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Braincrumbs: April’s Weekend Indies

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been trying to devote my weekends to playing through at least one indie game. I’ve stuck with that through April, though two of the games I played this month are, while made by small teams, technically not indie: the first is the most famous title from a storied Western developer, and the other, though lesser-known, is by one of Japan’s most celebrated makers of all-ages visual novels. Also, I didn’t actually start the former game during the weekend, but I digress. Without any further ado, here are those games for the month of April 2016, indie or not, weekend or not.

Filled with Determination – April 2-3:
Undertale (2015, tobyfox)

An early scene from <i>Undertale<i>.

Undertale starts off twee, but becomes more substantial later on.

So it seems that there’s some meat behind the hype after all. Beyond the memes and fanart-friendly skeletons lies a deconstruction of RPGs, specifically Japanese-style console RPGs, and the various tropes that inhabit them. The central conceit is an encounter system that allows, and encourages, the player not to attack their foe, but instead to communicate with them before showing mercy. This affects the directions that the story can go in, and certain future interactions with the subterranean world in which the game takes place.

The tone throughout much of Undertale is contemporary and humorous, with some nods to otaku subculture in particular, plus a few (and thankfully, only a few) fourth-wall breaking moments and overt references to other games. Undertale‘s most obvious antecedent is Earthbound, another story centered around a child on an unexpected journey, but fortunately, it has none of its spiritual predecessor’s blatant patronization nor its interface and inventory flaws. Cave Story seems to be another inspiration, in part due to the underground setting and relatable characters, as well as the MegaTen series, via its comparatively simple conversation system. However, it’s impossible to truly say “it’s like (blah) crossed with (blah)” in regards to Undertale; as a complete package, there’s nothing else quite like it. I highly recommend this odd yet rewarding indie morsel, and also that new players go in knowing as little about it as possible.

Hell is a Place on Deimos – April 11-14:
Doom (1993, id Software [via Doom 3: BFG Edition, 2012])

The end credits from the first episode of <i>Doom</i>.

Many modern indies don’t have teams this small!

Doom requires little introduction. Before the term “first-person shooter” became the norm, it ushered in the era of “Doom clones”, and has been made to run on anything and everything, including within itself. I got my first taste of Doom and its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D back in the summer of ’93, and it has held a special place in my heart ever since. However, I had never actually beaten the original Doom. Wanting to rectify this, and too tired at the time to play anything with a deep plot, I installed the “BFG Edition” of Doom 3 and fired up that oldie. It holds up, and then some.

Doom‘s sprawling, labyrinthine levels are, save for one or two badly-implemented sections, still some of the best ever made; the enemies have a good range of toughness and attack types; and the weapons all feel right. Also, despite Doom‘s dated controls—for example, horizontal-only mouselook and no jumping—they never feel limiting thanks to some smart design. The fourth episode, which was made sometime after the completion of the main three, is more unbalanced than the others, but the blemishes that it adds to the whole are minor. By the way, the story, which involves a space marine and a portal to Hell, is as silly a bit of fluff as ever.

Ephemeral Stars – April 17-18:
planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~ (2004, Key [via English ver., 2014])

In this scene from <I>planetarian</i>, Yumemi describes a bug in her software.

Yumemi’s excuse for her chattiness boils down to buggy software.

For all of the talk about “walking simulators”, an older genre which is often more limiting when it comes to player interaction is visual novels. An even more restrictive form is the kinetic novel, which is like a VN but completely linear, with no decisions to be made and a single ending. This term originates from the developer Key, which is, appropriately, the maker of planetarian, my introduction to this sub-genre.

planetarian takes place is a post-apocalyptic world upon which pours an endless, poisonous rain. The nameless protagonist, a manly tsundere scavenger, comes across a well-preserved planetarium, maintained by an android named Hoshino Yumemi. She is a waifu-candidate type of moe character: unfailingly positive, eager to please, and with quirks intended to cross the line from annoying to charming. Key is famous for their sentimental stories, and in that respect, planetarian does not disappoint; the middle chapters in particular are a highlight. However, I found the melodrama to be mawkish at times, and the repetition of certain story beats didn’t seem to work as well as they would in a serialized format. Despite these issues, a handful of typos and some peculiar grammatical choices, and the rare bit of thesaurus porn (for example, “demesne”, which was used metaphorically), the story and localization were all right, but nothing truly special. On the whole, planetarian has some charms, but is most definitely not for everyone. At least I can say that I’ve experienced a Key visual novel now.

A Spirited Journey – April 23-24:
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) (2014, Upper One Games/E-Line Media)

A lonely, icy landscape in <i>Never Alone</i>.

