Inversion is a game with some resonance for me. I listed it in a blog I wrote over 5 years ago about games that I had purchased but would never actually play. This, of course, meant that it stuck in my mind enough that I would eventually get around to it. I actually started playing in November of 2020, at a time when I was trying to clear some of my backlog of physical 360 games. I got through Need For Speed: The Run (blech), Binary Domain (I liked it), and Homefront (meh) and then I decided to take my chance with Inversion. Like Binary Domain it is a Gears of War style stop ‘n pop shooter but unlike the much better regarded Sega shooter Inversion lacks an interesting story or cool environments. It’s more interested in exploring cliched broken cities and dirty labor camps and the story is so generic and forgettable that dropping back into it 14 months later I had forgotten almost everything of relevance including the relationships of the characters and the big twist at the heart of the game’s plot. I took a 4 year break after playing the first half of The Darkness and I still remembered enough to enjoy the back half of the game, so the fact that Inversion slipped my mind so thoroughly shows how little impression the game’s story makes.
I have a better recollection of the gameplay, which is basically generic third person shooting from 2012 with the ‘twist’ of gravity powers, which are fine for what they are but not interesting enough to make the game worthwhile. You can do things like pop enemies out from behind cover to float in the air as sitting ducks or pin them down to the ground so they stay in one place while you shoot them. You can also create a shield and grab and throw certain objects or enemy corpses. It’s kind of like Psi-Ops or Second Sight in its implementation of powers, though it’s not as interesting as either of those two games. There are also zero G segments where your character floats in the air and can sort of grapple and swim from cover point to cover point and those are at least novel, if not really fun. I found Inversion surprisingly playable, but bland. Maybe it was playing it back to back with the far superior Binary Domain or maybe it’s just that Inversion is bland. It’s one of those games that’s engaging enough not to be boring but that really doesn’t offer more than that.
Then I got to the last boss. He was tough and seemed pretty cheap. He can use the same gravity powers you can, which in theory is cool but in practice is extremely frustrating because he can pin you to the ground and throw plasma bombs at you until you explode into giblets (both the enemies and your own character can get violently dismembered, as was the style at the time.) I looked up walkthroughs of the game and they basically said “it’s a cheap, difficult, fight but it’s easier in co-op!” I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have any friends I could call on to co-op the final boss of Inversion in the year 2020 so I put the controller down and didn’t get back to it. And then kept not getting back to it. For 14 months.
It’s not that I never thought about it during that time. In fact every time I thought about playing a game on my 360 I told myself I couldn’t because I hadn’t finished Inversion yet and I would have to finish Inversion first. And I didn’t really want to finish Inversion. Part of that is something that I plan to explore in a later blog and that requires more self-exposure than I feel comfortable making during a blog about Inversion, but part of it was just the idea of fighting a difficult, cheap, boss in an already mediocre game was not appealing. I just didn’t want to put myself through it, but I also didn’t want to just give up on the game, so I put it off. And off. And off. I played a bunch of 360 games in the meantime, but all on my Xbox Series X, and I didn’t NEED to play my 360 so I just didn’t.
What finally got me to go back. I don’t know. I think my desire to delve into my 360 physical library overcame my aversion to finishing Inversion and I had some time and a little extra patience so I did the work to find a 360 controller, get the batteries in it, sync it to the console, re-input my password (all of which took longer than anticipated, especially because it wouldn’t take my password the first few times for some unknown reason) and at that point I was committed to finishing. As it turned out the final boss is kind of cheap, but his patterns are learnable and it probably took me about a dozen tries to learn the patterns and take him out. I watched the ending cut scene and credits, feeling a certain catharsis not because I’d finished the game’s story but because I could finally free up my 360 for other games. The ending itself was unremarkable and didn’t wrap up the game’s dangling threads, instead opting to leave open room for a sequel while also delivering what was probably supposed to be a gut punch but felt more like a ham-fisted attempt at manipulation. Maybe I would have cared more if I’d finished the game closer to when I started it and not had to say “oh yeah, that was a thing” in response to the ending cut scene’s references to its earlier plot, but I doubt it. Inversion’s story is perfunctory and manipulative and I never gave a damn about anything. Once I remembered what the big reveal actually was I remember sort of chuckling at the stupidity of it and how shallowly it is integrated into the game and its worldbuilding.
I don’t really know why I wrote all this. I don’t have much of value to say about Inversion. I had to reference the controls multiple times during the boss battle to remind myself what I could do, and I actually needed a tool tip in between deaths to remember that you can switch modes on your grav-link harness (which I ended up not actually needing.) I guess I just wanted to commemorate the fact that I finally got to the end of it and can move on to other things that I’ll hopefully like better.
The Game Pass Gambols is my chronicle of attempting to at least sample every game released on Game Pass in 2022.
Game Type: Dog photography game
Time Played: Approximately 2 hours.
Completion level: Rolled credits.
Approachability: More or less universal, unless you hate dogs for some reason.
Should You Try It?: Yes. It's short and shallow but almost everyone should get at least half an hour of gentle fun out of it.
Pupperazzi is the kind of game that fits in perfectly on Game Pass. It’s novel, cute enough for anyone to enjoy for a little while, but it’s also shallow and only contains enough content for a couple hours of enjoyment. It’s hard to recommend for $20 but much easier to suggest at the price of “free because you already paid for your subscription.” It’s the kind of game that even non-gamers can appreciate but not one that many people will fall in love with.
So what is Pupperazzi? It’s sort of a mix between Pokemon Snap and Bugsnax with much, much, lower production values than either. You play a sentient walking camera (my favorite moment in the game was discovering just what I was by seeing my shadow) tasked with taking photographs of dogs in a slightly askew version of the modern world. You travel to a total of 5 small areas on an overworld map and can freely explore the 3D environments completing tasks that mostly involve taking photos of the numerous dogs that populate the levels. As you complete tasks you gain followers and “bonks” (the game’s currency) which you can spend on new lenses and film types for your camera and unlock additional abilities like petting dogs to befriend them or taking a selfie (which means that your giant walking camera has a…separate…camera to take pictures of itself, which I kind of love.) This is also how you unlock additional areas and access to areas during different times of day. You can also upload photos to an in-game social media service to get more followers and pick up additional “bonks” lying around the environment, which respawn if you leave and come back. There are items you can pick up in the environment and throw for the dogs to chase (think bones, frisbees, biscuits) and that’s really about it. Your character can double jump pretty high so there’s some very basic platforming involved in getting to certain areas or picking up bonks high in the tree tops but this is a photography game, not a platformer. You spend most of your time searching for the right dogs to take pictures of and then capturing their doggie beauty on film (for some reason this game references film instead of a memory card; even though it has you uploading pictures to social media which doesn’t make any sense at all for a film camera.)
There’s really not a lot of game here and most of the entertainment factor comes from the weirdness of the world. You get dogs doing human-like things like riding in vehicles or working in food trucks and there are humanoid figures that shamble around and seem to be robotic. It’s not quite as disturbing as Bugsnax with its sentient muppets having their body parts turn into French fries, but it’s just odd enough to be interesting. The environments are low poly but appealing in a way similar to Bugsnax and the dogs themselves are pretty cute though their behaviors are so simple it’s hard to really get attached to them. It’s fun to run around for a little bit and try to find the specific dogs that the challenge system assigns for you but it quickly becomes a little tedious and though most of the areas have 4 times of day with their own challenges and different dogs not enough changes to really make it feel like a different experience. The game seems to know this and rolls credits after you unlock the last area and far before you’ve completed all of the content that it has to offer in terms of completing challenges and buying camera upgrades. It probably took me 90 minutes to get to this credit sequence and I hadn’t actually completed a single achievement. I may go back to this game a little bit to mess around and check off some of the achievements (which tend to be accumulation achievements rather than anything difficult) but I feel like I’ve seen what the game has to offer, which is honestly not that much.
But that not very much is pretty fun to experience for the short while it lasts and with Game Pass you can dip in and out quickly and with no guilt. Laying down $20 for the game you might find yourself irritated at how simple and shallow it is, as well as its jankiness (dogs float in mid air, sometimes the game fails to recognize that there’s a dog in the photo, etc…) but as a free game it’s worth a chuckle or two.
Pupperazzi is not a great game. It might not even be a good game, at least by some measures. It’s certainly no Bugsnax, a game that I platinumed and genuinely enjoyed pretty much the whole time, and it has a lot of issues but it does just enough with its weird and cute concept to be worth a little bit of your time. That’s what makes it such a great fit for Game Pass. It’s a simple, entertaining, distraction and a perfect supplement to the much bigger experiences, like Rainbow 6 Extraction and Nobody Saves the World, that Game Pass has been serving up this month. The old way of buying games outright (at retail or online) never quite fit experiences like this, that are in some ways more interactive toys than “games” and Game Pass offers up a way for the creators to profit without customers feeling like they overspent.
The Game Pass Gambols is my chronicle of attempting to at least sample every game released on Game Pass in 2022.
Game: Nobody Saves the World
Game Type: Action RPG
Time Played: Approximately 25 hours.
Completion level: Rolled credits.
Approachability: High. It's pretty easy and surprisingly intuitive.
Should You Try It?: Yes. A lot of people loved it, and I thought the first couple hours were very strong.
Sometimes you’re really looking forward to a game and it turns out to be just okay. That was my experience with Nobody Saves The World.
