Ninja Taro (or it’s proper name, Sengoku Ninja-kun) is the exact type of game I hope to find when randoming in through old roms. I can’t expect to find some beautiful classic I never heard of (unless it’s on some obscure system I never knew about), but I can sometimes stumbled into flawed, quirky games with a good bit of ambition.
Ninja Taro isn’t a particularly good game. Just going by controls, it’s a bad game. But it fits a genre of game I always am interested in when I bump into them. I love finding an old ass Zelda clone. For all its popularity, bold faced Zelda clones are surprisingly rare. Zelda 1 clones are the most rare (Golden Axe Warrior being the only one that quickly comes ot mind) but most fit this weird in between zone between Zelda 1 and a LTTP.
Ninja Taro is right in this zone, though perhaps leaning more toward Zelda 1. The game is fairly linear but doesn’t restrict you. You can, and sometimes must backtrack. The game wants you to go one place, but the level design tries to keep up the illusion of a larger world. The overall structure of Ninja Taro is excellent, perfect for a Gameboy game. A more guided version of Zelda that never completely veers into restricted linearity.
Ninja Taro’s biggest issue sadly is it simply doesn’t feel good to play. 4 way awkward grid movement makes combat more about standing in the right spot and waiting for enemies to do all the work rather than active combat. Attacking on the move just isn’t a reliable thing, and you have to wait for Taro stop move to the next sub-grid piece before taking an action.
Most of the items you get are utterly useless. The game gives you ninja camo, fire, bombs and probably some other stuff, but no situation merits using anything but unlimited use swords and protectiles. Even bosses fall fast enough to rapid attacks that using any of these items is simply a waste of time
The game contains other gadgets. Ladders, bridges, sacred offerings… but having to go into the menu to equip them, use them, and then back to reequip your favorite sub weapon is needlessly tedious. Almost a punishment for misplaced ambition.
The game still gives a lot to find. You regularly find powerups for your basic weapons. We’re not talking about like a “+8 sword” like I found at least 30 of them for one of my swords and all that damage adds up. With pickups for two swords and 3 different throwing weapons, plus health, there is a lot of rewards for looking around. The weapon variety isn’t great though. You quickly find a sword that hits in all 8 spaces around you and thee is little reason not to use it. I theorize there might be more +1s for the default sword, ultimately leading to it doing more damage, but given how fast bosses die, this would be a weak sacrifice. Short ranged ninja stars seem to have more damage than throwing knives, but there range is so short they seem pointless to use over a sword. I enjoy the variety in the game, but the bloat does take a toll in terms of usability
While bosses are underwhelming, basic enemy design is neat? While your movement sucks, they seem to be designed with that in mind, being varied but predictable, allowing you to plan. Some are just dumb simple tanks, some always turn 90 degrees. some grow in ever growing circles, but regardless they’re all easy to understand.
The game is mostly linear but there seems to be things you can do in different orders and other things like optional bosses. It’s extremely fleshed out in a way you wouldn’t assume from the game in the first 10 minutes. It manages to set up simple stories and reoccurring characters that are extremely basic yet perfect for an early Gameboy game.
The game is simple looking but at moments the art drifts into the grotesque. Walls with eyes, giant fleshy demons. All great stuff mixed in with this otherwise cute game.
Sadly the game drags at the end. The difficulty ramps up exponentially. The game has no lives and forgiving continues. You keep all items and other progress when you die, but simply get sent back to the nearest town you saved at. Sadly by the last areas of the game are large and the travel time to retry grows and grows. The game also gets way into illusionary walls near the end, which adds to the crazed level of trial and error. I could forgive a lot about the game but this dragged it down a lot for me. Fortunately some online maps makes things a little bit more reasonable.
Is Ninja Taro worth playing? Probably not. But if you like weird old quirky games not a lot of people have played, it’s kinda cool? Definitely glad I finished it.
So at this point my blog is used about once a year to act as a year-end roundup for all the important games I’ve played. I realize now that this is stupid. Why try and remember a game I played 12 months ago when I can write about them as it happens?
So, for whatever reason recently (actually it was because of some tweets but that doesn’t matter) I was like “Huh! I’ve never played a Tony Hawk game! I should take care of that!”
I started with no particular destination in mind but I managed to span from THPS1 to THUG2 before moving on to some other skate games… but we’ll get there in a sec.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1
What is the essence of a skateboarding game? What is realism? Can an arcade game speak essential truths about a real world activity? What, at it’s core, is a Tony Hawk game?
The answer is “Mario 64”. At it’s best, Tony Hawk Pro Skater is Mario 64 through the lens of a skateboarder and skateboarding problem solving. Skateboarding, in it’s most punk sense, is an activity where one uses a skateboard as a tool to impose your will on the world. Mario 64 is a game about inflicting your will through what might as well be parkour. The worlds in these games might be designed with you in mind, but they are not designed as tracks to be followed. They are Connect-the-Dots puzzles that give you a gentle guideline that both games encourage you to chaotically scribble over.
Even the metaphor of collecting tapes has much the same feel as collecting stars. The levels are smaller, you’re restricted to a minute time limit, but even then you explore and search for secrets. The games are not brothers, but they are close cousins.
The game looked surprisingly good, the controls, while a bit rough, well exceeded what I expected from a PS1 game and the level design was mostly extremely strong with occasional moments of extreme pain. Also the soundtrack ruled. A soundtrack of mostly stuff I didn’t know felt really appropriate for a skateboarding game. Despite it’s humble origins as the first game, it’s still one of my favorites.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
This game has some serious “go big or go home” energy. Everything is bigger,
the controls are smoother, the first level along is filled with crazy interactive elements. Customization, unlockable boards, create a character… The game was loaded. Granted, when I saw I could only choose between some basic parts to make my own teenage male dweeb I just went with Rodney Mullen. But hey, it’s a start.
The biggest stealth downgrade in the game is the money system. Not only does it somehow seem to degrade the Mario 64 “stars” feeling of the game, it makes unlocking things and buying stats all the more tedious and menu heavy.
Another downgrade for me was the soundtrack. At the time it would have been an upgrade, but playing it now it’s like… Powerman 5000?? God, remember when they were big? It’s not bad, but it lacks the griminess THPS1’s soundtrack had. Like simply “not having the Dead Kennedys” is a big downgrade already.
The biggest and most important feature is the manual. THPS1’s biggest combo limiter was the grind. If there was no way to jump to a new grind, there was no way to extend a combo. Using a manual to link tricks and act as a bridge between grinds allows the game combo system to completely wild. Now vert is the bastard child of the game — you can’t combo into or out of a vert in a reasonable way but at least you can get some special tricks in.
With this, the tension to perform gets higher but the rewards for skill gets higher too. Still, the game isn’t ‘complete yet’. While a huge upgrade from 1, the games that come after it for me makes THPS2 one of the lesser games in the early series.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3
THPS3 is the big finale for classic Tony Hawk. As the final game to feature the “2 minute round” gameplay, THPS3 is easily the best of the early entries. I moved to the PS2 for this one and the game just felt rock solid compared to earlier entries. Most of the finickiness was gone. The level design for this style of play is at its peak.
Reverts become the final piece of the mechanics puzzle. Reverting into a manual out of a vert landing now makes it so every aspect of the game can be chained together, with the only limiting factor being speed. Grinds are now more magnetic and impart a lot of speed, allowing for even more ridiculous, winding paths through levels.
Despite being great, there is surprisingly little to say about the game. Most of the stuff that applies to 1 and 2 applies here. The game is just great, with all the mechanics firing on all cylinders.
Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4
THPS4 is an important entry in the series that suffers from the fact that it is so quickly obsoleted. It’s big gimmick? Ditching the 2 minute rounds to make exploratory levels. I like this change in concept, but THPS4 hasn’t figured quite how to pull it off. Insread of having Mario 64 style exploration, you just kinda go from quest giver to quest giver, slowly depopulating the levels until you are left with a barren free skating level.
Yeah there are new mechanics. Spine transfers, skitching, probably something else… but it doesn’t matter. The core is there without these mechanics. Also the new mission structure leads to some… funky missions. The whole free open structure was used as an excuse by the devs to make a few stupidly brutal missions. You get to meet some pro skaters too which was probably really cool at the time… but it never quite comes together? The flow just isn’t there, leaving THPS4 as a very forgettable game. It’s not bad, it’s just… not much.
Tony Hawk’s Underground
Underground is easily my favorite Tony Hawk game. You get into and out of missions quickly now, keeping a pace through the game that gets it back to that “Mario 64” energy. The move from “Pro Skating” to “Underground” doesn’t change much. Tony Hawk games always had that scummy, grimey feeling that is accurate to pro skating… but it does lead into the story.
Story?? Tony Hawk? Well, shockingly, it… works? It works SURPRISINGLY WELL? Your quest to become pro with your scummy best friend who betrays you for fame shockingly has emotional weight. Eric Sparrow is a piece of shit and it rules. Your relationship seems genuine, his dumbfuckedness seems genuine and him totally turning full douche has just strikes the right balance.
Sadly, I could write a whole blog post on how the Eric Sparrow story fails to pay off. You finally get to be in a competition with this dickhead who stole your footage and you’re ready to embarrass and crush him and he… gets second place? Eric Sparrow is a great skateboarder. All his success is earned. He’s a piece of shit but he’s a talented one. The story concludes with you chasing him down a huge line, following him move for move to get back your lost footage and you… beat him simply by keeping up with him. You don’t prove he’s a fraud. You don’t best him. You merely match him. THE GAME GOT ME TO HATE THIS SON OF A BITCH BUT COULDN’T GIVE ME THE PAYOFF. UGH.