So far, Never Alone is one of the best-looking games I’ve played all year.

My final weekend game for this month was also the shortest. Never Alone, along with its DLC “Foxtales”, is a fairly straightforward platformer based on Native Alaskan folklore. The player characters are an Iñupiat girl and an arctic fox. A single player can easily control both of them, though there is a co-op mode as well.

The stories themselves, about an endless blizzard and a journey across water, are imaginative in a way that isn’t unexpected for traditional tales, and are more than suitable for a video game. Much of the puzzle-platforming is dependent on cued changes in the environment. While this works well enough in some sections, it feels slightly less so elsewhere, and some instances of clipping and slightly jerky animation don’t help. The checkpointing is fairly good, though, so there’s few frustrations to be had. I also must make note of the unlockable “Cultural Insight” videos, mini-documentaries about the Iñupiat people that are relevant to the game; as they provide a great deal of context about the game, they are worth checking out. It’s a well thought-out little game, despite its few flaws.

So, that about covers this month. I also played plenty of Diablo III and Bravely Default this month, and am currently nearing the ends of both of those; I’ve also recently started a replay of Doom II. As for what May will bring, I may cut back on the Weekend Indies for awhile and concentrate more on the longer games I have backlogged. We’ll see how it goes.


The Little Things

March has been a mixed bag of a month. Between Daylight Savings, the fluctuating weather, and other circumstances, I wasn’t sleeping well for awhile, but now I’ve more or less adjusted. My comics backlog has grown bigger thanks to a big shipment of manga from Right Stuf, a couple of used bookstore pickups, and the arrival of a certain long-awaited graphic novel. I’ve also started trying out some new recipes for a change.

As for gaming, that’s been going more or less okay since my last post here, and the games themselves have been about as much of a mixed bag. I beat Disgaea 3; the ending was all right, though since learning that the sidequests are as grindy as expected, I officially put it down not long after. Before that, I went back to and finally beat Legend of Dungeon, using a class I hadn’t given a second thought to before; it’s still not at version 1.0 yet, but I’m just glad to be done with a second roguelike/like this year. Speaking of which, I took up Spelunky again and made quite a bit of progress, though it will be a long time until I actually beat it.

One of the landscapes (with reticule, sorry) in Firewatch.In addition to continuing on with Bravely Default and picking up Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA 2 again, that about wraps it up for February. Moving on to March, the first game I beat this month was the hot new release Firewatch. It is a beautiful and (mostly) well-crafted game, though a little bit of a victim of its own hype. The story is not mind-blowing but still decent; the save system leaves much to be desired; and the characters, music, and so forth were well done; but the real star in this game is the environment. Firewatch is set on a small parcel of US National Park land, and each little area within is distinctive in many ways. Aside from the climbing rocks (which are especially gamelike in a certain part), the wilderness here feels like a real place, and is easily the best thing about Firewatch.

This was not, however, the first game I started in March. That honor goes to Pokemon Blue Version, which, along with Red and Yellow, came out on the 3DS Virtual Console on the date of the series’ 20th birthday. Pokemon’s first generation is the only one I hadn’t played in some form, and, given how pricey original cartridges of that gen and its remakes can be, was one I hadn’t planned on ever playing until the Virtual Console announcement was made. I’m currently up to three gym badges and am not far from getting the fourth. It’s been interesting to see the roots of the series: the Pokemon, items, gyms, HMs, and all the other little things one becomes accustomed to seeing in the games. Some of the things that were different were just as surprising; for instance, most of the Pokemon don’t have listed genders, nor is the indicator for whether or not you’ve already caught a certain type present. The player character’s rival is also far more obnoxious than they would be in later series entries, and there is also a greater emphasis on filling up the Pokedex. In general, it’s all still both fun and tedious in its telltale ways; twenty years on, the core of what makes Pokemon Pokemon hasn’t changed much.

Next up would be the third RPG I’m currently playing: Diablo III, via the Ultimate Evil Edition on 360. After trying out a handful of different classes, bitprophet and I settled on a wizard and a monk (respectively) and started our adventure to investigate a fallen star and the prophecy it portends. It’s the loot-heavy, lore-heavy action RPG that you’d expect, and it’s looking to be quite long, as well.

