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Matt Boch's Top 10 Games of 2014

What is "Flappypunk?" Let the creative director of Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved explain.

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Matt Boch is a creative director at Harmonix who has worked on both its Rock Band and Dance Central franchises, and most recently on Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved. Find him at @mattboch on Twitter.

First off, sorry. I’m forgoing a traditional top 10 list because I’m worried I’ll omit a PlayStation exclusive and get drowned in Diet Coke by my ex-roommate John Drake, who probably still has a key to my apartment. This year, like every year, there were lots of great games, especially on the glorious PlayStation 4, the best place 4 the players to see the future: where the greatest play and greatness awaits, or something.

But, seriously, in my opinion, no game dominated 2014 more than Flappy Bird. The game’s story has more ups and downs than its gameplay: created in a single weekend by Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen in 2013, it suddenly exploded in popularity in January 2014. By February, it had inspired countless clones and thinkpieces, made Nguyen $50k a day off of a tiny banner ad, and was downloaded over 50 million times by masochists all over the world. This success thrust Nguyen into the spotlight and enraged a swarm of haters who unfairly accused him of plagiarism and fraud. He became the first of many people in the games industry to be prominently, widely harassed in 2014. On February 9th, he took Flappy Bird off of the App Store, and we all made $90,000 selling our iPhones on eBay. When the dust settled, it became the only Amazon Fire TV exclusive game anyone’s heard of, as well as the only game to earn a spot on Google’s top 10 searches of 2014.

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Flappy Bird spawned tons of direct clones, but it also inspired other developers and created a new genre. Games like Doodle Jump and Tiny Wings pioneered the quick-replay action game on mobile (following in the footsteps of Sunflat who were making this shit in the 90s), but it was Flappy Bird’s ungainly flight to success that really kicked off the latest wave of sadistic mobile action games with great game feel. However, this type of game doesn’t have a name yet, so I’m going to abuse this platform to incept one into the popular consciousness before we end up with another name as terrible as “Rogue-like” or “MOBA”.

I’m going to go with “Flappypunk.” I owe the name in part to Leigh Alexander & John Romero, both of whom compared Flappy Bird’s revolutionary DIY feel to Nirvana and grunge’s rebellion against metal.

What characterizes a Flappypunk game? At its core, it is a mobile touchscreen game that is punishingly difficult, characterized by frequent failures and quick restarts. Flappypunk games also exhibit most of the following qualities:

  • Friendly names and whimsical premises that disguise their brutal difficult
  • Retro or simple visual styles
  • Death animations that are as comical as they are viscerally tragic
  • Procedurally-generated levels, usually played in portrait mode
  • Direct, human-readable score (i.e. 4 goalposts passed)
  • Twitch-based, not turn-based
  • Single touch = single action
  • Free-to-Play, but you get an ad upon failure unless you go premium

So instead of my top games of 2014, here are my top 10-ish favorite Flappypunk games in no particular order. A few notes of caution before we get started:

  1. Be careful not to allow any of these games to “notify” you on first launch unless you want your lumbersexual pal Timberman pestering you daily.

  2. You’ll quickly get good at the meta-game of dismissing ads, but if you want to get good at the actual games, it’s probably best to pay to get rid of them. That said, the interrupting, full-screen ad is maybe the most powerful way a game can say “Fuck you, your failure just made me 1/30th of a cent.”

10. Flappy Bird

The blueprint against which all other Flappypunk games are measured. Like every game developer who lives and breathes, I secretly sweat everything about Flappy Bird, though I am most jealous of how its slapstick sound effects and pitiful death animation manage to make me laugh every time I die. Speculation about its success amounts to nothing more than a Rorschach Test: your justification for its meteoric rise reveals more about you than Flappy Bird, which remains ubiquitous and enigmatic a year later.

9. Skippy Squirrel

Skippy Squirrel’s fixed running speed makes it far easier to master than the endlessly sinking tap-fests that characterize most Flappypunk games. Once you get a sense of the shape of the jump, it’s all about internalizing the screen wrap & keeping your cool. Of course, that doesn’t mean you won’t have plenty of 0-scoring runs anyway.

My favorite part of Skippy Squirrel comes when there are a couple of vertically-aligned openings in a row. Here, Skippy can perform a double jump, using their wings to ascend. Double jumps basically always feel great (FUCK OFF, PHYSICS) and here they serve to both break up the monotony and lend that stomach-sinking, Flappy-feel to the game. Skippy Squirrel’s face-to-the-camera, Sonic the Hedgehog-style death animation is the cherry on top.

8. Timberman

Timberman chops down an infinitely large tree, urged on by a time bar draining at the top of the screen. While I don’t love the external nature of the pressure (what does the bar represent anyway? The lumberjack’s will to live?), I’m taken with the particular flow of chopping my way to death. The tiny details here are on trend for both European and American Flappypunk: the seasons changing with each run, the tombstone that appears when you die. I just wish the developer had shown a bit more restraint and forgone the sedate background music. Its constant tempo clashes with the frenetic pace that defines Timberman. Turn it off.

