That Video of that Journalist Failing at Cuphead

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.

Ludologists need to Shut the Fuck Up about Narrative

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.

Favorite Games I Played in 2016

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”.

Devil Daggers

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.

 Nuclear Throne

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?

Glittermitten Grove: I like fairies okay

Enter the Gungeon

I really really really wanted to play as much of Gungeon as possible before writing this. I wanted to at least clear one Past… or maybe even hell. But 50 hours in is far too long to spend on a game I don’t like, so here we go.

The internet view of Gungeon is a strange thing. As a huge Nuclear Throne fan, Gungeon would get recommended to me regularly. It’s hard to find someone saying a bad word about Gungeon. But when I started complaining on twitter about all the things I hated about it, people tweeted me in droves to agree. That took me by surprise! Only one follower stood up for the game and in very polite, understanding terms. You see tons of people play almost nothing but Spelunky or Isaac but… Gungeon doesn’t seem to get that kind of attention from casters and “single game hobbyists” (people who play various games to death forever). Some people like the game, of course, but so many seem to be… silently disappointed with it.

I think this is because Enter the Gungeon is a game that makes you want to like it. Its charming, its beautiful, a lot of design thought clearly went into it, there are little details everywhere. Who wants to trash a game with so much love obviously put into it? I imagine most people silently stop playing it. “I’ll get back to this eventually”, remembering its good bits fondly without quite realizing that the repetitive grind that is the game got old really quick.

Despite all its charm and its whacky guns, Gungeon is a game that has most of its fun seemingly carefully designed out of it. Not because I think the devs don’t like fun, but because I think they had another concern. They were afraid of their game being too easy.

Being afraid of being too easy should not be confused with “wanting to be difficult”. In fact, the most difficult parts of the game — the end half — are by far the best parts of the game. By a lot! But its fear of being two easy damages the player’s ability to access this fun and taxes them deeply in time to get there.

Gungeon is SO SLOW.  I was going to say the game was “too long” but that wasn’t quite accurate. Still, Getting to the 5th chamber is a 40-50 minute affair. Getting through the first chamber is easily a 10 minute affair. While not a fair comparison (different game, different standards and different levels of skill), its interesting for me to think that in the time it takes for me to beat the first chamber, I can be fighting Little Hunter in Nuclear Throne. Is that bad? Certain games have certain paces and that’ s fine. But what am I doing in that first 10 minutes of gungeon? Just… circle strafing enemies. For ever. Nothing is that scary, but everything has a ton of health (we’ll get to that). Its like washing a floor. Its not hard, but it takes time and it can be so monotonous . And its like this for the first three chambers.  The second problem is, you can’t auto pilot it because resources are generally so tight that losing health will punish you later in the long run. The game is less generous than any version of Isaac. You also get health up for being bosses without getting hit. These are so essential that a slipup often can mean restarting if the game wasn’t generous to you elsewhere. Which is rarely is.

Usually to bust up monotony, you have awesome items and maybe classes to spice everything up. The characters in Gungeon are…. spartan. To hear the game was inspired by NT blows my mind because none of the classes or items are as interesting as anything in NT (maybe the two unlockables are, but come on). You have a Marine that…. is more accurate and has more armor… The “Convict” who has some crappy napalm and does more damage when she gets hurt (which is always a boring ability), The Hunter, who has a crossbow and a dog who finds items and… The pilot, who can pick locks and have a second active item. The Pilot is the only of the 3 who feels meaningfully different while the Hunter in my estimation is  the best of the other 3. In practice, they all mostly play the same. They even all start with similarish-but-not quite pistols. Just deeply and disappointingly similar. They all circle strafe shooting enemies the same, they all roll the same and besides some details here and there, provided with similar weapons, they approach rooms mostly the same.

And the guns themselves? Mostly the same. Few things are wild or exciting. A gun that shoots a spread of fish isn’t meaningly different from a shotgun outside of DPS. Its fun, but in a superficial way. Most of the weapons with funny gimmicks don’t seem that good. The game seems afraid of making any gun too good. Nothing like in Isaac where things go your way and you absolutely melt a boss.  Maybe a 2-3 minute bossfight will become a 1-2 minute bossfight.

The items are equally bad. Very few of them are at all interesting, most of them taking on things like “slightly more accurate” “More damage but more spread” and most of the good ones rely on ridiculous synergies to pay off. Some cool items, like the Gears of War style Active Reload should probably have been on the Marine or some other class. There is some cool stuff, but the game is so stingy you barely see it.

Yeah, the RNG in this game is terrible. Both in how auster it is, but how it applies to everything.  The game has color coded chests that tell you the quality of the loot inside, two per floor. Each takes a key. But why anyone would spend a key on a brown chest is beyond me. You can see any color chest on any floor but your odds for better loot improve as you get deeper in the game — as it should be… but you can easily get almost to the end getting nothing but crap chests. Unlike Isaac, the guns don’t stack — you’re only as strong as your strongest gun… and any early gun is ridiculous inaccurate considering the limited ammo and health of the enemies. Due to how samey the guns are, instead of each round being EXCITING AND DIFFERENT most of the time it is ‘different DPS and RoF’ the game unless you pick up an exception. “How about this gun! When you reload it does a Melee attack!” “AWESOME I LOVE MELEE” “but it has no range and doesn’t do a lot damage.” “Fuck you Gungeon. Fuck you.”

Other things are stingy too, leading to a fucked up economy. In Isaac, you have keys, health and bombs with tons of options to turn each in to the other. in Gungeon you have keys, health and guns… But almost nothing allows you to spend health as a resource, and your ability to capitalize on a stash of guns is random. You can sell them to the shop creep but the shop creep, FOR NO GOOD REASON only sometimes randomly appears in shops. You could feed guns to a mulcher to combine them into a fresh new gun with ammo but they’re uncommon too. There are rare shrines to convert guns to ammo or health but they’re rare and the shop…. usually is only good for buying keys, health and ammo (one and awhile it’ll have something good, but the chance of you having enough money at the same time is rare). At this point I question why the game even has keys. Keys are only interesting when you have to make hard or clever decisions, while most of the key decisions in Gungeon are pretty obvious. I guess you have the Lock NPC that can make them a little interesting sometimes? I guess?

So yeah, everything has way too much health. A basic enemy takes 3-4 shots to kill with your basic gun and the larger Shotgun Shell guys many times more than that. These are things that bumble around and shoot slowly. So you just kite around blasting them forever… That… isn’t very fun.  And you do room after room of this and as the game goes on, basic enemies get MORE health. If you don’t get better guns, the amount of tedium becomes outrageous. To quote my good friend Kicks. “That game just needed to double the damage on all the guns and cut the ammo by half”. I might actually enjoy that version of Gungeon!