Needing a break from RPGs for a little while, I recently started delving into some shorter games in other genres. First up was Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F. This was my first time playing a Hatsune Miku Project game that’s specifically in the DIVA series, and, sadly, it was not as much fun as Project mirai DX. The difficulty is brutal, the small button icons can frequently get lost in the music video chaos on-screen, and there’s a handful of aesthetic issues that prevent me from enjoying it as much. Chief among these is the tracklist, which is on the weaker side overall, and weighs heavily on more offbeat songs toward the end. A lesser quibble I have is that the “modules” specific to each song are locked from the outset, which means Miku and company perform in their default outfits whenever a track is played for the first time. This is okay for many tracks, but does not work as well with others, especially the elaborate period piece “Senbonzakura”. After unlocking all the songs on Easy, I was ready to set Project DIVA F aside and move on to something else.

The next day, I started Kero Blaster, which is by Cave Story‘s Studio Pixel. It’s much more linear, for better or for worse, than Cave Story, and also more lighthearted, but maintains that same feel otherwise. The characters are all down to earth, moving and shooting are handled well (there’s even a bubble-based weapon that’s actually useful), and the levels are sufficiently challenging. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes old school-style “run and gun” side-scrolling games, and to fellow Cave Story fans especially. There are also two (very charming) free games, titled Pink Hour and Pink Heaven, that serve as demos of sorts for Kero Blaster, though you could also play them afterward, as I did.

Christmas NiGHTS, in all its glory.Finally, there’s the two classic titles I started yesterday: Professor Layton and the Curious Village and the HD version of NiGHTS into Dreams… The former is my first Layton game, and might also be my last; it’s decent for what it is—a collection of brainteasers in a story wrapper seemingly inspired by European comics—but I’m not exactly hooked. I’m only about a couple of hours in, so maybe I’ll change my mind later on, but I kind of doubt it. Meanwhile, NiGHTS, which I ended up beating earlier today, is a slick-for-its-time 3D action experiment. Its so different from any other game that’s been made, I’m not sure if it has aged poorly or well. The camera’s a little iffy (though not as bad as in certain later Sonic Team games), the story’s more convoluted and strange than average, the routes through the levels can be tricky to navigate, and the game as a whole is short, but it’s got a certain flair which makes it impossible to dislike. Even more appealing is an unlockable bonus in the form of Christmas NiGHTS, one of the most famous and unique game demos ever made. This demo takes one of the first stages of NiGHTS and dresses it up with a Christmas theme, complete with a separate story to go along with it. Unfortunately, unlike the main game, the original Saturn version of Christmas NiGHTS is not included as a playable option.

That’s about all I’ve been up to lately, gaming-wise. With Kero Blaster and its spinoffs, I decided that it might be a good idea to dedicate my weekends to an indie/doujin game (or two) of a reasonable length, which would help me churn through more of my backlog, at the very least. At the moment, I’m considering my options for this coming weekend, and there are a lot of them. I should also get back to the RPGs in between those indies and sessions with Professor Layton. One of my major backlog goals for this year is to put a dent in the number of RPGs I have sitting around unplayed, but I was not expecting Bravely to be this long. Perhaps I’ll have it beaten by next month. Either way, I have no idea which RPG I would want to play next.

Until next time…


Spreadsheets Sublime

So, I’m playing a Nippon Ichi strategy RPG again, albeit for the first time in years. The last time was back in 2012, when I played through Soul Nomad, which was very different from their previous releases, though still enjoyable. This time around, it’s something a bit more “traditional”: Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice, a PS3 game in which the Netherworld consists of a gigantic school, the Evil Academy. The main character, Mao, is a top honor student—as in, he never goes to class and typically spends his days lazing about—who aspires to defeat his father, the Overlord. Mao and the other members of the cast have the usual eccentricities, and overall, the tone tries its best to channel the smile-inducing spirit of its most successful predecessor, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. So far, I feel it’s falling somewhat short. I like some of the characters, particularly the waylaid hero Almaz, but Mao is only a few steps short of being annoying; also, the story, while not bad, isn’t particularly remarkable, and relies a touch too heavily on fourth-wall breaking for some of its humor.

A Disgaea 3 battle map filled with Geo effects.Normally, knowing how I review games with prominent stories and characters, this might pose a problem. For me, a poorly-plotted story can discolor what is otherwise a wonderful experience, and appealing characters are typically equally important in such games. This is a Nippon Ichi SRPG, however, so what will ultimately make or break the game is its gameplay: the turn-based, grid-based, multiple-character-managing battles executed in a style that this studio is famous for. Usually, they get this right, though there have been some missteps as well. Phantom Brave, which features one of the best stories amongst all of Nippon Ichi’s games, had a terrible system which ditched the space-by-space grid-based movement and attacks for a more freeform style, but that was hard to use effectively (nevertheless, I liked the rest of the game so much that I want to give it a second chance sometime, and, seeing as how I don’t own the original PS2 version anymore, picked up the Wii port awhile ago). Makai Kingdom, which, on the other hand, had a story and cast which I hated, had a more refined version of Phantom Brave‘s system, but it was only barely less fiddly. It’s worth noting that Nippon Ichi has gone back to, and stuck with, grids ever since. Besides grids, Disgaea 3 has the other trappings typically expected given its lineage, including a special field-based battle gimmick (in Disgaea games, this means the color-coded Geo panels and symbols/blocks), lots of character types to choose from, tons of equipment and other useful items, and a ridiculously high level limit of 9999.

