-year purchase of the console. I'm pretty sure Super Mario 3D World and Pikmin 3 (and Xenoblade 2 later in the year, if we're fortunate) will accomplish that.
  • Really been lax on the adventure games too. That is, depending on your definition of an adventure game - I was specifically going for the "point and click" old-school variety which have had something of a resurgence as of late, but there's a lot of technical qualifiers like 999, Gone Home, To the Moon, The Longest Journey, Analogue: A Hate Story and Hotel Dusk: Room 215. I either beat three or I didn't, but no matter how you slice it Gemini Rue was definitely not one of them. I'll hopefully make it up to Wadjet Eye (who, just so you don't think I'm crazy, certainly don't give a shit) with a Gemini Rue and a Primordia playthrough in 2014. As for other adventure games, it's very possible I downloaded an immense 108GB repository of old, abandonware DOS adventure games that I might just do something with. Time to grab a shovel and start digging.
  • As for the Pile of Shame in general, I very much hit "at least three". I've not had the chance to play a lot of new games this year for one financial reason or another, so it's been a year of wiping off the (figurative, with regards to digital products) dust from backlog games and finally addressing them. My 2013 List of Shame claims I knocked out fifteen backlog targets this year. Only twice as many to go for next year, then.

Playing Games That Don't Involve Shooting People

Hey, I cured cancer too. Plus, all those people I gunned down (and disintegrated, and dubstepped, and placed into black holes) were holograms. They don't count.

Yeah, that one was a mistake. I had it in my head that I'd make games that do, in fact, involve shooting people a little more interesting by finding a pacifistic route (or a route that involved me killing them with something else, which kind of felt like I was missing the point somewhat) to their conclusions. There's no way a proclamation like that doesn't come off as political though, and a tad hypocritical to boot given how I've not exactly shied away from the more violent games before now.

I'd love to see someone with a bit more attentiveness and tact try it, but I suspect that there's a large number of video game players out there that already follow this rule to the letter without making a conscious effort to do so. The benefit of the huge range of modern video games means that while the COD/Battlefield Pubescent Patrol will still rule the school as far as demographics go, there'll still be even more people from all walks of life that avoid games with explosions and foreign voices plaintively asking the player why the US military decided that their limbs had to be shot off.

But yeah, "being the change you want to see in the world" doesn't really work if you're an inattentive, insensitive buffoon like myself who willfully demonizes games that plenty of rational people enjoy without screaming obscenities down the microphone to one another. It just rings as absurdly vacuous, like a thousand rounds of hollow-point ammunition.

That Should Be Enough, Right? Probably

Next year's sole resolution: less narcissistic blogs like this one. To that effect, I want to thank the many bloggers and content creators that aren't me who have made Giant Bomb even more vital reading in 2013: dankempster, Video_Game_King, ArbitraryWater, Hailinel, Dalai, MooseyMcMan, Sparky_Buzzsaw, Gamer_152, Marino, EpicSteve, LackingSaint, TurboMan, Fobwashed, aurahack, SupernormalStep, buzz_clik, Hamst3r and, of course, Jeff, Vinny, Brad, Drew, Patrick, Alex, Dave, Matt, Ian, Alexis and all the engineers that keep this jalopy running.

I'll end this, the last blog of 2013, with a final farewell to that magnanimous mound of mirth Ryan Davis. I definitely won't ever forget you, but I'll also be trying to look forward in 2014. I feel like I'll go crazy if I don't.

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The Mento VGX: 2013

Welcome to 2013's MVGX! We're X-in this year!

Hey all and welcome to the only Game of the Year Awards Show you'll ever need. Actually, I'm fairly sure you don't need any, but here's one for you regardless. No need for me to reiterate what sort of year 2013 has been: for one reason or another, it's been kind of crappy. This doesn't apply to its games though, which have been consistently quite excellent, has seen the continued slow creep of highly regarded Indie games and has introduced a couple of big players in the Xbox One and PS4 that'll be interesting to watch in 2014. Will their bitter rivalry force them to constantly out-better each other and create marvellous exclusive after exclusive, or will they fade into the background as everyone's re-acquired taste for the increasingly accessible world of PC Gaming continues on? Fuck if I know. I'm not Michael Pachter. Fuck if he knows, either.

What I do know is that some games came out this year and I played a lot of them. Not as much as I'd like, hence this year's award show being slightly shorter than last year's, but there's a fair mix of big retail blockbusters and subtle Indie critical darlings from which to draw my usual grab-bag of mainstay awards and one-off newcomers. Of course, I'll follow this all up with my personal top ten, which is hovering around the site somewhere as a list along with about a thousand others. Big shout outs to the community for putting together so many fun awards blogs to read. I'm almost sorry that I'm about to trump them all.

BEST 2012 GAME OF 2013

(Well, that resolves that hanging thread. Check out "The Mento VGAs 2012" for details.)

Nominees: Pandora's Tower, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Hotline Miami, Spelunky, Analogue: A Hate Story.

I felt like I covered all the bases in 2012, since I was fortunate to still have a cheap means to play all the big AAA titles without shelling out $60 for as many minutes of game-time, but it turns out there were a few notable exceptions. Most of them were highly acclaimed Indie games that I was able to pick up in the Winter Steam Sale (and, spoilers for next year, that might just happen again this January). Hotline Miami, Spelunky, Analogue: A Hate Story, Unmechanical and Rochard were all excellent games that lived up to their reputations and then some, but the game that left the strongest impression was the final game in the Operation Rainfall trilogy: Pandora's Tower.

Pandora's Tower is an odd game to describe to people, even given the accepted level of inexplicability usually found in JRPG games. For one, it plays like a character action game, albeit one that is rather bereft of the standard combos and specials. It has a strict time limit, which is often a dealbreaker except it's so indelibly linked to the game's plot and mechanics that it becomes tolerable quickly. It's also a dating sim. It's also a bit Rogue-ish, since the treasure refills every visit and is always randomized to some extent, thus a few "farming runs" become advisable when you're attempting to craft a vital power-up accessory for the next boss fight. It's Castlevania, because you have an exceptionally versatile chain whip used for exploration as well as combat. It's Zelda, because you have a discrete number of immense dungeons filled with puzzles to solve and secrets to reveal. It's a little of everything, yet nothing like anything I've ever played. In retrospect, it might well be the most curious game in a trio of already very divergent JRPGs. And it probably won't be recognized in anyone's lists this year (its a 2013 for North America), save @video_game_king, @slag and a handful of others.

But you know what? I'm cool with that. It increases the chances that it'll be discovered by someone some day and become their favorite game, partly on the virtue of it being some obscure gem no-one else is talking about. That's how games become treasured, after all.

BEST 2013 GAME OF 2014?

Nominees: Super Mario 3D World, Bioshock: Infinite, Ni no Kuni, The Last of Us, Assassin's Creed IV.

