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    Games I Like: Capsized


    2011 - 10.02

    The gameplay and the plot are both pretty simple: you’re a bold space warrior exploring the universe, when all of a sudden your ship has a catastrophic problem and everyone needs to evacuate! You and your crewmates make it to the escape pods and land on an unknown, alien planet. It’s full of lushly-illustrated vegetation and yes, scary aliens. You’ll have to shoot your way through to find your crewmates, send up a distress beacon, and hopefully escape!

    It’s a 2D platformer shoot-em up; Gameplay consists of mouseclicking like mad on anything that moves, exploring the world, and solving the occasional puzzle. Like I said, pretty straightforward. What gives this game legs is the superb visual and sound design. Seriously, it’s awesome.  The alien world around you is rich with detail and rendered in a distinctive hand-drawn style. It’s reminiscent of Machinarium, if you’ve played that. I have no idea how long it takes to create a world that looks like this, but man, it looks downright mesmerizing. I want more games that have this hand-drawn thing going.

    For an indie game made in large part by two dudes, it’s surprisingly long, and they do a good job of building up the anticipation at each turn. As simple as it is, they somehow manage to insert you into the drama fairly well; for instance I felt pretty excited to find a crashed escape pod from one of my buddies… and then pretty spooked and angry to find his dead body not far away–murdered by the smarter tribal aliens. I was like “nooo! I will avenge you my fallen brethren!” Maybe it’s the hand-drawn style, or the scarceness of fellow humans, but I felt unusually attached to my nameless space marine friends when I did find them.

    Anyway, if you’re lookin for a solid few nights worth of shoot-em-up entertainment, $10! Can’t go wrong for that price. I wholly endorse it.


    Games I Like: “Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP”


    2011 - 08.26

    I have no idea how they settled on such a mouthful of a name, and we already went over how much I kinda think tabets are stupid, but I have to admit: This game is totally radish.

    To sum it all up in one paragraph, it’s an 8-bit retro style puzzle/action adventure for the iPad (and other devices now too) with a charming sense of humor and masterfully done sound design. Why is it so cool? Well, I’d say simply “the vibe”. We’ll expand on that in a minute. Watching their trailer should give you a good idea (note, although they humorously insist otherwise, I don’t think watching this really spoils anything):

    I was leaving the next day, and so played through the entire game in one night on my cousin’s iPad, which took me about 3+ hours or so. I also played it almost in darkness, and with in-ear headphones on, which definitely added to the experience; counterbalancing the fact that I rushed all the way through the game in one sitting. Most definitely it would do the game better justice to space it out and play slowly.

    One of the innovative ideas it tosses out is that to complete certain stages, you need to play the game when the moon is in a certain phase. As in, the game knows what the actual moon, orbiting the Earth, is doing, and certain events can only happen on certain days of the month. That’s a brilliant concept. Obviously, if you’re determined, there is a way, within the game, that you can get around this. It’s almost too bad that they allowed you to. But still, awesome idea there.

    The game has a mimimal cast of characters, and essentially no spoken dialogue, outside of the rare humorous banter from a woodsman called “logfella”. His trusty sidekick “dogfella” serves as a guide to keep you on track when the goal maybe isn’t as obvious–always a welcome touch in any game. There were a few moments where I caught myself fruitlessly backtracking because I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be doing, but on the whole I managed to stay on task, which is a key attribute for puzzle games.

    The humor is a consistent source of enjoyment as you play. For example, you happen across some interesting detail in the woodland scenery and double tapping on it produces a small bit of text saying something to the effect of: {We happened across three spooky looking graves, randomly near the side of the road, and we wondered what was up with that.} This is a text adventure and for the most part, the text will keep a grin on your face.

    It’s also pretty overdramatic, for an 8-bit affair. There’s lots of lightning and thunder, there’s swords being raised to the sky, rainbows, giant stone faces, mysterious tomes, 8-bit monsters that somehow manage to be actually kinda scary, and enough little cryptic snippets of folklore to give the illusion that some larger, grandiose tale is hidden behind the minimalist framework of the game itself. The 8-bit art style works excellently in this magical mideval setting, where the pixelation gives you just enough detail to understand what things roughly look like, but at the same time obscures them to the extent that you sort of find your brain filling in the gaps, like how you imagine characters beyond an author’s description when you read a novel.

    S: S&S EP (that’s how the game abbreviates itself) is split into 4 acts or “sessions”, which is hip. A mysterious cigar smoking man with a giant throne called “The Archetype” provides a brief plot review and critiques your progress, before 8-bit curtains close over the screen with a thunderous mechanical clanking. Chapters are good. And giving credence to the “EP” in the name, there are sections of the game which take place inside of a dream. When you reach them, there’s a sweet visual of a record rising into the night sky and flipping over from side A to side B. A neat touch. I love the fact that there is a real world and a dream world, and in certain parts, they do overlap a little.

