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Halloween Gaming: Until Dawn: Rush of Blood

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This past week, I tried something a little different for my Halloween Gaming series.  I was able to try VR for the first time on the new Playstation VR headset from Sony.  When I say “for the first time”, I’m not including the old Nintendo Virtual Boy, which I played a ton after I was able to snag one for cheap when it was discontinued.  You want to know something weird?  The first time I put on the PSVR headset, I immediately recognized that it smelled like my old Virtual Boy did.  I think it’s the foam around the eyepieces (the part that makes contact with the player’s face) that gives the two such similar odors.

Anyway, weird Virtual Boy sense memories aside, one of the PSVR games that I’ve been most eager to try is the spinoff to last year’s excellent PS4 horror title, Until Dawn.  Until Dawn was one of the highlights of 2015 for me, and I had a great time writing about it for last year’s Halloween Gaming series.  While I’ve been really hoping to see the game get a proper sequel, the announcement of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, an arcade-action spinoff of the original Until Dawn’s story, naturally had my interests piqued.

I don’t know if I can think of two games more different than the original Until Dawn and its spin-off, Rush of Blood.  Rush of Blood replaces the somber tone, slow pacing, and nuanced character development of its progenitor with a bombastic on-rails action experience.  The story of Rush of Blood is somewhat abstract and obtuse, but from what I can gather, the game is essentially a nightmare sequence being had by one of the original story’s cast members.  It’s never said specifically which character, but those who have seen Until Dawn all the way through should be able to figure out which one.

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The game starts with the player character entering an eerily destitute amusement park where a carnival barker implores him to take a ride on a rollercoaster that was once the site’s star attraction. This is one of those rides where the attendees are given toy guns to shoot at targets that line the sides of the tracks, and so it serves as an interesting tutorial for what’s to come.  As the ride nears its conclusion, the psychopath from Until Dawn suddenly appears and switches the rails so that the player is separated from the barker and enters the park’s abandoned haunted house, where the psychopath leads a gang of clowns in an ambush.  From then on out, the player is facing live targets whose ranks are largely composed of standard nightmare fuel such as clowns, mannequins, spiders, and a particular gang of beasties that Until Dawn fans will immediately recognize.  Since the game takes place in a nightmare or a hallucination or whatever it is, the ride becomes increasingly surreal and dangerous as it begins to wind through locations that are clearly beyond the limits of the park, such as a slaughterhouse, a haunted hotel, and an abandoned mine.  

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Rush of Blood is pretty much a standard House of the Dead-style light gun shooter, outside of the VR hook.  The player has two guns which can be aimed independently with two different Playstation Move controllers.  The standard DualShock 4 gamepad can also be used as a motion controller in lieu of the Move wands, but in this mode of play, the two guns are always pointed at the same target (since there is only one controller being used).  The action side of the gameplay is reasonably competent, although aiming and reloading two guns simultaneously can get a bit hairy sometimes.  There were times when I was being rushed by large groups of enemies that I had trouble keeping track of which gun needed to be reloaded, and it resulted in a lot of spastic frustration as the monsters just overwhelmed me.  I suppose you could chalk these moments up to my poor skill.  The game definitely wants you to replay each of its seven chapters to the point of mastering them.  True to the game’s arcade roots, there’s a secondary focus on maximizing score through playing at an expert level, and each chapter features numerous branching paths which encourage replay.

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Since the advantage that VR brings to gaming is a greatly increased level of immersion, horror games are something that could hypothetically benefit enormously from the technology.  Rush of Blood is half horror game/half arcade-action, so it’s a bit of an unusual sample for what this new hardware can do for the horror genre.  Regardless, I think the VR aspect of the game did manage to enhance the title’s atmosphere and immersion.  I think it’s the head tracking that really does it.  There were several moments when I turned my head to the left or right or maybe upwards and caught a glimpse of something spooky that I wasn’t aware was there before.  When you move your real-life head and realize that something was lurking just right outside of your own eyes’ field of view, it’s actually quite creepy and unsettling.  

Outside of atmosphere and the creep-factor, Rush of Blood uses a lot of jump scares.  Cheap jump scares at that.  And they’re usually telegraphed in the most obvious ways.  Like, the lights will go off and you just know that something’s going to be standing right in front of you making loud noises when they flip back on.  In general, a lot of stuff yells in your face in this game.  The first time it happened, I found I was actually kind of fascinated by it, because I reflexively leaned away in my chair, since it was standing right next to me.  I would never actually move my body away from something on a TV screen.  I was impressed by how the immersion of VR was able to provoke such a “realistic” reaction out of me.

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Unfortunately, after the initial excitement, the jump scares wore thin pretty quickly.  Like I said, there’s a fair few things in this game which just pop up and scream right into your face, and it’s really unpleasant after the initial novelty.  To mitigate the obnoxiousness of it all, I actually decided to unplug the earbuds from the VR headset and just listen to the game audio off the TV, so the jump scares wouldn’t be so overwhelming.  Jump scares are one of the simplest and oldest methods that horror games have used to startle the player and create tension.  Some would argue that they are a really lazy way of creating cheap scares, but I would specifically argue they have no place in VR, especially to the extent that Rush of Blood likes to use them, simply because they’re just so aggravatingly unpleasant.

Ultimately, I thought Rush of Blood was a fun time.  I definitely do have some frustrations with it, such as the aforementioned issue with jump scares.  In addition, the game has seven chapters, but will only take about two hours to beat, and the finale is unfortunately rather anti-climactic.  But to be fair, the game is only $20 (not including the steep cost of the VR headset, of course), which helps me forgive many of its stumbling points.  Beyond those issues I have with it, it is suitably kooky and spooky for a game that is essentially a launch title for a whole new type of gaming experience.  And most importantly, it impresses me enough to leave me excited to see how future VR horror games will take advantage of the technology.