This is the latest game by Drinkbox Studios, the makers of the excellent Guacamelee and the “I really wanted to like it buy it was on a portable system so I kind of didn’t” Severed. It’s the first major new Game Pass release of the year and the first 2022 game I finished in 2022. It has a very cool concept where you play a character who wakes up as a sort of formless pale child in a barn with no memory and quickly acquire a wand that lets you shape shift. You soon find out that a calamity has afflicted the world and unleashed a fungus that is slowly afflicting all the people and that the realm’s hero, Nostramagus, is missing, leaving nobody who can defeat the calamity and restore prosperity to the kingdom. Since your character lacks an identity the title is, of course, a pun, and you are the Nobody who must save the world from cataclysm. It then plays out as an action RPG where you do quests, fight monsters, and level up your main character and the various forms you can turn into, unlocking additional forms as you go. There’s a huge amount of customization that lets you mix and match your active and passive abilities from various forms and upgrade whatever you wand and each form is leveled by completing certain challenges, such as killing a certain number of enemies with a certain power or combination of powers, encouraging experimentation and using a wide variety of the moves on offer.
In theory this should all be stuff that I’m very into, but in practice a lot of it feels half-baked. Let’s start with the story. It’s very mediocre. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it bad, but every character is extremely shallow and it focuses on cute jokes and B-grade humor. You’re tasked with doing dumb things like helping a scientist decode speech of one particular dolphin by playing a recoding of its speech to other dolphins in the world, and then it turns out that the dolphin in question was using naughty language so all the other dolphins act shocked when you speak to them. The game doesn’t even have the courage of telling you what the naughty dolphin is saying, opting to translate it as “frick, frick” so as not to offend gentle sensibilities. It’s kind of cute but not that funny, and since the majority of the quests are this kind of nonsense it makes the whole game feel like a silly lark. I don’t mind games that try to be funny, but I can’t help compare Nobody Saves the World with something like Lost in Random, which managed to be very funny and have meaningful dramatic stakes and memorable characters, and while Nobody Saves The World’s story isn’t bad it doesn’t accomplish any of those things. It’s just kind of there, while sometimes managing to rise to the level of being mildly amusing.
Also “just kind of there” is the quest system. You get an absolute ton of quests in this game. The most important are the form upgrade quests, which I mentioned earlier and which generally require you to do something specific with the abilities of the form in question (though sometimes they will require you use abilities from another form.) These are used to grant you form points, which advance the rank of your forms from F up to S and unlock additional powers and abilities as you go. In addition to these quests you also get quests from characters in the world and quests to complete certain dungeons. Finally you can purchase repeatable quests from a vendor that give you XP for your base level (but not form points) for doing things like killing a certain number of enemies or collecting a certain amount of money. All of this is fine, but because quest rewards are just XP none of it feels particularly meaningful. The quests you get from NPCs don’t really give a lot of XP and from a purely mechanical point of view are kind of a waste of time, because it would be more efficient to complete dungeons or focus on form quests (which also give you XP, and generally more of it) than to traipse around doing tasks for random people you meet. On the other hand you can generally work on your form quests while you do other things, so the quests do give you something to do while you’re grinding, and some of them have amusing dialog associated, but they don’t feel meaningful. The lack of items or equipment in the game generally means that nothing feels meaningful except getting levels for your forms, and since that’s all tied to grinding it really takes away from the impact of actually doing things to advance the game’s narrative or help out its NPCs. The only meaningful collectables you can find are the mana fairies scattered across the map, since your HP increases with level but your mana pool does not, and they each give you a tiny upgrade to your base pool, meaning that while finding a bunch of them is meaningful each individual fairy doesn’t have a lot of value.
All this might be fine if the game had really engaging combat. It doesn’t. This is very much a game that throws hordes of enemies at you and has you smack them until they go down. It reminded me a lot of the old arcade game Gauntlet, especially since you are constantly finding food items from chests and enemies to restore your health. The main gameplay loop involves using your form’s base attack (which cannot be customized per form and cannot be used by other forms) to build up mana that you then spend to activate your other abilities. Each ability is tied to an elemental type (such as “dark” or “sharp”) and some enemies have wards that must be broken before they can be damaged by hitting them with an ability of the appropriate type. This is especially common in dungeons, and somewhat limits what forms you can use in certain dungeons because you want one whose base attack will break at least one of the wards on the enemies so you’re not just harmlessly swatting at them trying to build your mana. Status effects such as poison or slow build over time (on you or enemies) and there are passive abilities that can make all of your attacks inflict some kind of status as well.
The issue is that with the swarms of enemies and juggling the various abilities to take out wards the whole thing comes off a little frantic and unfocused. There’s just too much on screen to focus on any one thing so it ends up being about spamming AOE attacks and trying to move away from as many bad guys as you can while keeping your mana up. All too often it degenerates into mindless button mashing. That can be okay if the aesthetics are great and combat feels like it has impact, or the story is compelling, but neither is true here. It looks fine but nothing special and the cartoony graphics prevent the combat from having much oomph, and the story doesn’t carry anything, so it’s pretty underwhelming. That’s not to say that it’s never fun; some of the form quests are a bit more complicated and require doing things like inflicting poison and then using a specific attack on enemies, which can be engaging, and I liked some of the abilities like the zombie’s bite that infects enemies and spawns zombie allies when they die, leading to some fun battles between your zombie horde and the masses of enemy monsters.
Level design is also just kind of “there.” The overworld is static and has some interesting ideas. There are areas that are blocked off by water and cannot be reached until you get a swimming or flying form, and there are lots of shortcuts and teleport pads you can unlock, making it relatively easy to get around. It seems like there should be more to it (like a greater number of obstacles that you’d need a specific form to get past) but there isn’t. Dungeons are randomly generated each time you go in and are honestly not great. There are a few small wrinkles, like some dungeons with hazards you need to avoid (and that can be used to hurt enemies) and sometimes requiring you to go find a key down one of the relatively straight corridors before you can unlock a gate and advance, but none of it feels meaningful. What’s the difference between just walking from the beginning of the dungeon to the end while fighting enemies and having to go left and right first to pick up keys before advancing? Not a whole lot. Bosses tend to be large versions of existing enemies and none of them have interesting mechanics until the very last boss of the game, which changes things up some. The fact that this final boss has some new mechanics and there are two dungeons in the game with a meaningful structural difference shows that the team knew that the game could offer more variety but lacked either ambition or, more likely, resources to create more instances like this. Instead most of the dungeons just add a modifier like having enemy corpses explode or having your abilities cost more mana and while this does require you to pick a form and a build that works within the constrains of the modifier it doesn’t change the fundamental gameplay. One dungeon had status effects that last 5 times longer than most of them do and since there’s no way to dispel those status effects I spent the vast majority of the dungeon poisoned and slowed and it was extremely annoying.
I think one illuminating detail about the game and the problems with its design is that in the major dungeons where you recover parts of a gem that must be reconstructed to try and open a path to the the evil presence causing the calamity you cannot progress form quests. You can still change forms at will and customize your loadout etc… and you can even gain experience and level up through non-form quests but you cannot make any progress on improving your forms. It is completely unclear what purpose this actually serves. As far as I can tell the goal is to get you to focus on survival and using your forms effectively rather than the grinding that dominates so much of the game, but it seems like something that could have been incentivized in some other way. It just makes the game slightly more frustrating because you’re fighting hordes of enemies but not making meaningful progress or gaining new powers, which is much of what makes the game fun. It’s a half-baked and counterproductive mechanic that makes the game a little less fun without accomplishing much. It’s not game ruining, since these dungeons aren’t overly long and you can always leave and go grind form quests elsewhere if you are truly underpowered, but it rankled me just because I didn’t see what it accomplished.
This kind of design sloppiness permeates the rest of the game. Why isn’t there any meaningful loot or rewards for quests (there are passive abilities and stat buffs you can buy from the game’s vendor that would have made much better quest rewards.)? Why are the bosses and dungeon designs so vanilla? Why doesn’t the game explain how leveling forms after you’ve unlocked all their abilities helps you (I think it improves the stats you get when you change to that form but I’m not sure.)? The whole thing feels a little rough and sloppy.
I realize I’ve spent the vast majority of this review complaining, and Nobody Saves the World is not a bad game. There were times it annoyed or frustrated me but also times I really enjoyed myself. There’s some amusing dialog, some cool powers and funny forms, nice graphics, okay music, a lengthy campaign and plenty of positive elements. I’m just frustrated because I really thought I’d love this game and I didn’t. It’s pretty easy and mindless so it’s a fine ‘podcast’ game to button mash your way through. It has online multiplayer, which I didn’t try but I can’t imagine would fix my issues. It’s fine.
But it’s just fine and I expected more from Drinkbox. Guacamelee is a mechanically dense and satisfying game. Even Severed had cool ideas. The concept of playing a shapeshifter with the ability to customize your powers seems fantastic. In the end it’s just not focused or polished enough to truly come together. It’s a forgettable, tolerable, slightly bland game that doesn’t reach its potential. Like its hero it’s a little bit formless. Hopefully if there’s a sequel it can transform into something with a bit more oomph.
The gaming press, the Internet, and even the business media have been buzzing over Microsoft’s splashy announcement that they are spending nearly $70 billion to purchase Activision Blizzard. A lot of the discussion has focused on how this will play into Microsoft competing in the traditional AAA market and even the mobile market, where Activision subsidiary King has some very profitable titles. As far as I can tell, however, nobody is looking at the most reasonable explanation for the purchase and especially the timing of the announcement. Nobody is looking at the 6,000 pre-order gorilla that’s about to break down the gaming industry’s door and change gaming and, if we’re being honest, American culture, forever.
