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Kirby’s Star Stacker!

The final months of the year always mean handheld gaming for me due to the travel that time of year always necessitates.  I always try to load up my 3DS with a few games to get me through the season.  Back in November, Nintendo was having a sale on a handful of Virtual Console titles, and I decided to snag Kirby’s Star Stacker for the measly price of $1.49.  I have mixed feelings about Virtual Console.  I would love to load up my 3DS with a bunch of classic games, but knowing that these purchases won’t transfer over to future Nintendo platforms is strongly off-putting.  Consequently, I tend to only buy things when they go on sale for super cheap (which they rarely do considering Nintendo’s aversion to sales).

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Star Stacker is a Game Boy falling block puzzle game of the kind that was so prominent back in those days.  In this entry of the genre, falling from the top of the screen are dimeric blocks that are composed of either star tiles (or other special tiles) or animal tiles featuring one of Kirby’s three animal friends (the hamster, owl, and fish from Kirby’s Dreamland 2).  The goal of the game is to specifically eliminate sequences of star tiles, which is done by sandwiching any number of them between two matching animal tiles.  For each star tile that is eliminated, a counter on the right side of the screen is reduced, and the round is cleared when the counter hits zero.  The counter is meant to be indicative of King Dedede’s HP, and his face hovers above it while displaying a range of emotions in reaction to the player’s current condition.  In addition, any time two or more matching animal tiles touch each other directly, they are eliminated from the screen, but these do not affect the counter.  In later rounds of the game, special tiles come into play, like bombs that wipe out a row of tiles when triggered.  

As a falling block puzzler,  Star Stacker’s main mode is more akin to Dr. Mario than the archetype’s progenitor, Tetris.  Star Stacker is composed of discrete stages that begin with a preset configuration of blocks and end when King Dedede’s HP has been depleted.  Thus, stages in Star Stacker are more like stages in Dr. Mario where the player has to clear a preset configuration of the virus enemies to progress, as opposed to Tetris where the entire game is one continuous session and the stage number rolls over when a certain score threshold has been met.  I think I tend to prefer Star Stacker and Dr. Mario’s style, as completing handcrafted stages gives me a better sense of progression.  Usually, I don’t care much for games that are purely score attack, especially when there are no online hooks to foster competition.   

Star Stacker initially offers the player four difficulty modes (Normal, Hard, Very Hard, and Super Hard) each with their own unique sets of stages.  Despite their formidable names, these modes aren’t especially challenging.  The thing about this part of Star Stacker is that it’s actually really easy to get lucky and wipe out huge portions of Dedede’s HP in one move.  There were many many times when I was on the edge of filling up the screen, but then, out of nowhere, I triggered a long chain reaction that that wiped out a huge number of blocks and slid me to victory.

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In this first part of Star Stacker, it’s just really easy to “accidentally” set off massive chain reactions.  I think it’s because it doesn’t take much to make a match in this game.  There are only three animal tiles, and it only takes two adjacent to each other to make a match, so the probability of matches being formed as part of a chain is very high.  This is exacerbated by the fact that, as a reward, after each step of a chain, the game will randomly dump clusters of transient star blocks that can make matching sequences like normal star blocks, and only exist for the duration of the chain reaction (they disappear afterwards).  I realize I’m probably not explaining that last concept well, but I’m just mentioning it to illustrate that chains in the game tend to be self-propagating, which makes it easy to wipe out huge chunks of Dedede’s HP in one swoop.  This adds a huge element of luck (which strongly favors the player) to the game.  Personally, my brain is really only fast enough predict chain reactions up to the second, maybe third, step in the chain, so any additional matches I get past that is pure luck.

While even Super Hard mode seems like a breeze, the game shows its true colors once this last “normal” mode has been beat, and the secret Insane mode becomes unlocked.  This mode is where things get tough.  Insane mode possesses 50 stages (far longer than any other mode) and is arguably where the real game begins.  I had initially been a bit disappointed by how simple and easy the game had been up until that point, and then my opinion immediately did a complete 180, as the game became incredibly challenging.  Especially the back half of this mode is super difficult, and some levels can take well over an hour to put to rest.  This is due to the sheer perfection the game begins to demand from the player, as a single mistake can completely ruin your chance to succeed.  For me, round 42 was particularly overwhelming.  I estimate it took me three to four hours just to beat that one.    