It generally doesn't pay to prognosticate on the year ahead, largely because it makes you look foolish. Last year's Game of Next Year (which is now this year) was XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which enthralled me for several days until its UFO missions got way too repetitive and prolonged, thus just missing out on this year's Game of Last Year (all this temporal confusion might be another reason why this category is a bad idea).

Rather, I do this to acknowledge and honor the games I didn't get around to this year. There's a lot more this time, what with the local rental store going belly up, so I doubt I'll ever find the time to go back and play everything of note in 2013. But I have a sneaking suspicion that this new Mario just might be right up my alley: it's a 3D platformer with glowy nonsense to collect, and no-one seems to make those any more. It's all finely-crafted 2D platformers with wonderful art styles, great level design, some dynamic thrills and a lot of imagination. But where are the tchotchkes? The gewgaws?! Sigh.

As for the other four games mentioned, I feel like I could end up loving any one or all of them. I happen to own Bioshock: Infinite and Ni no Kuni, so I'll be getting to those post-haste as well.

BUCKET LIST TICK-OFF OF THE YEAR

Nominees: Planescape: Torment, The Longest Journey, Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Yakuza 2, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines.

Because I didn't play a lot of new games this year, or least new in the chronological sense, I had a rare opportunity to catch up with some games that have been on my backlog for a long time, some for over a decade. I'm still slowly catching up on my beloved Yakuzas, Vampire: The Masquerade is another feather in my Troika cap (catching up with you, @arbitrarywater) and I finally got to experience the incomprehensibly bizarre adventures of Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. It came down to Planescape: Torment and The Longest Journey for my two choice picks from the Pile of Shame, and Planescape's subversion of the Infinity Engine series just clinched it for me. While I love a game with a strong plot and characters, and both these games had them in spades, I especially love a game that appeals to my game designer sensibilities.

Without going into a huge tirade about the brilliance of Black Isle/Chris Avellone's Planescape: Torment writing and structure, since I've done that once already, I'll just say that a game where you're best served by increasing your Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma to maximize your diplomatic and conversational potential, and where the biggest boosts don't come from slapping bosses and fetching knick-knacks but by actually seeking out the game's lore and your own forgotten backstory is a goddamn masterstroke of ludonarrative genius. I've really got to track down Obsidian's output, since that's where all the best minds behind Torment ended up. It's not like I don't have a few spaces on my newly svelte List of Shame to fill in, after all.

WORST BOSS FIGHT

Nominees: Javier Jaguar (Guacamelee!), ??? (Gone Home), ??? (Shadowrun Returns), Project X Zone, Rogue Legacy.

This is a category that probably requires some explanation, and more than a bit of venting. I've always been in two minds about boss fights in general: I appreciate that a lot of people see them as holdovers from a simpler time, like extra lives and health packs, and something modern game designers should be trying to avoid in order to create games that feel less by-the-numbers, creating incredibly strong opponents for little other reason than because they're expected. Likewise, I appreciate that boss fights can often be the dramatic culmination of one's adventure, or a pivotal story moment in which a major nemesis must be overcome, or even the best way to ensure you've mastered all the tools at your disposal thus far into the game.

But even though I tend to lean towards the latter, there are still some really crappy bosses that make me wonder why the designers even bothered. I could probably balance this with "best bosses", but I honestly can't think of too many that really subverted my expectations or stood out in a meaningful way. Not like, say, the cleverness of Scarecrow from Batman: Arkham Asylum or the sheer one-on-one tension of Artorias the Abysswalker from Dark Souls.

Anyway, here's a brief rundown of this list. There might be a few spoilers. Actually, there's definitely a few, which is why I've left all but Javier Jaguar's name out of the nominations list:

Javier Jaguar is a late-game Guacamelee boss, and sort of a pointless insertion: he appears right before the final dungeon and isn't someone you really have beef with. Not like the flame guy, or the voodoo ghost lady, who make several important appearances to mock or belittle you or in some way draw your wrath. Javier just knocks a bridge out from under your feet in one of the earliest levels and then vanishes for most of the game. In addition, the boss fight itself is extremely arbitrary and unfair, with the boss having far too many attacks with invincibility frames which come too quickly to dodge. It's a slow, aggravating battle of attrition against an opponent that can decide to murder you at any moment with the right combination of unavoidable attacks. Not fun.

Gone Home's end boss, the restless spirit of Kaitlin and Samantha's ancestor Oscar Masan, just kind of pops out of nowhere. One moment you're attempting to find the key to the attic behind one of the house's secret panels, the next you're having to throw 90s girl band badges and X-Files VHS tapes at a swirling spectre while trying to paralyze it with loud Riot Grrl music. Though rescuing Sam and her lover Lonnie from their soul crystal is a touching conclusion to their story, and even though the game had been hinting at a horror element for its entire run, it just felt entirely incongruous to the game's down-to-earth core. Still not sure why all the glowing reviews overlooked it, frankly.

Shadowrun Returns's conclusion with an alien bug queen, her progeny and the cult protecting it would be ridiculous if it wasn't also so trite and Dead Space-y. Project X Zone had a handful of fun cameos as bosses that it ended up using over and over and over... in a game that wasn't spoiling for sources to draw additional antagonists from, no less. As for Rogue Legacy's bosses, they were just bigger versions of regular enemies - sometimes they had a few extra tricks, but mostly the big eyeball just spits fireballs, the big slime split into smaller slimes and the big skull just floated around menacingly like all the little skulls. Really disappointing, but then I hear they've added a few new bosses in perhaps as an apology, so I might have to check that out. All right, I'm done. Phew, that's a weight off my chest. A mostly censored weight.

WEIRDEST F'N GAME

Nominees: Antichamber, NES Remix, Project X Zone, Video HeroeS, Saints Row IV.

My favorite award, given to games that just confuse the heck out of me either due to their peculiar presentation or odd design choices they may have made. I've been gaming for way too damn long to not appreciate a shock to the system now and again, even if that surprise ends up being detrimental to the overall experience.

That's not the case for our winner Antichamber, whose non-Euclidean antics utterly perplexed me more than a few times, but never in a way that I couldn't adjust and keep progressing. Discovering how to duplicate more cubes, or how to hitch a ride on a moving row of cubes, felt like I had somehow cheated the game - even though the experimental revelations of such "game-breakers" were not only anticipated by the game but required to progress past several of its puzzles. More so than its sheer weirdness, I appreciated Antichamber for approaching me on my level and not talking down to me like a lost, little child, which would've been entirely forgivable given its complexity.