Even the basic first level bosses are bullet hell nightmares with no real strategies to build up to face them. This might sound like a strange complaint but I’ve never “lamed out” Gungeon. The game seems really tightly designed to be almost… anti strategy. SHOOT AND DODGE AND SHOOT AND DODGE NO WAY TO LAME OUT THIS BOSS OR KILL IT REALLY FAST WE SPENT A LOT OF TIME MAKING IT AND YOU’RE GOING TO PLAY IT EVERY SINGLE TIME and if you get hit, sorry no health up get wrecked nerd. In theory I like that you can get rewarded for not getting hit by the boss but it has all sorts of repercussions, but lets focus on two. If I get hit by one of the first 2 bosses I feel like I should restart. After 10-20 minutes of playing. .. and secondly, they make me not want to use Blanks, the shmup style bullet clearing bombs the game gives you. Hey if I get hit during the stage, w/e, I’ll save the blanks for the boss because I can get GAINS. And then the game gives you items for buffing your blanks against enemies you’re probably never going to use them on until you’re like gdlk or something. Sweet.

The best way I can describe the early half of the game is some uncomfortable spot between boredom and engagement. Steaks are too high to be totally bored but nothing is engaging enough to move over to ‘fun’.

The enemy and boss design is stuffy. You fight them on their terms. THIS IS THE CONTENT WE DESIGNED YOU WILL NOT CHEAT IT unless you’re using the gimmicks we included, which mostly suck and don’t do a lot of damage (Okay, the rocks in the mine are at least okay for damage). The game is just player hostile. There is an enemy that buffs other enemies and gives them like five times more health or something unreasonable. And if you kill the spell casty dude after doing damage, none of that carries over to the enemy you shot. No fun moment where you kill the caster and the enemy it was buffing died. The cost for the shortcuts are ABSURD and often rely completely on luck. “Yeah get 120 shells and 2 keys :D” Yeah great I’ll get back to you when RNG likes me. Or building the bullet that kills time. I was down to just needing the primer and 20 minutes in I see I’m one shell short of buying it from the shop. GUESS I JUST NEED TO RESET THANKS GAME. These are all on their own minor points but they speak to the mentality of the game. “We don’t want to be too easy. This game is supposed to be hardcore.”

But tedious and RNG are not ‘hardcore’. Its difficulty but the most boring kind. This is why when you get to Chambers 4 and 5, the game sings! Interesting enemy interactions, big rooms with lots of features, tons of bullets everywhere, but a totally dodgeable amount. The game might be anti strategy or anti-ridiculous fun, but it can at least sing as some twin stick bullet hell. It can be stupid still and some of the enemies are unfun and unfair but EVERY game has shit like that and the thing that makes it suck in Gungeon is it too 40 minutes to get there and that 40 minutes is shallow, seeming hard only because the devs are either afraid of easing up or because they’re afraid of making areas they worked on for a long time appear for a short period of time. Maybe playing it with shortcuts would make it better but everyone says that’s a bad idea and unlocking the shortcuts is too much effort to be worthwhile anyways. Part of me is left wondering why the game is even a Roguelike. None of what is good about it stems from its procedural generation — in fact, they’re mostly its worst traits.

Gungeon is the most frustrating type of game for me. Its a game that isn’t good for a good reason. It has everything it needs to be AMAZING, but its some weird anti-gestalt, less than the sum of its parts. Part of me is tempted to try and mod it but I don’t know how well that would go…. and it would feel cheap. And I doubt the game could change much from how it is now. If the first half of the game was changed, the people who enjoy the game already would probably riot or something. So we get stuck with this — a roguelike a lot of people will speak fondly of, but one surprisingly few people love.

Pokemon Go is a fun game that does virtually everything wrong

So I’m still playing Pokemon Go. And I’m still enjoying it. Mostly what I enjoy is bike riding with a purpose and weird emergent social situations with just enough slot-machine randomness thrown in, but I’m still playing.

Still as I sit there thinking, I am just constantly taken back by the fact that this is a game that does virtually everything wrong in terms of nuts and bolts game design. TECHNICALLY the game is massively impressive, but it feels like a game designed by engineers and not game designers. The core concept of ‘pokemon but like… in the real world’ is GREAT. So great that it gets around a lot of their bad design. And some things are neat. Seeing a lure, going there and meeting people is cool. Some issues (no trading) are because the game is kinda half baked. it’s admittedly a Minimally Viable Product. But some things are just bad.

How Pokemon Spawn is Rubbish

“So like, pokemon spawn points are dictated by cellphone usage in areas and–” … like… why? “Because Ingress did it that way.”

I imagine a lot of problems are “because thats how Ingress did it”. But you have a spawn system that shuts out a huge amount of potential players. I can’t say its ‘for no reason’. There is osme inherent optimization that goes on here, but you can’t even give a logged on player a certain amount of spawns or something? Any decision here is likely a challenging one, but the one that makes a huge group of potential players have the game be virtually unplayable is clearly the bad one.

There is also no real reasonable way  to tell when you’re in another biome or make any real deduction about when you’re likely to get anywhere with different spawns or anything.  Even if something pops up on the radar, you have no way to really know. Water is about the only type of area easy to find. You could also do things like making sure every area has some non-trash pokemon and hide them based on level. So early game is a lotta Ratatta and Pidgy garbage but once you level up you get to see more of the local flavor.

Also how they level up with you is ALSO rubbish but we’ll get to that.

Tracking Pokemon is Rubbish

This is actually something that could be a non-problem is the way biomes worked was a bit more understandable and varied. But when something rare pops up on the radar, what do you do? You can be a crazy person and try a bunch of weird tracking methods or if you’re most casual people, you’ll just flail and fail with no direction or idea what you should do. When you’re only way to find certain pokemon is sheer luck, seeing them and failing to find them is frustrating, especially when you didn’t do anything obvious wrong.

Capturing Pokemon is Rubbish

Throwing pokeballs is great! I love it! But the actual catching mechanics are rubbish. First, the randomness is so high that nothing you do seems to affect anything. Even though Niantic said “Hey, small circles are good” people would say “Oh yeah small circle is like holding B in pokemon its a placebo thing” because there was no way to feel that you did anything good. You do the same thing, regardless of whether its a weedle or a Dragonite. Maybe you use different balls, but you have one strategy. Once you get ultra balls and get good at throwing, the only thing that separates you capturing a weedle and a powerful pokemon is luck. Luck is a part of pokemon but when luck is so high that no one feels their actions have consequences well… thats bad?

I can’t even beat up wild pokemon what kind of world is this

“Training” Pokemon is Rubbish

I find the fact this game gives you a Starter to be insulting. It’s cargo cult game design. The game is basicaly like “yo here are 4 candies.” … Yeah. Thanks. A little bit better now with the buddy system but the fact is still clear — you should NEVER, EVER, EVER DO ANYTHING WITH YOUR STARTER. Besides maybe use it as a buddy. And wait to find a better Bulbasaur or whatever.