Information overload, but only if you let it get to you.These systems are deep, and potentially overwhelming. The in-game information is presented very clearly within well-organized menus, with the most important bits made suitably prominent, and even so, it can be a lot to take in at once. It’s no surprise that Disgaea games are, usually derisively, compared to spreadsheets (and also that some players make spreadsheets to get the most out of a playthrough), but this is only part of the journey. Micromanagement leads to some pretty fun rewards in battle: giant explosions and magical effects from special attacks, useful bonuses that rack up depending on how many chained and combo attacks are pulled off, and the numbers that appear whenever most any action that doesn’t involve movement between panels is executed. Seeing these numbers climb higher, particularly after a carefully arranged Geo panel and block sequence is set into motion, is a major part of where the fun lies. Disgaea 3 and its ilk are not so much about spreadsheets and the statistics they contain, but making satisfyingly big numbers out of them. It is strangely capitalistic in this way, although more overt signs of capitalism—stores and the like—are presented in typical fashion otherwise.

It is the sort of game which I have been away from for far too long, but also, like so many other information-rich types, one which I should only indulge in occasionally, lest I start regularly seeing numbers in my sleep. Aside from the expected refinements made to the base formula (for better or worse), it’s the same sort of cozy, crazy Nippon Ichi SRPG I’ve always preferred. I’m only just starting the fourth chapter now, which means I should be about a quarter of the way through, by Disgaea standards, so there’s still a lot of room for the story to improve. I hope it does, but I wouldn’t begrudge the story too much if it never rises above its current mediocrity. Just keep the controls straightforward, the information tidy, and the effects and numbers captivatingly bombastic, and I’ll keep on happily playing until the credits roll.


Comfort Food and Other Consumables

Bravely Default, which I finally, finally started playing about a week ago, has struck me so far as being a very different sort of JRPG, but also, more obviously, very familiar. The online/StreetPass features of this 3DS exclusive reminds me quite a bit of the Pokemon series, but also of Square Enix’s earlier The World Ends with You. The latter, which is one of my favorite JRPGs of all time, has a pin-based battle system, and some of the rarer pins could only be obtained by using certain online features of the DS. As this sort of thing is not up my alley (you could say I’m a purist when it comes to single-player games), I pretty much ignored Mingle Mode and managed just fine without it. Bravely‘s online features, on the other hand, get shoved in your face pretty frequently, at least early on, mixed in as they are with the rest of the tutorials. One of the biggest online components is a town-rebuilding minigame, progress in which is marked in real time—reminiscent of certain mobile phone sims—and dependent on how many other players you have registered within the game. Also prominent is the ability to summon special attacks from another player during any battle. Anyway, all this online stuff is both understandable, given the times, and, thankfully, largely ignorable, at least so far. I’m getting by just fine on my one default worker working on the town minigame while I plug away at the rest.

This “rest” is where the familiarity comes in. The story takes place in a world where nature’s balance is maintained by four elemental crystals, which are now in trouble. If that by itself doesn’t scream Final Fantasy, there’s also the job system with its familiar classes, the items like Eye Drops and Phoenix Downs, the Akihiko Yoshida character designs, and the rousing score. There is enough different that it is not a complete clone of that older series, such as the hand-drawn look of the towns and the modest tone of the storytelling. This is particularly true when it comes to the game’s battle system, which, Final Fantasy V-style jobs aside, resembles those found in Dragon Quest and MegaTen titles more than FF’s. Its resemblance to non-FF series, though, is perhaps no less important. Bravely Default is a polished, modern take on what is essentially video game comfort food; while it’s different enough to be novel, it’s also familiar enough to be unintimidating. Despite a couple of overlong boss battles so far, I’m looking forward to seeing where this particular journey to save the crystals takes me.