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7. Retry

Retry is about as far from Flappy Bird as 2014 Green Day is from 1994 Green Day. Green Day traded the youthful exuberance of power chords for string sections, and Retry swaps out Flappy Bird’s unsightly banner ad for pixelated in-game Capital One advertisements. Retry still has the essence of flap—the endless tapping, the ceaseless failure—but the house of Angry Birds couldn’t resist polish and complexity. Compared to the rest of the games on this list, it’s watered-down & over-wrought: it has levels, for chrissake! All that said, it’s a wonderful, challenging game with a delightful soundtrack and some of the best game feel on mobile. I’ll take “RETRY RETRY RETRY” over “Angry Birds: Tokyo Drift” any day of the week.

6. Wing Up / Amazing Brick

No Power-Up’s Tung Hoang is one of the most promising and prolific developers of Flappypunk games. Hailing from Vietnam, his first foray into Flappypunk was Wing Up, a vertical cave jumper released in April with NES-inspired bricks. By August, he had joined forces with Ketchapp, the publishers of the most popular iOS port of 2048 (who clones the clones? THESE GUYS), and settled on a more contemporary and minimalist style. For Amazing Brick, Tung re-arted Wing Up’s gameplay with simple geometric shapes & a soft color palette. Choosing to jump left or right around the procedurally placed obstacles adds just enough of a twist to the Flappy formula. This, not Swing Copters, is the closest thing we have to a vertical Flappy Bird.

5. Amazing Thief / Amazing Ninja

One month after Amazing Brick, Hoang adds running & double jumping to his formula and creates Amazing Thief, a game that feels part Canabalt, part Flappy Bird. Just six weeks after that, he releases Amazing Ninja as a follow-up that winningly adds combat to the equation. In both Thief and Ninja, stretches of running provide brief moments of safety that ratchet up the tension for the next jump. The contemporary, minimalist aesthetic we saw in Amazing Brick is perfected in these games with a flat design interface, fluid character animations, and a particularly pleasing tuck n’ roll. The sound design for Amazing Thief is limp and overly generic, but there’s clear improvement by Amazing Ninja.

Truly, prolificness that would make Frank Zappa blush.

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4. Crossy Road

Frogger is a perfect fit for a Flappypunk refix, and Hipster Whale delivered on every account with their masterpiece Crossy Road. The way your character squishes down to prep when you tap and hops on release gives a springy, cartoony feel to the movement. The character-based expansion model is as friendly as a Steam sale and, if recent ads for Stick Hero are any indication, will become as common as full screen ads very soon. I spent last Friday night sitting on the couch next to my best friend, attempting to synchronize our Crossy Road progress. It was near-impossible and totally hilarious—exactly what Flappypunk should always be.

3. Swing Copters

As we should expect from the father of the genre, this game was probably hard enough without the swinging hammers. It isn’t the verticality that makes this game so different from Flappy Bird, it’s the abstract nature of the controls. I survive longest by playing two-handed, always tapping first with my left thumb, then alternating after that. Nguyen could’ve made the game’s controls work like that, but there’s something uniquely devious about failing because you’ve messed up applying your own internal model of what the control scheme is. I love Coppy’s blank stare and his slow blink animation that plays even when he’s upside down and crashed out.

2. Jump Car

Yet another title published by Ketchapp, which is quickly becoming the Epitaph Records of Flappypunk. This is a post-Crossy Road Flappypunk title which borrows the same thrilling pattern of brief planning followed by hurried, frantic tapping to execute. There’s an implied threat of time pressure as the screen scrolls up, but it’s an empty one: unlike with Crossy Road, you can wait as long as you want. Of course, this just means that no one but you is responsible for each and every death. I just wish they had named it “Jumpy Car”.

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1. Caveman Pong

This game would be an exercise in monotony were it not for the detailed physics model happening behind the scenes. Colliding with the ball while descending can spike the ball. Jump just right and you can slow it down. You quickly start paying attention only to the way the ball bounces. Get a high-enough score and the landscape starts to come alive with bugs that further complicate the trajectory of your ball .

And nothing, absolutely nothing, about the premise of this game makes sense to me. Did he build those pyramids in the background? Where did he get this square Pong ball? Why does he have no one to play with?

Every time you fail, the caveman breaks the 4th wall, turning his head to you, reminding you that that he’s simply the vessel for your inadequacy. You’re to blame. This is why I play games.

0. Let it Goat

This game could have only happened at this exact moment in time: not only can you play as a Goat Elsa, but the game was made by Vine celebrities.

Happy 2014, friends. Let’s hope January ’15 has a Flappy-level surprise in store for all of us.