On Friday January 14th Intellivision posted a statement of facts that demolished all the criticisms about its hotly anticipated new game console and made it very clear that they are a serious player in the games space and they didn’t come to take prisoners. The following Tuesday Microsoft announces the purchase of Activision for $68 billion. Somehow the press, even the ‘responsible’ mainstream business press, has so far failed to draw the obvious line from point A to point B. Can I prove that Microsoft CEO of gaming Phil Spencer saw the Amico statement on Friday afternoon, called Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and begged for access to Microsoft’s considerable war chest to make a Hail Mary pass to save the struggling Xbox division? And that Spencer then called Bobby Kotick on Monday in a blind panic to toss him a $68 billion life preserver in the hope that two sinking ships could somehow pull each other up out of the ocean’s embrace? No. I can’t prove it. But that’s the way Occam’s razor cuts here.
Everyone is focused on the biggest core games involved in this blockbuster deal. Call of Duty. World of Warcraft. Overwatch. But Microsoft already has a lot of games like that. Halo. Elder Scrolls Online. Gears of War. Microsoft doesn’t need Activision to give it shooters and Western RPGs. What Microsoft doesn’t have, but Activision does, is games from the simpler time that gaming will inevitably return to once the 3D and online fads have run their little course. Games like Pitfall and Frostbite. Games that everyone can understand and play. Starcraft is so complicated that only the most dedicated gamers can make heads or tails of it, but do you know what anyone can grasp after a few minutes? Fishing Derby. The really valuable part of the portfolio is not the flashy stuff but the bedrock games of the past that are poised to make a huge comeback, especially after Amico takes the market by storm and disrupts Xbox’s whole business model.
Phil Spencer is a smart guy. He knows that people are getting bored of playing variations of the same FPS games and open world bore fests painted over with slightly newer graphics and a rehashed map. He knows that what today’s kids really want are the games that their weird, childless, uncles vaguely remember playing at a friend’s house 40 years ago, like Astrosmash and Dynablaster. The endless virtual expenses and creative building of Minecraft is far too open ended for young people growing up in a scary and changing world. What children are really into is a video game version of Farkle, a dice game so old fashioned and obscure that nobody knows how it originated in the 1980s or, more importantly, why.
Microsoft put on a brave face by announcing 25 million subscribers to Game Pass in its big Activision purchase announcement. They wanted to reframe the bad news that growth has dramatically slowed this early and pretend it’s a win. There are 3 billion gamers in the world. Xbox’s offerings appeal to less than 1% of them. That's the market Intellivision is looking to corner, and Farkle will charm them all.
Amico has already proven to have a unique appeal in the gaming space. When a piece of electronics is popular and desirable people say that retailers can’t keep it on the shelves. With Amico, retailers can’t even get it to those shelves in the first place. Amico had thousands of pre-orders over 2 years before it was released. Do you know how many pre-orders Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch had combined 2 years prior to their releases? 0. Not a good look for the companies that claim to be the major players in gaming. Amico has sold and shipped tens of thousands of physical games without a release date for the console itself. None of the other companies even tried. That’s how far ahead Amico is.
Amico’s statement of facts and announcement that they were going to make an announcement of the console’s fourth scheduled release date clearly sent shockwaves through the $2 trillion behemoth that is Microsoft. They saw the writing on the wall, the universal appeal of simpler, easier, games, and they panicked to the tune of a year’s worth of GDP from Myanmar, a country of over 50 million people. That’s a whole lot of panic over Shark Shark! But it makes sense. Microsoft doesn’t have the old, long forgotten, properties to revive and do battle with Amico’s big guns, like Biplanes, a game whose reference to a long abandoned and obsolete technology perfectly fits into Amico’s philosophy. At least it didn’t until the Activision purchase, bringing along a host of older properties not just vaguely remembered but beloved by weird uncles throughout the western world.
Will it work? I don’t think so. Amico’s games have been in development for years, honing everything to a perfect level of polish prior to the big release, which will likely be before the Activision purchase closes in 2023. The names are less familiar, which makes them more intriguing. You can’t fight Astrosmash with River Raid and Megamania. You can’t take on Shark Shark! With Seaquest. You certainly can’t fight Intellivision Skiing with Activision Skiing. Or Slalom by Rare. Microsoft also owns Slalom. It won’t help them though. You can’t win a war fighting on the defensive, and that’s what the panic buying of Activision is. Microsoft armed itself for the wrong conflict. Its expensive studios and 3D online fad franchises are the Maginot Line of gaming. And Intellivision? The company relying on German grant money to finance much of its game development? I think we know who they are in this scenario.
Yesterday was an Amico kind of day for me. I wanted to play games but I didn’t want to play anything overly complicated or taxing. I was looking for some accessible quick fix fun, the kind we used to have back in the 8-bit era where gaming didn’t require 10 mapped buttons or 3D camera control. The exact kind of gaming experience that the Amico is selling itself on.
I started out with Mighty Goose, which I downloaded for “free” off Game Pass. This is a Metal Slug style run ‘n gun. It’s teen rated, but if you removed a little blood and a few bones that fly out when you run over enemies in a vehicle it could probably get an E. This is a Metal Slug style arcade run ‘n gun with a pretty forgiving difficulty curve. It even has a system similar to the Amico’s much touted “karma” engine that gives you extra health and weapon pick ups if you die too much on one checkpoint, tailoring the game’s difficulty to the player’s skill. It’s 2 player local co-op as well. In other words it’s exactly the kind of game that you’d expect to find on the Amico based on what they’ve shown so far. Except I’m not sure the Amico could handle the game’s graphics, since there are lots of screen filling effects when things blow up and it has large sprites with detailed animation. Maybe it could.
Amico proponents will argue that this is a “hardcore” game and a different market, but that has never made any sense. Two of the system’s games that people anticipate are Finnigan Fox and Earthworm Jim. Both of those are different forms of run ‘n guns, with a similar cartoony art style to Mighty Goose. I’ve finished Fox ‘N Forests, the game that Finnigan Fox is a reworking of, and though they have promised to make Finnigan Fox easier than that version I can tell you that Mighty Goose is much more accessible to non-gamers than even a reworked Fox ‘N Forests will be. Fox ‘N Forests requires collecting seeds to open up new levels, many of which are hidden or even invisible in the level, and others of which require backtracking with new abilities from older levels. Mighty Goose just requires you progress left to right, blasting everything in your pass. Fox ‘N Forests had constantly respawning enemies and tightly timed puzzle areas that required you to manage a magic meter. Mighty Goose is firmly based in the arcade mindset that it should be fun and obvious from the first time you pick it up. If I had to choose a game for a non-gamer to enjoy Mighty Goose would be the easy answer.
Mighty Goose does cost $20 if you don’t have Game Pass, which is twice the price of Amico games, but with Game Pass that cost comes down to 0 and even without it I’m sure it will go on sale from time to time. But more importantly…you don’t need to buy any new hardware to play Mighty Goose. It’s out on pretty much everything. Switch, PS4, XBONE, PC…if you have access to any of these platforms you can get Mighty Goose. It’s not locked behind a $250 investment, and while you do have to own at least one of those platforms, most people have one and they can all do a heck of a lot more than just play Mighty Goose.
This is a fundamental issue for the Amico. The Switch and the PS4 have both sold over a hundred million units. I won’t even attempt to estimate how many PCs are out there in the market, but it’s a lot and even without a dedicated graphics card most of them can run something like Mighty Goose. How many people are there out there who want to play games but don’t have one of these platforms, or a cell phone, or an Android tv streaming box that can play games? How many grandpas exist who A) like video games, B) don’t just want to play certain huge hits that they remember from the 80s like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong, since those people are covered by cheap plug ‘n plays and C) don’t already have something to play games on? I don’t know any of these people and it’s hard to imagine them. My mom liked Tetris when I was growing up and she dabbles with Words With Friends on her phone but she doesn’t like anything more complicated than that, but she doesn’t want dedicated gaming hardware and she would have no interest in Astro Smash, though she might play it for a few minutes if you handed her a controller to be polite.
After I finished Mighty Goose I downloaded Clubhouse Games for my Switch because it was on sale for $27. This is Nintendo’s compilation of 51 versions of popular games, mostly card and board games like solitaire and chess but with a few more videogamey minigames like a target shooting game and a golf game. It has a charming, family friendly, presentation with you taking the role of a little board game miniature and each game being introduced with a short, funny, voice over description by one of these little figures. It makes a lot of sense as Switch software because it allows you to play these games without any set up or clean up and through online multiplayer on the Switch’s network. It would be great for a camping trip if you want to play Connect 4 or Othello at night without having to buy or bring a bunch of those travel versions where you can lose the pieces, but it also makes sense in a small apartment without a lot of room for board games or even just a quick game in the living room if you want to play a few different things without having to dig up your old chess set or clear off space on a table to throw dice.
The presentation here is many times slicker than anything the Amico can offer, which you’d expect because the Switch is much more powerful and because Nintendo is…well..Nintendo. The Switch has a massive userbase and Clubhouse Games has sold over 3 million copies, meaning that it would have been profitable even if Nintendo had spent $50 million to make it, though I very much doubt they did spend that much. Amico projects seem to have a budget closer to the $50-200,000 range, so there’s no way they can compete in terms of polish.
