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    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!

    A new chapter


    2011 - 03.10

    The TruthAh, it begins!

    Today I read on Kotaku about the first rumor-mill rumblings of casting calls for voice actors from Rockstar Games for a new project code named Rush and set in LA. It may be code named but if you read over the list of characters, you can make a pretty safe bet on what this is: the next GTA. These background murmorings are neither unexpected nor newsworthy really, but they make me happy! There are so many incredible moments from past Grand Theft Autos that I’m always looking forward to the next.

    My hopes:

    -this time around they eschew the ‘gritty realism’ in favor of the over-the-top absurdity that characterized their last GTA set in LA, San Andreas. (ie the jetpack mission, any of ‘the truth’ missions, or the clown nose you can wear)

    -the world is even more interactive (I want to operate the seaside cranes in GTA IV!).

    -airplanes and ATVs make a comeback.

    -that the main character isn’t an eternal pessimist!

     

    Finding the Meaning: GTA Edition


    2011 - 02.26

    This is a long one, but hear me out: it ends in a great story–even if you hate video games.

    I’m a big fan of the video game blog Kotaku. Every day it’s a steady stream of news to check out, and they often have articles which are just musings upon what the editors liked about ‘the experience’ of playing a particular game. Often even more interesting is what you find in the comments on these articles; random people chiming in about their individual experiences, which is sometimes like a kaleidescope of perspectives and appreciations for different subtleties, and the stories that accompany them. I find it fascinating, reading about the reasons why people enjoy things, or that transcendent moment that ‘did it’ for them.

    One of my favorites was an article published shortly before the release of the fourth Grand Theft Auto entitled “GTA: Rememberances of Cars Jacked” which related lasting memories of experiences in the game and asked commenters what their favorite stories were. At the beginning of the article, Owen Good writes that one of the distinguishing hallmarks of the series is its ability to impart these moments of greatness “that rates the kind of visceral, first-time-ever memories that people usually have of events in the real world.”

    My friend Luke once described to me playing GTA: Vice City at a friend’s house. They were playing through the game near the beginning and had just obtained their first uzi submachine gun. Luke had stolen a motorcycle and was riding along the strip in Miami Beach, that famous stretch with all the vintage art deco hotels. Against the backdrop of neon signs, bikini-clad pedestrians, and 50’s-looking cars, he discovered he could shoot the uzi straight forward, something you can’t do in a car. He described finding the set of wooden ramps that lead to a set of daring motorcycle jumps across the rooftops, and taking that first wild jump where the camera suddenly swaps to a dramatic angle and the time goes slow motion. Through some convoluted series of police chases and blasting random cars with his new grip, he wound up back on the strip, looking out at the ocean–when right then the song “Shoot It Up” came on the radio.

    It’s one of those moments where you’ve just pulled off the craziest stunt, you can hardly believe you somehow came out unscathed, a bombardment of unexpected insanity ensues requiring deft maneuvers to escape, and then right in the thick of it all, that perfect song comes on and BAM, you’re not just sitting on the couch at a friend’s house–you’re transported. You’re in Miami. You smell the salt of seawater in the air, feel the breeze on your face, listening to the sounds of some song you haven’t heard since forever ago and it takes you back to some strangely-foreign, strangely-familiar place in your childhood. In that moment it really IS the 80s. You are THERE.

    Some of the more awesome comments from Kotaku:

    “Over the years and through three GTA games, we’d have a playsession once a week where (my friend and I would) each play a ‘turn’ wreaking havoc and trying to survive. When one of us would die in the game, we’d hand the controller over. His very first time playing GTAIII was especially memorable: after having seen me play it, he really wanted to steal an ambulance. So when he got the controller, he immediately popped a pedestrian and waited for the ambulance to arrive. When it did, he killed the EMTs and stole the ambulance, roaring in triumph and raising his fist in the air. I about fell off the bed laughing when, six seconds later, he drove the ambulance off a cliff and into the water (and died).”

    “I loved (the radio) so much, I actually bothered to rip the audio from the game discs of GTA3 and Vice City and converted it to play in my real-life car. Uncut, with (fake) commercials and all.” (I actually did the same thing for K-JAH/GTA3 and Radio Esperanto/VC)

    “The day I beat Vice City I watched all the Back to the Future movies and sewed all the Homestarrunner patches to a pair of tattered jeans I had. I was flying high and I couldn’t believe that after all the times I’d tried before, I’d finally done it. I was with my first gamer boyfriend (I know!) so for once in my life, playing a game and beating it was an event, something special. I couldn’t wait to tell him that night… then he dumped me. Ah, but I still remember the final firefight in the mansion like it was yesterday… I drove around on a bike in the gray t-shirt from the mall hitting as many pedestrians as possible in a huge victory lap around the city.”