One funny note on the game is if you play as a girl the game is kinda hilariously and awesomely gay. None of the dialog is rewritten so your character will talk about liking russian girls and will have Rodney Mullen scold her for checking out bikini babes. I can imagine the conversation in neversoft. “But if we allow custom girls we’ll need two scripts.” “Like hell we will, make her gay!”
But more importantly, the levels are fast, breezy and fun. You can get off your board now for better and worse — making it easier to get into position but also leading to ridiculous things like… stealth sections?? There are some other mechanics too but they don’t really mean much. At this point in Tony Hawk, most of the mechanics are filler and the real gift is the formula. It’s hard to articulate how fast you can blow through missions and how much just… punchier it feels than THPS4. THUG1 has its cake and eats it. It has its rough points (besides the story, the last segment in the game is kinda tedious and dumb and weird), but it mostly works, has a fun art style and is charming. It exceeded all my expectations.
Tony Hawk’s Underground 2
This game is…. a lot. And not necessarily in a good way. The style is pretty great. The energy is pretty great. Bam Margera is occasionally even funny in a “this happened so long ago it’s cringe wraps around to ironic” kind of way but… it just kinda doesn’t pull things off. At this point, the missions stop feeling like they’re about skating. You’re basically doing fetch quests with a little bit of skating in between. It’s chaos, with skateboarding as a secondary, almost forgotten feature. You get one high score challenge per level that’s your real change to skate, but most of it plays like a platformer with a skateboard.
Storywise it kinda… goes nowhere. Nothing happens. Nothing develops. You don’t know when the ending is going to come. Like sure sometimes Bob Burnquist gets nuts in the balls with a tennis ball and Eric Sparrow is finally, almost apologetically treated like an absolute loser but it… generally just feels like a bunch of stuff happens and then the game ends. That’d be fine, if the game part was good — that’s been the whole serious up until Underground 1 — but it isn’t. Some of the pro skaters get to show some personality I guess?? That’s kinda cool? I feel like this game has the perfect read on who Tony Hawk actually seems to be: An entity of chaos who is just really good at pretending to be respectable. He’s the guy who you have talk to the cops when they show up. Not that he hates them any less than you, he can just fake it better.
There IS a whole ‘classic mode’ that seems way better than the main story mode. I didn’t play through all of it and it seems a little poorly fit, but I still had the most fun playing that way. The spraypaint tag editor is surprisingly detailed but… serves little purpose? The game does stuff to do stuff. Here, drive vehicles which are more boring than skate boarding. Throw shrimp at people I guess. I don’t know, who cares about the mechanics of the game?? It’s a letdown.
The game also goes from zero lines of tweaked dialog for female characters to 1: Your character gesturing to her breasts to appeal to Bam Margera, asking him how he could chose a kid in a wheelchair over THESE???
The only part of this that bothered me was the idea of coming on to Bam Margera like please have some self respect. At the end of the day the game lost it’s way by trying to be Jackass. Apparently American Wasteland pulls this off better, but at this point I was burnt out on Tony Hawk. End result?
THUG1 > THPS3 > THPS1 > THPS2 > THUG2 = THPS4
WAIT WHAT WE’RE STILL GOING???
Hell yeah! I remembered my friend had a copy of Skate 3 and asked if I could borrow it! I figured after all this arcadey Skating I should try something more on the simulation spectrum.
Skate 3 is weird all the way through. From the intro video to the weird meta lines, to the horrible mission structure to it’s weird blend of ‘this is a more serious and realistic skateboarding game’ and ‘throw yourself out of a bell tower to see how many bones you can break’. Skate 3 is weird.
What differentiates Skate from THPS? Skate controls much harder. Grinds have to be lines up and your inputs much match the grinds you want to do. Flip tricks? Flick around the right analog in a manner that resembles how the trick is actually performed. This, combined with lower ollies and other gameplay factors take Skate away from the endless combo gameplay of THPS. Tony Hawk can be STRESSFUL You’re constantly pushing your luck, at risk of losing it all. Skate 3 just wants you to go and do your best. What’s more… Skate 3 is funner to play around it. Screwing around and freeskating in THPS felt pointless. I could be working toward a real goal! doing anything actually impressive in THPS felt incredibly stressful. Skate 3? you can cruise around a mostly open world, fool around and save and edit clips of the cool things you did. Which is important because the actual game and its missions suck. Boringly right goals or super specific tricks or just super repetitive gameplay in modes designed for multiplayer that I feel like no one actually ever wanted to play
Instead, the funnest thing to do in the game was to cruise. The flick-it style controls leads to an intimate relationship between you and your board. I just found myself doing things for the sake of doing them, something I never did in Tony Hawk. If Tony Hawk is a game about epic lines, Skate 3 is about intimacy with ‘the trick’. Or it would be, if not for another game…
Sadly most of Skate 3 is busted. The servers are down. DLC packs you need to say… upload footage to youtube? Gone. Custom decals and stuff? Gone. bu it’s okay, I was able to use cell phone footage to cut together a video part because I’m lame as hell.
This is the character I’ve been playing in all the other Tony Hawk games. She’s supposed to be Sinlen’s maid, which is inspired obviously by that one artist everyone has to see on twitter all the time. But anyways, Skate 3’s half dead state lead me to get my chill, cruisin’ skate vibes elsewhere, especially since Skate 3 had other issues. The map just felt… almost comedically conducive to skateboarding. When everywhere is a spot, nothing feels like a spot. I found myself avoiding extremely crazy ramps and super obvious tricks because it just felt like it was handed to me on a silver platter.
Skate 3 is not the ‘simulationist side’ of the skateboard spectrum. Maybe it’s simulationist-of-center? But either way, SESSION is the game that truly is the simulationists skateboarding game.
The controls are an obvious progression from Skate, where it clearly draws its influence. Where Tony Hawk had tricks as a binary input, Skate had them as an analog input. Session? 2 analogs. One for each foot. Want to ollie in Skate? you slam the analog down and then up. Session? You hit down with your back foot and up with your front foot. Kickflip? Down with your back foot, to the side with the front foot. And the incredible thing? When you 180 and go switch… the analogs reverse.
The thing with THPS and Skate is… Switch hardly matters. Yeah technically you skate worse switch in both games, but I never noticed the difference. Sure in Skate if you’re switch, a kickflip input becomes a heelflip input, but… from a game perspective, I don’t care if I don a kickflip or a heel flip. At least not until I’m made to care. In THPS I rarely cared what tricks I was doing. Are they fast or slow?? Skate… I’d be concerned about the GENRE of a trick. Shuvits vs kick/heels vs bigger fancy flips and like sometimes I’d want a specific grind but I’d just be happy to hit the rail… Switch? Forget about it? Nollies? An afterhought (or ‘never’ in THPS).
Session though… it makes things so much more tactile that I care. It’s not even necessarily harder. Having two whole analogs make the inputs less tiny and precise! I’m way more consistent in Session than Skate… but in a way that feels authentic? Skating switch matters. Doing something “fakie” makes sense. Switch is frustrating, but in a way it’s SUPPOSED to be because actually skating switch is hard as fuck. The game doesn’t penalize you for what stance your in — your hands do.
You also turn with the shoulders which trips people up, but it kinda feels great? No accidental turning or anything. The game is fun just to cruise in without tricks, especially since you get to explore a legitimate slice of NYC. It’s a big learning curve for osme people but I took to it super fast.
There is also manual catching, where you have to input an analog to actually catch your tricks in the air at the right time. Now what tricks you do matter. The timing to catch a treflip is different from catching a 360 hardflip, even when they ‘feel roughly like the same trick’ when I’m playing Skate. Heel flips are slower than kickflips. Shovits are extremely forgiving but might make you land crooked. Now I EXTREMELY CARE about what move I’m doing. Now everything is intentional and when it isn’t, I feel extremely lucky. The game is just awesome.
The problems? Well, in some ways the two foot metaphor doesn’t work. Like riding regular, down on the right analog followed by up on the left is an ollie. But switch it… feels like that should also work to get a fakie ollie? Instead, fakie ollie is up on the right stick, down on the left. This is kinda a compromise since things would get weird otherwise. Oh yeah, this is also an early access game. In fact, there is no game to speak of. You can get footage, but the clip editor is super buggy (ALWAYS KEEP BACKUPS, ESPECIALLY WHEN ADDING FOV AND SPEED KEYFRAMES). Collisions can be dumb. Grinds can be buggy. Anyone who follows me on twitter has probably seen a ton of funny bugs. Customization is limited unless, like me, you’re willing to mod the game (which isn’t HARD but also requires UE and isn’t easy either. Intermediate modding!).
… But despite it’s flaws, it really kinda rules? If you think this is a game for you, it probably is, and if you have misgivings, they’re probably warrented. Anyways have my Maid’s next video part because I’m the least cool person on earth.
Expect more about Session when it finally matures into a full game.
I’m disabling comments on my blog! Not because the discussion was ever bad or unwanted — the majority of comments I get were great — but because legitimate comments are so rare now. It isn’t worth dealing with spam and also I am extremely slow to reply to them.
I’m putting this notification here to say HEY, if you wanna discuss the few rare things I post here, please, hit me up on twitter or email me! Trust me, I’ll get back to you MUCH faster! Blog comments could sometimes go a month or two before I’d think to check!