As for the others,: NES Remix would be utterly bizarre if people weren't already familiar with Retro Game Challenge (by the same developers) or the meta-game achievements of that semi-recent Genesis collection for the Xbox 360 and PS3 - a clear case of a game's achievements breathing new life into some older games. NES Remix is still remarkable in its strangeness simply because Nintendo signed off on it, allowing several of its most revered trailblazers to undergo some odd experimentation. Project X Zone is just inherently daft due to its nature as a crossover between far too many Sega, Namco and Capcom characters to count. Video HeroeS was a wonderful Indie title I reviewed as part of the LA Game Space introspective where you're simply tasked with perusing a collection of high-res VHS movies (and other miscellaneous videos) to suit customer requests, and perhaps the oddest part of that experience was having the uncommon honor of having my blog quoted on the site running the project. And Saints Row IV? Well... Saints Row probably speaks for itself at this point. If you aren't on board with its imminent time-travelling sequel, it probably wouldn't care for your company anyway and, frankly, neither would I. Pfeh.

BEST LOOKING GAME

Nominees: Rayman Legends, Guacamelee!, Tomb Raider, Gone Home, Antichamber.

I was in two minds about this one. Tomb Raider and Saints Row IV were graphically incredible, but in a way that's almost anticipated at this point. I know, unreasonable gamer entitlement and everything, and I'm sure a whole squad of artists took months to put all of those graphical wonders together. These days, though, I find myself appreciating strong artistic design than stunning realistic graphics.

While I liked Guacamelee's angular Mexican elements and many goofy meme/game background in-jokes, I had to give it to Rayman Legends for once again creating a storybook visual feast that really has no peer. Well, besides Rayman Origins. Hence being in two minds about this decision. Gone Home's high-res paraphernalia and Antichamber's stark minimalism were visually interesting too, and perhaps diametrically opposite in how their art design fed directly into their respective games' personalities. Since I won't be buying either of the new consoles any time soon, I suspect I'll be on the lookout for the "visually interesting" over the "holy shit that looks amazing" next year as well.

THE "MIDWAY THROUGH THE SHOW" ODE TO FEMALE PROTAGONISTS

I don't mean to be condescending. Really. I also don't mean to defeat any arguments regarding this ongoing problem with all the sexism and misogyny in this industry by attempting to direct people's attention away from all the rape tweets to how gender-diverse modern game protagonists have been recently. That stuff's become a little too apparent to be easily ignored, and isn't something I'm cool with. Patrick's doing a fine job of drawing these idiots out of the woodwork so I know which nutcases to ignore. In an off-chance that you're one of those people, could you maybe knock it off? I'd prefer us all to focus on the games again. Take it to Fedora Monthly, and let my Twitter feed return to innocuous jokes about Waluigi farts (thanks in advance to @mattbodega, @babylonian and @glentennis for those) and Steam sale announcements.

So rather than anything political, I'm just stating - purely as fact, no subversive connotations implied - that in the 2013 games I've played this year, I've played twice as many women as men. I didn't believe it either until I checked the numbers. Of the twenty one games from 2013 I played this year, seven had distinctly female protagonists, five had distinctly male protagonists and the remaining nine either provided a choice (through create-a-character, or multiple playable characters) or had an ambiguous main character (like the unnamed and unseen protagonist of Antichamber).

So to Tomb Raider's new and improved Lara Croft, to the eponymous and obstinate Ittle Dew, to Guacamelee's mysterious and way-more-interesting-than-Juan underworld guardian Tostada, to the stalwart female warrior who killed TWO Rogue Legacy bosses despite her debilitating fear of chickens, to Sly Cooper IV's Carmelita Fox who was once again sadly relegated to a handful of missions despite her immense firepower, to the Crimson Ninja, to Kaitlin Greenbriar, to The Boss of the Saints, to Ursula and Barbara, and to all the other heroines this year: thanks for getting me to the end to a lot of games in 2013. And I didn't feel like I needed to protect a single one of you.

(All right, I guess I am coming off as a little condescending now, huh? Sorry, moving on.)

BEST NEW CHARACTER

Nominees: Keith David as Keith David, Tostada, Ravio, Samantha Greenbriar, The Grizz.

Gotta love Keith David. Saints Row already played the "real-life celebrity as unimaginable badass" in the SR3 with Burt Reynolds, but let it never be said that SR4 didn't take every little thing that worked in SR3 and tried it again. Huh, I guess that's not too complimentary. Keith David was an inspired choice, due to his voicing minor series antagonist Julius Little. If you walk around with both homies in your party, they'll talk to each other about how they sound nothing alike. Just the sort of goofy little touch that Saints Row adroitly pulls off between all the big, dumb dubstep gun and Aerosmith nuke set-pieces.

The others, then: I've already stated my appreciation of Tostada - rare is the game where the second player gets the objectively better character (though that gives me an idea for a future list...). Ravio is not only The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds' biggest question mark, but he also represents that game's most subversive (for Zelda) element in the introduction of rented equipment. Sam Greenbriar's delightfully narrated story in Gone Home is one of the most affecting of the year, for as little as I am able to relate to it. And I feel like @jeff would've immediately identified with the Grizz had he played Sly Cooper IV; a trash-talking, streetsmart grizzly bear in a purple tracksuit adorned with bling, with Marc Ecko aspirations and a secret yearning to be a professional ice-skater. Alas, he's probably one of a handful of new characters in Sly IV that didn't fall way short of the mark, chivalrous Nolan North raccoon knights excepted.

BEST SOUNDTRACK

Nominees: Electronic Super Joy (Valiant), Rogue Legacy (Narwhal), Project X Zone (Ghosts and Goblins BGM), Rayman Legends (20,000 Lums Under the Sea), Guacamelee (Desierto Caliente).

When playing ESJ originally, I found myself nodding along with the righteous beats of its techno soundtrack but didn't think much of it as anything more as yet another ostentatious element of a game where men and women exclaim orgasmically whenever you hit a checkpoint. It's a very silly game, as I'm sure anyone who played it (or saw the Quick Look) can attest to. Divorced from the madness of that game, the music is indescribably catchy and I've been listening to several of its tracks on loop as I write this. My favorite has to be Valiant, with FireFrost, Vee, RPM and This Sound also earworming their way into my head. Peep the soundtrack here, and then go buy it on Ryan Roth's Bandcamp if you're so inclined.

Rogue Legacy had an amazing soundtrack too, though Narwhal (a.k.a. the Tower / Maya theme) is a clear standout. Project X Zone pulled a Super Smash Bros. and included a lot of modern remixes from its many featured game series: tracks as diverse as Street Fighter IV's Volcanic Rim and Tekken Tag Tournament 2's intro, to revamps of the Ghost and Goblins Stage One BGM and Morrigan and Demitri's Darkstalkers stage themes. The game's a celebration of its sources and doesn't disappoint, if perhaps only musically. Rayman Legends continues the trend set by Origins and additionally uses several licensed tracks for its incredible "music levels", and Guacamelee has a whole lot of catchy mariachi (maricatchy?) tunes to pummel and piledrive undead beasties to. Me gusta!