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Halloween Gaming: Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion

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Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion by Lag Studios is the next game on my Halloween playlist.  As an avid enthusiast of history, you, the player, decide to embark on a mission to explore a local abandoned mansion whose past is shrouded in mystery.  Upon entering the abode, you are greeted by the gal ghost Spooky, who challenges you to survive all 1000 rooms of her haunted lair.

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The layout of the massive titular mansion is procedurally generated.  The player is tasked with overcoming 1000 rooms in the house, and a little counter exists at the top of the screen which keeps track of progress.  The house is mostly composed of a limited set of pre-designed rooms which are put together in a random sequence that changes each time the player starts up the game.  Because there’s a much smaller number of these pre-made rooms than the 1000 total, you’ll see a lot of them repeated over and over again across the course of the game.  There are certain specific rooms, however, that always appear at the same spot in the overall sequence.  These rooms are usually considerably more elaborate than the others and serve to give some story to the game and usually set up the appearance of a new monstrous resident of the mansion.

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The monsters of the game, called specimens, are the source of the adventure’s challenge, along with the player’s nerve to move forward.  When specimens appear, they give chase to the main character through the randomized rooms of the mansion.  It’s not the most complex game, and often it is pretty easy to outrun the various specters.  They doggedly pursue you from room to room, but will stop after predetermined points.  Things get a little more complicated later in the game, as there are certain tricks the player needs to figure out to escape the more advanced specimens.  Eventually, the player also gets a weapon of dubious effectiveness.

The story in SJSM is rather minimal and exists purely to provide flavor to the haunted adventure.  The Jump Scare Mansion and its mistress possess a mish-mash of chilling horrors and flippant comedy.  Despite being home to some truly evil supernatural entities, the mansion sometimes feels like an elaborate practical joke.  Spooky comes off like a juvenile prankster who has assembled the horrific deathtrap not out of prime malevolence, but more for her own dark yet frivolous amusement.  In addition to the more elaborate story-centric rooms I described above, little snippets of story tend to emerge here and there.  The player can find bits of text, like notes left behind by other foolish trespassers, and occasionally, Spooky, herself, will come out to interact with the player for a short bit.  But otherwise, there’s not much of grandiose plot behind the game.  All of these little story bits exist merely to enhance the mood and atmosphere.

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Despite the fact that the game is built from a fairly small set of simple rooms strung together by procedural generation, I felt like it still managed to be highly effective at creating atmosphere and tension.  Much of this was due to how the game continually subverted my expectations.  For the first several rooms, you are faced only with goofy pop-out haunted house scares, until you meet the first specimen, a fairly uninspired creature which only slowly gives chase.  But from then on out, the specimens become increasingly disturbing, and eventually the game began to challenge the “rules” by which I thought it worked.  There were times I felt like I was safe, only to be desperately alarmed to find out otherwise.  Eventually, even during the down periods in which there were no monsters present, I felt constantly uneasy, because I realized anything could happen at anytime.  By keeping the player on their toes in this way, the designers were able to create a level of tension and suspense that I felt was highly effective.

It’s often said that the fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all.  It might be a trite saying, but I find that it is especially true with games.  I’ve noticed in SJSM that the scariest parts of the game are when there are no active threats against the player.  It was those times when there was nothing chasing me that I began to psyche myself out while waiting for the next monster to dreadfully appear.  When the monsters finally did present themselves, I found my stress rapidly dropped off, since I could more rationally assess the threat.

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I often find people say that video games can’t be scary, because the player can just reset to the last save point if they die, and thus there is no real danger to be fearful.  That point isn’t really wrong, but I think it misses a huge element of video game horror.  The true horror of video games, like the true horror of any fiction, comes from withinside the player, themselves.  It’s the dreadful anticipation of what might be lying around the next corner, the internal struggle of the player against their own imagination of the frights to come, that makes us terrified when we otherwise have no rational reason to be.  In reality, I think the monsters are the least scary part of any horror game.  Rather, it’s the atmosphere which creates true tension and dread in these games.

Despite its simplistic gameplay and primitive Doom-like graphics, I found Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion to be a great horror game.  It’s not the most elaborate game, but the setting and atmosphere really make up for it.  I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet, which is that the game is free on Steam.  And with such unsophisticated graphics, it’ll run on even the most basic PCs, so I encourage everyone whose interest I might have piqued to give the game a try.  

Halloween Gaming: Oxenfree

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October rolls around once again, which means it’s time to get into the Halloween spirit.  For the past couple years, I’ve tried to spend the duration of the spooky season festively writing about horror games.  Last year, in particular, I had a fun time with it, and hopefully this year will be just as successful.  For those who missed those old posts and might be curious, I’ve collected all of the previous years’ essays on this page.  First up this time is Oxenfree, a narrative adventure game released earlier this year.

Oxenfree is at its core a ghost story in which a group of teens set out for a night of unsupervised revelry on the beaches of the mostly deserted Edwards Island.  During the course of the night’s events, the teens test out a local urban legend, and, unsurprisingly to the audience, the proceedings go terribly awry.  The group becomes trapped on the island while being harrowed and tormented by reality-bending paranormal entities from the island’s apocryphal past.

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The struggle of a group of teenagers against an overpowering and inescapable threat makes Oxenfree somewhat similar to last year’s teen slasher title, Until Dawn. But unlike the shifting perspectives of Until Dawn, the player only controls one central character, Alex, in Oxenfree.  Alex is joined by four other protagonists, the most important of whom is Jonas, her new step-brother that she met immediately before the opening of the story. In addition to Jonas, she is accompanied by childhood friend Ren, slacker Nona, and Clarissa, the ex-girlfriend of Alex’s tragically deceased brother, Michael.  Alex’s growing relationship with Jonas and the tension that exists between her and Clarissa are the biggest focus of her character arc.