Also as a small addition, a lot of navigation options on the sidebar were lost due to limited theme selection with the new wordpress system. Stuff like RSS feed, categories and archives are all in Other Information.
2019 was a weird year for me where I felt like I played nothing while I played what seems like far more games than usual. It felt like year spent ‘catching up’, where the scope of what I played didn’t become clear until I started putting it all down on paper. Either way here is my barely proof read yearly ramblings.
A 2019 game in 2019? I have my friend, April, to thank for this who lent me her PS4 for almost a year at this point to play through several games. She bought Death Stranding not to play herself, but so I could play it in front of her and talk about it. I did that and kept on playing, well after the story had resolved itself.
I have an unabashed love for Hideo Kojima. He is a man who simultaneously gets too much and too little credit for what he does. Kojima is brilliant, but his weird, flawed brilliance is not something exclusive to him. Many in the games industry could be just as amazing and weird if fate had given them a chance. He is as much a product of luck and opportunity as he is a result of his own skill and drive. Indie games have shown us that there potentially many many more “Hideo Kojimas” out there, but we might never see one come to the same level of prominence. The current AAA system is simply just not conducive to it. We are lucky to have even one person like Hideo Kojima.
Some people mistakenly say “Kojima should just make movies”. While I can understand how people come say this, if one really thinks about it, the opposite should become true. Kojima should NEVER make movies. The weakest parts of most Kojima games are the parts that are the most rooted in cinema. He may be able to invoke powers of cinema on a superficial level, but his limitations become obvious whenever does more than that.
Kojima communicates best through game design. The gameplay of his best games not only is fun and rewarding, but feeds perfectly into the mood and the theme of what he’s doing. This is where Death Stranding is at it’s best. Kojima can write a whole cutscene where your magical president moms dies of cancer crying on you in the oval office with minimal emotional impact. But carrying the awkward, ungainly corpse of your mother to an incinerator over lonely terrain? That communicates things cinema can’t — ESPECIALLY not Kojima’s cinemas. The whole theme of interconnectedness and how it works with both the core gameplay and the asynchronous multiplayer just feels perfect. Everything operates on a thematic level and on a gameplay one.
I’m not going to write a whole review on Death Stranding in an end of year summery. I could go on about the weird hype cycle somehow managing to delivery on it’s maddening promises. I could talk about how fucky Mads Mikkelsen is. I could talk about HOW COMPLETELY AND DISTRESSINGLY BACKLOADED THE STORY IS AND OH GOD WHY ARE THESE CUTSCENES TOO LONG but I’m going to talk about mountains.
In most games, it doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment to scale a mountain. At best, it feels hard yet intended and at worst it feels like you’re making a mockery out of the game’s slope systems. Only two games I’ve played really made me feel like I had a relationship with the mountains. One would be Getting Over it with Bennett Foddy and the other would be Death Stranding. Getting Over it was a very intimate relationship with one extremely hard climbing route, but Death Stranding was a game where I could wander into a mountain range, feel like I was totally lost in a hostile environment that didn’t want me there and wasn’t designed for me despite the fact I was supposed to be there and it was designed for me. Death Stranding doesn’t pull any big tricks or mechanics to make this happen. There are many small gameplay systems that contribute to the experience, but I feel the important big choice was simply being okay with making the player miserable.
Death Stranding is a AAA game that was okay with me feeling ways that most AAA games try and polish over. For that, I loved it.
The original reason I was lent that ps4! A big discussion before Bloodborne came out was always “Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls”? Obviously Dark Souls was the more ambitious and successful of the two, but many of us had a soft spot for the tone of Demon’s Souls. Demon’s Souls had an oppressive feeling Dark Souls rarely did that was intoxicating. While I always had to prefer Dark Souls over Demon’s Souls due to my love of maps and world design, the miserable world of Boletaria always haunted me.
Then Bloodborne happened. While by the time of it’s release, it was no longer secretly Demon’s Souls 2, it carried that spirit, complete with an incredible level of polish. It exceeds the mood of Demon’s Souls while also representing the peak of Souls combat. Is it’s world design less ambitious than Dark Souls? Yes. Is a lot of Bloodborne kinda samey? Yes. Are the samey parts still EXTREMELY GOOD? Yes!
Bloodborne saw Souls games the way I saw souls games. Bloodthirsty greed and aggressive offense. Sure, in Dark Souls I’d always have a shield equipped — a useful tool for dealing with suddenly extremely dicey situations. But it was almost always the grass crest shield and it was mostly just fueling my offense. So when Bloodborne took away the shield and was like “This game doesn’t need that”, I believed them and was rewarded for it. Maybe following this logic, Sekiro will hit hard with me too. Maybe we’ll see this year…
As for now, Bloodborne is easily the souls game I love to actually play the most.
Dark Souls 3
Dark Souls 3 is a strange game for me. No part of it lights my soul ablaze. None of its world fills me with deep curiosity and wonder. I have no lingering questions. Not because those questions don’t exist, but because the game fails at making me care about their answers. It, more than any other Souls game besides maybe DS2 feels like a game that is just ‘content stitched together’.
But boy is it good content! Dark Souls 3 probably has the best average standard of quality throughout all its areas and bosses out of all the souls game. I feel like it might have this position by quite a large lead. The game is huge and every part of it is good to great (… besides Ashes of Ariandel which sucks outside of one bossfight).
Despite not being entranced by the world, maybe that’s fine? Because there is one feeling Dark Souls 3 does convey. This world is dead. The answer to whatever questions are meaningless because this world is meaningless and may soon be dust. A minor touch that resonated with me was the hollowed enemies. In most souls game they are chaotic and violent and eager to fight. They can think of nothing else. In Dark Souls 3, many have decayed to the point where they must be roused awake by a bell to regain that spark to fight. You fight a Demon Fire Sage who has burnt out, his body reduced to brittle ash. As he fights, he falls apart. Even powerful demons have ran out of time. At the end of the Ringed City you see the fate of the world. Sand. Then you fight some corny ass last boss who looks like he fell into the wrong game, but that vision of the future is still powerful.
Dark Souls 3 never managed the sublime cohesion of the games that come before it in the series, yet still I walk away from it feeling it’s extremely good.
Don’t ask me to make more I Wanna be the Guy games. Between something like Celeste and the trolly creations of people in Mario Maker 2, I simply have nothing to offer. I first played Celeste on the Pico-8 and loved it then. A simple, challenging and cute little game. It’s incredible to see how much further it could be fleshed out.
As I write this, I’m not yet ‘done’ with Celeste. I got some B-Sides, C-Sides and the back half of Chapter 9 to go. But I have beat the ‘main’ game and for a lot of people, that alone is enough. It’s hard to even describe what’s nice about Celeste. It manages to make this type of challenging platforming game feel fresh. It manages to characterize its characters so well in so little time. It manages to build its mood and earn emotionally uplifting moments with grace. It doesn’t do a lot while doing a whole lot at the same time.
It’s so hard to write about a great game that succeeds simply by doing everything simply and extremely well. Celeste just oozes craft and I’m glad I managed to fit it into the end of 2019.
Grand Theft Auto Revisited (1 through San Andres)
So one day I’m randoming through my roms and I hit the GBA version of GTA2. It’s kinda nauseating and hard to play. I quit out and think that’ll be the end of it but then I get curious… how were the PC versions of these games?
Well, apparently you can download them for free so I played them! The original GTA 1 and 2 are such weird games. Clearly the developers were hitting on something but they didn’t quite ‘get it’ yet. They’re half way between what GTA 1 will become and some weird (and overly long) score attack game. They don’t really work. They require tons of precision in a game that seems to already require a ton of luck. But what else would you expect from a UK developed game made in this period? They didn’t know fun was legal yet.
Not the best games to play as a gamer, but interesting to check out as designers. You could see the DNA of games to come, including even Hotline Miami (where the phone gimmick is 100% based off of GTA1 and 2).
So now I was curious… how well did GTA3 hold up?
GTA3 was extremely interesting. A fantastically designed map that felt extremely complicated despite it’s super small size. Driving felt nice and good, missions were starting to click but god, sometimes it forgot that it’s okay to have fun. As a general rule in GTA3, any timer or time limit is anywhere for 10-20 seconds stricter than they have any right to be. The game demands a lot from the player in situations with massive civilian car RNG. But when it works, it’s fun! It’s also incredible how sociopathic the game is. I don’t mean in how violent you are — it’s a god damned GTA game — but in how the story is so neutral to all your betrayals. The game doesn’t even wink when a woman who’s brother you killed tortures the wrong man for it. It’s just presented completely dryly and… oddly that feels appropriate?
Also as a minor point, flying the ‘unflyable’ Dodo is shockingly close to flying a plane with poor lift. I found it pretty easy once I learned to get stabilized! Definitely a lot of fun clearing missions in ways you’re not supposed to.
And from there it was Vice City and everything started to click. The map became colorful and memorable. The radio became ridiculously good. Missions… mostly weren’t completely horrible. Hell, sometimes they were really good! Characters were now characters and Tony, while a sociopath, was a very human sociopath. Lance betraying you actually manages to hurt a little! Just a massive step up.
But also the plane sucked and flew all arcadey which made exactly one person sad and that person was me. But at least the Sparrow was awesome.