FAVORITE DUMB MEME OF THE YEAR

Nominees: Luigi Kills Everyone, Ten Games Better Than Brothers, The Rorietort, Doge, The Wolf's Howl.

So, all right, I don't generally like memes. They all tend to have a very distinct lifespan, and I often despise myself for trying to get on the bandwagon with a few of my comics while a meme is still current, because they end up looking horribly dated less than a month later. Even so, I feel like we're turning a corner on ironic appreciation of some of these, and that's better than nothing.

The "Luigi Kills Everyone" was me trying to come to terms with how many people died this year. Obviously, there's a rather major figure in our neck of the woods who I'll talk about a little later, but then around December a lot of famous figures started dropping off left and right. The conspiracy that Luigi, mad with power, is murdering everyone helped me deal with a lot of bad news by putting a really silly green cap on top of it. You all know the rest of the nominees, so I don't need to reiterate. The Rorietort is, of course, "you're a ____", which has come to something of a head after its liberal application throughout the GOTY videos.

FAVORITE STREAM OF THE YEAR

Nominees: Load Our Last Souls, Volgarr the Vulgar, Jeff Green Plays Dark Souls, TBFP: Beyond: Two Souls, Giant Bomb Unplugged: Pathfinder.

Tough choice, except not really, but Vinny's foray into the last few areas of Dark Souls has been this year's clear highlight. So many unforgettable moments, so much laughter from Rorie and Ian at Vinny's disproportionately violent and accident-prone antics, so many senseless murders. So much Black Knight 2000.

Breaking Brad's Volgarr the Viking run had one particular moment that will live in infamy for the rest of time, but the whole thing's been the sort of "go get 'em" joy that any struggling playthrough strives to attain. Likewise, Jeff Green's painstaking journey through Lordran - complete with his old man complaints about the controls and an apparent lack of depth perception - has taken on something of a Shinya Arino feel-good factor to it whenever Jeff inevitably defeats one of the game's many challenging bosses. His recent defeat of Kellogg the Chaos Witch is just the most recent notch in his claymore +7, and the funhouse that is Sen's Fortress beckons to irritate Jeff to no end for another grueling hour or five. But, you know, grueling in a totally satisfying way.

Two Best Friends Play has been producing a hell of a lot of generally high-quality LPing action throughout the year, including the ridiculous Russlemania month of Wrestling games or their second annual Shitstorm of Scariness horror game-a-thon, but their highlight has to be the complete dressing down of David Cage's latest ludicrous odyssey Beyond: Two Souls. They are unapologetically brutal to its many strange design and plot decisions, which I won't go into in case you want to experience it for yourself (their run or the game itself). Good luck. As for Pathfinder, there's no disputing the happiness that V-Bomb brings from the 'bove to all the good boys and girls, and the various rules lawyerin' fights and newbie confusion are every bit the perfect archetypal table-top experience.

BEST GIANT BOMB MOMENT

Nominees: The Community's Ryan Outpouring, Skeleton Kick A.K.A. Welcome to Dark Souls, Brad's The Most Volgarr, Release the Kraken (and Other Oculus Spookin' Moments), Giant Bombception.

Goddamnit, I miss Ryan. I know, we all do. Some a lot more than I possibly could, and I shouldn't keep bringing up his absence and bumming everyone out. But the best thing to happen in Giant Bomb this year wasn't one of many laugh-out-loud moments, but how the entire community banded together in a time of grief and created oodles of heartfelt blogs, incredible artwork and many other forms of homage and tribute to the most gregarious and jolly yet acerbic and outspoken gentlemen I've yet to discover in this industry of ours. Sadly, I didn't get the chance to meet him in person. Envious of those who did.

Anyway, this is kind of a dour note to end on, so we have one more award to bring us up to an even (?) thirteen.

GAME OF THE GENERATION & BEST ANY YEAR GAME OF 2013

Was there any doubt? Going back a few weeks, when I was thinking about the most important games of the generation, I initially rated Xenoblade Chronicles as the most vital with Dark Souls trailing in second place. But while Xenoblade built a bridge between western MMOs and eastern JRPGs, Dark Souls (well, Demon's Souls, but Dark Souls was really the realization of DeS's ideas) took that bridge and leaped off it to be carried away into uncharted waters. Dark Souls marries an exploration-heavy RPG to innovative multiplayer elements and one of the best timing-based combat systems, and on top of that created an unbelievably satisfying level of challenge that is not meant to punish, but to teach. Yet as well as being a fantastic game in its own right it also manages to pioneer so many ideas that modern game design will be depending on for years to come. If you want to argue that "a game of the generation" requires any rigid criteria, you should either be happy with "a game that plays incredibly and has a distinctive personality" or "a game that introduced a lot of important ideas that will be employed in generations to come", and Dark Souls aptly fits both definitions.

There's also the fact that Dark Souls makes for the best streams. Screw your visually incomprehensible StarCraft 2 or your mechanically incomprehensible DOTA 2, watching Vinny or Jeff Green stumble into yet another trap never gets old. Ever.

Because I promised, and then promptly forgot, here's my Top Ten Games of the Year. I'd embed it, but horrible things happen when you do that. Hey, give the guys a break, they just moved into the new office. Zelda won, but you probably knew that. Or... maybe you didn't? If so, what other mysteries lurk within that link? Let's go see!

Anyway, thanks for sticking with me through a whole lot of text and stickpeoples talking about the best (and worst) 2013 had to offer. I'm really going to have to pay more attention in 2014, it's shocking how few new games I managed to get through. VBomb willing, we'll all be back here in a year and I'll have one heck of a show to put on for you all. Have a Happy New Year everyone, and I'll see you again in 2014.

(Or maybe tomorrow or Tuesday, since I'm not done with this year juuuust yet...)

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The Comic Commish: The Previous Generation (Jan-Jun 2008)

Welcome all once again to a new Comic Commish, this year (well, October to September '14, which is still technically a year) highlighting the best games of the last console generation for those who missed out for whatever reason. Maybe you were strapped for cash over the last six years, maybe you had three jobs and no time for games, maybe were trampled in a 2006 Black Friday sale and spent all that time in a coma, or maybe you were taking part in one of those years-long isolation tests for astronaut training and now need a few hundred Xbox 360 games to whittle away the time while you're slowly flying to Saturn. I'm going to guess probably not the latter, unless there's something my magnanimous sponsor @omghisam isn't telling me. Maybe his imminent space excursion is why he eats so much easily-transportable kale and lentils.

Anyway, I'll highlight three games of particular importance to me with some MS Paint shenanigans, and then pontificate on a whole mess of other games that were available at the time. There'll be gaps, of course, since I didn't play everything from that period (or maybe didn't like them enough to bother mentioning them, see: GTA IV) but hopefully I'll provide a semi-comprehensive idea of what was going on with video games during that period. Or at least with the more overtly RPG-y ones.