Clubhouse Games nicely covers another genre that the Amico is aiming for. One of the Amico’s pack in games is Farkle, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that but I can’t imagine it’s particularly more engaging than the Yacht Dice game included in Clubhouse Games as one of more than 50 options. Farkle comes ‘free’ with the Amico but the Clubhouse games cost less than $1 a game even at full retail price, and at around $30 including tax I paid a bit more than 50 cents per game. That’s not free but it’s not far from it. Clubhouse games offers way more variety, a much slicker presentation, and, most importantly, online functionality. I haven’t even gotten to arguably the biggest draw of the package, which is that you can play these games with friends or family or even strangers across the globe. Obviously there are lots of free online chess and board game options, but this puts everything in a nice package within the safe boundaries of the Switch’s online service.
I enjoyed messing around with the Clubhouse games for a bit and playing some mancala and connect 4, but one game I didn’t enjoy very much was their version of golf, which is entirely from the overhead view and weirdly presents wind speed in meters per second, which is not a way that I think about wind and cost me a few strokes because of unexpected ball curving. It’s just not a great video game version of golf, and it left me wanting to play something a bit deeper and better. So I loaded up Neo Turf Masters, also available on the Switch, and played that for a bit.
I feel pretty confident that even if the Amico does end up releasing and doing well it will not offer a better version of video game golf than Neo Turf Masters. That’s not any slight on the Amico developers, but Neo Turf Masters was created by an exceptionally talented team during the height of the 90s arcade craze and caught lightning in a bottle. Its gorgeously detailed pixel art graphics, intense and exciting presentation, and finely tuned great-feeling controls make it a version of video game golf that hasn’t often been topped in the 25 years since it came out. The only games that have done it better have been high budget golf sims (not something the Amico will even attempt) or Sony’s Everybody’s Golf series, which leveraged the power of modern hardware and its own high budget (for the time) to create something that at least rivals the Neo Geo masterpiece. Neo Turf Masters is available on Switch for $8, though, and that’s about the price that Amico games are targeting. The Amico can argue that it’s not competing with Nintendo’s $60 Mario Golf game, but it is competing with at least hundreds and arguably thousands of old arcade and new indie titles available on Switch at a much lower price point, and it’s not clear how it can.
I think that the Amico makes two massive mistakes that have doomed it, and which compound one another. The first is its price point. By charging almost as much as a Switch for a much less capable machine with much less brand recognition it makes itself the Great Value version of a product that exists but without actually having great value. Imagine going to the store and seeing the store brand peanut butter on the shelf next to Skippy, only it cost 80% as much and came in a jar half as big (much less functionality.) Who would buy it?
The second issue is not being a semi-open platform. The Amico promises that all of its games will have unique content of some kind (originally it was that they’d all be exclusives but this was quickly abandoned as unworkable.) That highly limits what’s on the system. There are thousands of great indie games that could run on the Amico and if it was a port friendly development environment (which it likely is if it uses an old mobile phone chipset that developers are familiar with) it might be able to get some of these amazing games to bulk up its selection and give it more of a library. The Atari VCS is using this model and while it isn’t setting the world on fire it would have almost literally nothing to play if it didn’t have these ports. Atari is also supplementing its own game development costs for the system by selling those games on other platforms (with slightly less content) so it’s not stuck in the trap of having to make games to attract people to its system but only being able to sell games to the small number of people who come on board, generating massive development costs with a tiny market until it catches on. Even the mighty Nintendo had to learn this lesson and abandoned the idea of having a ‘siloed’ system with mostly unique games when it created the Switch. It actively courted ports from anyone who would put a game on its machine, and its status as a semi-open platform is in large part responsible for its success. Nintendo realized that even as one of the biggest game developers and publishers in the world it could not make enough games to support a modern platform, so to avoid the pitfalls of the N64 and Wii U (where you’d buy it for the Nintendo games but have nothing else to play) it filled its release gaps with bucket loads of indie games and last/current gen ports, and Switch owners happily devoured those offerings in between the bigger Nintendo releases.
Intellivision management looked at that hard won lesson that finally got through to the notoriously hard-headed Nintendo leadership team and said “nah, you had it right to begin with, exclusives only is the way to go.”
The Amico essentially has three arguments as to why it would be a better choice than the Switch. The first is based on things that aren’t on the system. It doesn’t offer T or M rated games and it doesn’t have complicated “core” gamer games. This argument doesn’t really make sense. The Switch has parental controls to prevent kids from accessing games with inappropriate content, and the mere existence of Fire Emblem on the platform won’t be an impediment to people who just want to play Animal Crossing and Clubhouse Games. How many Wiis were sold to nursing homes even though that platform also hosted Mad World and Xenoblade Chronicles. You might make some headway with hardcore evangelical Christians who object to the mere existence of Doom 2016 on any platform (demons! gore! Medkits that may contain covid-19 vaccines!) but the Amico doesn’t seem to be targeting that group, even though it’s arguably the console’s best bet. I haven’t seen any outreach to church groups and there aren’t any Sunday Funday Wisdom Tree type games announced for the console. If the team is smart they’ll make this pivot, but they haven’t yet.
The second argument is related but distinct; which is that the Amico will have a tightly curated game library, releasing one new game every 10 or 14 days, which will help avoid people getting overwhelmed by the massive libraries on modern consoles and also help developers by highlighting their games in a way the Switch or PS4/5 cannot. Nobody wants this. Anyone who is going to be comfortable with an online only game store is going to be used to picking through a flood of options to find the thing they want. They’ve all used Netflix and Spotify and a dozen other services at this point. There may be grandpas out there who haven’t used those things and are scared and confused by them, but they will also be scared and confused by the online only nature of the Amico, and even if they haven’t used Netflix they’ve probably dealt with a flood of content on cable TV. Artificially limiting your offerings is not good business in 2022; that’s why Nintendo abandoned this model and opened its platform. Developers, on the other hand, might like the idea of a captive audience, but not a tiny one if they have to develop extra content for it. You might get them on board if they could just port their Unity project to your platform with a couple people putting in a week or two to make sure it runs okay, but if you demand they add new modes or levels or anything else that requires considerable development resources they aren’t going to be interested unless you can offer them at least a hundred thousand potential buyers, and the Amico certainly can’t. The Evercade, a physical only system, also curates and releases a limited number of games (though its library is in the hundreds if you count every title on each mutli-cart) but because it packages pre-existing games in pre-built emulators it doesn’t actually require any development time beyond testing and tweaking emulation, which can likely be done by one or two people without a ton of work. The PlayDate does have an all exclusive library, but it keeps development costs dirt cheap by offering a very easy environment (it has built in development tools) and an intentionally weak chip with a black and white screen. This makes it an ideal platform for single-person passion project development. Selling the games via ‘season’ subscription also assures at least some audience for these super cheap to make games. Amico doesn’t do any of these things to ameliorate its problem of trying to get exclusive content for what will likely be a tiny audience.
The last issue with the Amico is where we get to their “Statement of facts.” Amico responded to Sam Mackovech’s Ars Technica piece with some combative claims about what he allegedly got wrong about their system, including the costs of the parts. In this response they cited the costs of the controllers and the LED lights on the system as two of the reasons why the cost of manufacture was more than what Mackovech claimed. I’m not going to speculate on the actual costs because it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the Amico’s controllers have apparently driven up the system’s price while not offering anything nearly valuable enough to justify charging almost as much as the Switch for it. I would hope the LED lights are not that expensive because they do even less and are likely to prove annoying for anyone who wants to play in a darkened room, but both these features seem to be born not out of necessity for any particular game application but because they seem like they would be ‘cool.’
Gaming consoles have a long history of including things that seem like they would be cool but actually don’t do anything of value. Popular history seems to have it that the Wii’s motion controls were cool and that’s what drove sales of the system. I don’t think that’s true. Both Sony and Microsoft tried to copy Nintendo’s success and both failed. The PlayStation 4 has motion controls and a touch pad and LED lights on the controller and with a very few exceptions the only uses those things have are in VR, where the motion controls come in handy and the LED lights allow the camera to track the controller. Other than those VR applications you only get a few gimmicks like shaking the controller like a flashlight in The Last Of Us and a couple weird experiments like Blue Estate, a light gun shooter that uses the PS4 motion controls to simulate a light gun and kind of sort of works. The Switch has motion controls and my main experience with using them has been in ports from the Wii and the Wii U, like the Super Mario Galaxy port where you pick up the star fragments with an on screen pointer controlled by motion. They even gave an option to turn off the motion controls in Skyward Sword because people don’t really want to use them. There are other applications, like gyro aiming in Splatoon and some other games, but motion controls are not a core feature. Meanwhile other features like the IR camera are used by almost no games, to the point where the Switch Lite doesn’t even include it.
The Nintendo Wii was successful because Wii Sports was a phenomenon, not because it had motion controls. A lot of people bought that console to play tennis and bowling and that was pretty much it. The system had a notoriously low attach rate because people were buying it just for the pack in and then not buying anything else. You can’t replicate the Wii’s success with control gimmicks, only with must have games. Amico’s big controller in the screen gimmick has been tried twice before, once by the Wii U and once by the Dreamcast, and neither of those systems were successful because the gimmick seems cool but has limited applications. You see the same thing with current gimmicks. Both the Switch and the PS5 have advanced rumble features that were used to great effect in launch titles (1-2-Switch and Astro’s Playroom) and then mostly ignored. For all its hype there are very few people talking about the Dualsense a year after launch. People might like the controller fine, and they may appreciate some of its features, but it’s not driving conversation or sales.