Now San Andreas I had never played and was really excited to finally play it. It both exceeded my expectations while also in a lot of ways, disappointing me. From a gameplay perspective it was largely all good. Gunfights finally felt right, variety of vehicles was super fun. The map was almost comedically huge while still diverse and interesting. The plot and characters were many MANY times better… but yet I feel like they left a lot on the table. CJ was the most relatable protagonist to date by a LOT. The Grove Street gang members felt so close and personal. The whole start of the game feels like a story out of some indie comic book that’d get adapted to an HBO show. Exaggerated and comedic, but gritty. Actions had weight. For a short bit, killing people actually felt a little heavy!
… But then the game kinda goes off the rails and you’re plowing up bodies in a farm combine, brutally murdering people to steal a rap rhymes book for someone who totally doesn’t deserve it and just… being a GTA protagonist again. The game knew they shouldn’t do Kill Frenzies anymore (which weren’t even that fun in practice anyways) and they knew they were making something more serious, but it feels like sometime early on, the serious people got voted out of power and irreverent “comedy” returned. It felt like they were on the edge of being something special in the plot department, only to end up… decent, despite all odds. It feels funny to be disappointed by the plot of a GTA game but those early grove street missions set a tone the game never found ever again. That said, running over people in a Combine is a pretty good time.
OH ALSO THE PLANES ARE AWESOME like whoever made the plane physics cared about how planes handled and made every plane behave in a way that somewhat mirrored its real world counterparts. As a plane nerd I was very impressed.
Over all take away from the series? Surprisingly still a lot of fun but Rockstar really needed someone to hit them with a ruler every time they set the timer for a mission too low. Oh and also every racing mission ever totally sucks. But hey, still a lot to love.
Devil May Cry (finally)
I had never actually ever played much of any Devil May Cry game. I’ve played and loved games influenced by them but DMC fell within the ps2 generation which is a generation I largely missed. I tried playing DMC3 at some point on PC but the first time through it bounced off me at some point. The timing wasn’t right yet. I even owned 4 through a bundle or something.
I’m not going to go over these like I did for GTA as the evolution was a lot smoother. DMC1 showed its Resident Evil roots even harder than expected, DMC3 was rough in a lot of ways that mostly had to do with the era it came out in, but was gloriously slick where it was important and DMC4 was just a killer fucking game. It’s Devil May Cry, what is there even to say? It’s as good as I hoped!
Maybe for next year I’ll get to talk about DMC5. If not… hey, the fact that everyone hates DMC2 seems like a great reason to play it!
Jurassic Park: Trespasser
I unironically love this game. Like it is totally busted to shit and borderline unplayable but the sheer ambition was ridiculous. It really felt like I was exploring this long forgotten island. The physics are horrible. Interacting with physical keypads and buttons in the world is horrible. Having to rotate your gun manually to see down the sights is horrible. The way background entities get rendered as billboards only to pop back into 30 when you get close is horrible. The dinosaur animation and AI? Horrible horrible horrible and I LOVE it. The sense of place is great. The environmental story telling is surprisingly strong. Sometimes the dumb physics stuff actually works and sometimes a puzzle is actually interesting! And atop all that, when the game fails brutally, it fails hilariously. This is definitely a must play game for people interested in weird quirky games and gaming history.
Basically Momodora but 3d! Extremely good! Looks slick as hell. Bombservice basically just makes these sorta ‘capsule metroidvanias’ and I love them. I told Rdein to make the second sword do something cool and then the game was cooler. Now only if he listened to me when I told him to make the nuns kiss. Please enjoy my fanfiction, coming soon to AO3
By the time I got to play the full version this year it stopped being fun. The game works great as an engine to enjoy broken nonsense the mechanics don’t make the game stand up well to intense difficulty. One of those games where you fail and are just like “what could I have even done differently?”
Still could recommend it, just know the game gets tedious after a certain point.
DS1 Again + Randomizer
Replayed Dark Souls 1! Gosh this game was jankier than I remember. Mostly the hitboxes. The hitboxes are TERRIBLE and nothing has any range. Stuff was sometimes hard for weird reasons I didn’t remember. Would get mad at Ornstein all the time because his collision box was bigger than his hurt box. That said, still the GOAT, still probably “Game of the Decade”, but I do appreciate all the nice changes made to its sequels. Also the “HD Remaster” looks like ass and I only played it because the PTD edition had horrible audio desync bugs for me.
Randomizer was fun though! The completely wacked out enemy placements turns things into a weird puzzle. Even stuff like leveling up becomes a chance for clever and fun “cheese”. Gotta try fog gate randomizer next!
I ALMOST REALLY LOVE THIS GAME. The game about driving forever and fixing your car as it breaks down and smuggling cigarettes past customs and weird Uncles. Very tactile but never quite creates the relationship with your car I hoped for. From all I read the developer was frustrated as well with their inability to really make this great concept totally come together. Still can lead to some great moments though.
Final Fantasy 4
I replayed Final Fantasy 4 for reasons that are completely beyond me. Some thoughts: Oh god I hate random battles. Oh god the japanese version makes so much more sense, not only on a re translation front but also mechanically and oh god what a good soundtrack. Still not a fan of jRPGs anymore but it was… shockingly short?
Anyways, Brave Earth still isn’t out but instead of me being depressed about that, lets talk about games I played this year in no particular order!
I played this so early in the year I almost forgot about it. I remember looking at a map of this game and going “Eh. This doesn’t seem like the type of Metroidvania I like”. When I finally played it, my friend hour or so of playing “confirmed” this to me but I kept going. “This game is too much the original Metroid it’s too easy to get lost and lose all direction”.
… But that was the idea. And as getting lost led me to new and exciting places and as the game continued to feel really nonlinear the quality of the world design became more and more apparent. Things I thought were flaws were intentional and intentional things I thought weren’t to my taste I ended up falling in love with. It’s one of the few games that people compare to Dark Souls where I’m like… yes. Yes this is exactly it. A beautiful and lonely world with great NPCs and fun gameplay that might occasionally cross the line into ‘actually unfair’ but in ways that are forgivable. Absolutely loved this game and I wish it was fresher in my memory.
I was waiting for this game for years and years and years and years. Where I expected a fun puzzly metroidvania I really instead got more of a Cave Story-esque journey with punchy gameplay. The world is connected only enough to make it feel like one big cohesive space. Earlier screenshots of the game contained a mini map in the HUD that was removed because, well… the game just isn’t actually about that. Areas are “stages” that are just in or slightly off the path you want to go. It’s a big map not because you’re supposed to explore it but because it makes the world feel realer. And within this world is an amazing story with amazing characters, looking cutesy and light while being a depressing, cynical story about peoples inabilities to change, to heartbreaking consequences. All told by someone who can execute art, writing and doing his own music perfectly.
Sometimes you want your soul touching indie games to play like a Treasure game in between cutscenes and this game fits that bill.
Wonderboy in Monster World
As a side note to Iconoclasts, I played this as Konjak listed it as one of his influences of the game. Wonderboy is a strange game. I don’t think there is a single excellent thing the Wonderboy games do. Yet somehow they are oddly compelling. They feel like an action RPG demake back when the action RPG genre was in full swing. Simple grind and update mechanics, formulaic progression through cute, tropey environments, adorable art style… and yet it works. It’s like some kind of comfort food. You can feel it’s world structure in Iconoclasts too. Wonderboy gives you little reason to backtrack but the fact you walk everywhere makes the world feel whole.
EVO: The Theory of Evolution
If I were to pick a game of this year I would want to scream to the heavens about the most, it would be this. While not the best game — it is a very very flawed, old game — it was the most shocking and enjoyable find for me. This lovingly fan-translated PC-98 game is the turn based RPG prequel to the SNES’s EVO: Search for Eden. You can scroll down one post and read my whole review of this game but most importantly I was just SHOCKED at the sheer amount of quirkiness and charm this strange, surreal game had. It has that intangible ‘special’ factor that makes it important despite it’s flaws. So yeah go read that post and then download the game god dammit.
EVO: Search for Eden
Another side note game, I replayed The Search for Eden after The Theory of Evolution. What was once an amazingly quirky game felt simple and watered down compared to its PC-98 parent. The gameplay manages to feel slower than the turn based RPG it was based on and while more visually appealing, The Theory of Evolutions quadrant evolution system was more interesting and had more diverse choices. The only bad thing about The Theory of Evolution is it made me like Search for Eden a lot less. The Theory of Evolution has all of its strengths and more tolerable flaws.
I almost forgot about this because it hit so fast. As just a demo its hard to read into things too much, What is flaw, and what is intentional? The core chunk of the demo plays its story beats as an uncanny valley clone of Undertale in a way that we all know has to be intentional. It’s weirdly uncomfortable, offputting and curious. While the bits we’ve gotten to play have their great moments already (who doesn’t love Susie) the demo, by necessity is nothing but promises, building up to something that seems challenging to deliver upon. Looking back in the future I feel like this first release will either be completely vindicated or seen as warning sign for all the problems we’ll see in the finished game. Considering Toby said he built Undertale purposefully to make this game, I’m leaning toward the former.
Dark Arms: Beast Buster 1999
This year I found some good NGPC games! Dark Arms: Beast Buster 1999 is probably one of my favorite game names I’ve ever seen. The game itself is interesting. A zelda-with-guns pokemon crossover thing where you capture enemy souls, eggs and seeds and combine them to make new guns to level up and evolve. The game is sadly a little scant and repetitive and doesn’t have the longevity the designers wished it did, but it’s still an exceptionally charming game that is still fun to play.