Kirby Mass AttackFor a long time, one reliable source of video game comfort food for me was the Kirby series. However, when I first started Kirby Mass Attack on the DS more than three years ago, something about the flavor of it didn’t do much for me. I reasoned that this was because I had started it not long after beating Kirby Squeak Squad, and needed a break from the series in general for awhile. After picking up Mass Attack again sometime during my recent playthrough of Soul Hackers, it became clear that it was not me, it was the game. I really wanted to like it more than I did, and although the premise with the multiple Kirbies is interesting by itself, Mass Attack falls short. I’m not really sure why this is; the levels are fairly well-designed, as are the aesthetic elements and the minigames. Maybe it’s because there isn’t as much variety in the strategic elements as in a typical Kirby platformer. Enemies can’t be chomped and then shot out, or digested, their abilities absorbed. The mini Kirbies simply multiply in number, beat on enemies, push or pull things, and do a few other actions, depending on the environment. There’s also mostly dull quicktime events and one particular annoyance that reared its head late in the game, where you’re told that backtracking for certain missed collectables would be necessary to progress; this collectable would be the type of item that’d be purely optional in just about any other Kirby. Anyway, this game was all right, and certainly has its high notes, but in general, it didn’t click with me in the same way that previous Kirbies had. I still love Kirby as a character, but maybe not so much the games anymore, and I feel like another long break is in order.

Speaking of gaming tastes changing, roguelikes is one genre which I will have to become much pickier about in the future. I started two of them, the action roguelike Legend of Dungeon and the more traditional Sword of the Stars: The Pit, back in 2014, played them on and off throughout 2015, and started 2016 with neither of them beaten. They are both more difficult than, say, Dungeons of Dredmor, especially The Pit—while I had made incremental progress in Legend of Dungeon (for various reasons), I had no such luck with the other game.

Anyway, as it happened, I had a couple of days where I’d barely gotten any sleep the night before, and was thus not in the mood to play anything too story-heavy (or do much of anything productive). One day, I spent much of my time messing around with Tropico 5 in sandbox mode, but later, I found myself trying The Pit again, for the first time in months. It was still very hard, and almost unfair; like clockwork, difficult enemies would be crammed into the first room on the next floor while my available weapon choices were still piss-poor. By this time, I had 75 hours logged on the game, and had not made it anywhere past twenty floors (out of thirty) on Normal. I started contemplating trying the game on Easy and started poking around a few places, mostly the reviews and forums on Steam, to see what others thought about The Pit‘s difficulty, especially in comparison to other roguelikes. I was relieved to find that I was not alone in thinking the game too hard, and, later on, fired up a new Engineer playthrough on Easy. I ended up beating the game on this first run, which was spread out over a few sessions within two days. It soon went in the “Beaten” folder in my Steam library, and I moved on to other things, like wrapping up Kirby Mass Attack.

One game which I recently played was quite different from anything else I’d encountered before: the FMV narrative puzzle of Her Story. Its interface comes in the form of a Windows 95-era desktop computer (complete with CRT reflections, if one so desires), which contains, as its main program, a searchable database of brief video clips, all of which are pieces from a series of interrogations of a woman whose husband has been murdered. The main interactions take the form of typing in search terms, watching up to the first five clips that pop up in the results, and tagging and/or saving clips for future reference. Around the time that you, as the protagonist searching through this ancient database, feel compelled to search for a certain term, you begin to suspect that all is not what it seems. The story that follows is strange and engrossing, and, although I have the basic idea down of what happened to the victim, there’s still a few unanswered questions by the end. Aside from a certain (seemingly intentional but kind of cheesy and understandably never pointed out) alternate approach to going through the clips, I really loved this one. The pacing of both the clips themselves and the discoverability of various chunks of the story is so good that I wonder how it was pulled off.

In summary, this is where I’m at by the end of January, with six titles beaten and Bravely Default and Neko Atsume as the only games I’m currently playing. As usual, I’m already wondering about what I’m going to pick up next; a Nippon Ichi strategy RPG (speaking of comfort food…) seems very likely, but I’m not entirely sure about anything else just yet. Hopefully, I can keep up with these progress reports, and maybe write up a few reviews this year as well. Until next time, then…

Some quick site business: Comments are now disabled for all posts from now on. I very rarely got comments here anyway, and most of those that did pop up in the past were either spam, too dumb and/or trivial to approve, or had an uneasily ego-stroking quality about them. For those who left the few decent comments I got, thanks, and see you on Twitter.


Backlog Tackling, 2016 Edition

As with the old Gaming Roundups, which I addressed last time, another annual feature of this blog was a backlog assessment. However, unlike in previous posts, a photo of my current backlog will not accompany this year’s entry. Roughly half of my backlog nowadays is digital, so the best overview of the games I have yet to finish, or even start, is at the Backloggery. As you can see, as of this posting, there is… a good amount. Some of these are games I will never, ever go back to, usually either due to lack of interest or an annoying issue I have with the game itself (oh hi, Crayon Physics Deluxe!). However, the vast majority are games I genuinely want to play and beat.