Which gets to the problem that Stardust leveling is one of the worst, least player friendly systems in existence. Powering up a pokemon is something you should absolutely not do  until you’re at least in your 20s. You’re going to find stuff thats going to invalidate your old pokemon so fast. If you use your Stardust sooner you get to feel like a fool. If you evolve a 3 stage pokemon too soon, you feel like a fool. In normal pokemon games, you aren’t a fool for leveling up crappy pokemon — that’s all you got! This isn’t a resource your wasting.  Having a pokemon in Go is about being totally lucky. Once you’re totally lucky, you spend your resources and you have what you want. This not only is unsatisfying and undercuts one of the larger appeals of pokemon (training and bonding) but also cuts the life of the game down. People complain about there being no end game in Go and thats because there isn’t really much of a sensible need to build up a team, nor mechanics for prolonging the development of a pokemon. “Well, catching is like battling and you can just apply XP retroactively” sounds like its the same but maybe even better, but its basically totally worse.

Battling is Rubbish

Like throwing balls, capturing gyms are fun, but the actual act of battling is not. First, battling is massively unaccessible. There is no way for lower players to compete. They’re tyrannized by powerful players, shutting people off from trying a whole different part of an already thin game. And battles aren’t interesting. You have a huge attacker advantage and can brute force so much stuff. Attack and dodge attack and dodge. Nothing has any utility. There is no reason to try and do clever type counter things or have certain pokemon on hand. You widdle down gyms one pokemon at a time, using the ones best for the job. It quickly becomes work.

Gyms are Rubbish

Terrible rewards, terrible mechanics. Getting in takes tons of effort and  how the game works encourages a mercenary approach of just throwing in strong pokemon and hoping no one even tries. There is no rewards for a successful defense, nothing for weaker players to do.  If I had to decide one thing to be changed it’d probably be the gyms (or the spawning). Just change it to have NPC battles, to have different leagues for lower level players and other stuff like that. Someone should be about to put a 200cp ratatta in there and I should not be able to step on it  with something 10 times stronger.

 Niantic is too busy fighting cheaters rather than designing their systems to be resistant to cheating… and.. uh… that’s Rubbish

If people could fight people closer to their own level, botters taking over gyms would be less of a problem. Why you would have such an aggressive pvp system in a game with high casual appeal is beyond me. Super players are just as disruptive as botters. By dealing with this on a system level and reducing the harm caused by strong players, you reduce the negative effects cheaters have on other players. So much so that you can’t even have a rooted phone or some chinese phones. If I was still on android I would have been furious. Even if I could still jump through hoops to make it work, that is still unacceptable.

Just tons of random Rubbish

Why are their no dailies or anything like that? Some people may be glad it doesn’t have them, but that’s the type of thing that gets people coming back. Why doesn’t the game do more while its off? Why do you need the watch? Why don’t have the push notification YO THERE A SQUIRTLE. Even if you have to do it as a step-tracker sorta random personal spawn thing, give players a reason to go back. ALSO why is the distance tracker so bad? I GIVE YOU MY GPS COORDINATES EVERY 10 SECONDS WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING.

Really in the end, the list of things Niantic has done well in a game design sense is… a very very short list.

BEP Blogpost Redux: Naomi


Name: Naomi Isabella Victoria vos Cruz
Age: 17
Race/Nationality: Aistorian Human
Height: 5’9
Occupation: Knight Cadet of the Holy Order of Saint Alistair


Offense: Strong
Defense: Average
Range: Average
Speed: Average
Mobility: Low

Now that Brave Earth: Prologue is getting closer to release I figured it’d be time to repost some old posts, only to update them to better represent the current state of the game and world.

Naomi vos Cruz is a young Aistorian noble woman, born the second and youngest child of the Duke of Leone. While outwardly a friendly, kind person, Naomi is both competitive and zealous, quick to give into impulsiveness and anger.

Tomboyish by nature and born a gifted athlete, Naomi soon followed in the footprints of her mother and joined the Sacred Order of Saint Alistair. While formerly a respected military force noted for it’s gifted women knights, time and attrition has left The Order a shadow of its former self, its remnants serving a more ceremonial role. While The Order’s few surviving veterans still dream of rebuilding it to its former glory, with most of the younger recruits being nobles sent there for safe yet prestigious military service, restoring The Order seems almost impossible.

Still, The Order was not without its serious recruits and pressure from them, as well as from their commander (and Naomi’s Aunt), Sabrina Brandt has lead to some concessions from The Church. Due to her family connection and natural skill, Naomi has been chosen as the first to go on a simple mission as one small test in evaluating The Order’s combat readiness. While the mission, the solo retrieval of an outpost report, is not much, it is an important first step.

Of course, once Naomi sees the Outpost burning in the distance, things quickly escalate.

Naomi’s weapons of choice is her mother’s bastard sword, a heirloom of the Brandt family, and a large kite shield. She is armored and durable, but is a bit lacking in mobility. Naomi moves at a steady, patient pace and has no directional control when in the air. She must move and attack cautiously.

Fortunately she has rather strong offensive abilities. Her basic attack is a relatively far reach slash with good damage and speed, but lacks any vertical coverage. While she can dish out high damage against a stationary foe, her basic attack leaves a lot to be desired. To compensate, Naomi has a special attack button which can be used to access 4 different attacks. By pressing the (C) button and a direction (Up, down, Left/Right or no direction). Naomi can unleash a variety of special moves, assuming she has enough energy.

Naomi can have a maximum of 20 units of energy, which she can gain by either killing enemies, or picking up energy gems. She may also find “Ex Orbs”. These orbs, which Naomi may only carry one of at a time, will power up one of her special moves, giving it new properties and allowing her to perform a special air attack. The nature of the orb can be determined by treating the individual symbol as an arrow (figure to the right), making sure you know which move is powered up.

Her attacks, in detail, can be found below.

Radiant Wave: Forward + (C)

Naomi’s Forward+C attack is a low powered, long range projectile While it does half the damage of her normal attack, it is relatively cheap and has a lot of range.

With the appropriate EX Orb, Naomi’s projectiles get cheaper, can be shot faster and can be charged up for large damage. She also possesses an air fireball that goes down at roughly a 45 degree angle. The attack’s recoil can be used to get Naomi to higher ledges.

Dust Striker: Down + (C)

Naomi’s Down+C attack is a ground slide. It is relatively slow, but has a large hitbox that stays out for the entire duration of the move, making it easy to time attacks with. It can also be used to slide under small gaps or under some projectiles.

With the appropriate EX Orb, Naomi’s Slide goes much farther, much faster and much lower. Her hittable area is greatly reduced and she can slide under many enemy attacks and through multiple enemies at once. Her air attack is a dive kick that does as much damage as her basic attack. When she hits an enemy, depending on the direction held she can either jump off and change direction. If she dives into the ground, her dive kick becomes a slide without costing additional energy.