The difficulty spike in this stretch of the game is due mostly to the way the blocks are arranged at the start of each round.  Often times, these stages start with a good chunk of the screen filled with special blocks that need to be “sandwiched” by the animal tiles twice to be eliminated, and the difficulty of clearing these things can get each level off to a rough start, especially as these rounds tend not to begin with many animal tiles already on screen.  In addition, King Dedede’s HP really begins to balloon, which makes each level quite a bit longer, and thus the potential for critical mistakes to occur much more likely.

The gruelling nature of Insane mode really started to get to me after a while.  I found that finishing off the final gauntlet of levels often required a lot of luck and incredible precision.  I really started to reconsider whether my mission to beat the game was worthwhile.  Considering the many hours I put into getting to the end of this game, I probably should have given up on it and spent that play time elsewhere.  But, I really can’t deny that the basic matching mechanics of Star Stacker are incredibly compelling (to the point of compulsion).  Add to that the fact that I just reached a point where my pride and competitiveness eventually awoke and wouldn’t let me let myself be beaten by this game, and I ended up sticking it out to the very brutal end.

 
I guess I have a strong love/hate relationship with the game, as cliche as that sounds.  The central mechanic is incredibly fun, but the wonky difficulty tuning that swings from too easy to too hard created a lot of frustration.  Ultimately, it’s just one of those puzzle games that’s just hard to put down, like the original Tetris or Lumines.  

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Hotel Dusk designers unveil new game.

Hotel Dusk was one of my favorite Nintendo DS games.  Anyone who’s played the game may be able to tell that from the Kyle Hyde avatar I use here.  It is generally regarded as the best game released by Cing, a developer best known for a string of visual novel-type adventure games released on Nintendo platforms which included most prominently Hotel Dusk and Another Code (aka Trace Memory).  Unfortunately, I don’t think Cing ever really found commercial success, and their doors were closed in 2010.

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Hotel Dusk tells the story of Kyle Hyde, a detective in search of his long missing partner, Brian Bradley, and whose investigation leads him to check in to the decaying Hotel Dusk outside of Los Angeles.  The game is exclusively set in the rundown hotel, and its guests and staff serve as the cast of characters.  In some ways, Hotel Dusk can be thought of like a more serious, more story-focused Professor Layton game.  Kyle spends his time exploring the hotel, secretly searching for clues, while also engaging the other guests in conversation.  As the night wears on, Kyle increasingly begins to realize that, although the guests are strangers to one another, they all have profoundly interconnected histories and fates.  Often, Kyle encounters brainteaser-like puzzles that must be solved to progress the story, but it is not nearly as puzzle-focused as the Layton games.

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Kyle Hyde of Hotel Dusk

A sequel to Kyle Hyde’s story was later released in Japan and Europe, and I’ve regrettably never played it.  Cing would go bankrupt shortly after release, and that would be that.  Recently though, former Cing talent have resurfaced with a new game slated for the Japanese 3DS eshop entitled (here goes) Chase-: Unsolved Cases Investigation Division – Distant Memories.  This new title promises to be a mystery novel game in the same vain of Hotel Dusk.  Unfortunately, nothing’s been announced yet in the way of localization, and the game is currently Japan-only.

Chase’s main character also looks a bit familiar:

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Am I crazy or does he look like a Japanese version of Kyle Hyde?

The stories that Cing told always felt very idiosyncratic and unique to me.  Both fate and the weight of the past play heavy roles, both as themes and actors, in their tales.  I’m very much hoping we’ll see an English localization of the game down the road, but I’m afraid I have no certainty that we will.  But …. it does make me feel like Kyle Hyde looking to reunite with his old friend from the past.