It feels like the type of game where in a better world there would be a Dark Arms 2 which would be a classic and there would be forum posts asking “Hey is Dark Arms 1 worth playing?” “Its worth checking out but feels really dated and shallow by comparison” and then Dark Arms 3 would come out and everyone would hate it because it changed a bunch of stuff and removed a bunch of features from Dark Arms 2 and — well… yeah that sadly didn’t happen. The publisher never went inn this direction ever again and mostly made fighting games afterward. This would be a good game for some indie dev to shamelessly lift from to make something new and more refined.
The second good NGPC game I played this year is a weird Turn Based Strategy/Mech Customization game that is anime as hell. It also hits that “Final Fantasy Tactics” tone. It’s much goofier and does less of a a good job of it, but it gets some of that Gundamy ‘War is Hell’ stuff going on and executes it well in a few areas. This is another game that seems like it was a sequel away from being really great. The weapon variety does a lot but also leaves a lot on the table (there is no splash weapons). The combat, which involves selecting up to 8 moves in advance and predicting movements doesn’t have the enemy AI to make it as rewarding as it could be. But the game scales up well, limiting access to the “command chips” and amount of actions you can make until you are ready to zip around the map and blast things to hell. I still haven’t finished it but it is more a testament to the game. I’m still grinding end game content because the basic grind in this game is actually fun. Sadly it lacks the diversity to truly shine but it’s SO CLOSE.
Kerbal Space Program
Kerbal Space Program was both a joy and a frustration. I now look at the janky car wreck that is modded minecraft and go “wow, this shit is rock solid”. Like Minecraft, KSP suffers from the problem that well… there actually isn’t a whole lot -to do-. You can do cool stuff just to do them, but like with modded minecraft, having an incentive to build is fun! But oh my god the physics of this game make things so rough. Any mod that does anything interesting is a disaster. Vehicles on loading the game abhor the ground. Space stations decide ‘yes now it is time to shake apart (modded or unmodded)’ and the whole thing is just frustrating for the wrong reasons. I wanna be frustrated by my landers tipping over on the moon because I designed them bad and I suck at landing, not because the physics engine decides it wants to do whatever it wants.
I put a lot of time into KSP this year and enjoyed a lot of it, but eventually I realized I was spending more time trying to ‘fix’ quirks of the game then actually play it. Losing should be fun but it just isn’t in this. Though that said I did enjoy building and flying planes in it quite a bit!
IL2 Strumovik: Great Battles series
So after KSP I did a short stint in SimplePlanes which made me go ‘lemme get my IR headtracker gear set up again’. When Simple Planes didn’t support it I was like ‘hm, maybe I should install IL2: 1946’ and a few days later I kept just eye-ing IL2: Battle of Stalingrad, the first game in the newer IL2 Great Battles series. Now I got a new joystick and throttle and rudder pedals (after building a set out of an old joystick and wood which worked pretty well) and I’m flying around with no hud and learning real flight principles. This is hardly my first deep dive into hardcore flight sims (I did own 1946 and had a headtracker already)
While simulations aren’t very gamey, air combat has a lot of gamifying factors. The nature of ‘energy advantage’ and balancing things like radiator drag vs coolant concerns and other mechanisms are very gamey. A lot of fighting game-esque management of information happens in air combat. When I made my post about “Cleaning up your mental stack” someone came in like “Hey do you know about the OODA Loop??” which is fighter pilot terminology for what is basically the same thing. Flying a plane in combat has almost the same APM process as playing Starcraft, deciding between macro and micro decisions and always having infinite ways to optimize is you have the spare knowledge and attention. While not being inherently gamey, it appeals to the gamey side of my brain.
I won’t go into too much other detail. it’s a WW2 airplane sim focused on the eastern front and which is noted for unflinching realism and attention to detail. It doesn’t really have a lot of competitors. But whats important is that flying is hard and as such is -rewarding-.
Factorio: Jumped to this a bit once I got off the Minecraft train. Factorio gets the process side of Minecraft even better than modded minecraft by like a lot and it’s a lot of fun. My only problem with it compared to Modded Minecraft is it’s really narrow. Like Modded Minecraft gives you the space for BIG COOL PROJECTS but factorio really doesn’t. Part of the “problem” (for me, it’s not a design flaw) is that when you grow in Factorio the design is… very integrated. Everything is already connected. Modded minecraft often develops as a bunch of separate systems and ends with more and more interconnectivity and automation. Modded Minecraft your adding functionality and in factorio your adding efficiency. High end late game in some play styles seems to get more into ‘interconnected microservices’ territory but I’ve yet to pull that off.
Dicey Dungeons: What a fun little game! A spiked shield where even dice do damage and odd dice shield me? Big swords benefiting for big dice and daggers benefiting from lots of little dice? A cute little dice based roguelike that gets a lot of gamefeel out of spending dice. One of the games that softened me on my dislike of turnbased games lately.
Super Metroid x LTTP Randomizer: What a perfect combination of madness, finding flippers in Super Metroid and the morphball on Death Mountain. A very confusing, brain bendy randomizer that fits right into my core skills.
Dahna: Megami Tanjō: This game owns hard. Like it’s not the best game in the world — it’s a little janky at times — but it’s also just awesome. Your some cool blonde warrior woman whose helped by mythical monsters to fight a sorceress. The game starts with you just riding on a giant ogre and stomping on shit before you just run around wheeling around this giant big ol’ sword like a badass, blood everywhere. It has such an awesome early 80s anime vibe. One of the things I like about it that I respect a lot in games is the game is constantly different. Things happen because the designers wanted to do them. Things are reused in ways that make sense in story. Bosses you injured earlier on reappear with those injuries still in place. It’s not just platformer beat’em up formula, which makes it feel oddly special.
Final Fantasy IV: Pushing my newfound tolerance for turn based games again, I went back to a classic. I don’t know why, I just had a growing urge to. Also it’s relatively short. It was interesting to play this and think about how much of the world interaction stuff and cutscenes and all that were cutting edge at the time. It’s the JRPG stuff we all took for granted at the time. I also played the japanese version (translated, obviously) so I got to experience slightly more complicated mechanics which made the game feel a lot less primitive than the US “Easy Type” would have led me to believe.
Robotrek: This was a mixed bag! Robotrek was a game I loved as a kid. Building robots is fun! Sadly the game is super shallow despite its attempts not to be. But… it’s also a strange, quirky game with a surreal sense of humor. It was tedious until I found the tricks to cheesing it. Parts of it that seemed good in my memory were worse and parts I didn’t care about as a kid held up better. It’s a weird, gaming game (I mean.. it’s a Quintet game so no surprise) that probably could have been great with a little bit more thought and time on the mechanics side of things.
E.V.O: Search for Eden (Known in Japan as 46 Okunen Monogatari: Harukanaru Eden e) was a strange game. A lot of us have very fond memories of it, but it’s also kinda… bad. Just… shallow and really grindy. But by god was there some weird, quirky goodness to it. The game was charming in a way that made it easy (or… easier) to overcome its faults. I’d jokingly call it “One of my favorite games that isn’t actually any good”. But all the elements of Search for Eden came together to be greater than the sum of its parts. The Evolution (even though there wasn’t really any REAL decisions), the weird quirky writing, the strange alternative history aliens and bird men or whatever… the weird way it’d be sincerely sad or dark. It was one of those things where just… as an experience, it was really compelling. Even if grinding for EVO points was kinda boring…
For the last few years I’d been vaguely aware of 46 Okunen Monogatari: THE Shinka Ron, a PC98 game that was the predecessor to E.V.O: Search For Eden. But it was in Japanese and was a turned based RPG (which I have a hard time stomaching now) and was on a tricky to emulate platform. But as time went on, more and more weird screenshots would come out from it and I’d wonder “What is the deal with this game???”
Fortunately the fine folks at https://46okumen.com/ made a beautiful translation. Localized as E.V.O: The Theory of Evolution, the game is an expert translation that contains all the joy and weirdness of the SNES game. In fact, it’s… even more Search for Eden than Search for Eden. This is a strange game, taking the alternative history and weird tangents of Search for Eden to another level. it seems improbable to say, but I feel like we got the much more… normal game of the two.
The RPG nature works to this game’s favor. The writing and weird scenarios was a strength of Search for Eden. The RPG combat is… basic. Basic to both be a flaw and s strength. It’s pretty brain dead but, with text speed set to 0, grinding and fighting become… brisk. There aren’t really any boss fights either. There are no random encounters either. Enemies wander the world map and often disappear from areas after awhile. There isn’t a lot of friction to exploration and backtracking. All experience gained can be spent immediately on either Attack, Endurance, Vitality or wisdom.
The incredible part of the design is… it’s hard to do this wrong? In almost every game there seems to be ‘the suckers strategy’. “Oh never put points into wisdom!” or whatever. But everything is good, it’s just a matter of priority. Would the foes coming up be better with more strength or more health? Even wisdom which might be the least useful influences the power of your healing abilities which can be incredibly good. So while the game pushes you to be an all arounder, it allows you to influence yourself by which way you move on the evolution chart. When a stat is raised to its limit, you evolve and the limit goes up. So maybe you want to level up all your attributes, but you always max out attack, pushing you toward more damaging evolutions. Or more defensive or whatever. And they all seem viable. There are certainly better evolutions but the game is never so demanding that it matters. Instead it’s fine to mess around. Infact if you evolve off the chart (see the evolution chart picture) you can get odd “bad” endings.