Arc Divider: Up + (C)

Naomi’s Down+C Is an ‘uppercut’ style attack that hits a huge area above her. It’s slightly slow to come out, but hits an area that she could not normally attack otherwise.

With the appropriate EX Orb, Naomi’s Uppercut comes out near instantly. It also throws out a spinning projectile that flies in a parabolic arc as a secondary effect of the attack. In the air, Naomi somersaults rapidly with her sword out, dealing damage to anything that comes close to her, as well as giving her a slight boost in jump height.

Shield: Neutral + (C)

If Naomi presses the C button and no direction, she puts her shield up. Pulling the shield up costs energy, but it can be held out indefinitely. Absorbing projectiles with the shield causes fatigue though, with each shot slightly draining the energy gauge.

With the appropriate Ex Orb, Naomi’s shield becomes a parry. Instead of being able to hold her shield, Naomi must specifically time her parry. The benefit is that she can parry almost any damage source and is rewarded by recouping some energy as well as a long period of invulnerability. The parry might seem weak to the beginning player, but should be extremely powerful in the hands of an experienced player.

Overall, Naomi is Brave Earth: Prologue’s most balanced character. While she lacks the extreme strength the two other main characters have, she also lacks their extreme weakness and a very robust and flexible movelist.

King’s Field and Shadow Tower on the PS2: Some More Mini Reviews

King’s Field: The Ancient City

This probably the most fondly enjoyed and remembered of the old King’s Field games… and in a lot of ways it is probably the best one, but there was something lost in transition from the ps1 to ps2. The PS1 King’s Field had a strong, weird aesthetic. Even if that aesthetic was driven by their sheer ugliness and weirdness, they had them. Shadow Tower had a great aesthetic, period.  KF:TAC has no aesthetic. It’s amazing to compare the visual look of this game to Demon’s Souls to see what a little bit of ‘aesthetic’ can make. The game, if not for the consistency of the look, would be almost ‘asset store’ levels of generic. I would say monster design was never From’s strength in the early days, but Shadow Tower as loaded to the brim with the type of unique and interesting enemies that’d you’d see in later From games. Instead KFTAC are is loaded with ‘elemental xenomorphs’, probably a low point in their design for these types of games. Something about that and starting in an area filled with lava seemed like a ‘lets try and be cool for once’  thing that totally fell flat for me. Some enemies are kinda cool, some areas look all right, but nothing in the game ‘wows’. Only one point in the game was I ever like ‘THIS LOOKS SCARY I DON’T WANT TO GO THIS WAY’. The game was a consistent, flat tone most of the way through and make it abundantly clear to me how important those ‘wow’ moments are.

So why do people like this game? Well, the consistent, flat tone is pretty good! The game looks generic, but the details are there. Care for the world is there. The map for the world is -great-. This is definitely a game where I did not need a map to get around most of the time and when I did, the maps provided were… awfully flavourful and cool. You had what you needed to get around as you needed and basic navigation is simple. The “Central Tower” made for a great way to unify the map and the ways you slowly make your way down the tower made it feel less… contrived than Shadow Tower? Like all good Fromsoftware worlds, it felt like a place, not a level of a video game. Then you have all your interesting details. Zombie like enemies that release dark bugs as you kill them that scurry around the floor to hide… Heavily implied cannibalism… all sorts of warnings for traps with corpses and stuff. The type of stuff you’d expect out of a Fromsoftware game.

Combat is much better too. Enemies almost always flinch from attacks in KFTAC and your hitbox on your swings is huge. Larger weapons seem to have more range. Generally in this game, if you feel like you’re going to hit something, usually you do and then you get a good bit of feedback that you did. The old ‘circle and attack from behind’ strategy is not as braindead as it once was and not for any one reason. Enemies are designed with behaviors that let them move around quickly, or attack around them. So sometimes you’re trying to find an in so you can do the old ‘circle and stab’ strategy, other times you’re moving in and out and actively dodging attacks (something that works far more reliably in this game than previous games) and other times you’re scrambling around. Probably part of the reason you’re walk speed and turn speed are a little weak compared to other games. Combat in KFTAC seemed the first step in Fromsoftware figuring out a combat system with actual game feel and it helps the game A LOT.

The game has some annoying bits. It has the KFTAC teleportation system, but now you can only teleport on certain spots and they’re often decoupled from save points or even warp ports and it’s like…. I GUESS this could be interesting but usually it’s just annoying? You have a blacksmith that repairs equipment for free but with a REAL TIME wait like come on wtf, game. Also upgrades! Lets wait 2 minutes and use a rare rock to raise an attack stat by -1-. This game might have the most irritating ‘start’ of a King’s Field game, and no i don’t mean MINOR-SPOILERS which no, I did not MINOR-SPOILERS. The mine cave and the poison and the limited healing that early in the game. It’s not hard, it’s just… not fun. Also I never got to play around with sword magic because it all required you to get to ‘level 3 experience’ with a weapon which… doesn’t seem like something that’d happen in regular gameplay? Seems like a bummer to me.

So would I recommend this game? It ranks somewhat over King’s Field 3 for me, but it’s probably one of the most accessible, tolerable King’s Field games. It’s a King’s Field game I could recommend to people who aren’t crazypeople. It’s a game that pulls back from the excess and high fantasy of King’s Field 3 and creates something more intimate like King’s Field 2, just without the same charm. And, let me be real, as much as I love King’s Field 2, KFTAC is going to be a more enjoyable game to far more people.

Shadow Tower: Abyss

The fact this game was never released in the US despite the localization almost being complete has to be one of the biggest crimes ever committed by SCOA. Man, the American side of Sony was such a pack of assholes during the PS2 era. When I started doing these playthroughs, the Shadow Tower games were the games I was least excited about. Now they’re my favorites. THIS GAME IS AWESOME and bless whoever made this horridly translated fan patch with weapons like “high swords” and “low swords”. It’s so awkward at times it kinda rolls around into being cool and adding something to the game.

I feel like there is a very visible story told by From’s first person RPGs about their development. KF2 tried to give KF1 a more tangible world. KF3, after the success of KF2 aimed for grandeur and lost some of it’s intangible ‘special’ quality. Shadow Tower was practically a ‘study’ game to do the opposite of King’s Field 3 — do a lot with a little. King’s Field: The Ancient City executed on all of these lessons but became aesthetically lost in this new PS2 era… Shadow Tower: Abyss is the game that both is From discovering how to execute an aesthetic on higher fidelity systems as well as being the game where they finally refine their combat past ‘acceptable’ to actively fun.