 

December Update: Pokemon Picross and Nintendo Badge Arcade

 

Honestly, I’m a fiend for Picross.  Picross DS was a major time suck in my life many years ago.  I’ve actually considered a lot whether that game was an unhealthy obsession.  I would turn on the game expecting to kill maybe ~10-15 minutes solving one or two puzzles, but I would get caught in a loop where after beating a puzzle, I would think to myself “just one more!”  Suddenly, entire hours of my afternoon would disappear, and I would wonder how I let the time go.  The term “addictive” gameplay is often considered a positive remark toward a game, but sometimes I’m not so sure it should be.  After Picross DS, I tried to attack the sequels with a little more moderation.  Picross 3D came out when I was busy writing my dissertation, and I went “Nope! Not touching that!” out of fear that it would be too much of a distraction.  I have played the first Picross e game released on 3DS, however.

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For those unfamiliar with the Picross series, the games are collections of a type of logic puzzle called nonograms.  Nonograms are kind of like crosswords or sudoku in that they were originally printed puzzles found in things like newspapers and booklets.  The game is played on a square grid where the numbers attached to each column and row are used to deduce which squares of the grid should be filled in by the player.  The idea is that, when all the correct square spaces are filled in, they should form a crude picture.  There’s something about nonogram puzzles that make them more suited for video game form than its counterparts like sudoku, and that’s something Nintendo realized a long time ago as the Picross series started on Game Boy in 1995.

Pokemon Picross introduces its own wrinkle into the series.  The puzzles form pictures of pokemon monster and upon completion that pokemon becomes a part of the player’s collection.  Collected pokemon can then be added to the player’s “party” and can be used to help solve other puzzles with their hint abilities.  These abilities include , for instance, revealing the correct squares for a given column or auto correcting a mistake made by the player.  As far as I can tell,  use of the abilities is entirely optional.  Hardcore players who want to tackle the game with pure logic need not use their pokemon.  The monsters are differentiated by which ability they can use as well as the number of times the ability can be used during a given puzzle and the length of the subsequent cooldown timer.

This game is advertised by Nintendo as “free to start,” and features an in-game currency called picrites and an energy meter which depletes as squares are filled in so that each time the player fills in a square (correctly or incorrectly) the meter goes down by 1.  The meter will slowly recharge over a period of a few hours, meaning that if you run out of energy in the middle of a puzzle, you’re going to have to give up on it.  Mercifully, each puzzle says upfront the minimum amount of energy required to reach the solution assuming the player makes no mistakes.  Picrites can be spent to refill the meter with no wait or upgrade its length.

Picrites are really how Nintendo intends to make money off the game.  The puzzles are divided into stages called “areas,” and after beating the puzzles in a given area, the player must spend a fairly hefty amount of picrites to unlock the next one.  The player will receive a few hundred picrites for completing the tutorials, but afterwards earning picrites in-game slows to a trickle.  A small amount of picrites can be earned once each puzzle by completing certain special objectives such as solving it within a certain time limit.  There’s also a daily challenge that can be completed once per day for a small amount of picrites.

Unfortunately, I think most players will hit a wall at around area 5 where they will need to buy picrites to progress, because the trickle they’ll receive from the normal levels and daily challenges just aren’t enough.  Mercifully though, there’s a spending limit on how many picrites you can buy which is about $30.  After you spend that amount, it is my understanding you’ll be able to withdraw unlimited picrites for free from the shop.  

For as much of a fiend as I am for Picross, I don’t think I’m going to go much farther with Pokemon Picross.  I don’t really know if the Pokemon hook really creates a meaningful enhancement to the game, and there are several Picross e games available on the eshop for much less than $30.  And like I said, in the past I’ve had a bit of an unhealthy fixation with Picross, and I find it somewhat of a mercy that Nintendo created such a convoluted paywall as it deters my temptation.  Nonetheless, if you like Pokemon and are curious about Picross, I would at least give the game a shot as it’s free-to-start.  I will also say that there does appear to be a ton of content here as there are a total of 31 areas that have about 5-10 puzzles each plus various types of special puzzles, so I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who ends up spending money on the game.