The story is surreal. The translated manual includes timelines talking about Interplanetary wars with the Devil, the death of “The Fifth Planet”, Martian coups by Anti Devil Factions… all this while The Earth is still developing oxygen. Oh, also The Devil is hot and does the anime noble lady laugh. Seriously. The second sun, Nemesis, messes with evolution, Lunarians found and sink Atlantas. You can skip mammals and evolve into POWERFUL LIZARD MEN until becoming a gnome. It’s a weird, brisk experience that only gets tedious when you aren’t sure what the game wants from you… which almost always involves ‘talking to an NPC’. “But I wanna push this boulder” yeah okay you gotta talk to the NPC that will give you the idea.
It’s a wild game that goes farther and deeper than anything in Search for Eden, overlapping with sci-fi and fantasy elements as if they were just… normal. It’s funny when it needs to be funny, sad when it needs to be sad, creative in ways you won’t expect and… oddly affecting, emotionally, even when you barely have spent time with the characters in the game. Is it a shallow gameplay experience? Yes. But I hate jRPGs and I loved the hell out of this game so if you’re tempted… try it. I feel like you’ll know pretty quicky if it’s a game you’d like. For me though, this is the exactly the type of charming, obscure game I live to find, even if it’s a genre I don’t really care for. Just be sure to set Text Speed to 0.
This was a weird year in gaming for me. I played all of one game released in 2017. The bulk of the year was covered by weird hacks and modded minecraft, as well as the usual slurry of bad games. I don’t want to frame this as ‘best of list’ because while I like… most of these games, it’s honestly more ‘games I remember playing that I have some thoughts about. Anyways
What a lovely game. Due to a lot of Zachtronics stuff and modded Minecraft I got a little bit of a taste for a slower experiences again. The farming was alright, but the characters were super lovely. The game had very simple but effective writing that had me change my choice for Farmer Naomi’s wife multiple times. Even the characters on the bottom of my list were great. The only issue I had was… and honestly I didn’t notice it much because I wasn’t going for that content… that the guys were lame. Shane had a great arc that got me to befriend him, but the rest? eh. Also that super simple fishing game was so fun.
Biggest issue with the game was the lack of an end game. I feel like randomized goals in the style of the carepackages would have been lovely. But on well, you can’t play every game forever.
Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight
I played this on my flight to Japan since I was going to meat Rdein and the game was on my list for awhile. The level design of it had this lovely Demon’s Souls meets Knytt Story feel to it. The map they made for the game was lovely and the world felt tangible and sensible. It had a very Japanese-esque style without being generic anime. It had lovely but simple combat. Just one of those games that’s just… simply solid and good? Just a game with a lot of soul.
Getting Over it with Bennett Foddy
Foddy is a cool guy I’ve gotten to hang with a few times. Just… smart and funny and of course he makes real assholish games. But I found Getting Over It to be the least frustrating. It, more so than QWOP or GIRP became zen like to me. I just let go of any stress immediately. Progress didn’t mean anything until the job was done. I didn’t get mad or frustrated once. It was all zen. And Foddy talking philosophically about the nature of art and hard games was wonderful and a lot of it really resonated with me. A pleasant experience for a masochist.
Also this is the only game I played this year that game out in 2017. Yikes!
Metroid Rogue Dawn
What a flawed but lovely game. This is a game I wish I could get a physical copy of (it’s just a little too expensive). This romhack has a lot of rough edges but truly creates an alien planet. It also looks unlike any NES game. It’s gorgeous and just feels…. uncannily out of place, graphics from another time… Because, well, they are. I played this at the beginning of the year so a lot of details are lost on me but it was rad!
Super Metroid Rotated 90 Degrees
It’s what it says on the tin. Some parts of the game are tweaked to make it reasonable but for the most part it’s for crazy bomb jumping and walljumping nuts like me. It’s great to have something familiar yet different, where you can use your knowledge to help you, but it doesn’t ever quite help enough. Which also plays into…
A Link to the Past Randomizer
I played a Super Metroid Randomizer and some DS Vania randomizers bu the ATTP randomizer takes the cake. These are addictive. In Super Metroid, finding a stash of items meant either, depending on difficulty settings, finding a stack of nothing or find a ton of great stuff, ATTP has enough diversity in its chest drops to make every chest feel like the pull of a slot machine. Every little trick gets you a little bit further and nets you a few more pull of the slots.
I even did entrance randomizer once because I hate myself. It was… something to be making diagrams in photoshop to figure out what goes where.
A weird Game Gear Secret of Mana/Zelda clone thing? Certainly the only Game Gear game I have ever beat. Never released in America and oddly charming and good. If this was a GBC game released by Nintendo, it’d be one of those games people say is overrated. It hasn’t aged excellently but in its time it was surely wonderful. The game has a neat, curious world with a strange cosmology that, while nothing shocking, is just… nicely thoughtful. It has simple but memorable plot moments. It just plays -nicely-. Not excellently, but definitely nicely. Also you change forms and shit and its kinda annoying but it’s one of those weird gems that Sega fanboys would likely clutch close to their heart if it got a US release. But sadly, despite being a SEGA game, it did not.
I replayed Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Despair thinking Circle was the “okay one” and Boy was I wrong!
I didn’t remember either of these games being great. In fact, I remembered Harmony of Despair being downright awful and ugly and Circle of the Moon being… odd but playable…
Oh my god Circle of the Moon sucks. I know there was some article claiming it was secretly The Best Portable Castlevania, but it is just… awful. Bland in looks, bland in level design, tedious to transverse. The DSS system is garbage, saved only by the fact that you can use a glitch to use any card combination. Finding them in the wild? Fuck that. You move weird. You jump weird. You’re like a slug who can somehow jump 100 feet in the air. There are no items to pick up besides Health and MP ups so there is no real discovery — just tedious cleanup work to maximize your stats. The only things that don’t suck about this game: The monster choices are odd and there are a lot of them. A lot of classic enemies are replaced by oddbalsl like… archer wolves? Sure, okay, that’s better than just another skeleton. And some of the bosses are okay? Sometimes? Maybe? Even if Dracula sucks horridly.
Harmony of Despair by contrast was much better than I remember. And by much better it was “Okay”. I won’t be itching to replay it any time soon and it was a number of steps below Aria of Sorrow but it was.. fine? A little bloated and with a few advancement triggers that defy reasonable design but… it’s fine and… looked much better than I remember? Likely because GBA emulators are better about colors/backlight compensation so the game looked much less overblown than I remember. Hell at its best, it looks better than Aria, though Aria is just more consistent. Also it has a weirdass soundtrack. At first I hated it, but over time it oddly grew on me. The sample choices are weird but I guess kinda match the “Dissonance”? But the important is the soundtrack leverages these grainy, awful sounds in awesome ways. It reminds me of the horrible Demon’s Souls trumpets. They’re so bad. But so good. God I love them. Anyways here have my favorite HoD track.
There is something captivating about this stupid pinball game. Naxat has a skill for making games just… feel nice. And they never got to stretch that muscle much but this pinball game from the guys who made Rekka is awesome. It just feels cool, has a lot of energy, lots of little subboards to find. It’s impossible to really explain. Just try it. I don’t know if, as a kid, I’d be down with paying full price for a single board pinball game but hey it somehow works.
Also known as Dragon’s Fury in the US, where it is on the Genesis rather than the PC Engine. Both versions are good. I feel like I slightly prefer the PCE version, but the Genesis version looks and arguably sounds better (which goes against my usual Anti-FM Synth bias). Also the main song is awesome.
Golden Axe Warrior
I can’t believe there is a Golden Axe game that is a flat up clone of Zelda 1. Like almost nothing tried to clone Zelda 1. It’s like a weird look into an alternative history. It’s not particularly -good- but it’s educational. Never beat it because my save corrupted but w/e.
This Fucking Thing
My uncle got me this weird crappy handheld thing for Christmas loaded with old NES games that is various minor tweaks of Super Mario Bros, Adventure Island and Contra, a few other random old shitty games and a TON of AWFUL chinese games made in the 2000s. They’re awful and awesome. I just load it up sometimes and pick a random game and groan at how bad it is… but a good groan. An oddly… exciting groan.
I played a ton of modded minecraft this year. Too much, really. But the engineering you can do in modded minecraft is just wonderful. It’s weird because no other modded game I can think of regularly assembles mods under ‘mod packs’ (without it being a huge community drama thing). So you get these weird custom play experiences made up of multiple peoples work. The integration a lot of time doesn’t make sense but all things considered it works really well. Modded minecraft, with all its pipes and machines isn’t even the same game. It feels like a sandbox Zachtronics game or something.
https://www.youtube.com/user/kayinnasaki/videos I’ve been uploading base tours and stuff so if you wanna get an idea of what I like doing, that’d work. But yeah, it’s oddly infection. Sometimes I worry it’s slowed down BEP but then when I cut myself off I just refresh reddit for 4 hours, which honestly is a huge downgrade. JUST GOTTA WORK ON MOTIVATION, SEE YA ALL NEXT YEAR.
Watch the first minute and a half of this. Have a laugh! It’s okay to laugh! It’s pretty painful to watch. You’re getting a glimpse into how it feels to be a game designer watching playtesters.
So we all on the same page? Alright. So there has been a lot of discussion about this video online and I’ve been spouting off thoughts on twitter and I feel like I have enough to put them all down in one place. First, the boring one for me.