Oxenfree could maybe best be described as one of the much dreaded “walking simulators,” although, as this genre has started to grow significantly in the past years, I seriously wish a better common term for it would take hold.  Essentially, Oxenfree is more focused on story, dialogue, and exploring characters than on providing a solid challenge to the player.  Conversations are a particularly strong focus of the game.

The game’s conversation system is relatively simple, but also fairly versatile.  When Alex can chime in during exchanges, three text bubbles will pop up above her head, each with a potential reaction the player can select.  The player can also always choose to ignore these text bubbles, in which case Alex will stay silent.  Furthermore, the timing of the reply is also important, since Alex can interrupt other characters while they’re talking.  And of course, the game features branching dialogue based on the choices the player makes, although I’ve only given this game one playthrough, so I can’t really speak to how drastically the conversations can differ.

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As the teens progress in their quest to escape the island, the unseen ghostly forces vie to impede their progress.  At certain points in the story, the ghosts trap Alex and company in time loops during which unearthly and threatening paranormal events occur.  Escaping these time loops requires a light (and I mean very light) amount of puzzle solving, and, after the conversation system, serves as the second pillar of Oxenfree’s gameplay.  These time loops, I think, were meant to add an element of a more traditional gameplay style, but they aren’t really much of a challenge.  The solutions are all very simple and more often than not are repeated in later segments.  It’s clear that the designers of the game were far more interested in developing out their branching conversation system than they were in adding these more traditional adventure game segments that require puzzle solving.

Horror is a highly subjective, hit-or-miss sort of thing.  What’s scary to me might not be scary to you, and vice versa.  I try to keep that in mind when assessing stuff like this.  Regardless, I don’t really think anyone would find Oxenfree all that scary.  There are some freaky sequences, but I don’t think the story really develops much tension.  Despite some vain attempts to make the player think otherwise, the teens are never really in “true” danger, or at least it didn’t seem that way during my playthrough.  It’s not like in Until Dawn where the wrong move can have one of the central characters eliminated for the rest of the story.   As a consequence, there’s never really the feeling of dread and apprehension that appears in a good horror game.  

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But I’ve always felt that horror fiction can get away with not being scary if the mystery elements of the story make up for it.  A good horror story has twists and turns that keep the audience on their toes till the very end.  Unfortunately, I’m not really sure that Oxenfree executes so well on this point either.  The plot felt very by the numbers, and there really wasn’t much mystery at all to the game.  Key story points, like the identities of the ghosts, are all pretty obvious, and there weren’t really any surprising revelations to be had.  By the end of it, I had a “that was it?” kind of moment.  It really felt like there should have been more here than there was.  

I’m a bit perplexed by Oxenfree.  I don’t mean to come off like I didn’t like the game.  I did enjoy many parts of it.  But since earlier this year, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of positive buzz for this title on various different gaming communities.  Personally, my experience didn’t really leave me feeling like the game was worthy of the praise lavished on it.  I’m left wondering if there’s something here that I just “don’t get” that others do.  You know, I can only ever really speak for myself.  Oxenfree has some branching story paths, so maybe it’s possible that I’ve missed something big, but looking over various online discussions of the game’s story, I doubt that’s the case.  Ultimately, Oxenfree is not really a game that I can personally recommend unqualified to everyone.  However, I did like the game well enough to recommend it to people who resonate strongly with story and conversation-driven games like Firewatch or Telltale’s various series.  It’s not the strongest of that category of games, but on a Steam sale, it’s worth checking out.

 

The Crash Comeback

 

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Crash Bandicoot, the one-time face of Playstation, turned 20 this past week.  I’ve always found it curious that the long decline of Sonic the Hedgehog has been a popular topic of discussion, but the corresponding decline in quality of the Crash Bandicoot series has not received nearly the same amount of attention.  I’ve had a few theories as to why this has been the case.  First, Sonic *was* the Genesis.  When most people think of the good times they had with that machine, the Sonic the Hedgehog games are among the first things that enter their mind.  They are a symbol for an entire gaming era.  But I think when most think of the PS1, the experiences that immediately come to mind are titles like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, and Resident Evil.  Even though Crash was generally held up as the mascot of the Playstation, he was not nearly as critical to its success and popularity as Sonic was to the Genesis.  And furthermore, the decline of Sonic is sort of symbolic of the decline of Sega as a whole.  Once a major pillar of gaming, Sega fans have not only had to endure the struggles of one of their favorite characters, but it has corresponded to the waning of Sega’s particular brand of creativity as a whole.

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While Crash was used by Sony as the mascot of the PS1, Sony never really owned the Crash Bandicoot brand.  Instead, Naughty Dog developed the game for Universal Studios’ game publishing arm (which is now defunct).  When Sony bought Naughty Dog to develop PS2 games, the rights to Crash didn’t go with them.  Instead, Konami worked with Universal to take the series multiplatform, and, similar to his hedgehog counterpart, that’s when trouble started to arise.  Now, after a long stretch of diminishing popularity with less than stellar releases, Crash is in the hands of Activision, who have shown little interest in getting the series back on track.  But I’ve noticed more and more over the past few years, however, there’s been a growing fan community that’s trying to convince Sony to take back the series and do it justice.

I’m a long time Crash Bandicoot fan.  The first game was among the titles I originally received along with the console.  As I’ve discussed before, the PS1 is my favorite console, and, as a result, Crash occupies a special place in my heart.  So, I’ve been in favor of the recent fan push to get Crash returned to the hands of Sony and hopefully start a subsequent return to glory.  It’s a long shot, and I know it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever see a new proper Crash Bandicoot game, but…whatever… you have to support what you love.