    When you first reach the dream world, the word “dream” appears in the sky, slowly fading away. There’s a few other parts where they do this same technique, for example “believe” when you stand on the store of a lake that it turns out you can simply walk across. It’s cool. You spend more time doing ‘sworcery’ than swordsmanship in the game, sleuthing out forest sprites with your magical musical abilities. The gameplay works; it’s fun. The pixellated, misty forest atmosphere makes you feel like there’s magic in the air, and you’re part of it.

    Something ususual for a game, and smart, is the fact that in the early stages you have 5 stars of health, and as the game progresses, you actually get fewer and fewer stars of health, until you eventually can only have 1, near the end.

    The final thing I’ll comment on is how totally BOMB the sound design is. Every little bird chip, raindrop, wolf howl, or chime to guide you toward a puzzle solution is meticulously chosen. It all fits together so cohesively. The game has sporadic music which plays after certain events or in certain locations too, which serves well to build the dread as monsters grow near, or heighten your triumph when a key solution happens. For those so inclined, composer Jim Guthrie has a 180g vinyl release “Sword & Sworcery LP: The Ballad of the Space Babies”

    I love how the soundtrack is the LP and the game is the EP. They’ve got some high-minded chatter over on the Superbrothers website, about how “One of our earliest goals for the game was to create a space that could also be described as ‘an album you can walk through.” Worth a read if you’re into the game. Normally I’d roll my eyes a bit at such artist-speak, but I have to admit, these dudes have kinda created something special here. Go play it!

    Games I Like: Inside A Star-Filled Sky


    2011 - 03.11

    In a world of easily classifiable game genres, this one is legitimately hard to explain! I think the best analogy would be, “it’s like the movie Inception”. You’ll see what I mean:

    Basically you’re a little 8-bit dude inside a procedurally generated (aka mostly random) maze, with a pea-shooter. The objective is to get past your enemies and make it to the exit, which takes you up a level. You goal is to get to as high of a level as you can. You can’t die in this game. If you take too many hits, the screen zooms WAY in on your pixelated self, and you find yourself back in the previous level. This is somewhat of an opportunity because anytime you pick up power-ups, they don’t kick in until the next level. So whatever you get in level 19 will apply itself on level 20. This means that when you get kicked down one level, you can selectively choose new power-ups which will help you get past the next level that killed you last time.

    Okay, so this is where it STARTS to get crazy: any enemy or power-up you see, you can “go into”. For example if an enemy is shooting a wide scattershot that bounces off the walls, making it impossible to get past him, you put the mouse cursor over him and hit shift. The screen zooms WAY in on him, and now you are “inside” of the enemy. You run around and get power-ups that are weaker and more useless than what he had before. Once you’re satisfied, you find the exit, go back out, and now the enemy is easy to defeat because you gave him useless power-ups!

    You can also do this with power-ups (although in my experience they tend to be hard)… so if you see a level 1 heat-seeking power-up and you say to yourself, gee, I really wish that was a level 9 health boost, you can “go into” it, and change it. If you die while you’re “inside” something, you get kicked back a level. So say you were on level 15 and you went into a power-up and died there–now you’ll find yourself on level 14.

    And this is where it gets REALLY crazy: you can “go into” things which are “inside” of other things. Say you went inside of an enemy but you can’t find any weak power-ups to sabotage him. Just “go into” a strong power-up and make it weaker. Woah. Things are getting trippy.

    You can also go into yourself.

    Dude.

    Although doing this simply takes you back one level. And I’m not sure why you’d want to do that. If you keep going back far enough that the level number turns negative, you turn into a ghost. Hah! The higher you go in level number, the game gets more difficult (duh); and curiously, this applies to negative numbers too. I went down to -15, and at that point it was hard to actually win, taking you progressively deeper and deeper as you keep losing.

    At first I was scratching my head. Then I was laughing. And after 20 more minutes I was like, wow, this is actually kind of genius. The game itself is very simplistic, but the idea of what you’re doing is weird as hell.

    I can think of a lot more things I wish it could do: I wish I could go into the walls to make my own path, I wish I could “go into” the exit (although I don’t know what it would do… maybe skip a level if it were extra hard to win “inside” the exit), I wish I could disable the music which is also procedurally generated based on what’s around you, I wish I could zoom the perspective out to see a bit more of what’s around me, and I wish there were some kind of incentive to go into yourself. So forth.

    In the later levels you start encountering baddies who relentlessly chase you down from across the maze and take many hits to kill. This makes it a lot harder to sit still for long or be choosy about which power-ups you want to collect for the next level. It also makes it more stressful. I bounced back and forth between 23 and 24 for quite some time, and each time I started level 24 I had this feeling of dread because I knew the really fast pink monster was coming…

    When you keep bouncing back and forth between the levels sometimes they stay the same for a little while. But after 3-5 times they change, which means you might be getting overwhelmed by enemies in an unfamiliar place and drop back several levels in a row. On the website the designer says, “see how high you can get. I got to level 26.” 24 is the best I could do. Damn you, fast pink monster.