The games we’ve seen so far seem to utilize the Amico controller in gimmicky ways, often doing things that other controllers could also do. The controller shows you the color of your ship in Astrosmash. The PS4/5 could do that with its LED. The controller lets you know which oyster will have the next pearl in Shark Shark!, and that’s something that could be accomplished via HD rumble. Showing the dice on your controller screen before you roll in Farkle and then transferring that roll to the screen is kind of neat, but it’s also Farkle. That’s something you can physically play with a few dice and a pad of paper. Wii Sports let you play baseball and golf and boxing in your living room. Clubhouse Games packs dozens of games into a portable system that can be played on an airplane or in the waiting room at the dentist, and adds online functionality so Aunt Gladys can play with you from 3,000 miles away. Is there really much call for even a kind of neat version of video Farkle you need to gather everyone by the TV to enjoy? I’m not saying it’s pointless just that it’s not exactly a system seller.
And that’s what the Amico lacks. A reason to buy the system. It has some games that look bad and some that look fine and even a few that look pretty good, like the version of Breakout by the talented team that made the Bit Trip games. It has some gimmicks that have been tried before without a lot of success. It’s not particularly attractive on price, it’s not an open platform that will attract a wide variety of games looking to be bigger fish in a smaller pond, it lacks basic features like online gaming and it has precisely zero killer apps. Astrosmash looks fine for what it is, most likely, but Xbox Games With Gold is giving away Space Invaders Infinity Gene right now and I can’t imagine that Astro Smash will be able to compete with that or any of the other ‘retro reimagined’ games that have come out over the years and are available on various consoles.
No console maker has been able to go it alone when it comes to development for a very long time, and those that have tried have failed and have opened up their platforms. Gimmicks like LED lights and simple touch screens on the controller aren’t going to change that, especially when there is no killer app to show them off. Video games are common place enough that everyone who wants to play them can find an accessible way to do so, and you’re not going to sell a $250 machine to people who just aren’t that interested. One thing I’ve noticed is that everyone who is excited for the Amico plays all kinds of different games and consoles, and most of them are collectors. They’re interested in a new iteration on something they already have lots of access to. They don’t need the Amico to pursue their hobby but they’re interested in it because they’re hobbyists and they like weird and obscure ideas for the same reason that a lot of film buffs like obscure low budget films; it’s something different and creative and cool in a format they love. But nobody ever tried to sell a special DVD player that would only play films made by Troma, and if they did it would have been a massive flop, even if it had come with some kind of special gimmick like smell-o-vision. The economics for media production, where extra copies can be made for at most a dollar or two, are very different from the economics for electronics. You need some kind of plan, generally involving either leveraging pre-existing content to keep development costs down (Atari, Evercade) or intentionally creating a machine that’s very cheap to make games for (Playdate.)
The Amico’s plan is a cheap touch screen on the controller and excitement over a 2022 version of Shark Shark! How do I set my LED lights to skeptical?
The Game Pass Gambols is my chronicle of attempting to at least sample every game released on Game Pass in 2022. Mighty Goose came out in 2021 but I wanted to play it so I'm including it anyway.
Game: Mighty Goose
Game Type: Run 'n Gun
Time Played: Approximately 4 hours.
Completion level: Rolled credits. Messed around with New Game+ but did not complete.
Approachability: High. It's very simple to control and not too difficult but has a bit of violence and some blood.
Should You Try It?: Do you like Metal Slug?
Mighty Goose is a Metal Slug ‘homage’ starring a well-armed goose as some kind of space bounty hunter. I think for about 80% of people that will be enough to know whether or not they will like the game and the rest of this entry will be superfluous. Nevertheless I will persevere.
Many games have taken their inspiration from Metal Slug but few have been quite as shameless. The cartoony visuals are nowhere near as detailed as those of the famed SNK run ‘n gun, but this is an indie effort and even back in the arcade heyday of the 90s those ultradetailed sprites and environments proved too costly to produce in the long run. Mighty Goose’s visuals are pleasant enough, evoking 32-bit 2D platformers with bright colors and lots of large sprites. If it weren’t HD and widescreen you could imagine this having a cult following on the Saturn. The soundtrack is peppy, upbeat, and jazzy. It doesn’t reach quite the heights that the best indie soundtracks do but it’s only one or two notches below them. You probably won’t seek out streaming versions of these tunes but they’re quite enjoyable within the context of the game. The gameplay is faster and more responsive than Metal Slug’s, especially after you unlock the loadout option that makes your goose go faster, and the game includes a dodge roll move and the ability to stay aloft after a jump by firing continually below yourself. Your standard arm cannon is pretty effective but you can pick up temporary upgrades including homing missiles, a machine gun, and a powerful shotgun and tesla gun, which are both great fun to use. A deep-voiced male announcer announces each time you pick one of these up, which is the only voice work in the game. You have limited ammo on the extra weapons but pick ups are relatively plentiful, giving the game some nice natural variation as you slightly change your tactics depending on what you’re armed with at any given moment. Enemy variety is adequate, ranging from standard troopers to small insects to enemies in vehicles such as bombers. There are a handful of bosses, which are enormous and challenging without being overly difficult or cheap. The final boss is especially satisfying to take down, without being unfair or breaking the difficulty curve.
I mentioned a loadout system earlier and it’s a slightly unusual one. You earn options as you complete levels and each of them has a certain energy cost associated with it. You have a limited energy budget so you have to pick and choose which of these you want active in your loadout for a given mission. You can’t change the loadout while on a mission but you do get to toggle things on and off before you embark. The upgrades themselves are fine but not exciting. You might increase your move speed (basically necessary) or increase the amount of ammo you get for your weapon pick ups or the amount of time you stay in your semi-invincible super mode lasts (this charges as you kill enemies and is activated by pressing both triggers.) You also get to select a companion character to travel with you and they do things like attack enemies or occasionally throw out a weapon powerup. Sometimes another companion will join you when you rescue them during a stage. You collect coins during gameplay, which you can spend through an in-game phone app for powerups…I think. It’s not tutorialized and I never used it. None of this stuff is particularly interesting but it doesn’t hurt the game either. There are also vehicles called warmachines you jump into that very much resemble the Metal Slugs from…Metal Slug. This adds some welcome variety and you get 4 extra hits before they blow up (you can also refill their health with a wrench icon) so they’re useful, though you can generally continue on foot if one gets destroyed. Your goose also has 4 hits, and can refill their health through medkits, which keeps the game from being too frustrating, though checkpoints are rather far apart so a death can set you back 2 or 3 minutes. It feels like a tough but fair nod to the genre’s arcade origins and you can retry as many times as you like. There’s also some behind the scenes ‘mercy’ programming that gives you extra weapons and health if you find yourself dying at the same checkpoint more than a couple times. The only penalty you take is to your stage grade, which is pretty harsh anyway. I got a D on stages where I only had one death, and also on stage 2 after I died almost ten times against the boss, so I don’t actually know how much it matters.
Mighty Goose isn’t perfect, of course. It puts a ton of explosion effects and screen shake on screen after you destroy certain enemies and I took lots of hits from enemy bullets I couldn’t see because the screen was bouncing around and there were seemingly dozens of pieces of scrap obscuring my view. It’s also not always clear when you can advance to the next area and I got hit trying to move forward because the screen didn’t scroll and instead a wave of enemies came at me. There are some instant kill hazards that don’t feel particularly fair because sometimes you have to blind jump down into a pit to continue and sometimes the pits are just bottomless death, and there are lava pools that might kill you even if you barely graze them. I got stuck in geometry a couple times and died to projectiles while I couldn’t move. These kinds of annoyances aren’t anywhere near enough to ruin the experience but are the kind of issues that small team projects sometimes have when they don’t have quite enough resources to fully polish the product.
Mighty Goose does have a story, I guess, but it’s incomprehensibly choppy. Characters appear with no introduction and give you assignments or fight you before disappearing. There are only a few lines of dialog per level so fortunately the developers didn’t make the mistake of stuffing the game with awful storytelling, and you don’t really need a narrative in a game like this so it’s fine for what it is. You’re a goose with an arm cannon, you shoot everything except the ally characters you can’t shoot and you move from left to right, occasionally using a vent to fly upwards or moving back to the right to hit a switch and open a door. A game with arcade roots doesn’t really need to be any deeper than that.
Mighty Goose is good, shallow, fun. There’s not a ton of content here, though it does offer New Game+ mode with remixed levels, as well as 2 player local co-op. The lack of limits on lives or continues means you can get through this in just a couple hours, which makes its $20 asking price a little steep for a game that’s decent but nothing special. I feel like $10 would be more appropriate for something like this, or maybe $15 if you really like the genre. On the other hand as a Game Pass game it’s pretty darn good. It’s very accessible, bright, colorful, and fun for a play through or two. It’s a great game to play in between huge open world behemoths or when you need a break from your latest hard as nails roguelite. It’s the kind of game that used to be called a good rental, a well-made title that just doesn’t have enough content or replay value to be worth its asking price, which back then was often at least $50. I always felt a little bad saying that about a game because this project was made by talented developers who made the game they wanted to make, made it well, and made a game that I enjoyed. I like Metal Slug! They also avoided artificially extending the length with arcade style cheapness or limited lives or continues and I appreciate that. Should they be penalized for working in a genre that’s expensive to produce on a level by level basis if it’s also a genre that many people like?