Of the original Crash games created and developed by Naughty Dog, I think my favorite would have to be the third game, Crash Bandicoot: Warped (setting aside Crash Team Racing).  I think the time travel plot made for the series’ most creative levels thematically, and while many prefer the levels in Crash 2, I’ve always felt they were a little soulless when compared to the settings that Crash 3 wanders through.  And I’ve also always thought it was an amazing game graphically for the original Playstation.  Crash Bandicoot always had great graphics, especially when it came to animations, but Crash 3 made use of vibrant colors in a way that just made everything pop better.  The final boss fight deserves mention as one of my favorites ever, as Crash faces off against Neo Cortex while also having to avoid getting steamrolled by a parallel duel between his shaman buddy Aku Aku and the evil Uka Uka.

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I also have to mention Crash Team Racing here, as it may be my favorite kart racer ever.  It’s certainly among my favorite games of all time.  In the arena of kart racers, the Mario Kart series basically sits high above all else from a quality perspective, but there has been a small few number of titles to challenge MK’s crown, and Crash Team Racing is undoubtedly one of them.  I would actually rank it above its N64 counterpart, as I think CTR has more interesting tracks and karts that handle better than the slipperiness of MK64.  I also think CTR just has way better visuals than MK64, but that’s a bit of an unfair comparison, since MK64 came out near the beginning of the N64‘s life, while CTR appeared at the end of the PS1‘s.

The fan movement to resurrect the Crash series hasn’t gone unnoticed by either Sony or Activision.  At E3, Crash was announced to be incorporated into the next Skylanders game, but far more exciting, a remake of the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy is in the works for Playstation 4.  There was also a major cameo by the character this year in a form that I won’t spoil here, but many of you probably know what I’m talking about.  These attempts by Sony to placate the Crash loyals have been incredibly amusing to me.  Most companies just ignore fan demands to revive old, dormant series.  Sony is oddly trying to sideways satisfy them by throwing out a few bones, but not actually doing what fans are requesting, which is an entirely new game.  Presumably, such a thing is on the table if the remakes do well enough, though.

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But if Sony really were to do a new Crash game, what would that actually be?  Some seem to want a new game developed by Naughty Dog, but I doubt Naughty Dog is up to the task anymore of doing Crash Bandicoot, and I doubt they would want to.  A lot of talent from the Crash and Jak days have moved on from the company, and their current talent pool is more experienced with and seemingly more interested in creating highly linear, story-driven action-adventure titles than making a new 3D character platformer.  In fact, there aren’t really many studios outside of Nintendo that do have such experience anymore, but I can think of a few.  Namely, Sanzaru Games, who did a good job with Sly Cooper 4 on PS3, could be the best match for taking on the task of Crash.  I would also suggest Next Level Games, who did the Luigi’s Mansion sequel on 3DS, could also be a good fit.

And furthermore, what would a new Crash entry even be like?  In its original time, Crash straddled the line between two distinct eras of game design.  Ostensibly, Crash is a 3D platformer, allowing movement along 3 axes.  But unlike other similar releases of the time (like Mario 64, Banjo, and Spyro), Crash was structured much more similarly to 16-bit era games.  While the aforementioned contemporaries featured objective-driven gameplay in open, free-roaming levels,  Crash still had a focus on linear level design that tasked the player with making it from point A (the starting point) to point B (the finish line).  This made it a lot more similar to earlier games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario World than other comparable games of the PS1/N64 era.

Should a new Crash Bandicoot retain the linear-style of the originals, or should it attempt something more advanced, like the free-roaming environments of Mario 64?  My feeling is that most fans, myself included, would rather a new game be true to what Crash was at its peak.  But would this make the game feel antiquated?  Ironically, I actually think that more recent games like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D Land show that linear level design can still be very exciting and modern.

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Regardless of all these questions, I would definitely like to see Crash make a comeback.  Aside from the fact that I’m a huge fan of the originals, these kind of games just aren’t really made anymore, besides those featuring Mario of course.  And I think more than just being fundamentally fun, 3D platformers served an important function in the gaming world, as they were the gateway through which many young people became passionate about this hobby.  I mean, mobile games are fine and all, but I find mobile gaming to be a very limited representation of what games can be as a form of creative art and experience, and now more than ever, we need projects like Crash Bandicoot and Yooka-Laylee to capture the imaginations of young gamers who are otherwise glued to games on their phones and tablets.  In a world saturated with shooters and checklist-driven open world games, I really hope the vibrancy and inspiration of these carefree mascot characters can thrive again.

Inside!

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For those who have played Limbo, Inside is immediately familiar.  The fundamentals of the two games are essentially identical: a dark side-scrolling puzzle game where a lone boy embarks into a dark world filled with mystery and danger.  From a technical perspective, Inside looks quite a bit more polished than the simplistic silhouetted sprites and backgrounds of Limbo.  And while Limbo was a purely black and white experience, Inside features actual color, most notably the bright red shirt identifying the protagonist.  But while Inside is a significant visual advancement over Limbo, the game always feels like the successor to Limbo.  The atmospheres of both Inside and Limbo each share a unique shade of foreboding, gloom, strangeness, and hostility that mark them as brethren.

Both of these young protagonists face a long journey through an unreal and corrupted world that lies before them.  However, the settings of Limbo and Inside are actually quite different.  Limbo is essentially a dark fantasy, an evil fairy tale, that takes place in a living nightmare that a lone boy must overcome to find his lost sister.  But while Limbo skews toward the preternatural, Inside is more of a twisted science fiction tale that plays heavily on dystopian and apocalyptic themes.  The game begins with the central character of Inside making his way through a dreary, decimated landscape while he is hunted by a band of men and dogs out to kill him.  Eventually, he makes his way into a bastion of civilization amidst the (possibly) apocalyptic countryside, where the player comes to discover increasingly dark and disturbing revelations about this perverse future.