In contrast to Pokemon Picross, Nintendo Badge Arcade is a game I feel like one can enjoy pretty easily if they choose not to spend any money or perhaps only a few dollars.  Badge Arcade allows 3DS owners to win virtual “badges” for their systems, which are icons of various Nintendo properties that can be used to decorate the 3DS home screen.  These badges are won via 2D crane games (sort of like UFO Catchers) where the goal is to get the badges to fall into pits at the bottom of the screen.  The player scrolls a pincer across the top of the screen that is used to grab onto badges, but it’s not necessary to actually grab anything with them pincer, you just merely need to get the badges to fall into the bottom of the screen.  So, for instance, if the badges are stacked on a slope, grabbing one of the badges at the base of the slope can cause a chain reaction that lets the others slide off.

The game is free-to-play with it costing $1 for the player to get five tries.  However, each day you get five free tries on the “practice” catcher.  You don’t get to keep the badges you win during practice, but if you do well enough you can win free plays on the real catchers.  I can pretty reliably get at least one free play a day, often two or three.

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The badges that are available to win are changed out every few days and are often sprites or artwork from popular games like Mario Maker, Mario Kart, Kirby, Zelda, Animal Crossing, etc.  I appreciate that they also have had badges from lesser known Nintendo series like Pushmo and Box Boy.  My favorite badges have so far been the 8-bit sprites from various NES games that they put up to promote NES Remix.  The weirdest badges I’ve seen were a set of pixelated tropical birds that, as far as I could tell, had nothing to do with any Nintendo franchise.

Weird as it is, I really enjoy this game.  It’s something I usually spend a few minutes playing each day (really as much as I can do with the free plays).  I’ve only actually bothered to spend a few bucks on it to get all of the Super Mario Bros. 2 badges that were a part of the aforementioned NES Remix promotion.  Otherwise, I just try to get as many badges as I can with the free plays.  There’s very little pressure to spend any money.

November Update: Fallout 4, Tri Force Heroes, and Blue Stinger

Now that we’re out of Daylight Savings, the days have become way too short.  I only have about an hour of sunlight available when I come home from work, and the darkness and the chilling weather have sapped my desire to go out.  The plus side is that I find myself having a lot more time for gaming!  And that’s way better than basking in sunlight and physical activity, right??  Anyway, here’s what I’ve been up to lately……

Fallout 4

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I’ve been playing Fallout 4!  But chances are if you’re reading a gaming blog, you have been too, judging by the rest of the attention I’ve seen this game get on WordPress.  I just started it last Saturday morning on PC.  I’ve been playing for ~15 hours, but I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface.  

So far, I’ve only had one serious bug to contend with, but I was able to fix that pretty easily after some snooping on the Steam forums.  When I started the game, I experienced some pretty severe stuttering whenever I moved the camera.  It actually started to make me motion sick, which never happens to me in games.  I found out that if I ran the game in windowed mode as opposed to fullscreen, the issue went away completely.  I now run the game in a *borderless window* that takes up the full resolution of my monitor…..i.e. exactly the same thing as full screen…. and it is a silky smooth experience for me.  What an absurd fix to an absurd problem.

Otherwise, I haven’t encountered any serious bugs.  I’ve clipped through a door into an area that I don’t think I was meant to go into, and I’ve seen things like a radscorpion freeze mid-animation when popping up out of the ground.  All these bugs are just the goofy kind.  I fortunately haven’t encountered anything game breaking, yet.

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I’ve heard some people say this game looks just like Fallout 3 on a technical level, which I find utterly absurd.  I think we’ve reached a point where many people are forgetting what 360/PS3 games actually looked like.  But I will say, it’s not the most visually impressive game of the last year or so, but it’s nowhere near Fallout 3-level visuals.  

Tri Force Heroes

A lot of people were very down on this game when it launched, but since this hasn’t been a particularly good year for 3DS releases, I decided to pick it up so I would have something to play on the handheld.  I was actually quite surprised.  With all the negativity surrounding the game, I was impressed that I took to the game as quickly as I did.