Don’t Games Journalists need to be Good at Games?
No. Absolutely not. “But if someone was bad at understanding movies or only watched kids movies, would you want them to review stuff?” Not the same thing. It’d be like saying only people who played in the NFL could comment on and critique NFL play. Which some people say, but most people agree is stupid. Knowledge and expertise do not necessarily imply skill. Also the consumer of game reviews are not necessarily great videogame players. For the average gamer, the opinion of an expert is just as far from their perspective as a poor player. Even with levels of play THIS poor, it’s important to remember that Platformer skill is a niche skill these days and nothing I’ve heard indicated that the player wrote a review or anything based off this. A journalist was just bad at a game. If you made me say, play a moba or a console FPS, I’d look like a jackass too, probably. Maybe not as much of one, but still. Maybe you don’t want someone who’s bad at a genre to review a genre (unless that’s the point of the review) but that isn’t the discussion people are having.
Not only is it okay, it’s BENEFICIAL. If every reviewer was good at games, whole areas of concern and accessibility would go completely unaddressed. More voices give more variety and more insight. You can argue about how those voices are used or w/e but they should absolutely exist. It’d be like saying ‘only great players should test games’ which is obviously absurd.
On Testing, and on the Game Design Perspective
So while everyone on twitter was burying this guy for being awful, pretty much every game designer I knew who was talking about it was like “okay but how do we make the TUTORIAL better???”. A lot of non-devs were like “WTH???” because to them it was like “Look this guy is CLEARLY bad and clueless it’s not the game’s fault.”
First things first. Even a complete knucklehead can teach you about your game. Bad players can teach you TONS of stuff. You might be like “Well why fix something to help people through who won’t be good at the game anyways?” because yeah, perhaps this guy wouldn’t be able to get far. But improving things like how the tutorial works improves things in little nice ways for everyone.
So what’s wrong with this tutorial?
It’s mixing elements really quickly. You have a dash you haven’t been asked to use yet and you have to jump, dash, and do so off a rock that isn’t a part of this section but is an obstacle for the last. Also you gotta do this pretty strictly at the peak of your jump. Some people made fun of him dashing into the pillar over and over again but in tons of games that’s actually WHAT YOU DO. Dash into things to break them!
Now most experienced players can figure this out, but if you can make things nice and clean… if it doesn’t take that much more effort, why -wouldn’t- you do it? Some people protested like “Well, it’s not fair to make devs compromise their creative vision for bad players!” Lets ignore the fact that, like I said, most devs were already all about how to make this better, who’s CREATIVE VISION involves a really quick tutorial segment? “JUMPING OFF THE ROCK IS FOUNDATIONAL TO THE MESSAGE OF THE GAME!” I’ll just tell you right now, I don’t know the Cuphead guys and I don’t know if it’ll be different in the final version, but I can tell you it’s not an important part of their vision. But what if it was?
Working on BEP I used to have real old school castlevania jumps. No air control at all. But then I had some friends test it who aren’t that great a platformers. One of them I saw struggling to jump up on things. They’d neutral jump and then try and press forward to get on platforms. And they’d do this over and over again. Pressing forward and jump at the same time from a stand still didn’t come naturally to some players. Walking to and jumping over a pit, sure no problem, but it screwed up their vertical platforming.
Obviously I didn’t want to compromise my vision for my own game but sometimes you gotta ask yourself “What IS your vision?” Was my vision “No jump control?” No. but I definitely wanted a jump that had weight and commitment behind it. I didn’t want the player to be nimble in the air. I wanted a slow, deliberate game. So I built up a jump to fit my needs. I gave the player a strong neutral jump — one where they could change to a forward or a backward jump arc at any time. Which was fun for dealing with projectiles. Then then for the normal jumps, I gave the ability to slow down or speed up a little. Jumps felt like braking while driving a heavy truck. The jump had character, but also fit my goals and ALSO fixed a lot of problems players had. So did I compromise my vision? No, I got a clearer understanding of my vision and executed it. Those changes also allowed for more challenging gameplay in later parts of the game so changing things for accessibility strengthened my vision and benefitted hardcore players in the end.
Another day another ludologist trying to convince people that “Hey, actually, if you think about it, stories in games are actually bad???”. The exact article isn’t important because I feel like this exact same article has been posted by a dozen different people at a dozen different times. It’s all the same arguments every time and frankly, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Ludologists should do what they do best — discuss rules and how rules interact and what creates interesting interactions — because all of us who make games have our ludologist hat. If people can say interesting thing about rules that helps and informs are work, that’s GREAT. Generally they don’t because most people who label themselves ludologists seem to mostly argue very pedantic things or try and sort things into boxes, but it’d be a complete lie to suggest that somehow people concerned about the rules of play never said anything wise or enlightening about the rules of play and the less time spent in these horrible pointless sinkholes the better.
More frustrating is that most of the arguments made AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN are just plain bad. Some aren’t bad, though. Find one of these articles and someone will explain to you why games are less good at telling narrative than other mediums. They’ll tell you that your choices come at the direct cost of being able to tell a crisp, perfect narrative. They’re not wrong — or at least, as wrong. So logically, why are we making stories in games? I’ve even seen someone say that designing games by thinking like this is science driven game design. “If logically we can say that games make less good narratives than other mediums, CLEARLY they’re bad.”
Well, this all comes to a single important fact that I feel like overshadows all other. Acknowledging this fact might actually be the post “Scientific” thing you can do on this topic. I really do think it’s this simple.
People like Narratives in games. They really really like them.
Like that’s it, end of story, folks! You have your hypothesis and you can test it. There are plenty of ludocentric games out there. We can look at how people respond to these things… and at the very least I’m pretty sure it’s clear that there is no great revelations going on. No one realizing “Oh man ahah this story stuff was so dumb I shoulda just watched Game of Thrones sorry Dragon Age”. You see two different kinds of games being played in two different ways. You see stuff like streams that make it really weird. Like the first gut impulse might be “Ah hah! Consuming game stories as a linear fashion! People just want games to be movies!” but what’s worse than a games narrative? A game narrative presented as a linear narrative unchanged or edited. People get invested in these technically-suboptimal stories and then we go out of there way to watch someone else enjoy them so they can vicariously enjoy them again. People deeply connect and care about these stories. So this shouldn’t be “Why are you making narrative games when those are less good than ludo games?” the question should be “Wait, this doesn’t make any sense. We should be figuring out the unique things that games do that make these technically flawed narratives resonate so hard (This should be obvious to anyone who’s done story driven RP and got deeply invested in a plot that elsewhere would be a half star movie, but lets pretend this is a great unanswered quest).
A common eyerolling sentiment is that people were somehow tricked. AMBIGUOUS EGOCENTRIC GAME DEVS WITH CINEMA ENVY are forcing their shit on people. Or maybe it’s just CULTURE and we all just gotta realize this is bad so we can move on to planting farms on a hex map. Or maybe the PLAYERS ARE DECEIVING THEMSELVES which… is the stupidest argument (thankfully most people don’t go that far but I’ve seen it).
The thing is, humans make stories. They make stories with everything they can. They make stories with spoken words, written words, sung words, how about JUST notes? How about a single or multiple paintings? How about telling a story through a Rube Goldberg machine? We sit down and tell stories with our own choices and dice or just standing around pretending to be vampires with a GM that’s nothing but a glorified referee. Stories in videogames are something to be expected and is “Business as usual” for humanity.
Perhaps the stupidest of these ideas that come a lot is “Well why not a movie or a show?” as if that is such an easy choice. Let me choose this other thing I have little experience in that is notoriously hard to break into and can be far more expensive and DO THAT. OR about writing? or a comic? Or things that take a super intense level of skill in one particular ability you might not have and which has a work load that is hard to distribute? Sometimes you have the luxury of choosing your medium, but for most artists, there is one medium and that’s it. And for many of us, we just want stories in game format. I connect with stories in games differently than I can connect with the stories of movies. Undertale was a more important media experience to me than The Shawshank Redemption or really any other movie I can think of… and I’m not going to say that Undertale is near the level of execution and perfection as the best movies ever made… but that interactive element and the weight it could inflict on me gave it such a leg up over the competition that a game maker game programmed by a musician resonated so deeply with me. So if you ask gamers to list their favorite stories, there are going to be games in there that, when compared to their adjacent peers, make NO SENSE if you’re looking at story telling as just the quality of the narrative.
You can’t ignore this and claim that games without story are better. Because first, that doesn’t even make sense (You might as well argue that football is better than DnD and waste all our times in a more novel way) but also flies in the face of the fact that this format is deeply successful with a lot of people.
Year end wrap-up time, so lemme make a post like everyone else where I talk about my favorite games I played this year. As with every time I do this, I am ignoring multiplayer games and also ignoring release dates. I’m not a ‘zeitgeist’ gamer and I don’t put much importance on staying fresh with what just came out. I’m sure there are a lot of great games that came out this year that I will eventually play but I like bouncing around so for me, most of my favorite games in the years are games I discovered or just gotten around to. I also tend to play multiple entries in a series in a row, so to keep the list from being all King’s Field and Shadow Tower games I am going to block certain games up as one pick. Also no order outside that this a “Top 10”.