Game Pass offers one potential model for how to monetize arcade style games at a time when actual arcades are all but dead. Apple Arcade, of course, is doing a similar thing on cell phones. Of course there are far too many games coming out these days for even Microsoft or Apple to want to put them all on their service, at least at a price that’s fair to developers. But for those that do get selected this is a great way for players to enjoy these kinds of short games without feeling like they spent too much while the developers get paid for their work, though based on the credits this game was also supported through Patreon, presumably by people who really love Metal Slug. I hope they were happy with the product they ended up getting. I suspect they were.
What does it mean to be the “year of” something? It doesn’t mean that thing is the highest selling. Within the video game sphere 2020 was the year of the PlayStation 5 even though the Nintendo Switch sold more units, because the PlayStation 5 captured the attention of the gaming world and became an object of desire among the frenzied masses who battled bots and scalpers more vicious than any fungus zombies or Norse gods to try and get one. It doesn’t mean that thing is the most popular. 2021 was arguably the year of Xbox and Game Pass even though the PlayStation and Nintendo brands remained stronger, but Xbox gained relative position in the market and people’s mindshare, garnering positive attention for strong game releases and additions to their service and forcing Sony to react by planning a similar service for its own system. Instead I’d argue that to be the “year of” something that thing has to have the best year relative to its starting position and make the most positive progress in the market and public opinion compared to where it began.
With that definition in mind it seems all but certain that 2022 will be the year of the Amico.
The Amico starts the year with several powerful advantages. The first is that very few people have heard of it. It’s easy to make impressive relative progress when you’re starting from ground zero. On a relative basis selling a single Amico system would increase its market share more, as a percentage, than Sony or Microsoft could by selling millions of machines into a market that already contains tens of millions of PlayStations and Xboxes. Amico also has the advantage of having a dreadful reputation that would be easy to improve. Among the small but dedicated group that already knows that the Amico exists just having a mediocre performance would create a massive improvement in the machine’s perception, since outlets like Ars Technica are already predicting its failure and the collapse of Intellivision, the company that plans to release it.
But it’s more than just how easy it will be to improve its relative standing that makes Amico all but guaranteed to win the remaining 352 days in 2022. It’s the product itself and the company behind it. The Amico is a true disruptor in the marketplace. While its competitors are focused on cutting edge graphics and the fool’s errand of “photorealism” the Amico offers up the comfortable and pleasing aesthetics of the mid-2010s cell phone market, considered by someone, somewhere, probably, to be the pinnacle of gaming aesthetics. While other companies have foolishly wasted money on the fad of online gaming the Amico has the vision to offer only in person gameplay, which is bold and disruptive in a pandemic stricken world where many are afraid to interact with others. Is the Amico the product that will finally coax the population out of hiding to spread joy and saliva droplets with their loved ones? You can’t prove it isn’t.
The Amico has also disrupted console and controller design. While Xbox and Nintendo try for a subtle, modern, angular, look that blends into your living space and the PlayStation 5 evokes visions of the future with its spacecraft like sweeps of black and white plastic, the Amico proudly looks like a Fisher-Price footbath for aliens, complete with even more bright LEDs than the Wii annoyed owners with a decade and a half ago whenever it needed one of its frequent software updates. Even the Amico’s controller is a market disrupter, eschewing such pointless features as dual analog sticks and sleek ergonomic design to offer up something that looks like the result of an illicit affair between a garage door opener and a cell phone from 2007. It doesn’t even have face buttons, choosing instead to marry the much loved pleasures of touch screen action gaming to the smooth controls of its 64 direction sliding disc, previously seen on the original Intellivision, the 3DS (kind of) and nothing else ever even though it’s been around for 40 years. A true disruptor doesn’t just make something new, they take something old that nobody liked and make it irresistible.
Amico is also disrupting game design by zigging while the rest of the industry zags. As games become more expansive and demanding of players times in the hopes of creating long term revenue streams Amico is shrinking game design back down to the kinds of experiences that were provided in the 4 kilobyte roms of the 1970s. Dying Light 2 may take 500 hours to experience everything but who has that kind of time? Wouldn’t you rather play a game where you’re bored and ready to move on after just a few minutes? In addition to encouraging people to get together by not having any online Amico is encouraging people to put down games and go outside or pick up a book by offering only tedious, repetitive, experiences we’ve all had before presented in an outdated graphical style that will have your jaw hitting the floor when you realize that yes, this is a game released in 2022 and it looks like that. If you’ve ever played an old cell phone game and said “I wish this cost ten times as much and could be played on my TV” then congratulations, you want an Amico! Amico will also keep greedy developers away from the system by charging 50% of the purchase price on their online storefront. This is not a system for game makers who are only in it to turn a profit, this is a system strictly for those who are in it for the love of the game and a desire to support Intellivision.
Parents can feel safe buying an Amico because unlike other systems it has no physical games for little Timmy to beg for in the store. Tired of walking past the video game section in Walmart and having your child point and beg at the latest and greatest? That won’t happen with Amico, because all Amico games must be purchased online and even the physical products have to be validated and downloaded with an Internet connection. And Timmy won’t be excited by new releases in store because Amico conveniently bakes the store into the OS home screen, differentiating between games you own and those you don’t own yet only by fading the icon of your future purchases. Keep the game begging at home, in private, where it belongs with the power of Amico.
But Amico saves its greatest disruption not for games or console design but for capitalism itself. Many consoles famously sell for as low a price as possible to expand their userbase and make their profit selling games. Amico, instead, acts like a true luxury brand, charging premium prices for bargain basement components and making its money up front with each console sale. Some console makers, especially Nintendo, have been accused of keeping supply low in order to drive demand and make people snap up any systems on store shelves so they won’t miss out. Amico takes that one step further by not releasing any product at all, surely driving consumer desire to a fever pitch. People are paying double or triple MSRP for PS5 systems that are all but impossible to find in stores but with Amico even the scalpers don’t have any, meaning that demand can build to a true fever pitch. Despite the fact that Intellivision’s COO has announced that they are currently planning to formulate a plan to release the system (the only thing better than a plan is a planned plan to plan a plan) there are rumors that Intellivision might not release a console at all, ever. This would be a masterstroke of capitalism, driving demand absolutely through the roof. That demand could then be turned into pure profit through various means such as Intellivision’s innovative idea of making every game an NFT, helping destroy the planet and driving people back indoors to play Amico before they get bored in five minutes and decide that death by heatstroke is preferable to yet another round of Shark Shark!
Whether the Amico releases or not and whether it sells its projected 1 to 2 million units by the end of the year or only sells the 6,000 or so that have been pre-ordered, one thing’s for sure; there’s nowhere to go but up. Or at least to the side. It’d be pretty hard to go down at this point. Even just ceasing operations would probably prevent them from being clowned on as much. Because of this limitless potential for growth and very low downside 2022 is all but guaranteed to be the year of Amico. Hold on to your butts, people, it’s going to be a thrilling, schadenfreudy, ride!
A lot of words have been written about the death of the “AA” game. “AA” games are games that don’t have the enormous budgets of what have come to be known as “AAA” games, massive projects that soak up tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, but still have the backing of large publishers and enough budget behind them for serious marketing budgets and frills like licensed music and well known voice actors. People have fond memories of games like these from the 6th and 7th generations (prior to that most game development teams were small enough that AAA size projects were vanishingly rare) and I’ve seen many laments that these kinds of projects have disappeared as budgets have bloated and publishers have consolidated.
The thing is, they haven’t, really, they’ve just changed.
AA games used to look like AAA games just a little bit smaller or less polished. Halo and Call of Duty were your AAA series with huge money behind them, and then you’d get smaller, less ambitious, FPS projects like Bodycount or Singularity. These games were sometimes disappointing (Bodycount) and sometimes quite well regarded (Singularity) but they were less polished and often a little bit edgier or more experimental than their more expensive counterparts. Gears of War had to hit all its marks and appeal to a huge audience in order to make back the millions funneled into it, but the perception was that a game like Binary Domain was less expensive and so could make its money back with a smaller, cult, audience of fans.
Was that perception accurate? It’s not clear. What is clear is that as game development prices increased there was also increased pressure to make every game a monster hit. Sales that would have been huge successes in the PlayStation or PlayStation 2 eras became cause for alarm by the time the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 came around. The Tomb Raider reboot series is infamous for selling millions of copies but being branded a disappointment because it didn’t sell enough millions of copies to make its publisher happy. Publishers saw that truly successful games could make billions with a B and became much less interested in supporting projects like Urban Chaos: Riot Response that might or might not make back their budgets but would barely be noticed in the flood of cash that a true big hit could bring in. That became even more true when the ‘dream’ of ongoing streams of revenue from microtransactions became a reality and games could pull in ten or eleven figures of income every year. Entire gaming empires were built on the backs of titles like Grand Theft Auto V and Fortnite and nobody wanted to make Vanquish or Shadows of the Damned anymore because you can’t build an empire on a one and done niche project.
At least that’s the story that we’ve been hearing for awhile now.
The truth is more complicated. It’s certainly true that the big publishers release fewer games than they used to. It’s also true that a lot of the older smaller publishers got bought out or went bankrupt or both. THQ famously flamed out, but Eidos Interactive got folded into Square, LucasArts was gobbled by Disney, and even the mighty Bethesda was absorbed into Microsoft. Even a company with the pedigree of Konami has all but given up publishing games, preferring to focus on other businesses and occasionally needle fans of its old franchises by releasing pachinko machines or horrible Contra games*.