December looks at the first half of 2008. All three consoles had been out for a while at this point, and everyone's getting used to making games for them. There's a lot of stuff to choose from, thankfully.

2008 Is Also When Giant Bomb Appeared, So Video Games Might As Well Have Not Existed Until Now

Lost Odyssey (Mistwalker, 360, February '08)

Lost Odyssey perhaps enjoys (if that's the word) a reputation for being a bit on the dour and melancholic side, but as with Blue Dragon a few months previously there's a lot of classic Final Fantasy ideas packed into an interesting world of immortals and powerful magic and, uh, feelings. Oh man, so many feelings. Lost Odyssey adopts a character development system that's somewhat akin to Final Fantasy 9's (Mistwalker founder Hironobu Sakaguchi's last game with Square, coincidentally enough) in that half the cast are able to link to the other half and learn their skills through some sort of competency osmosis. The player is tasked with handling a balancing act to ensure that the very powerful but skill-deprived "Immortals" are always joined by a few of the skill-heavy regular humans. It's a feature that ingeniously requires constant rotation of party members, getting to grips with what each character is good at and the combat role they're meant to play in the process. And as much as I might make fun of the game's melodramatic tone, it's a gorgeous world filled with some wonderful writing and a surprisingly cohesive plot (for a Final Fantasy-derived game, at least).

Just... don't listen to Radiohead while playing this game and you'll probably be fine. Don't have any scissors or sharp utensils nearby either. This is for your own well-being, folks.

Opoona (ArtePiazza, Wii, March '08)

I hemmed and hawed about making Opoona one of my three recommendations for this Commish because it's such a hard game to try to explain to people, at which point I realised that's why it's recommendable in the first place. Opoona is, I suppose, an RPG with many side-quests and mini-games that feature as an element of the game's progression. Opoona and his family crash on a planet which has been all but taken over by malevolent forces and the civilized populations huddle beneath protective domes isolated from one another. In order to move from one dome to the next, Opoona either has to solve the problems currently prohibiting travel or earn enough money to afford the fare, or - quite often - both.

I suppose it would be easier to think of it as a cross between a regular JRPG (albeit one that uses some clever motion controls for all its combat) and an open-world game like Saints Row 2: the second Saints Row specifically because a lot of this "optional side-content" is actually required to earn sufficient currency to continue the main story. But it's not like you're being distracted against your will at all: the various mini-games in Opoona, framed as "careers" that Opoona can begin and then summarily abandon for something else, are as much of the core game experience as all the JRPG combat. As I stated at the beginning, Opoona's in a league of its own in many respects. Just another Wii game that defies any quick and easy genre descriptor, which makes me wonder if Nintendo's console really was the also-ran of the last generation...

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (Square-Enix, PSP, March '08)

Initially, I was rather skeptical of Crisis Core. It was part of this huge wave of Final Fantasy 7 nostalgia that was happening at the time, with that Advent Children movie and a mobile game the West was never going to see. I mean, I enjoyed FF7 as much as anyone else at the time, but in the intervening years the internet worked its magic in the way that only the internet can to make me entirely disinterested in experiencing anything more about Cloud Strife (especially in his modern, intensely mopey incarnation) or Lifestreams.

Crisis Core actually has a lot of things going for it, I would later discover. For one, Zack Fair is the classic Final Fantasy hero archetype: impulsive, gregarious and optimistic to a fault. He was less like the Squalls and Tiduses that had taken over as the de facto protagonist template for Square games and more like the Lockes and Bartzes of old. While anyone playing the game would be familiar with his ultimate role to play in Final Fantasy VII proper, watching certain pieces fall in place before the events of that game took place was kind of interesting. Obviously, there was a lot of bullshit too - I'm still not entirely sure all the transforming monster SOLDIERs and Gacht exports were necessary for fleshing out FFVII's Gaia - but the game's divergent personality and bizarre action RPG combat made it feel like its own thing, and helped to justify a reason for it to exist. And even though you spent the whole game knowing it was coming, that ending is still a punch to the gut. Especially with such a powerful theme like this playing in the background.

The Other Ones!

OK, so now that we're all windjammed out for the year, here's all the other games that didn't quite make the cut but are still worth checking out for all those seeking the best that early 2008 had to offer. I mean, unless your tastes are wildly divergent from my own, and there's every reason to assume that they are. I'm a weird guy who likes Japanese RPGs way more than is healthy, after all.