    You gotta see this game to believe it. And since it’s only $1.75 + a donation that you choose, so there’s really no reason not to. It’s an indie game made by one guy, so go support him. And get your mind bent!

    Games I Like: Assassins Creed Brotherhood


    2011 - 01.05

    Games I Like: Assassins Creed Brotherhood

    Probably the sweetest part about the series as a whole is its historical fiction. Two main characters you’re interacting with are Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli. And you’re running around the coliseum in Rome. Nice! The series is also renown for an impressive continuity between games. For the inquisitive player, there are troves of hidden, secret plotlines to go after and uncover. The overall thrust of the tale is pretty interesting to begin with–it’s a centuries-spanning conspiracy plot about two groups of Illuminati vying to be the power who secretly controls the world.

    I’ve played them all and this latest version is the king of the heap. The AC designers have hit their stride and the resulting experience feels more cohesive and polished than ever. Your map is littered with different pursuits to go after, and so far, the game has been set exclusively in Rome, which I’d say is a good thing. I never cared for the wide-open countryside, devoid of things to do. They’ve lowered the number of viewpoints to climb, which is also a good thing. One of the chief complaints about past installments in the series was repetitive gameplay.

    There is certainly repetitive gameplay still in here (how many Assassins do I have to recruit?!) but a lot of the repeated elements have been shaken up for variety. Killing the guard commander at a Borgia tower (the main bad guys are called the Borgia) is a challenge you will almost certainly screw up on your first attempt. Each time the setup is slightly different, and you don’t know if he’s going to stand and fight you, or bolt for his panic room at the first sign of trouble. The guy who bolts is actually harder, since he moves quick and you have limited time to get him, with lotsa guards in your face.

    The vast majority of the time you’re playing, they turn you loose to explore the city. It’s sandbox action in the 1400s! You can choose what you feel like doing and there’s plenty of options… thief assignments, assassination contracts, shops to renovate, money chests to loot, treasures of Romulus to get, viewpoints to climb, Borgia towers to take over, and so on.

    As far as things to complain about, I get very tired of the loading screen, which is a blank empty space that they allow you to run around in. You can at least re-familiarize yourself with the controls while waiting, but there are many places where I wish they played a cool animation instead… for example when you use the secret underground tunnels to get around town, I wish they showed a quick video of Ezio running down the tunnel instead of dumping you into the generic loading screen. And there’s also many missions that have annoying quirks which cause you to die and replay the same section 10 times over because some guard always sees you and you just can’t figure out what they expect you to do.


    But loading screens and bang-your-head-against-the-wall sections aside, there’s certainly a lot to explore and love about this latest installment. And as implausible as some of the weapons may seem for their era, I see on Wikipedia that Leonardo actually DID design a tank just like the one in the game! Huh! Well there you have it.

    Games I Like: Angry Birds


    2010 - 12.31

    I think this one’s been done to death in the game world already, so I’ll  give it just a brief shout out: Angry Birds.  It’s got the 4 basics of a good mobile game: tolerable controls, simplicity, a clean/distinct art style, and bite size levels.  Good sound design too.  I enjoy the silly ca-caawing of the birds and the oinking of the pigs.

    Games I like: Doodle Jump


    2010 - 12.27

    The first mobile phone game I’ll be giving a nod to in the “Games I Like” series: Doodle Jump.

    First off I’d like to comment about mobile games: They say that the iPod Touch and the iPhone have surpassed Nintendo’s handhelds in the size of the userbase. And for a long time people have been heralding them as the new portable gaming machines. Having a 1st gen iPhone I was excited to get in on the action, then very disappointed when I saw the games. Katamari Damacy, a game I loved dearly on the PS3, fell completely flat on the iPhone. Jerky. Slow. Hard to control. Tedious to play. And you’d think this would be a perfect game for tilt controls. In order to get the ball rolling enough, it was necessary to tilt the screen so far that it’s hard to see what you’re even doing. You end up hunched over the phone and leaning your torso way to the side whenever it’s time to make a big turn. I imagine you’d look like an idiot doing this at the bus stop. Super Monkey Ball (and others) suffered the same flaws.

    Other games were far worse. Especially irksome to me were the games that had an on-screen d-pad, mimicking old Nintendo controls. FAIL! Not only have we wasted precious screen real estate, but touchscreens are NOT even CLOSE in responsiveness to buttons. It’s like a cruel joke. I really wish Apple would have came out with some gaming accessory that added a d-pad and a few buttons. They would have completely blew up the market, but their form-over-function ideology prevented this. (Apple has never understood gaming anyway.) Well, this is really a whole massive rant unto itself.