For those that don’t know, Tri Force Heroes is a 3-player co-op top-down Zelda game.  And by 3-player co-op, I mean 3 player co-op.  Notice the game is called Tri Force with a space.  It’s not possible to play with only two players.  If a member of your trio drops out mid-game, then both of the remaining players are kicked back to the game’s matchmaking lobby.  It’s possible to play it single-player, but in this mode the player has to swap control between the 3 characters.  The ones the player isn’t in control of have no AI whatsoever and just stand in place.  I only messed around a little bit with the single player mode and felt that it was rather tedious, so I stuck with online co-op.

This strict 3 player requirement makes sense in light of the game’s heavy puzzle emphasis.  The game is divided into 8 worlds (of course) and each world is divided into 4 levels.  At the start of a level, the players must each pick up one of the three items (i.e., boomerang, grappling hook, etc.) that are needed to complete the level.  Each player can only carry one item, and teamwork is required to solve the many puzzles that fill each level.  If there were only 2 players giving it a go, then the most of the puzzles would be unsolvable.  I was actually a bit surprised that they went for such a heavy emphasis on puzzles, when they could have went the easy route and made it a combat-focused game that wouldn’t have required as much teamwork.

This is where I thought the magic of the game really shined through.  Right off the bat, I was having a great time figuring out how to work with my team to use our items to progress.  I got a really glowing feeling each time everything finally clicked between us, and we worked out how each of our items figured into the obstacle at hand..  I’m surprised so many other people whose thoughts I’ve read on the game didn’t feel the same way.

Also, I fortunately didn’t encounter as many troll players as I feared.  I encountered one player who immediately began picking me and the other player up and would throw us off cliffs.  I disconnected from that quickly.  Fortunately, he started trolling us right away at the beginning of the level.  If he had waited until we were deeper into the level to show his true colors, he would have wasted a lot more of my time, because when you disconnect from a game, you have to start the whole level over again (and these levels can take ~30 minutes to beat sometimes).  There was one other player who I think might have been a troll, but I couldn’t say for certain.  If he was, he was impressively subtle.  He kept walking off ledges into pits, which is a problem since all players share the same life bar.  But he would only walk into a pit when he had “plausible deniability”.  He wouldn’t just walk off at random times.  For instance, when a moving platform was coming, he would *always* walk off the ledge toward it just a moment too early or too late.  And he did this *a lot*.  I eventually decided that no one could be this bad at the game and disconnected since the team was down to one heart and on our last life anyway.

Regrettably, the magic of the game didn’t last.  I was really enjoying Tri Force Heroes for the first five worlds, but the final three are really hard.  At a certain point, it became more tedious than joyful.  The levels are fairly time consuming, and if your team loses all four lives they’ve been granted, then the entire level must be redone from square one.  Considering the difficulty of the final stretch of the game, it ended up becoming a very repetitive affair for me, as I had to give several levels multiple attempts.  I honestly don’t think such repetition suits the game considering it causes the player to have to grind on the same puzzles they’ve already solved in previous attempts.

I don’t think I’ll ever really beat Tri Force Heroes, unfortunately.  After several attempts with multiple teams, I only managed to reach the final boss once in the final level.  And I didn’t even get to fight the boss because a connection error popped up almost as soon as the fight started.  As you can imagine, I was quite frustrated.  I soldiered on afterwards, but none of my subsequent teams even got close to the boss.  Eventually, I relented to my annoyance with the whole thing, and I’ve put the game away.  It’s been quite a disappointment in light of the blast I was having during the first half of the game.

Blue Stinger

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Some of you who read my blog regularly may remember that I bought a Dreamcast over the summer.  For my run of horror games that I played over October, I wanted to include a Dreamcast title and decided on playing a somewhat obscure game called Blue Stinger.  Actually, I had wanted to play Ill Bleed, but that game was way too expensive on ebay.  I decided on Blue Stinger instead, as it’s by the same producer and I vaguely recall reading about it around the the time of the Dreamcast’s launch.

Long story short, I didn’t make a post about Blue Stinger since I found that it wasn’t much of a horror game.  I’ve found out that some people categorize it as such, but others don’t, and I find myself agreeing more with the latter group.  The enemies certainly look like something out of a survival horror title, but that’s as far as it goes.  There is no real atmosphere to this game, as I’m not sure if it’s even supposed to be a scary.  The game’s environments are rather brightly colored and punctuated by this very jaunty and orchestral background music.