While maintaining the same survival-horror systems of the original, visually, Shadow Tower: Abyss is far different beast. Trading the bleak aesthetic of a proto-Demon’s Souls for a weird, alien… almost naturalistic/tribal feel? The game has weird but awesome sound design — a weird blend of naturalistic and technological sounds put together in offputting ways. A lot of enemies can be really easy to id due to very distinctive and weird sounds. The worst thing I can say about the aesthetic of Abyss is that it feels distinctly ‘early 2000s’. It’s the only one of the From first person RPGs that has a style that feels like that. But it is still awesome, and weird and constantly had me going “What the fuck is THIS place?!”. The monsters were strange and worrying — maybe not as strange as some of Shadow Tower’s weirdest, but Abyss is pretty weird. Another fun thing is the sheer anachronism of the game. The game takes place long after the original Shadow Tower, as you and a bunch of researchers go down it to explore and find the spear that grants wishes turned the last protagonist into a king. Somehow you all end up at the bottom and unlike the first game, have to work your way back up to escape. And you have GUNS. Guns with very limited ammo. By the midpoint of the game I am finding myself walking around in ancient magical armor with a gasmask on my head and when I see an enemy in the distance, I trade my double handed axe for a sniper rifle. It’s bizarre to open a treasure chest and see a revolver laying there as an object of reverence to whoever found it and put it there. You feel like Lord Humungus from Mad Max. An ancient demon wants to fight you, so you decide now is the time to spend some of your precious shotgun ammo, killing him in a way that, to him, would seem no different from being blasted by a magician. All the old Fromsoft games have this sense of nebulous time, but this one embraces it. You find an ancient tribal warrior who was killing bugs for probably thousands of years along with other researchers or my fav demon lady from the first game.

Combat is great. It is extremely rare for an attack to not make an enemy flinch and when they don’t it’s a big deal. When you hit things hard, they don’t flinch, they REEL. Limbs fly off. Chopping and shooting off limbs becomes part of the strategy. “Hey if I chop off this guy’s weapon arm, his attacks are easier to deal with”. It also just feels GREAT. In the middle of a battle with an ancient knight, things were going against me and my equipment was breaking so I pulled out my shotgun and shot him, blowing off both his arms in a Monty Python-esque fashion. I blew up another giant demon with a PANZERFAUST. The intense resource management makes these moments fun and satisfying in a way that never gets old. Also unlike KFTAC you move and turn FAST and can use the analog, moving around like a traditional console FPS. Enemies are more deadily to compensate, leading the most varied and fun combat I’ve experienced in this group of games.

It’s hard for me to even think of things to say… It’s… Shadow Tower by weird and great? It’s hard to even think of how to sell this weird gem. This is the type of game where if it sounds VAGUELY interesting I’d say ‘just play it’.

But I guess I can at least talk about its problems and disappointments. Healing and repairing is a bit more of a pain early on. Topping off equipment is wasteful — everything has a base repair cost no matter how damaged it is (unless it’s broke, then it’s even more). You have encumbrance in the game for your whole inventory. You can store items at shop crystals to elevate this but I felt it did nothing but make the game less enjoyable. I never felt like I was making interesting decisions on what weapons to take with me and on the rare chance I wanted to use an odd weapon for a specific situation, it seems like it would have been better if I had it in my inventory rather than have it unused in a box somewhere. The shops/healing places are more boring — just glowing crystals connected to menus, lacking the weird personality of their Shadow Tower predecessors. No weird naga-witch selling you swords. There are also way more cunes which is… fine, I guess? But it felt weird to max out my cunes at one point. I guess it was necessary with the need to buy ammo, but there was a charm to a currency where there was only 100 in the whole world back in Shadow Tower. The game gets a little monotonous with it’s gimmick levels. By the late game I was praying for an area where I just kicked the shit out of a lot of tough stuff but it never quite came. In fact, the end part of the game is the biggest letdown. It reminds me of playing through Demon’s Souls and finishing my playthrough on Stormking before killing True Allant. It just felt like there was no release. Just ‘hey the game is over’. At least in DeS you can save the last Boletaria stage as ‘the end’ but Abyss has nothing like that. The ending felt disappointed both gameplay wise and thematically. If I were to guess, there probably was going to be more to the boss and maybe more to the last area. The last thing you fight is basically an armored copy of Rurufon and her AI and it’s… not much.

I also didn’t feel like I had a sense of the tower in Abyss as I did in Shadow Tower. The maps themselves are WAY better but Shadow Tower felt interconnected. Abyss has a hubworld that you travel up and down by way of elevator which is…. really lame? The hub area looks cool, it never changes in a way that made me feel like I was making any progress. It didn’t change in Shadow Tower either but at least in that, I was literally moving down it. Abyss is a game in dire need of a good final act, something all the King’s Field games and Shadow Tower managed to do better. Not GREAT, but much better. But none of these flaws really deeply effect the joy of the game while you’re in the middle of an area, playing it. But keep in mind, when it’s time to end the game, the game wraps up fast.

A good point is that New Game+, which Shadow Tower also had, seems to be improved. Unlike Shadow Tower which was more “go back to the top so you can finish killing and finding everything”,  starts the game over, sans some of the stuff you already found, but giving you more potions and ammo and new weapons. I don’t know if it ever gets harder like a Souls NG+, but I guess I’ll see, as I’m curious if the game is different in other ways the second time through (and I feel like such a beast by the end of the game that a second pass through the game doesn’t seem very time consuming). Either way I highly recommend checking out this game. The translation works fine if you can run burnt or HDLoader games on your PS2 and it emulates pretty well (Some texture flickers with hardware acceleration but I found it to usually be tolerable). I know there will never be a Shadow Tower 3 by name, but I aware the soulslike (even if they claim they’re done) that captures a similarly weird, alien look.

In closing, my tierlist, worst the best:

KF3 -> KFTAC -> Shadow Tower =/-> KF2 -> Shadow Tower Abyss 



Design Literalism vs Lateralism

My recent rants about some of the character design in Overwatch has gotten me to think about some new… design terminology. I kept using the word ‘lateral’ in reference to character design and people didn’t get what that means. So I want to try and explain this because it’s helped me think about designing certain things a little different. So first, lets talk about DESIGN LITERALISM.

mccree-gameplayThis is McCree. I hate McCree. I have issues with other characters, but I am EMBARRASSED by McCree. I’ve spent a lot of words picking on Overwatch on Twitter and Tumblr, but since I actively want to like most of those characters I criticize, I’m going to ease up and focus on McCree. Because I won’t feel bad in the least.

I’m still not sure anyone actually did any actual designing with McCree. You say “Space Cowboy” and this guy is basically what most people would have pop into their head. You’re either going to have a Cyber Clint Eastwood/Stranger or a Cyber John Wayne. Maybe if you’re a special soul you’d imagine that totally sweet Kung Fu Cowboy on Mars from that Muse video. McCree is about a literal a design as you can have. You have two descriptors and you receive exactly what it says on the tin. Besides the stupid ‘BAMF’ on his belt, there is not a single unexpected, clever or interesting design element to this character. I did a google image search for ‘Space Cowboy’ and got close to the same design. Different style, obviously, but still.dh0yoyn1367cfg7rwv6b

The sad thing is, this design with it’s dorky but interesting astronaut head bubble and the others I saw were often at least a little bit more interesting. Not necessarily as good or well executed (McCree, if nothing else, is refined, polished genericness) but having thought into what western tropes could be converted sensibly into science fiction themes… and not just… a cowboy with some cybery bits.