But that’s only half the story. The other half is the emergence of a new group of publishers who seem to specifically target the market gap left by the departed bigger companies. Companies like Focus Entertainment, Annapurna, and the massive Embracer Group are all putting out a ton of games with relatively large but not astronomical budgets. Many of those games, like A Plague Tale: Innocence and The Outer Wilds have garnered a lot of acclaim and attention. Even the much maligned Electronic Arts continues to make games of moderate size. Game Award GOTY It Takes Two was made by Hazelight, a studio of under 100 people, and EA also put out Lost in Random, a lengthy, polished, adventure.
These games don’t look like the AA games of yore. They’re not really competing with the huge projects like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. Instead they’re offering something different. They’re more like medium sized independent films, designed to reach an audience that the blockbusters aren’t serving and to attempt things that the huge games aren’t attempting. Whether that’s old fashioned storytelling, a focus on pure co-op, or just something else, they’re different kinds of games. Sometimes these games were made by tiny teams (The Outer Wilds was made by Mobius Digital, which is tiny.) Sometimes the teams are more substantial (Hazelight has dozens of employees.) That was true for older AA games too. What these games have in common is the backing of a publisher, which doesn’t just mean a budget but also access to PR staff, potential shared assets with other developers working for the same publisher, funds to outsource art and QA and the like, and all the other advantages that make publishers more than just the financial and creative vampires many gamers view them as. The AA space was always a bit like this, spanning the space from quasi-indie to big, established, companies with legal departments and HR and all the rest of it.
I think that people overlook the current flourishing of smaller but not quite indie developers for a number of reasons. One is that many of them are not in the United States so we just pay less attention to them. There are language barriers that prevent us from reading interviews, or we don’t have anyone close to our social circle who is even tangentially attached to one of them, or they just have less of a presence here for whatever reason. The second, and perhaps biggest, reason is that, as mentioned, the games they make look in many ways more like indie titles than the AAA extravaganzas, which was not always the case. The aforementioned Singularity was basically a Bioshock rip off, but something like the Ori series is a Metroidvania, which is a genre we associate with tiny independent teams. I’ve seen Ori called an “indie” even though it was published by Microsoft and made by a team of close to 100. That’s not an indie by any reasonable definition. It’s AA. The last reason is that these just aren’t the teams we’re used to. As the gaming space has gotten bigger and more diverse there’s been the same death of the monoculture that has occurred everywhere else. Growing up it was possible to keep track of every game being released because there just weren’t that many. The Nintendo 64 has fewer than 400 releases. The Switch has over 4000. Even though many of those are shovelware it’s still impossible to stay abreast of everything worthwhile that comes out on that thing, especially since so much gaming media time is soaked up by those megagames like League of Legends or Fortnite that also soak up such a huge percentage of gaming time and revenue.
If you like playing slightly off brand FPS or third person shooter games now is not a great time to be a gamer. There are fewer big releases than ever and a lot of the indies are intentionally retro. There are new Build Engine games being made and new professional campaigns for the original Doom and Quake, but not a lot of those straightforward modern 10-12 hour campaigns with some tacked on multi-player. The same is true for most of the major genres. Games like Blur or Split/Second basically don’t exist anymore. But if your gaming tastes are a little broader the AA space is thriving and producing lots of amazing games. There’s still a space in gaming that exists between indie and AAA and it’s got plenty of stuff to play, it just looks a little different now. We don’t have Ghosthunter anymore but we do have SnowRunner and Call of Cthulu. And even Necromunda: Hired Gun, Greedfall, and The Surge if you insist that your AA games look and play more AAAish. This stuff is still out there if you know where to look.
*Some of those recent compilations of old Konami titles, like the recent GBA Castlevania collection, are pretty alright.
The Game Pass Gambols is my chronicle of attempting to at least sample every game released on Game Pass in 2022.
Game Type: Puzzle/Action Platformer
Time Played: Approximately 5 hours.
Completion level: Rolled credits
Approachability: Medium. It is fairly intuitive and very easy but its graphic violence and dire tone might be unpleasant for many.
Should You Try It?: If you read a review and think it sounds appealing you’ll probably like it. I think most people won’t get much out of it.
Olija is one of the weirdest games I’ve ever played that doesn’t seem to be intentionally weird. At its heart it’s a 2D action platformer built around the use of a cursed harpoon that you can throw into certain targets and then teleport to them. Its main gameplay focuses are puzzles and combat. There’s a little bit of reflex testing platforming here and there, but most of what you do is hit switches or plot out routes through a given room and then use the basic move set of jumping and harpooning to work your way through them, and fight enemies using the harpoon and a suite of secondary weapons you pick up along the way, including a rapier, a short range musket, and a repeater crossbow. Neither the puzzles nor the combat are particularly challenging or interesting, which leaves the focus on the presentation.
It is in that presentation that Olija’s weirdness really blossoms. You play Lord Faraday, a lord and captain from a poor village who is on the sea seeking food when his ship goes down in the ocean and is washed ashore on an island in an archipelago whose inhabitants have seen better days. You quickly stumble upon a cursed harpoon and set about helping your castaway crewmen assemble at a makeshift town on one of the islands. In order to do this you must take on the Rottenwood clan, a group of people who seem to have made some kind of deal with an eldritch horror of some sort in exchange for the power to dominate the rest of the people in the land. It is from them that you rescue your crewmen, and also Olija, the queen of the kingdom that held power before the Clan took over, a woman with whom Faraday is immediately smitten.
If this plot seems fairly straightforward that’s because it is, but it’s told in an unusual way. There’s some narration, a few conversations with NPCs you encounter, and some cut scenes that take place away from Faraday whether other characters talk to one another. There’s no real voice acting in the game with the exception of a few names (the game loves to ominously say “Faraday”) but instead you get English-subtitled gibberish (or possibly some language I could not identify), all spoken in low and threatening tones that sound like the whispers of madness. The story itself is full of allusions to ancient legends and curses, full of poetic proclamations of doom and half-stated threats. The game also does some visual storytelling, having Faraday travel through areas where there is no combat (and where he distractingly walks like he very much has to go to the bathroom) and showing gruesome sights like piles of bodies or desecrated shrines. Sometimes Faraday will walk past some people who chat with him and then return back after accomplishing some objective only to find them slaughtered.
All of this serves to generate a powerful tone of foreboding without developing much in the way of characters or plot. There's a boatman who has much of the game's dialog but his main character description would be "spooky." You rescue your crewmen from cages but don't get to know any of them in any meaningful way. Olija is clearly intended to be unsettling. The graphics are clearly modeled, in part, after the classic game Another World, which came out 30 years before Olija did and featured thin, faceless, characters against alien landscapes. Olija’s art style seems to reflect the same aesthetic but in a world of Lovecraftian horror. Enemies are either all mouths and writhing tentacles (not totally unlike the leeches in Another World) or humans who explode in viscera and body parts. I was surprised that the game is rated teen, probably because of its throwback graphics that don’t have the realism of something like Mortal Kombat, because it is extremely violent. Enemies spray blood and lose heads. There are mindless slaves, halfway between starved refugees and zombies, who wander around and often follow Faraday, dying brutally as they stumble into pits that he jumps over. The hints about what the queendom was like prior to the rise of the Rottenwood clan imply that it was always a brutally unjust place and what has changed is more who happens to be the master than the fundamental unfairness of life there. Olija does successfully manage to impart this tone to the point where I felt a little uncomfortable while playing it, like I had stumbled upon the half-rotted corpse of an animal in the woods and just wanted to get away from the sight of it, while also having a bit of perverse fascination in the way the bone breaks through rotted skin and the sight of organs being devoured by fungi.
Probably the most unusual aspect of Olija is that for the most part it’s a non-scrolling platformer. The camera pans a little bit but mostly you move between static screens, like you did in pre-Mario Brothers games like Pitfall. The game’s state is persistent from screen to screen (you can hurl an enemy off the screen you’re in and follow them, and you can leave the harpoon in one screen and travel to another) but you only get camera cuts when you reach the boundary. This is very unusual in a modern platformer, and Olija does abandon this choice in certain areas like boss fights in favor of a more normal scrolling playfield, but it gives the game a decidedly old school feel that matches its otherworldly aesthetic of ancient rot. It also allows the game to surprise you by hiding enemies or hazards at the beginning of a new screen, and to hide secrets by making what seem like bottomless pits actual transitions to new screens. There are some hidden items like ships in bottles and music boxes concealed behind walls you can pass through or pits that seem bottomless that aren’t, and there is little in the way of hints to tell you which these are. The health cost of falling into a bottomless pit is low and healing relatively plentiful, though, so experimentation isn’t too painful.
Olija’s strong aesthetic is unusual but not in and of itself weird. What’s weird is how little it is reflected in the gameplay. Olija is, as I previously said, something of a cakewalk. I can’t think of one even remotely challenging sequence in the game except maybe the final boss, and I beat him on the third try. I’ve complained in the past about games being too difficult but I think Olija goes too hard in the other direction. The puzzles are all simple and straightforward, the combat amounts to slashing guys with your rapier until they explode (or whatever your weapon of choice is, I guess) and…that’s really it. The platforming doesn’t even try to be difficult. It’s just kind of there. Olija’s entire aesthetic seems to suggest it’s going to be this brutal unforgiving game and it’s just…not. That in itself is not a problem.