  • No More Heroes (Grasshopper, Wii, January) - No More Heroes, the most accessible and down-to-earth that Grasshopper has ever been or might ever be again, features a lot of "throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks" ideas. Suda51's unique sensibility is apparent in both the presentation and the gameplay and, for what is essentially a bunch of boss fights with a lot of padding in-between, there's a solid character action core here. I'm not one for wrasslin moves, usually, but maybe games need more of that business.
  • Professor Layton and the Curious Village (Level-5, NDS, February) - What begat a rather long series of puzzle adventure games continues to draw in fans from every walk of life. Level-5 had a great sense of style that set their PS2 games apart from the usual JRPG rabble, and they brought that energy and whimsy and then some to a very British professor's adventures in some incredibly outlandish stories. As long as they knock it off with the matchsticks and sliding blocks in the future, we'll be all set.
  • Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors (Genius Sonority/Square-Enix, Wii, February) - I'd hesitate to call this a good game. My fascination with it really began some years prior when I first encountered a Dragon Quest rail-shooter game where you were given a plastic sword to swing at the screen. For some reason it just seemed like the coolest thing ever at the time. DQS is a fairly innocuous Dragon Quest spin-off that reminds me more of a Super Scope game now in retrospect, but it's an interesting use of motion controls all the same. I like it a damn sight more than those Dragon Warrior Monster games, if nowhere near as much as Rocket Slime.
  • Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Nintendo/HAL, Wii, March) - Brawl disappointed a lot of the hardcore fighter crowd due its easing off of the tight mechanics and introducing more novice-friendly fare like the Smash Orbs, but for the sensible people who approach Smash Bros Brawl as a goofy multiplayer party game it was really more of everything they enjoyed previously. More items, more characters, more modes, more stupid nonsense to stockpile and it all looked stunning in comparison. The bizarre Subspace Emissary mode had a few memorable highlights as well.
  • Condemned 2: Bloodshot (Monolith, PS3/360, March) - Condemned 2, likewise, fell apart for a lot of fans of the original, but before it got to that hard-to-justify point where you were shouting at people to kill them, you had such wonderful set-pieces like the early bumfights, the darkly trippy nightmare sequence and that whole tense bit with the bear in the lodge. It may have left players with a sour taste in their mouth upon completion, but was overall a worthy and far more varied successor to the original, which most still regard as the 360's best launch game (those people are crazy by the way: Amped 3 all the way).
  • Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis (Gust, PS2, April) - Mana Khemia is actually a spin-off of Gust's various Atelier series, which focus as much on strategic turn-based combat as they do alchemizing and crafting new items from recipes and found reagents. Mana Khemia ties together its magic cookery with a highschool visual novel drama not unlike Persona 4, and there's plenty of goofy moments to enjoy with characters like the overdramatic superhero-obsessed Flay or the "foreign exchange student" Muppy, a tyrannical galactic overlord who looks like a squeaky toy.
  • The World Ends With You (Jupiter/Square-Enix, DS, April) - I don't know why I'm putting this here, because I still haven't had the chance to play it myself, but so many people swear by this game. It's certainly not your standard JRPG, what with its odd focus on fashion, music and reapers. Or something. I think I'm just including it so I can guilt myself into buying it later.
  • Boom Blox (EA, Wii, May) - Notable for having Steven Spielberg in its credits, Boom Blox is a puzzle game that takes the best parts of Jenga and builds a game around them. Whether your idea of "the best part of Jenga" involves finding new ways to keep a giant stack of blocks from falling over, or reveling in the mayhem once they inevitably do, Boom Blox has you covered.
  • Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2: Grimoire of the Rift (Square-Enix, DS, June) - I didn't think too much of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. I thought the plot had one too many weird flaws (why does Marche strongly insist that none of it is real in earshot of his 'fictional' teammates? Wouldn't they get offended?), the judges and penalties were not an addition I was clamoring for and far too many of FFT's clever little mechanics had to be stripped out to make the game work on a smaller system with way less power. Moving to the DS restored a bit of the game's complexity, and the overall far more agreeable (if generic) story alleviated that element. It's still a far cry from the original PS1 classic, but it got a lot closer and wisely kept everything in FFTA that was worth holding onto.
  • Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King (Square-Enix, Wii, June) - WiiWare had a somewhat spotty reputation for pretty much the entirety of its run, since it became a wonderful new avenue for talentless hack developers to unload wave after wave of shovelware and completely submerge the handful of actually worthy games on the platform. My Life as a King took the RPG template and flipped it, allowing you to be the King who issues proclamations to would-be adventurers, building a town that was conducive to their treasure-hoarding and monster-stomping. Deceptively complex, much of the game could be made easier once certain tricks were learned regarding the placement of shops and the sort of adventurer dynamic you wanted to promote to maximize their efficiency. Hardly SimCity territory, but addicting all the same.

Sorry for the unusual amount of Final Fantasy-related games this month. I swear Square-Enix were on some sort of rampage at the time.

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December's Desura Dementia Deux - Part 5: 6180 The Moon, Potatoman Seeks the Troof and They Breathe.

Welcome to the final part of December's Desura Dementia Deux, with my last batch of three titles so Indie they were games before it was cool, or something. I dunno, I've written four of these intros already. I'm just checking out some Desura games is all that I plucked out of my game list in a random fashion. They're some interesting curios, for the most part, and some could use the support for all their Greenlight pitches and whatever else they have going on. Bake sales, perhaps. Go buy a muffin.

Actually, here's something I don't think I did the previous four times: check out Indie Royale whenever they have a new bundle. Just register a profile on their site to get emails in your preferred email receptacle and buy anything that looks interesting for the <$5 they usually ask. Sure, most of the library you'll end up with are the same caliber of game you might find on Kongegrate or Armor Games for free, but you're supporting up-and-comers. That always results in a warm, fuzzy feeling. (Heck, that goes for the bundles on Groupees too. A lot of games that are only on Desura or need to be downloaded directly DRM-free end up on their reasonably-priced bundles.)

Moon Kings, King Edwards and Croa-Kings (These Are Hard, Shut Up)

The game: PokPoong's/Turtle Cream's 6180 The Moon

The source: The Indie Royale Debut Bundle.

The pre-amble: 6180 The Moon (no idea what the significance of that number is) is a puzzle-platformer in which the player must discover what happened to the Sun, as the Moon. As in, the moon of Earth. The game's chief conceit, which is to say the gimmick that sets it apart from all the other Indie puzzle-platformers out there, is that there is no ceiling or floor: the moon simply reappears at the one side of the screen after exiting the opposite.

The playthrough: 6180 The Moon is another one of these ephemeral puzzle-platformer experiences that doesn't outstay its welcome once it's done showing you everything it has in its bag of tricks. Although there are a respectable fifty stages, they sort of whizz by rather quickly, especially once you've gotten used to how its vertical-less concept works in practice. The game adds a plethora of wrinkles, of course, including a one-time power-up that halts your vertical momentum (useful, since the moon has a very high vertical leap) and obstacles like disappearing blocks and springs.

The moon cares not for your fancy graphics.

Honestly, as high-concept as flying around as a spherical rock weighing millions of tons seems, the game is quite straightforward and banal. It has a very minimalist look as well: nothing but monochrome circles and squares like an even less visually sophisticated Thomas Was Alone. I wouldn't say it was completely underwhelming, since it had an odd little plot of the moon visiting various planets to ask where the sun might be hiding in a storybook manner that reminded of Chicken Little (fitting, with the amount of falling the moon was doing) and a few of the stages did stump me for a little while. Overall, it was completed far too quickly. Turtle Cream's earlier game, Sugar Cube: Bittersweet Factory, had the same fundamental issue too. Still, if you want something to scramble your brain for an hour or so, I suppose there are worse games out there. Just keep in mind that you're destroying @video_game_king's home every time you hit one of those spikes.

The verdict: I beat it, so I won't be going back, even with the promise of harder remix levels. Even though there's nothing specifically egregious about 6180 The Moon, it's getting harder to recommend these puzzle-platformers simply because there are so many of them out there and interested parties should only be concerned with the cream of the crop or they'll just burn out on having too many to choose from. I still have Vessel and LogiGun and Closure and the Swapper among others to get through, and I'd probably put any of those above this.

The game: PixelJAM's Potatoman Seeks the Troof

The source: The Indie Royale Hammerhead Bundle.

The pre-amble: Potatoman Seeks the Troof is a self-described potatocentric existential platformer, perhaps best known for its utterly absurd trailer featuring an Idaho potato farmer talking what I imagine are real words but in no particular order that makes any sense, almost like one of those amazing BadLipReading YouTubes, while absolutely nothing of the game is shown off until the final twenty seconds. The game is actually a pixel-based platformer (I know, shocker) that is of a certain type of platformer which I consider a "true" masocore game. That is, a game where its real difficulty comes from its unpredictability: often, you'll end up having to restart a stage after losing your stock of lives because you died to too many unexpected traps and obstacles, rather than some tricky jumps. The game has a genial sense of fun about it that alleviates the frustration, thankfully, and checkpoints frequently enough.