Literalism isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s appropriate. Sometimes you’re making an NPC! Sometimes you’re aiming for realism. Red Dead Redemption’s protagonist isn’t particularly out there in his design, but like costuming for a movie, there is almost so much you can do. A lot of the armors in Dark and Demon’s Souls are very literal to historic armor, often to the point of becoming their own awkward aesthetic. But in the case of someone like McCree where you’re still making up elements because you are, in theory, concocting something new in a new setting, there is little excuse for not having a bit of lateralism. But what IS lateralism?

Lateralism is divergence from the expected interpretation. When you lay out the basic description of a character like say “Cyber Cowboy”, how different is it from the tropey image that conjures. It’s not about being complicated. It’s not about necessarily adding detail. It’s about interpretation. Like you can’t go A “CYBER COWBOY… BUT HE’S A NINJA”, because you’re just adding ninja to the description.


Bayonetta is like the queen of design lateralism. “Sexy witch” …. “Sexy moon witch”? … “Sexy Gun witch”? “Sexy ELEGENT gun witch”?  Does any one sentence properly describe or capture the essence of Bayonetta’s design? Bayonetta has very little to do with a witch, but none the less is very witchy. The beehive hair as a cover for the a pointy cap… the arcane baubles covering her body, the subtle gold trim, the look of her guns… She’s just WITCHY… While not at all being what you’d imagine when someone said ‘sexy witch’. Well, besides the fact you KNOW Bayonetta now and of COURSE think of her when someone says ‘sexy witch’ because you have good taste. Bayonetta is an amazingly awesome design that does a lot of work. She’s also absolutely layered with detail, down to embossed runes down the seam lines of her hair-leather outfit. Does lateral have to be crazy and complex?


Lets talk about Sam from Metal Gear Rising. I love Sam because his design is very simple, let very complicated. How would you describe Sam…? Future South American Samurai? Sam comes off as Samurai-y but it’s subtle. The facial hair and top knottish pony tail. The beefed up legs of his suit which have that ‘tucked hakama’ feel without actually being that. And of course a katana. And then the details like the severed arm that isn’t obvious and IS THAT A GUN SHEATH? And that’s a detail that isn’t just ‘lets slap future stuff on old stuff’ it’s a design element that plays into how he moves and operates and uses quickdraws. Sam is super simple but every part of his design involved someone stopping for a second and considering “How should this look”. Not taking the obvious road isn’t about being difficult or being different for the sake of being different, it’s because there is almost always a BETTER answer than what is immediately obvious. You’re not stepping laterally to disguise your design, you’re stepping laterally to escape your own assumptions about how something should be.


Johnny is a character I think about a lot. Because Johnny is great. But then I look at him and it’s like “isn’t this some bottom of the barrel character design? Why is it okay?” But when you think about what Johnny is, he’s actually… not quite any of that. A cool sky pirate captain? To quote a friend “he doesn’t even have goggles”. What makes Johnny interesting is he’s TROPEY and SIMPLE but he’s not literal. The hat invokes some western vibes which can invoke some outlaw vibes. Having a katana that’s in a shirasaya housing kinda has a sense of austerity.  It can also be bandity (I could afford a blade not not a real housing). The duster is also very western but the pants and boots and glaces are more fitted, modern and stylish. Johnny is a THOUGHT OUT BAG OF TROPES. You can be SUPER DUPER SIMPLE AND TROPEY AND CHEESE BALL and STILL have levels of sophistication and lateralism in your design.


Megaten games are LITTERED with lateral design. Depicting the Buddhist character of Mara, a representation of self destructive lust and desire as a dick on a chariot?  It’s strange and very direct in it’s symbolism.


Caesar is one of my favorite designs for a persona. Like “oh it’s just a roman soldier with a globe” but the man inside, who is basically controlling an anthropomorphized Rome is super interesting. It’s a detail that rewards attention. You can grasp the design at a glance but really looking at those elements really helps. You are REWARDED for putting your eyes Megaten designs, because they are so well thought out. And again, it’s not a COMPLICATED design.


Dark Soul’s basilisks are another great example. From likes to use very literal designs next to very lateral ones.  You can wear “basically real historic armor” vs what is basically a straight forward minotaur demon but then you get shit like this. No interpretation of a basilisk looks anything like this, outside of the vague lizardiness.  The eyes are alarming, the frog like…. sac thing is perfect for communicating that this thing blows a projectile. You can look close at it and see that it as actual real, small eyes and it’s beak looking thing is its actual head. It’s weird and alarming looking while being dorky. The LITERAL thing to do for most monster designs is to make them look as scary as possible, but From is good at realizing that “weird” is unnerving.

2012-09-02_00040Locations and other elements of design can also be lateral. A lot of European board games for example are SUPER lateral (have a theme for a game and then have rules that I GUESS KINDA SORTA ARE LIKE THAT THEME). But Ash Lake is a good example of a location like that. Not an obvious sight for ‘bottom of the world’. The opposite of the very literal ‘abyss’ that is also in the game. I could probably think of a better example, but right now DS is on my mind, so it’s the first place my mind went.

Now before I close up, I want to be clear on a few things…

First: It’s not necessarily important to be lateral or to avoid being literal. Often using these elements in contrast is important! Having a totally typical person in historic full plate with a totally modern SMG is not very lateral for example but the clean juxtaposition of something like that  can be effective (see: Shadow Tower Abyss). But even when you are being literal you should still arrive there in the same way that leads to good lateral design — consider all the elements and why you designed them the way you did. A lot of the BEP characters are not really lateral but they’re elements are considered (little things like ‘try to invoke a football player silhouette’ ‘mix materials intentionally anachronistically’ blahblahblah). And being the game has been in the works for so long, I kinda wish I did some things differently anyways (I might still try and get a sorta redesign of Naomi’s armor since the small resolution of the sprites makes that a think I can get away with). And don’t get me started on ‘lateral color choices’ for limited palette games!

Second: Context matters. Back when no one had made any fighting games, just having KARATE MAN and SUMO MAN was fine. Then SNK tried to do the same thing and everyone was like “bro that’s lame”, leading them to go crazy with their designs to compensate. Bayonetta is very lateral but a lot of witchy stuff has drawn from her design pool, diluting the lateralness of certain elements. If you say “witchy guns” I’m gonna think Bayonetta’s gones at this point, just like if you say ‘energy sword’ I’m going to think of a light saber. ‘Lateral’ changes with the times.