The problem is that it’s boring. Olija just isn’t very mechanically interesting or engaging, it has only the barest bones of a narrative to drive it forward, and the graphics are fine but they’re sparse and don’t change much so you won’t be pulled forward wanting to see what’s around the corner. It’s more scrub brush and weird pulsating eyes. It lacks momentum. It’s a short game, around 5 hours, but I played it over the course of 6 or so days in short sessions that still felt a little bit like slogs. It’s not unpleasant to play; everything works reasonably well and it mostly feels fine to control but it’s too repetitive for its own good. It introduces new equipment and mechanics over time and it has a basic upgrade system that lets you buy new hats that come with abilities, so it’s clear that the developers meant it to have a normal progression, but the extremely low difficulty makes everything feel too samey. You’ll never be agonizing over which hat you should equip; the one that lets you heal is almost always the right one and you’ll never be puzzled about how to work with the new mechanics because their uses are obvious and straightforward.
I’m mostly done with the review and I haven’t even discussed the game’s biggest gameplay ‘hook,’ the cursed harpoon that you can throw into certain targets and then warp yourself to. You use this for much of the platforming and puzzle solving and can also use it during combat to impale enemies and warp to them. Many of the games puzzles are built around this mechanic and it can be useful in combat but it doesn’t feel like anything new or innovative. Aiming the harpoon doesn’t feel great with a controller and the game moves so fast that using it effectively in combat is both chaotic and unnecessary given the difficulty curve. Like the rest of the game it isn’t bad per se but it’s not an exciting or particularly fun mechanic. Even when the game introduces another way to warp to certain points it really only provides 2 or 3 puzzles that require you use the combination of abilities, and they’re all incredibly obvious. Compared to games like Flinthook or Bionic Commando Rearmed the Olija harpoon grappling mechanic is pretty ‘meh.’
I played through Olija because it was short and I wanted to be as fair to it as possible because I knew I was going to write about it. I really wanted to like it because I feel like the developers were trying something different and they had a vision and that they executed reasonably well. My problem with the game is that the vision isn’t compelling to me. It’s atmospheric and inoffensive to play, but that’s only enough to get you to “not actively unpleasant” not enough to make it something that’s actually worth someone’s time unless they really vibe with the particular atmosphere the game is presenting. There are long “story” segments in the game where you’re just slowly walking from one screen to another while something silent happens to in the background and I found them excruciatingly boring, as I did most of the long dialog sequences. It’s impossible to care about these people because you don’t know anything about them, and there’s so much suffering in the game that Faraday’s particular troubles aren’t of great import. It feels like you’re supposed to care about Faraday and his crewmen and Olija and think they’re trying to accomplish something important by defeating the Rottenwood clan and their eldritch sponsor but the game also implies that you’re not actually changing anything.
Olija did relatively well critically, with a metacritic over 70, and I think that’s in part because critics also wanted the game to be more successful than it actually is. I think there are a select group of people who will really like it and a much larger group who will find it offputting, baffling, or just unpleasant. Does that make it a good fit for Game Pass? Maybe? On the one hand you’d think that Game Pass is best serving up games that can be enjoyed by all of its nearly 20 million subscribers. On the other hand you can imagine that if even 5% of the players are people who would like Olija then that’s nearly a million people who could get value from the game, and by providing diverse offerings that please the various subgroups in the subscriber base you can provide something for everyone even if not everything would be for everyone. I think that anyone who looks at the game or reads a review and thinks it’s for them will probably enjoy it, and the rest of us can find other things to play on the service. I like that Game Pass takes chances and offers up weird projects even if they’re not to my personal tastes.
I struggled rating Olija, swinging between 2 and 3 stars depending on what part of my playthrough I was in. I thought it was interesting at the beginning, annoying towards the middle, and a little better again towards the end once it had fully developed its ideas and focused its narrative a bit more as it came to its conclusion. In the end I split the difference. One thing I learned from Olija is that I need to take more seriously the fact that I only promised to play 1 hour of each game. I don’t need to finish them. I didn’t need to finish this game. It wasn’t for me. That’s okay. It might just be for you. I hope it is.
Approachability: Very high. Intuitive controls and no objectionable content.
Should You Try It?: Sure, why not?
It’s appropriate that the first entry in my Game Pass Gambols starts with a bit of a pleasant stroll.
The Pedestrian is a simple puzzle platformer with a polished presentation. The credits indicate that the game took six years to make and it seems almost cruel to boil down that much effort and iteration into one simple sentence, but the game itself is simple and direct. You control a little pedestrian icon, the kind you might see on a pedestrian traffic signal at an intersection, and travel through connected 2D areas within a 3D environment. These start out looking like simple traffic signs but take a few forms through the game, including video screens at various points. Your little figure can pick up a few items, push boxes, throw switches, jump, and fall through certain platforms. That’s basically it. In addition you have the ability to zoom out of the 2D play area a bit and use a cursor to interact with the connected 2D spaces. You can connect doors and ladders to their appropriate counterparts (an up ladder in one area can be connected to a down ladder in another, and the same for left and right facing doors) allowing you to traverse between the play areas. Once you have traversed one of these connections you cannot sever it or you will reset the 2D playfields. You can also rearrange the 2D playfields (with a few exceptions) which is necessary because for the connections to work they must be oriented appropriately (e.g. to go up a ladder into a new playfield your current playfield must be below the one you want to ascend to.) Once you have traversed a connection you can move the pieces so it is no longer valid and you cannot traverse it again, but as long as you do not sever the connection the puzzle elements will not reset and you can reposition the pieces again to make the connection valid and re-open it.
This combination of simple puzzle platforming and 2D piece rearrangement forms the backbone of the gameplay in The Pedestrian. As you move between the 2D pieces you also move within the 3D environment and your goal for each level is to find a component for a Gameboy-like portable gaming machine and then make your way to a subway car or elevator where you input a code and move to the next level. This is supposed to somewhat mirror the concept of being a “pedestrian” like your icon but the game’s camera swoops and flies in ways no human can. This is not really going for a walk or commuting unless you’re Superman.
Sometimes you can directly affect the 3D environment in ways that interact with the 2D play area/puzzle pieces. For example you might connect an electrical wire that causes a gate in the 3D environment to open, allowing you to move a 2D puzzle piece out of the area it was trapped and reposition it so you can create a valid connection and get at the switch or item within it. Other than those limited interactions the 3D environment acts mostly like a pleasant background to the actual play areas and almost reminds me of old puzzle games from the 90s that might have animated backgrounds to the sides of the play field, or like The Tetris Effect with its trippy visuals outside the playfield (though obviously this is not in VR, at least on Xbox.)
I think The Pedestrian is a very competent puzzle platformer. It’s quite visually polished, it manages to introduce new mechanics every level that keep things relatively fresh, it has a wonderfully pleasant soundtrack and it’s paced pretty well so you never feel like it’s repeating itself too much. It even pays off the 3D environment gimmick well on the final level in a sequence I will not spoil here. There were a few puzzles that took me a good amount of time to figure out but everything felt fair and I didn’t end up having to look anything up. When I finally got to the solution of a tough puzzle my reaction was generally “that’s clever” rather than “that’s annoying,” which is exactly the reaction a good puzzle game should provoke. My main complaint about The Pedestrian is that it can sometimes be tedious to have to move all the pieces around to set a solution back up if you make a mistake and have to restart the puzzle, especially on controller, even though the controller cursor controls are excellent as these things go. On PC using a mouse it would be a little less tedious but there’s still a fair amount of repetition and it can take a long time to try a new iteration of a solution if you’re not sure what order the links need to be in etc…
But my biggest actual complaint about The Pedestrian is just that it’s a puzzle platformer, and a pretty vanilla one at that. I’m not sure how fair it is to penalize a game for just being another good example of an overstuffed genre. The developers clearly had a specific vision when they made this and they executed it about as well as they could have, though the final twist could have lasted longer and iterated a little more fully on its ideas. There are clearly a contingent of people out there who absolutely love puzzle platformers, and this is a more polished than usual version of that formula. But it doesn’t do anything spectacular or new, and though I enjoy the genre I couldn’t help but feel like I was, ironically, treading old ground with a fresh visual presentation painted over some rather creaky mechanics. I enjoyed my time with it well enough to finish the relatively short game, but it was just a pleasant diversion. I usually ramble on at length in my blogs/reviews but it’s hard to come up with anything interesting to say about this game. It’s bland but well made. Like a good bowl of oatmeal or tomato soup.
This is the kind of game that is often termed “perfect for Game Pass” but for me that term means something other than “a competent game that I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for.” I like when Game Pass games give me something new or weird, even if it’s not as polished or playable as something like this. I’m not saying there’s no room for these kinds of games on the service, of course. There are lots of people who aren’t as burned out on puzzle platformers as I am, and I could see this being a hit for families who can work on the puzzles together and would appreciate how pleasant and child-friendly the presentation is. I think the tougher puzzles would frustrate kids, though, and the presentation is definitely adult oriented in that it’s somewhat muted and subdued and emulates a walk through various city locations rather than being full of colorful characters and the like.
I like The Pedestrian fine and would recommend anyone interested to check it out. If nothing else the slick presentation of the 2D playfields in the 3D space is worth seeing some of. I would not term this a must-play though, and if you play a lot of games you might find yourself a little bit bored. That’s no fault of the devs, but there are only so many times you can do the same things in similar games before it all starts to feel a bit…pedestrian.