The playthrough: Potatoman Seeks the Troof, as described by the pre-amble, is a bit like one of those Mario hacks that's all the rage with YouTube LPers and the like. Something like that Cat Mario flash game (not to be confused with the Cat Mario of Super Mario 3D World) that became Patrick's worst enemy in a fairly old Unprofessional Friday. Shit happens, with alarming frequency, and you can either depend on your lightning reflexes then and there to escape, or your keen memory to remember it for next time after respawning. You have a life counter, and losing them all forces you to restart the whole stage, but this is balanced out by the fact that most of the trickier problems in the game can be overcome relatively easily once you figure out the trick to them.

Whatever, dude. Don't you have a jungle adventurer to go murder?

In Potatoman's defense also, there isn't a whole lot of utterly unavoidable "fuck you" deaths. Most of the "traps" will surprise you, but there's a chance you'll react in time and get past it on the first try. There are also plenty of cases where the game requires nothing but sheer precision from you without the nasty surprise part, and these end up being even more troublesome because they require actual skill rather than some rote memorization of whatever dirty tricks Potatoman was attempting to spring on you like a fake peanut can full of snakes.

Alas, the game has its share of flaws that make the already difficult platforming something of a dealbreaker situation. For one, I got amazing lag whenever the game transitioned between dying and respawning: it has this odd little filter effect that slows everything down to a crawl and doesn't dissipate until several seconds after the respawn. If you're jumping right back into whatever situation just killed you (the checkpoints are generous in that regard), then those few seconds of lag issues can really mess you up. This is probably an issue exclusive to folks like me with jank-ass computers and a few extra windows open besides, but it really made the game unplayable in spots.

Crapcrapcrapcrapcrapeggscrapcrapcrap

The verdict: In conclusion, then, Potatoman Seeks the Troof is worth a look for its eccentricities alone, and if you're a fan of these sadistic trap-laden platformers this has slightly better production values than most of the hacks and awful flash games that are cut from the same proverbial cloth. I just found it aggravating. Cool trailer, though.

The game: The Working Parts' They Breathe.

The source: The Groupees Adventure Role-Playing Bundle.

The pre-amble: They Breathe is an action game wherein the player controls a frog attempting to reach the bottom of his pond for unknown (by me at least) reasons. As an amphibian, the frog protagonist needs regular air bubbles to stay alive, and must do so while avoiding the various dangers beneath the water's surface. Though a cartoon frog going on frog adventures sounds all cute and dandy, They Breathe is a very disturbing game due to its ominous underwater ambience and the beckoning darkness of the abyss below. Oh, and those jellyfish...

The playthrough: I probably jumped the gun with that pre-amble, but They Breathe ain't your standard Frog Fractions experience (as if there's anything "standard" about that game). The game takes place in waves of enemies: a lot of the time you're simply avoiding them and catching all the air bubbles before they can reach them, since they also subsist off them. When you get a little deeper, the enemies start to become more hostile and less concerned with breathing air bubbles than you are.

I can't really describe the game's atmosphere without showing it in action, since the game does a masterful job of building tension by having the screen dip a little lower after each successive wave, with the background getting less and less recognizable the deeper into this pond you go. A pond that presumably leads all the way to hell, or at least the depths of the Mariana Trench. Equally disturbing are the game's first (and possibly only, I didn't get far enough) real enemy: a vicious type of jellyfish that swims after you and tries to suffocate you within its gelatin body. Previously, there had been what resemble weird cow enemies, and it's only after meeting the jellyfish do you realize what you're seeing:

See, they look like cows, right? Big bodies, little legs and happy cow faces. Turn those faces upside down, though...

...and you see the corpses of other frogs, frozen with a rictus grin, that the jellyfishes are apparently controlling parasitically. Yeesh.

Unfortunately, for as disturbingly cool as some of its elements are, the game is a bit of a repetitive grind. There aren't too many enemy types and they'll come at you over and over, with a slight variation on the number you face and the occasional additional hurdle like poisonous green air bubbles to avoid. It takes a long time getting to where it's going, and a little more variation (or a lot less filler) could really do this game wonders. It also didn't help that the game crashed on me, but I'm starting to accept that as normal with a few of these Indie games. Hell, it's not like AAA games crashing intermittently isn't the rule these days rather than the exception either.

The verdict: Maybe. I am slightly interested in where this game is heading, beyond simply "downwards". I can't imagine things are going to get any brighter the further into the darkness we go (though I hope it's not a giant pair of eyes and a whole lot of loud radio static, like a certain Oculus Rift game). It hasn't been a whole lot of fun to play so far though, and definitely too repetitive by half.

Well, that's that for another year. Thanks to all of you for checking out these Desura blogs, despite how these games can be a tad bit on the obscure side (and for good reason, in a lot of cases). I still feel it's worth reaching into the mystery box from time to time though, if only to see what the big Indie developers of tomorrow are up to with their bizarre little freshman projects. Whether I pulled out a winner or got my hand bitten by that venomous treestump monster from Flash Gordon (man, what a timely reference), it's hopefully been an entertaining read.

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December's Desura Dementia Deux - Part 4: Gunman Clive, Jazz: Trump's Journey and Love+.

Hey all to another episode of December's Desura Dementia Deux, my annual appraisal of Indie games too cool for Steam that's at least two "de" words too long already. (Not that I won't be adding more next year.) Though I selected this year's fifteen games randomly, by an astonishing coincidence they're all 2D platformers today. Not just any 2D platformers either: each possesses a certain retro charm that I can't help but admire, despite my reservations for deliberately old-fashioned games last time with 8-bit Commando. Well, I'm nothing if not a capricious fellow.

As always, if you have an opinion on any of today's highlighted games (or have even heard of 'em, because I sure hadn't) then feel free to post away in the comments. Feel equally free to reply if you have suggestions for bundles and the like too: I've found a few neat things exploring the Desura wilderness without a compass already, though I'm always grateful for a little direction.

Shootin', Tootin' and Cassette Bootin'

The game: Bertil Hörberg's Gunman Clive.

The source: Indie Royale's The Debut Bundle

The pre-amble: Gunman Clive is a side-scrolling platformer/shooter in the vein of something like Mega Man. The player proceeds carefully through levels, gunning down enemies and making their way across moving platforms and other obstacles. The game has the visual quality of an animated Wanted poster, with a lot of yellow and brown hues, and some slick 3D cel-shaded animation for its backgrounds and characters. As well as Desura, the game is also available on iOS, Android and the 3DS eShop.