Third: If you like a character, you a design, it doesn’t matter of they’re literal or lateral or whatever. but it’s a.. .potentially interesting way to think about things

King’s Field and Shadow Tower: Some Mini Reviews of Fromsoftware’s PS1 work

So when I hang out with my friends, I usually waste time in between chatter playing old games. Often odd or old things I wouldn’t normally bother which but might be of some interest to me from a more… academic perspective. And this usually ends up with me finding new games to love too.

So when I loaded King’s Field up, I expected to be put off by it’s horrible combat and ugly aesthetics immediately. Instead I found myself immediately compelled. I find myself now, having worked all the way up to King’s Field: The Ancient City on the PS2, with a translated copy of Shadow Tower: Abyss waiting to be played after it. So here are my thoughts on these crazy games that I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. RPGs aren’t really my thing anymore but the first person movement gave me just enough tactile feedback to get really into these games.

As usual with these kinds of reviews I do, I’m not going to summarize stuff like the basic plot or how the game works. You can use wikipedia or youtube for that. I’m mostly just gonna focus on the stuff I have thoughts about.

King’s field 2

I’m going to be using the Japanese numbering for this (basically KF2 is KF1 in US and thus 3 is 2 and so on and so forth), even though I didn’t bother to play King’s Field 1. A cursory reading about King’s Field 1 made it clear to me that King’s Field 2 was the best of the PS1 offerings and that it pretty much did everything the original did better.

King’s Field 2 is an ass ugly game. The biggest visual improvement from KF1 seems to be the use of different floor textures…. most of the time. Still, the game was immediately compelling. You start out shipwrecked on the island of Melanat and despite the game the crude graphics. The sharp outlines of everything tried their damnedest to convey the sense of A PLACE. Right from the start you have watery pits to fall in, a huge boss kraken thing you won’t fight for another boss or two, a waterfall and cave filled with skeletons, a lighthouse powered by fire magic, some creepy looking fisherman NPC, a pirate cove filled with traps and treasures and a more forgiving cave.

The combat is terrible but somehow works. You circle around things to avoid the attack and hit them with your slow moving first person sword swing. Positioning and enemy management matters a lot in this. The attacks FEEL awful but the amount of interaction makes it tolerable. Magic also helps a tad. MP starts out as an incredibly rare, precious resource to the backbone of your offense.

The enemies in this game look unbelievably stupid and crude, but somehow in a way that captures the awkward weird joy of later Souls games. By the end of King’s Field 2, I found my self in love with those stupid looking Watermelon Head Eater Things. It’s infectious. The whole game is infectious. While technically a dungeon crawler, I feel the need to reject the label. Far from the more abstract dungeons of most games like this, Melanat. It has personality. It’s internals wind together and intersect. The more you play the game the more you feel that you understand it. In game maps were useful for exploring new areas, while old areas were almost immediately committed to memory. In many ways, it’s stage design was mimicked by the original Dark Souls, constantly surprising you with how areas intersect and being navigable by memorable rooms. Given the rough nature of the graphics, memorable could be anything from “Cool castle entrance” to “There is a hole”. But it all works.

“It works” Describes a lot of the game and it’s aesthetic. Crude NPCs lend a creepy atmosphere to the game, their textureless heads turning slowly to speak with you. It’s unnerving but the mood of the game is unnerving. The music is… strangely offputting, but in a good way. Like Demon’s Souls, the game’s ugliness becomes part of its charm. This is a game that should be tedious and boring yet it dragged me through it’s entirety with excitement. While not a game I would recommend without warning, it became a game I unabashedly love. Beautifully thought out world design is my jam and this game has tons of it.

The game has some fascinating mechanics, many you see show up in later games. Crystal Flasks might as well be estus. You find them or construct them out of crystals and fill them up with wells. You eventually find wells that heal MP instead and eventually find both (which seems to be something that shows up in DS3 from what I’ve heard?). The warping mechanic is great. Instead of having fixed warp points, you can leave a ‘key’  at a save to use a corresponding ‘gate’ item to teleport to. You find up to 3 sets of these by the end of the game. The flexibility to set your own warp points allowed for just the right amount of backtracking to make me love and understand the world. You could balance convenience against repetition and by the time you have all 3 sets and understand the island, it becomes a non issue. The perfect flow. There are weird things in the game, like an NPC who magically pops up in random places from time to time who identifies your items. You can’t know when she’ll appear. Maybe not the best choice, but an interesting one. Many doors are textured like walls. They have frames to tell you they’re there but it makes it easy to miss stuff. This is something that fortunately goes away in King’s  Field 3. Oh yeah there is also a minecart ride that kills you 90% of the time and rewards you with basically nothing if you survive. Which is… odd.

There seems to be a decent about of lore, but I couldn’t say much about it. The last boss, Guyra, a one eyed black dragon, is clearly the inspiration for Kalameet. Seath is treated like a holy figure in this.  Granted, it’s not the same Seath, but it’s interesting to see these ideas revisited and adapted.

In the end, it’s hard to even say why King’s Field 2 is great. So much of it is crude as hell and really shows it’s age. But there is just a lot of brilliance in the game too. I’m left with a fondness for Melanat that mirrors my love of Lordran. By the end it kinda… feels like home?

King’s Field 3

King’s Field 3 is like the Dark Souls 2 of King’s Field. It improves the game in so many ways and is far FAR more ambitious. You start out with a giant field, filled with buildings and NPCs. The Headeaters are now venus fly traps. That made me sad! Fortunately the old ugly ones return later on. Anyways the game is now sprawling and its level design more literal and sensible. The game looks infinitely better. Screenshots might not truly capture it but the environments look so much more involved and the enemies look… Still ugly but much much less so. It’s also important to remember for this and KF2 — these are seamless games with no load times. So some ugliness is to still be expected.

The game gives you an automapper somewhat early on. While not necessary for KF2, this is much more necessary for the sprawling maze like levels of KF3. KF3 gets even closer to the dreaded “Dungeon Crawler” level design and dungeons play more like Legend of Zelda-esque areas than actual parts of the world. You go in, you clear the area, you leave. Compared to the interconnected nature of KF2, this was a huge let down to me. Verdite lacked the sense of “place” that Melanat had, despite having much better visuals. The music too is a lot more… on the nose. Not bad, but lacking the same personality.

Combat feels better. You know more clearly if you hit something and enemies at least TRY to counteract you spinning around them. You get magic faster too, which gives you much better options faster. Warping is greatly simplified, with 4 items to find for 4 preset gates before allowing you to warp everywhere by the end. Warping everywhere by the end is good but it was sad to see the system from KF2 leave, even if it would have been terrible in a map this big.

The game has a ton of lore and I couldn’t even begin to explore it. You get an mirror item that tells you about every area, every enemy and every NPC. All lines of dialog are saved for viewing in the menu. So you could comb through this game for tons of info if you wanted.

The game has some cool, crude visuals and works FMV cutscenes in it, sometime on top of gameplay (where you’re few will suddenly have compression artifacts because it switched to a video). You could tell with this game they were trying to go all out.