The controls of each game are incredibly simple, the boy can more left or right, jump, or grab and move objects.  Yet from these very rudimentary actions, the designers do a good job of crafting puzzles that stay interesting across the course of the game.  Like Limbo, the puzzles in Inside are all obstacles that make sense in the context of their environment.  Usually the goal the player is faced with is something relatively mundane like reaching a ledge, hiding from patrolling enemies, or crossing precarious passages.  Safely overcoming these obstacles requires observation of the environment and understanding the interactions available to the player at that particular moment.  

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One common observation/criticism of Limbo was that there was a heavy emphasis on trial and error.  That is to say that often the player wouldn’t be aware a threat was present unless they had already triggered it once and died.  Some people disliked this, some were okay with it.  Personally, I didn’t mind.  The seemingly out-of-nowhere deaths that would often befall the poor boy actually created a long string of startling and often farcical surprises in Limbo.  With Inside, I never really felt the same trial and error tension of Limbo.  Dangers and threats are often very obvious, and the player is given plenty of time to react to them, which meant that the sudden deaths of Limbo were far, far less common.  As someone who wasn’t bothered by this element of Limbo, I’m rather neutral on the lack of it in Inside.

A major problem I know I and many others had with Limbo is that the first hour of play is the highlight of that game, with everything else feeling downhill from there.  I felt Inside had a much better arc, as the game slowly ramped up the weirdness and bewilderment factor until the incredible and bizarre climax.  There is a great deal of intriguing dystopian world-building that is unraveled over the course of Inside.  And as far as the final act of the game went, I would never in a million years have seen that coming.  Because the starting premises were so similar, I thought Inside was going to end in a similar fashion to Limbo, but I was thrown a complete curveball.  If the name “Inside” seems odd for this game, it will entirely make sense by the game’s finale.  

Although… I can’t say that I didn’t immediately feel some disappointment with Inside’s final scene and resolution.  I walked away from the game with way more questions than answers, and I wanted a little more closure and understanding of what had just transpired after the game’s unforgettable final act.  Inside, like Limbo before it, is primarily a game that tells the story of its world through fine details left in the game’s environments.  Nothing is explicitly told to the player, but instead close observation of details in each scene is required. There’s nothing wrong with this storytelling technique I guess, but I found the world and events of Inside to be so intriguing and the finale to be so bizarre that I really wanted more answers than I got.  

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Limbo has a similarly opaque story, but I don’t think it really bothered me as much.  I think it was because the world of Limbo was more like a living nightmare, and nightmares by their very nature lack rhyme or reason.  I think that’s why I was fine being confused and unsure of the plot to Limbo.  Inside, on the other hand, makes evident that there’s a well thought-out dystopian world that lies beyond the view of the player, and the hints and teases of this world-building left me keen to learn more.

A little deterred by the ambiguity of the ending, I took to YouTube to find some fan theories for the game, of which there are many.  For as disappointed as I initially was, I really think watching these fan theories helped me make peace with the game.  A lot of details and facts were pointed out by the videos that I completely missed or didn’t really grasp the significance of during my playthrough.  I actually reflect much more positively on the game now than I did immediately after closing the final scene.

But is it good that I had to go seek outside sources to help me come to grips with the game?  Is it a mark of poor storytelling that I needed to look for information outside of the game itself to be satisfied with Inside?  My knee jerk reaction says yes, a game’s story should be self-contained enough that any player can reasonably appreciate it without needing to look to external sources to fill in the blanks.  But the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that this is true.  The truth is that it’s a lot of fun to read and listen to fan theories and to use those theories to come up with your own ideas and conclusions.  The Dark Souls series has been the quintessential example of this sort of obscure, enigmatic storytelling and has spawned a slew of popular and interesting fan output.  I could see how obscurity could easily become a crutch to avoid creating well-crafted stories, but examples like Dark Souls and Inside show that in the right hands it requires even more thought and planning than stories with explicit plot details.

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Inside is a cool game.  While it’s easy to look at it as just a “better Limbo”, I feel that would be underselling quite a bit.  It might not have the novelty of Limbo, but the puzzle design, world-building, and general atmosphere and tension are far better crafted in a way that is a step above the improvements that normally occur when going from a predecessor to its sequel.  Fans of Limbo really shouldn’t miss out on Inside, and for those that have never played Limbo and are on the fence about Inside, I definitely recommend giving it a try when a Steam sale comes around.  

 

Rescue Rangers

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Long before cable television rendered the idea antiquated, Saturday morning used to mean cartoons.  It was the time of the week that the network television channels would set aside as blocks of animated (and occasionally live action) programming aimed at the younger audiences.  This created an awful conundrum for the viewers of these programs, since it meant having to choose between sleeping in on a lazy weekend morning or waking up early so as not to miss the brief window for catching the shows that you loved.

These cartoons were so long ago that I barely remember them, but I do remember a few of my favorites, and one of them was Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers.  The show stars two chipmunks, the titular  Chip and Dale, who run a private detective agency for other animals.  This show isn’t about a world of anthropomorphic animals like Duck Tales, rather it’s set in a world where animals lead a covert existence among humans that are unaware of the intelligent civilization that goes on beneath them (more like The Great Mouse Detective).  The chipmunks and their friends go on various adventures to help their troubled clients while clashing with a series of colorful recurring villains.  While I’m afraid I remember very little of the television show, I do remember in vivid detail the well-known companion game to the show that was released by Capcom on the NES.

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This NES game is a fairly basic 8-bit platformer.  It has some similarities to Super Mario Bros. 2 in that the primary means of attack is to pick up objects from the environment and toss them at enemies.  While SMB2 provides the player with the ability to snatch up baddies and use them against their compatriots, Chip and Dale are hurt if they touch enemies from any direction.  Instead, their weapons are entirely objects found strewn about the environment, principally small brown crates that litter each level by the dozens, but there are also some more distinct items like giant apples (relatively to the chipmunks) and trash cans.  One of the things I always remember most clearly about this game is how enemies “die” once they take a hit.  Instead of falling of screen or blinking out of existence, the bad guy, no matter the size, speedily flies off the screen at a 45° angle.  I always found it super-satisfying to see the enemies before me blasted away in such a manner, and it’s accompanied by a really fun sound effect.