Parin from <i>Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure</i>.To start off my 2016 gaming, I chose a title which is representative of my favorite type of game: quirky, mid-tier, colorful, reasonably polished, and Japanese. This game was Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure, an action RPG of sorts by Nihon Falcom, the folks behind my beloved Ys series. I had actually gotten this game for free; before Valve (understandably) banned this sort of practice, publisher Mastiff gave away Steam keys in exchange for Greenlight votes and joining the official group. Seeing as how I would’ve voted for it anyway, signing up for this promotion was a no-brainer. Gurumin, which took me roughly a week to beat, was more or less what I expected: somewhat janky in places—the pacing of the localized voiced dialogue, the slightly imperfect platforming, the graphical glitches at the edges of the screen—but otherwise a decent little story-light game with lovingly-crafted graphics. Drill-wielding heroine Parin is a likable protagonist, and the world she inhabits is rather charming. It’s the type of very good all-ages game that I don’t see too often nowadays outside of Nintendo’s titles and a few other places, and certainly very rarely on PC.

A couple of days after starting Gurumin, I fired up my first lengthy turn-based RPG for this year: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers. A 3DS port of a never-localized Sega Saturn game, this is, technically, the oldest JRPG I’ve played in some time, and it shows. Besides the usual low-budget MegaTen trappings, Soul Hackers‘ demon conversation system and certain other gameplay bits are a touch cruder than those that have come along since the late 90s. The story is very 90s as well: it takes place in a fully networked city where a Second Life-esque virtual world is being beta tested. The player character, a member of the hacker group Spookies, becomes embroiled in a conspiracy involving demons, summoners, and the city’s advanced intranet. It’s not bad, especially since there are “hacks” available that allow you to make the game less frustrating on the fly; I have the “automap” one on almost all the time. As of this writing, I’m still playing it, but given recent story developments, I hope to beat it sometime next week.

The third game I started this year, which was also the first one beaten, was Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe, a very different kind of falling block puzzle game. The basic conceit is that, instead of moving or rotating the pieces that fall, you play a little person inside of the well who uses its gun to destroy individual or adjoining blocks of a single color. A row of deadly spikes on the well’s bottom incentivizes you not to clear the board, and, in a similar bending of typical match-three mechanics, there’s no real penalty for stacking blocks too high, at least in the standard single-player mode. Throw in various obstacles, such as cannons which sometimes fall in place of blocks, a few power-ups, unlockable outfits and challenge stages (neither of which I’ve paid much attention to), and collectible gems, and that’s pretty much the game.

It’s a neat combination, and although the requirements to “beat” each stage are somewhat dull (accumulate a set number of large gems over an unlimited number of games), it also makes the game a bit less daunting than certain other falling block games I could name. Even so, I don’t think it has what it takes to join the lofty ranks of recent-ish hybrid puzzlers like 10000000 or Puzzle & Dragons. There is too little variety in the blocks, for one thing—it would’ve been great to see the difficulty slowly ramped up in the form of additional block colors, instead of trickier types of cannons, etc. falling from above. The platforming end of things gets kind of samey after awhile, too. Although the game is fun in short bursts, in general, “Deluxe” seems like a bit too generous an adjective to attach to its name.

So, that’s where I stand so far in my 2016 gaming. There’s still a lot left, of course, particularly when it comes to JRPGs. My main worry in all this is that the games themselves will become chores more than diversions, but hopefully I can pace myself so that won’t be a problem. Wish me luck!


2015 Gaming Selections

For several years, I posted “roundups” of all of the games I played in a given year. After the 2011 edition, I lapsed on this and have not written one since. Having to remember every game I played in a 20xx and write up a little something about it got to be tedious, and didn’t play well with my inherent laziness.

All that is why, when I decided to revive this feature, it was with new restrictions. This time, I will be covering only ten games: those which left the strongest impressions on me within a given year, regardless of release date. This restriction also enables me to write a bit more about each game.

So, without further ado, here’s my ten for 2015, presented in the order in which I played them. Following each title is the developer/author, the platform I played the game on, the release year on said platform, and my obligatory summary. They are not ranked, except for my personal Game of the Year and its runner-ups, which were relatively easy choices, at least for this installment.