In the end the game is way way more playable than  KF2 and has many clever ideas, but it just missed the same spark. It felt more… typical. Much like Dark Souls 2, it spreads itself out and tries to be grand but that grandness makes it ultimately more ordinary.

But hey at the end you get to fight Giant Gundam Seath and that’s pretty cool?

Shadow Tower

 OH BOY SHADOW TOWER. This might be the most interesting game of the three. KF2 might still be my favorite Shadow tower is a fucking slog of a game, especially early on. It’s also d
eeply miserable without maps. And there are no in game maps. But with them, the game and it’s horrendous draw distance becomes playable. Because the game is dark. Darker than it even needs to be. But god damn does it look better. There is a color scheme to things. and the textures play nice and the enemies look great. And there are so many of them. This game has 160 monsters and they almost all have absolutely crazy designs. This is the true start of the Demon’s Souls aesthetic. Dark, grimy and depressing with awkward looking monsters that are so goofy they roll around to scary. Demons that hop on their tongues, weird wiggly glow in the dark tree plants, muscular monsters with heads that are like blooming meat flowers. They’re great.

The game has no music. Silence. It’s off putting. The visuals are often bleak. You start on ‘top’ of the shadow tower, a tower that has sunken into the ground. The areas of the game have ominous names. “Human World: The Forgotten Region” or “Death World: The Lingering Curse Layer” or “Beast World: THE SCREECHING AREA” (these are area names you do not want to see). The visuals area bleak. This clean, brind cylinder extending up and down seemingly into infinity. You see stairs and can make your way to a number of doors into areas around the tower that have sunken underground. But you keep coming back to the tower, lower and lower. The map design is at its weakest here overall, but the constant return to the Shadow Tower gives the game the hold it needs to give a sense of progression.

The survival aspect horrors of the game are strong. Weapons degrade, and fast. The items to repair them are rare. Smithys are also rare. The currency they use to repair? Your health. Health Potions? Also a finite resource. Fortunately you can trade broken or obsolete items for them. And thankfully they always grant full health. There is a very clear economic circle here and it is a tense one early in the game. Nothing is renewable until much later in the game so you constantly feel like you’re falling to pieces. There is another currency, cunes. Also a rare item — there are, as I understand, 99 in the whole game? And the shop is the same shop everywhere, so the items you see at the start are the items you see at the end. I saved up for a helmet that restored MP over time early on and it was game changing. “Infinite magic!” I thought, until I realized casting spells degraded my rings. Oh well, can’t have everything.

The NPC interactions feel very Demon’s Soulsy. A demon in a doll body asks you to kill a man who trapped her. a knight being crushed by a boulder begs you to sacrifice a sword to save his life (and remember, SWORDS ARE IMPORTANT AND LIMITED). Some gnome things curses you over and over and begs for his life like a coward when you corner him. Also there is a fat mole who is totally your bro.

As you go from the more human world to elemental planes the game starts feeling real surreal. There is just tons of atmosphere. It just suffers from the fact that the game is so initially impenetrable and the map design that doesn’t work with the super dark game. Getting around without a map is an almost impossible chore. I’m not sure even KF2’s map would have worked under these lighting conditions. The automapper from KF3 would have been a massive improvement, where you could know where you were going while not quite spoiling areas immediately by checking maps.

Funny thing is when you beat an area, it lightens up. So they could have gotten away with it. I assume the darkness was to mask enemies spawning in (which they do, unlike in the KF games). This looks weird in illuminated areas, but not so weird as to be a bad tradeoff. The enemy spawning is interesting though. There are a finite amount of enemies in the game. As you kill enemies in a room, replacement spawn elsewhere, often in the same room, but sometimes not. You’ll return to an area you thought you cleared out, sometimes to find a horrific surprise. Often this can lead to cool items being dropped though, so you have an incentive to clear things out. Killing enemies also I think… basically IV trains you, like pokemon? There is no leveling in the game. Beating stuff up and killing certain enemies raises your stats. It’s interesting and kinda works?

The game is linear in nature but it does some clever things to disguise it. There are sometimes multiple ways to get down the tower and sometimes you can even jump down to a set of stairs you can only barely see.  You often still end up covering the same areas or coming back later, but it makes the tower feel more like a space you’re trying to conquer than a completely abstract area.

The game also has NG+ (I think? Or maybe you’re just back at the top of the tower to clear it out?) and a rather… Soulsy ending. A flawed gem that was only a few changes away from being truly great. and the game with the  strongest aesthetic ties to the Souls series. It makes me more excited for Shadow Tower Abyss than King’s Field 4 and I hear KF4 is AWESOME.

While I can only recommend KF2 with some reservations, I can only recommend Shadow Tower with a LOT of reservations. But it’s interesting and if you want to play a game as a curiosity and see some of the evolution of the Souls series, Shadow Tower is AWESOME.

“Video Games shouldn’t be Work”

I hate that saying. Hate hate hate hate. Right up there with the very similar “Video Games should be FUN”. Not because I think games should be work or should be unfun. But because it makes some big assumption about leisure time.

There are people in this world, who work full time jobs, go home, go into their work room and build furniture -for fun-. They are being carpenters. Often amazing, meticulous carpenters doing something that is someone else’s full time job. This is their leisure time.

When I hear about people grinding in MMOs or in pokemon or whatever, I’ll be honest. That sounds like work to me. But for other people, it’s their chance to shut off and just relax. When I tell people getting into Fighting Games that they need to go into training mode, they complain that they don’t want a second job. They’re not wrong to feel like that, but for a lot of us, that IS fun. That’s super fun. It’s almost like the skill building version of grinding. Low stress repetition.  Some people want hobbies, some people want their media to be consumable. Some get off on being in that ‘flow’ state and enjoy intense, skill building activities, some want relaxation. And some of these might sound more virtuous than others, but that’s a silly way to look at it too. Different people might need different things in their life. Someone working a rote, boring 9-5 might desperately want challenge and excitement in their life and a brain surgeon might just want to relax playing Candy Crush. They have enough stress in their life.

When you say “games shouldn’t be work” or “games should be fun”, what you’re actually doing is chastising people for how they choose to enjoy themselves. “Oh I don’t get it, so it’s wrong”. And it’s fine to joke about that with friends (“Oh yeah Kayin hates fun”), but often people say this stuff very seriously! I’ve been seeing this a ton with people arguing about difficulty in Dark Souls and whether an easy  mode is appropriate. I don’t have an opinion on that, but it often feels like both sides don’t understand each other. The people who don’t play because of the difficulty assume other players want all the fun locked away behind arbitrary barriers and the people who are into Dark Souls assume, because of their preferences, that the challenge is essential to the fun and without it, everything else crumbles.  Regardless of the truth (probably somewhere in between — something will be lost without the challenge but less than a lot of DS players assume), the clear gap in understanding is rather staggering and sadly a disservice to the different ways people choose to spend their free time.