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Capcom was known for it’s great music on the NES, and fellow Disney title DuckTales had easily some of the most memorable tunes on the system.  Regrettably, the compositions found in Rescue Rangers don’t hold as much magic.  It’s not that they’re bad.  It’s just that the background themes in each level are extremely forgettable and compare especially poorly to DuckTales’ remarkable themes.   The only level that I thought had a catchy beat was the final stage. Meanwhile, the only two tracks that I could remember from my childhood were the chiptunes rendition of the cartoon’s theme song that plays at the title screen and the frantic boss music which has gotten stuck in my head quite a few times.  Otherwise, the soundtrack is unremarkable and a major letdown when compared to Capcom’s output in other games.

Recently, I’ve embarked (see here) on creating what I call my “Maximum 30“ list, which are a series of posts covering the 30 games which I consider to have the most personal significance to me.  It’s not necessarily a list of the best games I’ve ever played, just those that have had the greatest impact on me.  I began gaming on the NES at a very young age, and, near as I can recall, Rescue Rangers was actually the first game I ever beat.  For this post, I replayed the game for the first time in forever, and I could immediately see why that was the case.  It’s not a particularly difficult game, really the only part I would consider hard was the final level.

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I still distinctly remember the final boss fight with Chip and Dale’s arch-nemesis, Fat Cat.  True to the cartoon, he towers over the chipmunks and is a huge piece of the background.  I always found his attack to be a little peculiar.  He doesn’t attack with his claws or teeth, rather he moves around his cigar and flicks it at the player.  The hot ashes from the cigar act as projectiles which the chipmunks must dodge.  I have a feeling that in today’s tobacco-conscious world a cigar wouldn’t at all be featured in a product aimed at youths. I grew up when candy cigarettes were still a thing sold to children, but even as a kid, I thought Fat Cat’s prominent tobacco use in the game was a bit bold.

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Another very strong memory of the game is the discovery that it actually has two world maps.  The game begins on a world map that has 7 stages, but after beating the seventh stage and rescuing the chipmunks’ friend Gadget, she tells you that you need to pursue Fat Cat to his secret lair in another area of the city.  The Rescue Rangers then take a *rocket ship* straight up into *space* and then come straight back down onto a new world map which contains the game’s final three levels.  I vividly remember how amazing and surprising this was to me, both because of the discovery of new levels which I never knew existed and also because I thought the little rocket ship ride was absurdly cool.

Capcom put out some excellent games on the NES, and Rescue Rangers really isn’t their best.  Even just among the Disney games, it’s easily surpassed by DuckTales.  I owned Rescue Rangers back then, but didn’t own DuckTales.  DuckTales was available for rental in a local shop, but it didn’t come with a manual, and I don’t think I ever knew about the pogo stick move which is essentially critical to completing the game.  Consequently, I don’t think I ever got very far in DuckTales.  Of course, I’ve tried DuckTales again as an adult, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s definitely a better game than Rescue Rangers.

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But, like I said, this top 30 list of mine isn’t necessarily about the best games, rather just those which have left a big impression on my life, and Rescue Rangers easily fulfills that criteria.  I think most people have these games that they played when they were very young that they suddenly realize are super-easy when they come back to them as an adult.  Ironically, I find a lot of other Disney games, like The Lion King and Toy Story, are the opposite.  I mastered those games in my younger days, but now I’m baffled by how frustrating I find them.  I tried to decide which of these sides of the coin was better, harder than the past or easier, but I really couldn’t decide.  I don’t think either is so appealing, and they both betray that those games were more a product of their time and place.  I guess in some ways it’s just another harsh reminder that we can seldom regain those cherished experiences that exist in our memories, no matter how much nostalgia tempts us otherwise.  The great experiences of our futures will lie in that which creates new memories and new feelings, not necessarily that which tries to desperately reassemble the past.

 

Mappy-Land!

The announcement of the NES Classic Mini has got me reminiscing a lot about those old classic Nintendo days.  The games that immediately come to mind are titles like the Super Mario Bros. series, Rescue Rangers, Duck Tales, Duck Hunt, Zelda, Tetris, and so on and so forth.  But beyond the timeless classics, there’s a lot of games that I spent a ton of time with back in the day that mostly seem like they’ve been long forgotten.  I’m sure everyone has these games that they remember, but seemingly no one else does.  Especially when you’re a kid, you’re sort of at the mercy of what your parents buy you, and particularly in those NES days when adults didn’t know much about gaming, they really didn’t pay much heed to popularity or word of mouth when buying games.  I often found myself the recipient of gifted games that I felt I was the only person in the world who played.

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There are two of those types of games that really stand out in my mind.  One is Dash Galaxy in the Alien Asylum, which might be the most existentially terrifying game I’ve ever played.  The other is the topic of today’s post: Mappy-Land.  Mappy-Land was developed by Namco and is the sequel to what I think was a slightly popular arcade maze game called Mappy.  Mappy-Land tries to do to Mappy what Super Mario Bros. did to Mario Bros., which is to take a simple arcade game with small discrete levels and turn it into a more long-form action-adventure game.  

To understand Mappy-Land, it’s best to first give some explanation of its arcade predecessor, which was a maze game in the vein of Pac-Man.  Mappy is a police mouse tasked with retrieving objects stolen by a gang of literal cat burglars called mewkies.  The mewkies are a group of white cats led by Nyamco, the brown cat.  (Nyamco is a portmanteau of Namco and nyan, the sound a cat makes in Japanese.)  The game consists of Mappy being chased by the cats through their lair, a giant multi-floored mansion, while he collects the stolen goods in each level to advance.  Trampolines allow Mappy to ascend or descend between floors.  The catch is that the trampolines can only be used so many times in a row before they break, after which they become death pits.  These trampolines change color with each bounce, so it’s easy to know when they’re about to fail.