Mighty GunvoltMighty Gunvolt
Inti Creates | 3DS | 2014
Although I am not a big fan of anything that resembles Mega Man, this game charmed the pants off of me. Few “retro” style games that truly want to be “retro” ever come close to the faithfulness to the era that Mighty Gunvolt achieves: here, it really does feel like you’re playing an NES game. The art and music are lovingly crafted, as is the localization from the original Japanese, which sprinkles bits of “Engrish” throughout. The biggest aspect which feels “modern” is the difficulty, which isn’t as punishing as its predecessors, but that’s all for the better.

<i>Octodad: Dadliest Catch</i>Octodad: Dadliest Catch
Young Horses | Windows | 2014
And on the opposite end of the spectrum is Octodad, which forces the player to unlearn everything they know about controlling video game characters. The player character is a giant octopus masquerading as a human surburban father, and controlling him—through a scheme where arms and legs are affiliated with analog sticks and shoulder buttons—is as difficult as you might expect, given the circumstances. Not drawing suspicion to yourself in your everyday life is the goal of the game, a lighthearted sitcom of a tale which comes complete with a catchy theme song (but no laugh track, thankfully). Although a certain part came off as slightly unfulfilling, there’s nothing else that would cause me not to recommend this.

<i>Gone Home</i>Gone Home
The Fullbright Company | Windows | 2013
This is one of those games I put off playing for awhile due to the neverending hype and discussion surrounding it, but I finally did so this year. What it ended up being was an exploration through a massive old house that was alternately nostalgic, goofy, and suspenseful, a miniature 1990s teenage soap opera told in first-person in-between references to Bratmobile and The X-Files. That this tightly crafted, intimate little story generated as much controversy as it did is bewildering. Gone Home is—somehow, bizarrely, sadly—groundbreaking for the video game medium in its everyday mundanity and small human dramas, but it’s also good, and hopefully this sort of thing will become more commonplace in the future.

<i>PixelJunk Eden</i>PixelJunk Eden
Q-Games | Windows | 2012
I play few platformers anymore, not so much for lack of interest (Kirby burnout notwithstanding), as that there haven’t been any really good ones in awhile. I came to PixelJunk Eden not knowing much about it, but finding within it just the refreshing sort of platformer I needed. The visual style is minimalist overall, but can get pleasantly noisy sometimes in a structured Sonic Youth sort of way, and it’s accompanied by some cool electronic music and suitable sound effects. The physics are floaty but believable; the diminutive player character moves around like it’s in water. Although the paths weren’t always clear and, thus, it became way too easy to get lost in certain late-game levels, I had a really good time with PixelJunk Eden.

<i>You Must Build a Boat</i>You Must Build a Boat
EightyEightGames | Windows | 2015
This game, the follow-up to 10000000, almost didn’t make this list. It’s on here because I returned to the game again, months after first beating it, to go after more crew members and achievements. That’s when I fell back into its rhythms. With more tile types and general complexity than 10000000, my original feeling was that You Must Build a Boat was too overwhelming, and somewhat inelegant. Somehow, this doesn’t matter any longer. Its density and mechanics have their own kind of beauty and rhythm, and it has proven itself to be just as well-balanced and addictive. That, plus the new rooms and crew members that get added over the course of the game gives it more character than 10000000 ever had. That’s not to say that YMBAB is better than 10000000, but it is most definitely a worthy successor.

<i>Roundabout</i>Roundabout
No Goblin | Windows | 2014
This game is unlike anything else out there. It’s got a groovy 1970s setting complete with funk music, rounded chunky fonts, trippy drug references, and suitably toned live-action FMVs. The story centers around Georgio Manos (pictured), a silent protagonist and up-and-coming revolving limousine driver. With the support of her comrades, she ferries people all over town and deals with various bits of drama. Oh yes, and as her title implies, her limo does indeed revolve around and around while she drives, which is where the challenge comes in. It’s all very silly, a little bit difficult, rather fun (and funny), and over all too quickly.

Neko Atsume: Kitty CollectorNeko Atsume: Kitty Collector
Hit-Point | iPhone | 2014
My husband and I waffled on trying this out for ages, and a patch from earlier this year which added an English-language option basically gave us little excuse. So, one day over the US Thanksgiving weekend, we each downloaded Neko Atsume from Apple’s App Store. What a great decision that was. A few times a day, after setting out food and toys, we check to see which stupidly cute, beady-eyed cats have visited us. Another aspect which has won us over: it’s free to play, with microtransactions available, but we’ve never once felt the pressure to buy any extra gold fish (the top-level in-game currency). We just take our time and enjoy these adorable digital felines at our leisure.