A game with just an absurd content to fun ratio to me. After 50 hours forcing myself to play Gungeon, playing Devil Daggers again was like reaching the surface after suffocating under water. The rush, the speed, THE AESTHETIC. Devil Daggers does not waste my time and hits all my buttons for iteration and improvement. The only problem with it is it is hard to play while doing other stuff. Back during spelunky I would pause the game constantly to do other things but Devil Daggers, like playing TGM tetris, is hard to go back to midway. The game needs your undivided attention. It also does get repetitious so its best as a ‘game between’ games but every time I load up Devil Daggers its like “Why don’t I play this more?”
Front Mission: Gunhazard
A lovely SNES gem that I would have adored as a child. Not as mechanically clever or with as good levels as Metal Warriors, Gunhazard still has an amazing feel to it, despite its repetitious nature and overstaying its welcome a bit. It feels a bit like a better EVO: Search for Eden. Even though I’d say Gunhazard is a good game while EVO isn’t (even if I still love it), it does have some of that samey grindiness. But the world and aesthetic and story and growth is awesome. Also its set piece moments are delightful. Really adored finding this game. Its high points were high even if its low points were low… but never so low as to push me away.
Infinifactory (As well as Shenzhen IO and TIS-100)
Usually I tell people I don’t like puzzle games that much. Especially hard puzzle games. A cute puzzle platformer can be fun and not overstay its welcome but stuff like the Witness where I’m trying to reverse solve an obtuse puzzle? I really could care less. But Zachtronics doesn’t make those kinds of puzzle games. His games remind me of The Incredible Machine, or bridge builders or, in a sense, Carnage Hearts. Puzzles where there is no ‘trick’ and no ‘the solution’. Puzzles which are about creativity and expression. I actually adore those kinds of Puzzle Games and in fact, that’s part of what I like about making games. So when I played Shenzhen IO I went back to play a bunch of Zachtronics offerings (no Spacechem yet, but I’ll get to it). Shenzhen and TIS-100 like like series of those rewarding “Ah-ha!” moments of fixing my games but without the same stress or stakes. Infinifactory appealed deeply to my love of spacial interactions. I wish I could do this in something like minecraft and have the things I make actually matter. I loved going back in all these games to just do better and beat my friends.
Infinifactory also had the most developed story and progression through the games I played. Its surprisingly interesting and fleshed out and the themes the games areas have match perfectly with whats going on in the story. Perfectly put together and wonderful to play.
Klonoa 2 (and also Klonoa)
What a wonderful pair of games! Klonoa 1 was delightful if a bit ages but Klonoa 2 was just… better in every possible level? The way the mechanics ramp up up, the way the level design was perfect, the art style, just… everything. There isn’t even much to even say. Klonoa isn’t one of those games that does something novelly or has something that makes it stand out. Klonoa and Klonoa 2 are just amazingly solid platformers and perhaps the only “Mascot Platformers” besides Mario that don’t suck. Why must I live in the Dark Timeline where people think Sonic games were ever good, but few people have played Klonoa?
Inside is on a lot of peoples lists! This is just a wonderful, solid, well put together game that shows a ton of craft while also being a much better execution of the gameplay found in Limbo. Inside builds up its world, it builds up its mechanics, it ramps up its puzzles in ALL the right ways. Appreciation of Inside is like the appreciation of pure craft in a game. It’s not the most interesting, its not the most that filled me with the most wonder or made me feel the most accomplished or anything, but it’s just GREAT. Also as a fan of atmospheric story telling, especially in a platformer, this game shines. Also has one of the best surprises I ever had in a game — so maybe thats its best trait. Still, wonderful title.
Ori and The Blind Forest: Definitive Edition
A wonderful openworld platformer. I’d call it, more like Guacamelee, more of a ‘platforming Zelda’ than a Metroidvania, but I liked it a whole WHOLE lot more. Delightfully fast moving with awesome mobility options, great art and music and great setpieces. Amazing quality for what is technically an Indie game. My friend Matt tried to get me to play this FOREVER and it took forever but eventually it happened. Only complaint is I think in some of the setpiece moments were a little too Trial and Error-y for how the game felt like it should be? In fact, the game in general felt like it was a bit harder than necessary. Which was fine for me, only a few segments irked me, but I feel like my sister might get stuck on a number of parts even if she’d like every other part of this game.
I never thought there would be a time when there was a lack of good, dumb FPSs but here we are and here is Doom. Doom was exactly everything it needed to be, fun and actiony with ridiculous weapons and hordes of enemies. The aesthetic managed to be dark or hellish without being grimdark or lightless. One sad bit for me, though not THAT sad is the game has more of a… Serious Sam model than a classic Doom model. In most cases, enemy positioning doesn’t matter because they’re all so mobile, so much fewer areas have interesting usage of enemy placement or just ‘hallway enemies’, which is apparently for a number of technical reasons. But that’s fine, because they still managed to make a great game and the times they did work out smaller encounters or interesting enemy placements, it felt great.
One minor complaint, even though it’s not terrible in this game… I’m sick of weapon upgrades and trees and stuff? Doom gives you enough stuff to max everything out but still, I hate making blind choices for skills and weapons when I’d rather just be given cool toys to play with when the designer thinks I should have them. Again, wasn’t a huge distraction since Doom was generous about it, but it just also felt completely unnecessary.
Shadow of the Colossus (And Ico)
Finally got around to playing these on the PS3 and both were just wonderful. They had their rough points but I was engrossed in both. Ico in particular had some puzzles and timing things which were like… man… who let this happen? Who thought the water wheel was okay? Probably rushes with development or something. Ueda’s game just make you feel so.. intimate with everything in the world that despite all the rough edges, they’re delightful.
Shadow of the Colossus was my favorite of the two. The port had some rough edges — mostly making the overworld look like ass and ‘european’ shaky difficulty — but even when the game frustrated me or felt a little like a chore, I was still hungry to always go back to it. If a colossus wasn’t fun, perhaps the next one would be (and usually was). The weight of your actions in the game, both gamefeel wise and thematically just made it all have an impression on me. The fact you had to hit the button twice to stab something just screamed ARE YOU SURE? Even when the controls frustrated me I felt like they were how they were for a reason. Agro felt like my buddy, not a vehicle, and that feeling was more important than my ability to drive him around like a racecar.
I look forward to finishing BEP, getting a PS4 and catching up on a lot of modern games. One of those is definitely The Last Guardian.
Shadow Tower Abyss (and all of From’s older King’s Field-esque games)
I can’t believe I liked all these games as much as I did. You can read those earlier in my blog. But the game that surprised me the most was Shadow Tower. Shadow Tower had some weird magic to it and while it had its problems (desperately needed an Auto Map) it captivated me. Shadow Tower Abyss just went totally wild though. Running around with an AK-47 while wearing a roman legionary helmet and samurai armor withe a boardsword on your pack was just wild. The aesthetic of the game is strange and alien. The gamefeel for first person melee was INCREDIBLE. King’s Field 4 finally made FPS melee tolerable, Abyss made it WONDERFUL. The only problem with Abyss for me is it ends very weakly. The game felt a bit unfinished at the end. Also the translation is terrible… though on the other hand, maybe the terrible translation adds to the alien feel of the game?
Anyways these games surprised me in so many ways and Abyss surprised me the most.
If I had to say something was my Game of the Year, well… it has to be Nuclear Throne. Just by sheer playtime it has to be. Nuclear Throne is a game that knows what its about. It’s a game that knows what an interesting character mechanic is and how interesting mechanics can chain together. It understands how to make content that new players will approach cautiously and experienced players can play through like a bat out of hell. After my Gungeon rants, it kills me that it was inspired by Nuclear Throne because Nuclear Throne GETS player engagement and it gets scaling difficulty and it gets game feel and it gets respecting the players time. It gets that there is more to enemy design than rings of bullet hell projectiles. It gets that the layout of an arena can lead to real strategic choices.
Nuclear Throne is like an F1 Racer where you can play so fast and so hard and so aggressively that you can blow yourself to bits if you don’t know how to control yourself. The only bad thing about Nuclear Throne is I DESPERATELY WANT TO GIVE YOU MORE MONEY FOR AN EXPANSION PACK WHY — WHY WON’T YOU DO THIS TO ME I LOVE THIS GAME SO MUCH
Games I Played in 2016 that I have like… a thought about?
Downwell: I wish this game had more to it because it was great until I beat hard with every style and then it was boring. :(
Super Mario Galaxy: This game was way less good than people lead me to believe though I guess it was alright.
Enter the Gungeon: I now know its not the worst games that make me the maddest but the games that brush so close with greatness
Battle Garegga: I don’t know why I’m still trying to learn this game
Battle Arena Toshinden on the Gameboy: This game is stupidly fun for no reason and has a great ringout mechanic
Pokemon Go: I haven’t played this in a month and I feel like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Actually maybe what makes me the maddest is successful games with REAAAAALLY talentless game designers?
Mario Run: Like… this was pretty good? More levels pls?
Besiege: I hooked my joystick and a mod to it and then I made an airplane with proper control surfaces and tried to beat every stage with it despite the awkwardness in trying to do so and mostly just ended up crashing over and over again. 10/10
Owlia: An actual NES game to play on my actual NES! Was a real sweet, cute game with just a few dumb puzzles that made me mad.
Pico-8: This is my new ‘happy wheels’ and I really should make something on it.
Big Sky Troopers: This game is also like EVO in that its complete horse shit only I still liked it in fact it’s more EVO than EVO because its EVEN MORE HORSEHIT but something was charming about it and I finished it because I’m dumb?