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The original Mappy arcade game.

Mappy-Land follows a fairly similar formula but takes place over levels with more varied settings.  The goal of almost each level is to travel about a multi-tiered maze to gather specific collectibles (such as cheese or wedding rings) which will unlock the exit when all have been grabbed by the player.  Most levels consist of four tiered platforms that can be traversed using trampolines similar to the arcade original.  The mewkies are back to give Mappy trouble and serve as the game’s primary antagonists as they chase the almost defenseless mouse as he goes about his business.

The storyline of the game varies a bit through each of the game’s four worlds.  The common plot setup between worlds is that Mappy’s girlfriend/wife, the princess Mapico, sends the hero out on a quest to collect certain items to bring back to her.  So for instance, in the first world Mappy collects cheese to bring to her birthday, and in the second world, he collects marriage rings to bring to their wedding ceremony.  Each world features the same series of eight levels (which include settings like a train station, the wild west, a pirate ship, etc.), but the level layouts differ between each world.

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Two levels deviate from the maze-style of the rest of the game.  Those are the jungle levels and the graveyard levels.  The jungle levels are more standard platforming stages which require Mappy to jump over water pits, climb on vines, and make use of moving trampolines to reach hard to get items.  The moving trampolines are actually quite hard to work with and require very precise timing to land right, so I consider these levels to be among the game’s most difficult.  Meanwhile, the graveyard is the easiest.  These levels focus on fighting a horde of ghosts that haunt the sky over the cemetery and feature a balloon Mappy can use to fly.  Exclusive to these levels, Mappy has a flashlight that will kill any ghost that he can catch in front of him.  Since these levels have a weapon that can be used for defense, they tend to be by far the easiest in the game.

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The final level in each world, called “Milky Town”, has two parts.  The first part takes place outside a castle, and Mappy can enter this building through the big doors in the middle when he has all the collectibles.  Inside, there’s another maze segment that features no enemies.  The goal in these areas is instead to get six collectibles and then meet up with Mapico who stands on a platform at the rightmost edge of the level.  The player fails if they don’t get all the items to Mapico before the background music stops or if they approach her without having collected everything first.  If one of these things happens, then the player gets a screen where Mapico absolutely lays into Mappy, berating him for his failure.  She apparently demands nothing short of perfection from her long suffering mate.  I always took these screens really hard as a kid.  To me, the music in this stage is something that even to this day conjures up a sense of panic due to the way you have to quickly and precisely rush through these levels lest you get greeted with Mapico’s fiery rage.

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I’ve always enjoyed the weird personality quirks of Mappy-Land.  The music is genuinely catchy, and the backgrounds look nice for what they are.  In fact, my mom actually once called Mappy-Land beautiful, which is the first time in my life I think I heard someone compliment pixel art.  And despite the fact that Pac-Man is one of the most iconic games of all time, I don’t know of any other maze games that really managed to catch on.  I give a lot of credit to Namco for trying to meld the maze genre with the more popular action-adventure genre.

But Mappy-Land has always been something of a menacing and, in a way, sad experience to me.  The game was always kind of scary to me.  I think it’s because Mappy-Land is a game about being chased, and especially for a young kid, that creates a lot of emotional tension.  Pac-man is a game about being chased, but I never found it as heart-racing as Mappy-Land.  Maybe it’s because the power pellet allows Pac-man to turn the tables on the ghosts.  Mappy-Land has objects and traps that can be used to distract the mewkies, but they’re not nearly as effective or as empowering as the power pellet.

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It’s a sad game because Mappy’s life strikes me as a living hell.  The mewkies are complete bullies who hound the poor mouse wherever he goes.  And his girl is probably even worse than the cats.  Mapico isn’t Princess Toadstool.  She’s no victim in this game.  Mappy’s arduous quest is entirely motivated by her greed and materialism.  And if he performs even slightly less than her extreme standards demand in the final level, she throws a merciless tantrum.  How many wedding rings does a woman really need to tie the knot!?!  How many pieces of cheese does she need for her birthday!?!  Mappy and Mapico’s entire relationship seems to be built around Mappy bringing her stuff.  Does she even love him?  The fear of a being stuck in a loveless marriage is not something I think a lot of young people think about, but even when I was just a small kid, this game actually disturbed me with thoughts about that kind of stuff.

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For the longest time, I believed that Mappy-Land was an original game.  It wasn’t until I messed around with one of those little plug-and-play TV games that had a bunch of Namco arcade titles that I realized Mappy had starred in an earlier game.  I suppose the poor mouse is just one of those long lost and forgotten mascot characters like Rocket Knight or Plok.  Mappy-Land was recently released on Wii U Virtual Console, and there have been a few obscure cell phone games released in Japan that are based on the character.  So I guess someone somewhere must remember this character.  Still, his lack of notoriety is somewhat endearing to me.  I kind of feel like Mappy is my thing, something that only I appreciate.  I’m sure other people out there have similar feelings to their own favorite obscure games or music or books or movies or whatever.  It’s comforting in a way.

Gaming and Fireworks

Independence Day means a trip to the local pop-up fireworks stand for my family.  While there this year, my video game-addled brain was gleefully struck by the extent of the copyright infringement I saw from my favorite hobby.  Here are some pics of what I was able to catch.

Fair warning up front, these photos aren’t great.  The camera on my phone isn’t so good at taking indoor shots.  I almost didn’t post these because of the poor quality, but I ultimately decided what the heck.

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Poor Samus.  The Metroid series has been missing in action for quite a while, and now that a new release has finally been announced, it doesn’t even star our favorite mute galactic bounty hunter!   With her career prospects in the gaming industry looking glum, I guess she had no option but to spokesmodel for this cheap imported fireworks brand.