    “My first GTA was Vice City for the PC, I didn’t have a PS2 then. I would spend hours cruising just listening to the radio station, I loved Fever. But I knew I was hooked on GTA when I was bummed out for the whole weekend that I had to take out Lance. Then, the first car I jumped in, they are playing “I Just Died In Your Arms” on the radio. It hit me so hard. Almost, almost teared up.”

    “In real life, I was driving down a street that had a cul de sac. It was winter, so the road was snow-covered and slippery. I sped up my car, and did a hand-brake turn at the end, effectively doing a 180. My passenger said “whoa, where did you learn that?” I coolly said “GTA”.”

    Vice City overlaid on a photo of the Avalon Hotel, Miami Beach
    Which brings me to this: Where things really start to take on a new dimension are the tales where video games and reality begin to overlap. Not for the illusion of invincibility or the reckless audacity it may accompany, but for the feeling of magic, of excitement, and the rediscovery of the sense of wonder, exploration, and experimentation that it brings.

    The summer after Grand Theft Auto III came out, I was living in the upstairs apartment of a house in Madison Wisconsin with my friend Rob. We had a slack-off office summer job together and lived one short block from State Street, the buzzing magnet for youth and juvenile shenanigans. The street is closed to traffic, cluttered with skateboarders, bikers, and a mix of student pedestrians from the university at one end and working professionals from the capital square at the other. Strung out in a ring around this area, our map was dotted with pubs to crash, late-night pizza joints to raid, an abundance of odd concrete begging for a freestyle, and endless question marks.

    One of the coolest aspects of the GTA series is how it constantly prods you to explore. To jump out of the car and see where that narrow crack between the buildings leads. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a little spot tucked away from view, a winding walkway ending in a fire escape climb, atop of which sits a “hidden package.” A small white box tied up with twine that is a badge of discovery. A bite-size reward, a tour of duty emblem that adds one more number to your score of how far down into obscurity your voyages have taken you and how boldly you sought out the tiny spots waiting to be stumbled upon.

    We used to take that idea into real life and go “hidden package hunting” on many a late nite bender. Hidden package hunting wasn’t so much about finding something as it was about looking. We’d take the weirdest shortcuts through people’s back yards, slipping through holes in the fences and squeezing between closely parked cars. If you were to chart our path through the city on a map, it would have been a squiggly line with only the loosest adherence to streets, blocks, or sidewalks. There was one night we went up to the top of a multi-story car park and jumped a medium-sized gap to land inside the neighboring, separate car park, working our way back down and walking past the bored attendant who gave us a funny look on the way out.

    As the summer wore on we got more ambitious and mischievous. One night involved the creative repositioning of those blinky, wooden construction markers into a narrow, twisting corridor along some minor sidestreet. Anyone who had to navigate their way through there the next day surely suffered the wrath of our annoying prank. I’m not saying it was considerate, or even a good idea. But I AM saying that it was definitely awesome.

    Another night we found this cool little area recessed below street level, filled with furniture and an expansive shallow pool. Having passed right by it many times we both kind of looked at each other and asked, “how did we not know this was here??” One way or another, some of that furniture ended up sitting inside the shallow pool, tables and chairs neatly arranged for leisurely eating cafe food and chatting. We sat in the pool-chairs and giggled over a brief conversation or two, long enough to enjoy the fruits of our little escapade before slipping away into the night to continue our hidden package hunt. Probably the culmination of these adventures was sneaking into the newly built convention center on the lakefront to see if we could make it to the top of the fountain on the roof. We did.

    We made hand holds with our feet and knees to hoist each other up and after a series of surprisingly easy clamberings, we dipped our toes in the fountain’s water of triumph, surrounded on one side by city lights and the other by lakewater. It was a sublime moment of victory. We OWNED that city. We laughed and gawked at the expansive view, maybe waxed philosophical a bit, and sat down with our legs hanging off the edge of the fountain to savor the moment. It was a glorious instant in time.

    The spell of which was broken by an inquisitive police cruiser pausing far off at the end of the long pedestrian bridge which had led us here. We froze. “Do you think he can see us?” “Nah. It’s pitch black up here.” “But our legs…?” We both looked at each other. Sure it was completely dark up here, but our feet had been hanging off the edge for some time, and the base of the fountain was brightly lit. Shit!

    Shoes and socks hastily went back on, and we made the jumps down onto the hard concrete in a frantic escape dash. There was only one way out: straight toward the police cruiser over the pedestrian bridge. Unless… the doors to a glass-enclosed stairway down to a lower level were unlocked. As luck would have it, they were. Mad laughter ensued and we took the stairs at full speed, crashing through the door at the bottom which opened up to the city street. Clean getaway. Zero stars.

    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.