    So I’ll sidestep that soapbox and segue into what I think makes a good mobile game:
    1. Tolerable controls (no fake buttons, no extreme tilt)
    2. Simplicity. Above all else.
    3. Clean, distinctive art style
    4. Playable in bite size installments

    Doodle Jump has all of these things, and at it’s core is really an old arcade-style high-score slugfest with a cutesy veneer of hand-drawn art. The objective is simple: go up. Fall off the bottom, you die, just like old 2 player Contra! The Doodler finds powerups to give him a boost (springs, trampolines, propeller hats, and a jetpack) and there’s obstacles to avoid (monsters of various shapes/colors, black holes, UFOs, etc). There’s also a dash of trickery thrown in with the platforms themselves, like moving ones, breakable ones, and ones that explode a few seconds after appearing.

    The formula doesn’t change as the game goes on, however as the score gets higher the pressure definitely builds. Getting a very high score demands a high amount of concentration, as the platforms begin moving faster and there are fewer stationary green ones. A big part of it too is the pressure you begin to put on yourself as you watch the score get higher… Don’t F it up!!


    The best part is the competitive element. You don’t need to be a veteran analog-stick jockey to pull off a high score on this game–anyone can play it, and with enough desire, beat you. I’m both sheepish about/proud of my long career as a “hardcore” gamer, and I’ve been getting in a score war with my girlfriend, someone who never owned a console.

    On my Droid X I initially held the record at 59k, until she took it one day with a dramatic 76! I was like, okay, you’re ON! After failing early on for a few tries, I broke into the high range and almost beat her. At 74k I dropped out on purpose, a dare to her; I knew she could get a much higher score (and I also knew she’d be mad at me for beating her so soon!). She was a bit upset that I lost on purpose, but I said well, I wanted to give you a chance to beat your own record. Aaaand I was right. The next day she put down a whopping 102,140. I’m so proud. I knew she could do it!

    The 102 still reigns… for now. I will have to work hard if I want to reach over 100k. There are plenty of random ways to die.

    On a final note, I’ll comment that I like the Android version better than the iPhone version. It lacks the dark blue platforms you have to move with your finger, the sections where handwriting tells you to stomp the monsters and the wide number of themes (I never use them anyway), but I think it handles better (though that may be the accelerometers in the Droid X versus a 1st-gen iPhone), I like the Android sounds better (they’re slightly different) and best of all, you don’t have to aim when you shoot! Technically, I know aiming adds another dimension to the game and makes it more of a challenge, but in practice, it just gets tedious. It’s more fun to blast away indiscriminately. After all, this is a mobile game, not Team Fortress.

    Games I like: Super Mario Brothers X


    2010 - 12.25

    In one sentence: It’s every NES mario and Super Mario World, all combined.

    Yes.  That’s right.  There are plenty of things missing from it, but man, there is a lot here.  Every color Yoshi, the Tanooki Suit, Raccoon Tail,  every flavor of Goomba and Koopa, Birdo, Hammer Brothers, vegetables, and level art from all of the above.  It’s like playing some weird mashed-up version from a dream where they all just blurred together.  The overall experience is addictive, incredibly nostalgic, and well, maddeningly difficult.  There are different episodes that various level builders have made (did I mention it has a level editor!) but the one that comes with the game by default is incredibly punishing…  yet somehow I cannot resist the urge to keep playing.  Eventually, you figure out what they want you to do and you win.

    It’s like rewinding childhood memories in fast forward.  All the different kinds of brick, the music, the strange enemies, the rare power ups like 3-up moons–all these have some association for me, of who I was hanging out with at the different ages I played these various Mario games, and the general feeling  just how life felt at the time.  It’s a bit like hearing a song you haven’t heard in ages.

    If I had some things to pick on with it, my chief complaint would be that there is still a ton of stuff that didn’t make it into the game.  The slot machines from M2, the frog suit from M3, the cape from SMW, a ton of assorted music, etc.  And there is a bunch of stuff in here that isn’t Mario as well.  You can play as Link, for instance.  There is a bunch of art from Metroid as well.  It’s cool that the people behind it want to pay tribute to those other games , but personally I prefer it when it’s Mario art only.  And there are also strange permutations of Mario establishment.  Such as the billy gun, a bullet bill cannon that you can pick up and unleash insanity with.  And pink, purple, grey, and black yoshis.  The pink one spits vegetables.  And Ice Mario (pictured above on the green Yoshi) who shoots balls of frozen ice that turn enemies into blocks which can be grabbed or stood upon.  Kinda neat!

    All in all, if you love mario 1-3, you gotta go play this.  It’s free for the pc, so there’s no reason not to.