Anyway, I only bring this up on the off-chance someone who reads this may have played the game.  I’m not sure if I’m going to play much further than I have already (about an hour in), and I wanted to know if the game is worth completing.


Well, that’s all I have to discuss for now.  Thanks everybody for reading.

1001 Spikes and Creative Maturity

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Aban Hawkins and the 1001 Spikes is a content-enhanced port of a “popular” Xbox 360 game originally called….Aban Hawkins and the 1000 Spikes. I use the term popular in quotes since the original game was released through the Xbox Live Indie Games channel, the oft ignored little brother of XBLA. But while XBLIG was a mostly obscure platform, a few of its denizens did manage to rise to a relative amount of prominence, and I feel that Aban Hawkins was one of them. This new edition doubles the content of the main adventure through the addition of a new world and produces a few new unlockable modes to serve as side attractions to the central single player mode. There are also several unlockable characters, many visiting from other indie game series, that have unique abilities which adds to replayability. I played the game on 3DS, but you can also find it on Steam, Wii U, PS4, and Vita.

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1001 Spikes is a big pixel-styled, Indiana Jones-esque platformer that hangs its hat on a brutal difficulty level. The game stars Aban Hawkins, an adventurer tasked by the departed father he hated with delving into the lost temple of Ukampa to plunder the untouched riches guarded within. The name 1001 Spikes has a two-fold meaning: the temple is loaded with spike traps (amongst other hazards), but also the player is given 1001 lives at the beginning to complete the game (there are other means of gaining additional lives, however).

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1001 Spikes finds itself in the company of games like Super Meat Boy or Ms. Splosion Man, but unlike those games, the platforming physics are more humble. Unlike the fast slippery fluidity you’ll find in Super Meat Boy, Aban Hawkins is governed by relatively more limited mobility that is more similar to Super Mario Bros. 3 than many modern platformers. There is no wall jumping and your ability to control your trajectory while in mid-air (air control) has a fairly limited range. While Aban does have a means of attacking enemies through the daggers he can throw, there are actually very few creatures you’ll have to contend with in the temple. It is very much based around dealing with the various traps (spikes, boulders, pits, fireballs, falling ceilings, etc.) that Aban will have to maneuver through to escape the temple alive. In this context, the dagger is primarily used to intercept and deflect daggers being spit out being wall traps. The traps are all laid out in a fairly grueling pattern, and the game very rarely holds back on the player. In most games, after completing a fairly arduous series of challenges within a level, the designers will make the rest of the level a fairly easy path to the exit. This is, of course, not how 1001 Spikes works. Odds are, after surviving a harsh sequence of traps, you’ll only be given a slight breather before you find yourself again on a pathway expertly primed for your death.

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And yet, despite the fact that it is an immensely hard game, it does try to be a very fair game. Traps are usually telegraphed before being triggered through (sometimes subtle) visual or audio clues which provide the player with a chance to evade oncoming death. These clues prevent the game from being completely trial-and-error like I Wanna Be the Guy (which is a game that is intentionally unfair), as careful observation will signal you onto the presence of a trap without needing to die on that trap first. Yet despite the subtle cues for these dangers, you will still die…a lot.

I’ve classified 1001 Spikes in the same company as Super Meat Boy, another notoriously difficult platformer, but really, 1001 Spikes feels like a game that is several steps up the ladder in terms of challenge. The level of precision timing and movement that is required in 1001 Spikes is exceptionally high, even for this type of hardcore platformer. Currently, I’m halfway through the second map of the adventure, and even though the levels are small in size, the harder ones have been taking me between 30 minutes to 1 hour to complete. I’m someone who usually goes for these types of ultra-tight challenges, but this game sometimes just feels too much for me in ways that its alternatives never have. It has crossed the line between being a daring test and a frustrating trial more than a few times. The experience is definitely not for everyone, and gamers who dislike daunting challenges should probably just avoid it. Regardless though, I remain hooked by the game despite the ills it casts upon me. It just pinches a nerve in me that refuses to allow me to be back down before something as trivial as a video game, and after I’ve conquered a particularly rough level, the cathartic feeling of triumph that brings is extremely gratifying.