The playthrough: Gunman Clive's all right. I likened it to Mega Man, but it seems to draw from a lot of NES games like Ninja Gaiden (there's a few angry birds, as it were) and Contra (the titular gunman can upgrade his weapons, though loses any power-ups after getting hit once). Artistically, though, it looks almost nothing like anything I've ever seen, except perhaps last year's The Unfinished Swan. I made the "Wanted poster" comparison myself, but that's only a guess for what the designer was going for. It's a good thing I had the presence of mind (read: could be bothered) to include a screenshot, because it's a hard aesthetic to really describe. It looks even better in motion, so I'd recommend finding a video of it on YouTube or something. Wait, I should probably handle that part: Here you go.

Even the ducks are trying to kill you. The spirit of Ninja Gaiden is alive and well. Until it's pecked off a cliff, that is.

I didn't get far enough to see a lot of the weirder shit. I kept tripping up on an annoying jumping puzzle early on and gave up because I had two more games to cover today, but it's definitely some solid 2D platforming if that's what you're into. Not much in the way of innovative new ideas for the genre, but I've found a lot of Indie games are more about simply proving themselves as a well-crafted facsimile of what's come before rather than trying to push the envelope. Kind of hard to make something truly unique when there's only one of you: it takes a few of these competent coders and designers to come together to create the sort of magic that wins prestigious VGX awards. I... just said "prestigious" and "VGX" in the same sentence. I think I could use an early night.

The verdict: Eh, I'll probably come back at some point. That trailer I linked to makes a good case for it, as simplistic as the game is. I have a lot of platformers to get through right now though (3D World at the forefront) as well as just games in general. It's not going anywhere.

The game: Bulkypix's Jazz: Trump's Journey.

The source: The Be Mine X Groupees Bundle (one of the few I didn't cover in this pair of blogs).

The pre-amble: A 2D platformer that tells the life story of Louis Armstrong between a series of platforming vignettes. Though only tangentially related to the famous jazz trumpeter and his upbringing in the Treme region of New Orleans during the early 20th century, the game manages to represent and embody his musical talent and upbeat attitude within the confines of its Mario-esque platformer gameplay. Perhaps best to think of it as a game that does for Louis Armstrong's memory what Eternal Sonata did for Chopin's: rather than some on-the-nose rhythm game, it honors the musician behind the magic and the travails they suffered on-route to the big time through a lot of symbolism.

The playthrough: Like Gunman Clive, this is a likeable game with a distinct personality that doesn't really do a whole lot to innovate on an admittedly somewhat hoary genre at this point. It seems like we've created every possible iteration on the 2D platformer format at this point, so the game wisely focuses instead on its representation of a famous figure in jazz music. It's interesting how the game finds a way to take what I can only assume are actual events in the young Armstrong's life and frame them as platformer levels where you're pushing boxes to reach ladders, freezing time to halt spinning platforms and dodging cops in era-appropriate uniforms.

The game's style is quite phenomenal. It reminds me quite a bit of Ghost Trick, actually.

Probably goes without saying that this game is a lot more palatable if you're a fan of Armstrong's music and of jazz in general. Its obvious intent is to celebrate the medium, which means you'll get a lot of rambunctious jazz music to enjoy in each stage. The game works in the musical element by having the young Armstrong (nicknamed "Trump" in-game, or occasionally by the derisive "Gumbo") play the trumpet for its aforementioned time-manipulation powers. Certain objects have green symbols that signify that they will be affected by freezing time, while others will continue moving regardless. The game finds some clever uses out of its few mechanics, but this isn't one of those puzzle-platformers that have largely taken over the Indie world alongside Tower Defense and Artillery clones: the game's a dyed-in-the-wool standard collectible-finding, checkpoint-reaching linear 2D platformer.

While it's worth playing for its excellent platforming gameplay alone, the biographical angle and lively jazz music elevate it above most of its retro Indie peers.

The verdict: Sure, I'll go back to it once I'm done with some of the 2013 GOTY contenders I'm sitting on. Actually, this is a 2013 game as well, so maybe I'll see about beating it before that inevitable VGA blog happens.

The game: Fred Wood's Love+.

The source: The Retro Groupees bundle.

The pre-amble: Love+ is another retro 2D platformer (I told you I'd be covering a few) that manages to do a lot with a little: a smattering of C64-era pixel art, some ambient tunes and a few neat ideas for score-keeping mechanics. It's worth noting that Love has been around in one form or another for quite some time; the new and improved Love+ was only recently added to the Desura store. It's also available on Ouya, if you happen to own one of those.

The playthrough: Love+ was short but fun, though I don't feel like I really did the game justice by playing it on Easy. A scant eleven stages in length, Love+ has you jumping and dodging your way through various obstacles, traps and instant-death pitfalls. In that sense, it's very much in the Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV mold - though apparently pre-dates them both, at least in its earliest incarnations. While it resembles a Spectrum ZX or Commodore 64 game, it has an ingenious use for its monochrome colors: like VVVVVV, the color palette (which is to say, the one color that isn't black or white) changes with each stage and its stark boldness is enough to make the active elements - the player, the instant-death traps, the bouncy platforms, the shadow you leave behind as a checkpoint: all colored white - stand out that much more. Both graphically and chromatically, the game is very minimalist, but it's clear that the designer had a clear idea about how to make it work in the game's favor. The soundtrack, in contrast, is very layered and well-crafted, with a lot of catchy ambient and chiptune music produced by the game's other contributor James Bennett.

Somehow even less elaborate than my own stickpeople shenanigans. Of course, I've yet to built a quality platformer around my art. Wait, "art".

Love+ does have a few tricks up its sleeve in a mechanical sense as well: the player has been afforded the agency to create their own checkpoints, which means they can essentially set a respawn point on any piece of solid ground they wish. While this does make the game substantially easier (except for when you forget to do it frequently and get sent way the eff back after dying), the number of times you set a checkpoint influences the score you earn at the end of the game: like Resident Evil, this score checks for how often you made the game easier on yourself and docks points appropriately. Likewise, the game's "normal" mode gives you a hundred lives and tasks you with beating the entire game with that generous stock. Selecting the Easy mode, like I did, removes this limit but greatly reduces your final score. By shifting the focus from the game's total length, which could generously be called compact, to this idea of playing it over and over to improve an overall score, the game extends its longevity and gives the masocore crowd a stronger reason to want to memorize the game back to front. That's not even going into the insane YOLO mode, which is pretty much exactly how it sounds with regards to how many extra lives you can expect to receive.

Though I whizzed through the game in under an hour I only earned an "E for Effort", which didn't sound all that congratulatory. To say I've beaten the game, then, would be rather specious given the circumstances.

The verdict: I'm not one for speedruns and no-damage jaunts and the like, which is the type of crowd this game appears to cater to with its final score malarkey, so I'd say I'm done with it. It's a decent little masocore experience, if that's your bag.

That should do it for today's installment of "Indie Platformers: There's a Lot of Them and You Really Needed Me To Tell You That". Thanks for stopping by, and see you all for the final part soon.

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