———

<i>Hatsune Miku: Project mirai DX</i>Third Place
Hatsune Miku: Project mirai DX
SEGA | 3DS | 2015
I’m afraid I might be biased when it comes to this choice: I’m a fan of Vocaloids, and Miku in particular, plus I also have a soft spot for both Nendoroid figures and tactile rhythm games. Project mirai DX features a robust selection of songs featuring music software developer Crypton’s beloved stable of Vocaloids: classics, fan favorites, and lesser-known tracks spanning a nice range of styles and BPMs, from many of the best producers in the scene. There are even a few songs with additional vocals supplied by special guest GUMI (aka Megpoid), a Vocaloid published by Internet Co. Ltd. All of the characters are represented in their chibi Nendoroid forms, thanks to a collaboration with Good Smile Company, and have a certain lively appeal to them that the blander, regularly-proportioned Project DIVA models lack.

The touchscreen-based gameplay mode is a joy to play (the button-based one isn’t too shabby either, though not as much fun), and there are several diversions—a room to decorate, character outfits, reversi and Puyo Puyo minigames, a music player, etc.—that are entertaining ways to take a break from the main rhythm section every so often. Despite the rare misstep (such as a certain pair of popular but overly repetitive songs), it’s a must-have for 3DS-owning Vocaloid fans, and probably the best rhythm game on the system overall.

<i>Analogue: A Hate Story</i>Second Place
Analogue: A Hate Story
Love Conquers All Games | Windows | 2012
Stories with a strong sociological bent are still relatively hard to find in games. While my 2015 manga slate was filled with brilliantly humane works like Vinland Saga, My Love Story!!, and Assassination Classroom, there hasn’t been much like those on my gaming one. Analogue: A Hate Story is one of the rare exceptions. Like (the absolutely amazing, seriously it’s a masterpiece) Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Analogue is a feminist examination of a specific period in Asian history. In this case, it’s an extremely repressive Korean society recreated on a long-lost starship, whose story is told through the logs maintained by, and the commentary of, a pair of AIs named *Hyun-ae and *Mute.

What follows from there is a dense, intertwined tale of family, hierarchy, social expectation, doomed romance, dashed expectations, and horrific violence, with the occasional bits of humor, which helps lighten the mood from time to time and rounds out the characters. It’s a gripping tale, one as fine as in any good comic or prose story I read this year, and I’m looking forward to playing its sequel, Hate Plus, in the year ahead. In fact, Analogue was all set to be my personal Game of the Year, but then something else came out…

<i>The Beginner's Guide</i>First Place: Game of the Year
The Beginner’s Guide
Everything Unlimited Ltd. | Windows | 2015
I really don’t know where to start with this one without giving away what happens during a certain scene, a scene that matters so much when it comes to how this story is ultimately interpreted. When that scene happened, I understood much more, but only to a point. By the time the game ends, there’s at least two apparent large plot holes and some uncomfortable unanswered questions, which aren’t helped by the fact that the entire thing has been narrated by Davey Wreden, the creator of The Beginner’s Guide, seemingly playing himself. There’s also that cryptic dedication…

I’m going to dig further into this now, and although I won’t reference anything too specifically, there might be some parts that could be considered spoilers, so turn around if you need to.

Okay? Good.

The Beginner's GuideWhat The Beginner’s Guide is ultimately about (or at least it seems so to me) is audiences, the great bugbear of creators everywhere, and how uncontrollable they are. It left much the same impression on me as The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, which dealt with a similar theme on multiple levels. In that film, which is based on true events, an inventor does amazing, innovative work but finds that his lofty ideals don’t line up with reality. Such is the situation in The Beginner’s Guide, where Davey takes us through a tour of the works of “Coda”, a friend who has dabbled in game development before suddenly stopping. Who Coda is and what their works really mean is beside the point. It is Davey and his presentation of Coda’s games which really matters here.

The result is a fascinating, but somewhat worrying, journey through all sorts of unfinished first-person games. There are a lot of dialogues that go nowhere, enclosed spaces, and strange surprises. Davey is not wrong to have interpretations of these creations. The wrongness that is present becomes evident later on, and, in the end, I don’t blame Coda for their actions, though perhaps they were somewhat naive in how they handled their games. It’s an interesting and ultimately heart-wrenching story about creation, interpretation, modification, and everything in between. I wonder if anyone who isn’t a creative type of some sort would get it. I wonder, like many others, if this is based on something which really happened. I do not wonder if this sort of thing continues to happen in the real world, because I know it does. It sucks, but it still happens. It happens to a lot of us, and though it might take awhile, things will be okay again.