Aside from relating my experiences with the game, I decided to write this blog because 1001 Spikes and the recent E3 event has me thinking about the maturity of games as a creative effort. It takes a lot of confidence from a designer to make a game like this. The designer has to have faith in the player that they won’t just walk away from the game at the merest sign of hassle, and the designer has to be comfortable with the thought that not everyone will find enjoyment in their game as a result of reasons that are perfectly rational. You see this more commonly in small scale development than you do in big budget games. Big budget games often feel so desperate to avoid the player from ever experiencing a second of discouragement that they are loaded down with quick hints to easily-solvable problems, constant nagging of the player to remind them of what they should be doing, and heavy use of scripted events to relate dangerous events (a “tell don’t show” mentality). At times, the designer’s assistance to the gamer can get so overbearing that these “sanitized” adventures feel bereft of excitement and thrill despite the bombastic action game trappings. Other times the desire to avoid frustration actually induces frustration. I remember an annoyance I had at the beginning of Borderlands 2 when the little robot wanted me to come over and flip a switch for him. Problem was, at the time, a group of monsters were beating down on me, and I had to deal with that situation before I could obey the orders the game was giving me in regards to the switch. Yet still, the little robot didn’t recognize my predicament and kept incessantly nagging me over and over and over on a quick audio loop insisting I flip the switch. I’ve experienced so many situations like this, when a game is trying to remind me where I need to be, but I’m busy doing my own thing at that time. Maybe I’m looking around for ammo or loot or just exploring the area to see what I can find, but since I’m not in the exact place the game wants me to be, it retaliates by spamming audio and visual reminders about where it wants me to go next. The desire to provide assistance to the player in avoiding confusion has become a rigorous demand for obedience.

I think there exists a difference in maturity between the big budget and small scale developers. I don’t mean maturity in the sense of tackling high-minded themes or in the sense of having excessive levels of violent or sexual content. I mean they are more mature in how they treat their games as a creative effort. The big budget developers remind me of teenagers desperate to make everyone think they’re cool. This is reflected in their game design by trying to make games that are as stress-free for the player as possible, but also in the ways they represent themselves in promotional and marketing material. E3 had a lot of good examples of this. So many big budget action games have these incredibly sappy trailers that want to give the appearance that the game is super deep on an emotional-level, when in fact, the games being represented are fairly straightforward and cookie cutter shooting game with little artistic resonance. (The Division struck me as an extreme example of this.)

Small scale developers, on the other hand, tend to design games that reflect a greater level of self-confidence. To take the professional and financial risk of striking out on your own requires a true passion for one’s own vision. These developers are simply putting their dream out there and, while maybe not everyone will “get it,” hopefully there is a following that will understand and enjoy their work. If big budget developers in this analogy are high-schoolers straining to be popular, then indie developers are the college-aged kids who have matured to a level that negative self-consciousness doesn’t hold them back.

I understand that there are perhaps rational business reasons for why big budget developers act the way they do. Those games represent massive capital investments that require the employment of hundreds of people, and, therefore, the major publishers are building and marketing their game to appeal to as many potential customers as possible. But the results of such behavior can often feel watered-down and inoffensive. It is like the difference between Bud Light and a microbrew. The Bud Light is designed with minimization of flavor in mind to appeal to a lowest common denominator standard. Meanwhile, the microbrew is tailored to be more flavorful, but this comes at the expense of turning off potential drinkers. For the case of 1001 Spikes, the high difficulty will surely turn off many gamers, but there is a fanbase out there who definitely jam on this sort of thing.

In the end, I don’t want to begrudge the big developers too much for why they build games the way they do. But if you consider games as artistic efforts, then I think the point still stands, regardless of commercial considerations, that small scale and indie developers have a much better developed sense of creative pride and artistic maturity.

Sega 3D Classics: 3D Is More Than Just a Gimmick

Galaxy Force II

Galaxy Force II

Lately I’ve gotten into the Sega 3D Classics released on the 3DS eshop around Thanksgivings last year. These are a collection of games from both the arcade and Genesis that have been ported to the 3DS with added 3D effects. So far, I’ve bought into Galaxy Force II and Shinobi III, and I have to say, I really like what I’m seeing. Galaxy Force II is a superscaler rail shooter from the arcade, kind of like Afterburner in a spaceship, but with levels that have a little more imagination than what you would find in the latter. So basically think of it as Star Fox made in the mindset of a late ‘80s Sega arcade game. As a game that generates 3D environments with the use of sprite scaling, it’s incredibly impressive on the 3DS, with visuals far more gorgeous and intricate than you may have come to expect from a superscaler game. Shinobi III on the other hand is a port of the well-known Genesis action game, but with depth added to the various background layers and some of the foreground animations. As a sidescroller, the 3D effect is not as striking as that of Galaxy Force, but it does manage to add something extra to the visual charisma of the game.

I actually didn’t know what to expect from these Sega 3D classics, done by known emulation powerhouse M2. At first I was just interested in being able to play these games on the 3DS. Nintendo had earlier experiment with NES games remade in 3D for the system, but this initiative seems to have fallen flat. I think it failed for two reasons. One, the NES is not such a great system for which to do 3D upgrades. Unlike Genesis games which support multiple background layers and parallax scrolling, the NES basically only has a foreground and a background layer. The resultant image in 3D is just that these two layers are slightly displaced in depth. Of the NES classics released, I’ve only tried Kirby, and the effect really did not leave much of an impression on me. The second reason I think Nintendo’s efforts fizzled was that they simply did not choose games that people want or that really benefitted from 3D. Only six games were released, and while Kirby and Excitebike are good games to be sure, other selections were just confounding. No one has ever gotten excited for a rerelease of Urban Champion, and I’m not sure Xevious and Twinbee have huge amounts of enthusiasm in their court. Kid Icarus, on the other hand, definitely has a vocal fanbase, but with most of the backgrounds in the game being either black or monochrome, I can’t imagine it really benefits very much from the 3D effect.

Shinobi3

But where Nintendo has failed, Sega and M2 are showing them how it’s done (on their own hardware nonetheless). The Sega 3D Classics are a selection of six great games (well almost, I’m not so sure about Altered Beast), with a second set currently in the works. To be sure, these games are completely playable without the 3D effect, but they’ve made me come to a realization. I like 3D. I play all my games with 3D turned on, and playing these old, originally 2D games has made me realize just how much I enjoy it.

Although it has a good selection of software, I don’t care so much for the 3DS as a piece of hardware. The screens are low-res and pixelated (an issue exacerbated on the XL), the battery life is not so good, the screen hinge needs to more firmly click into place (screen wobbling drives me crazy), and it’s not especially ergonomic. But one thing I really like about the 3DS is the 3D. Sometimes I turn the 3D off, perhaps because the screen has become dirty, and I immediately feel a little dissatisfied. 3D is certainly not an indispensable feature, but it does add a certain enchanting immersive quality to the image. There is a liveliness there that just doesn’t exist in 2D mode. Some have branded the 3DS screen as a gimmick, but a gimmick is something that exists only for a novelty, and once the novelty wears off it becomes completely disposable. Zooming through the alien worlds of Galaxy Force II just isn’t as exciting when the image is flattened out.

The second set of Sega 3D Classics are currently coming out in Japan. I hope the first set has sold well enough in the U.S. to warrant we get this new round. It seems this time they are focusing a little more on the arcade superscaler games, with three of the games revealed so far being Afterburner II and OutRun. I think the arcade focus benefits them. As I mentioned above, the pseudo-3D environments of these superscaler games benefit more from the treatment than the Genesis sidescrollers. Also, unlike most of Sega’s Genesis games, their arcade games have not been ported and rereleased on a hundred different platforms already.

I come to a sad realization when I write this post in that, although I like 3D, it’s a technology that is probably not going to stick around. 3D TVs were a big push in years past, but now seem to have died out. With the fad over, I’m left with doubts that Nintendo’s next handle will sport the feature. Perhaps there is hope though. If the new high profile VR headsets gain traction, we might actually see a lasting future for 3D entertainment.

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