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This one is utterly baffling to me.  The character in the center is completely unknown to me, and I assume he’s an original design by the manufacturer.  But in the background……..the clouds are immediately recognizable to any longtime Nintendo fan.  What’s impressive is that they are very close replicas of the clouds from the original Super Mario Bros., except completely de-pixelated.  I’m bizarrely fascinated by the how and why of this.  Did they have an artist trace over the old 8-bit art?  Or maybe they just applied a filter in Photoshop to eliminate the pixelation?  And why go through this trouble of copying the clouds from SMB?  It’s not like clouds are hard to draw.

Other than the clouds, the big cylindrical hills are clearly imitated from the New Super Mario Bros. games.  You know, I could understand ripping off a popular character like Mario for your packaging.  He’s recognizable and eye-catching.  But why copy something so obscure like parts of the environment that only a handful of obsessed nerds like myself would spot?

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Here’s one which I initially passed over, but then was struck by a lightning bolt when I realized what I had seen.  The logo is straight taken from the old Xbox 360 RPG, Blue Dragon.  The only difference is that it’s been tilted just a little bit.  What’s interesting is that the artwork of the blue dragon behind the logo doesn’t come from the game’s art.  I tried to do a Google image search to find its source, but nothing came up.  I can only assume it was lifted from some poor Deviant Art page out there.

 

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Blue Dragon for the Xbox 360

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This is another odd Mario one.  This particular fountain was called “Pure Fantasy” and had several fantastical characters drawn on the packaging.  The weird thing was that most of the characters on the box seemed to be generic animals and fantasy creatures.  Nothing looked to come from a trademarked property except for this very conspicuous Mario knock-off.  In general, I would have expected to see a lot more infringing material from things like cartoons or movies, but for some reason, I only found stuff lifted from video games.  I guess for the people whose life’s work is making pretty explosion, they find some sort of kinship with the gaming industry.

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This one was a bit of a dud.  I snapped it thinking that it was a loading screen from Duke Nukem.  But after doing some Google image searches, it does bear some similarities, but it’s not a direct screenshot.  And considering the Duke Nukem logo is just a radiation symbol which is commonly associated with big (nuclear) explosions, the similarity may just be coincidental.

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The loading screen from Duke 3D.

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There was also another box that caught my eye that was simply called “FPS”.  This one was in direct eye line of the cashier, and I didn’t want her to see me snapping pics, so I don’t have any photos of that one.  It had what looked to be a screenshot of an old FPS covering the box, but I couldn’t quite place the game, so it may have been a completely original image made by the fireworks company.  But again, it just reinforces my notion that the fireworks industry has a fixation with gaming.

Best Underrated $5 or Less Deals from the Steam Summer Sale: 2016 Edition!

Once again, the Steam summer sale is upon us.  One of the big reasons I look forward to the summer sale is that it gives me the opportunity to check out games I’m curious about but not confident in paying full price for.  Over the past few years of this blog, I’ve made a tradition of doing a write-up during each summer sale about ten deals that I think are underrated “steals”.  These are games that are discounted below $5(USD), and are games that I think probably haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.  The past years’ posts can be found at these links:  2014 Edition2015 Edition Part 12015 Edition Part 2

The Summer Sale this year is much different than the years before.  Since the institution of Valve‘s new refund policy, which occurred before the last Winter Sale, the prices on games are constant throughout the length of the sale.  Previously, games would get a base discount for the entire sale period, but certain games would go on even deeper discounts as limited time daily and flash deals.  This created a reason to check back on the store each day to see the new daily deals, but now that’s all gone.

Valve has never explained why these changes to the summer and winter sales have happened, but most believe the culprit to be Steam’s new refund policy.  Since this new policy allows for no-questions-asked refunds within a 2 week period of purchase, those limited time sales would be rendered pointless, since if a game you bought went on a daily deal, you could just refund it and buy it again for the cheaper daily deal price.  Honestly, I feel like the lack of the daily and flash deals has removed a lot of the eventfulness and fun of these big Steam sales.  It was always exciting to check back each day for the new deals.  Now, despite the fact that the sale runs for 12 days, you only really need to visit the store once during the whole sale since nothing changes from day to day.  On the other hand, I find the new refund policy to be an important pro-customer move on Valve’s part, so I’m stuck having to accept that these changes to the summer sale are a necessary sacrifice.

The current Steam Summer Sale started on June 23rd and will run through July 4th.  Now here are the games I recommend this year.  All prices are listed in USD:

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – $1.49

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A touching and immersive puzzle adventure game with a rich story to tell.  I played Brothers last summer and wrote a very positive post about it.  Brothers tells the story of two brothers who set out on an epic journey through a fairy tale world to save their dying father.  A controller is basically required for this game, as the player controls both Brother’s simultaneously, one with the left stick and the other with the right stick.  This game is for those who are looking for something with a lot of heart.

The Last Door Season 1 – $1.99

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Another game I’ve wrote about before.  The Last Door is a moody and atmospheric point-and-click adventure game with pixelated graphics and an amazing orchestral score.  Set in the Edwardian-era, fans of Lovecraftian horror should not miss this game.  Puzzles are similar to the point-and-click adventure games of the 90’s with a focus on creative uses of items and inter-character dialogue, but I found the difficulty to be very fair, not too hard but not too easy.  The game has been released in two seasons of five episodes each, and both are on sale for less than $5.

Antichamber – $4.99

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Antichamber is an oddball first person puzzle game with some similarities to Portal.  The story behind the game is intentionally vague, but the players find themselves in a position where they must escape a large facility that is governed by non-Euclidean geometry.  Non-Euclidean geometry is kind of one of those Matrix-style Neo moments of “you have to see it to understand it.”  This game is a great puzzler that is full of mind-bending spectacles.

The Swapper – $2.99

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The Swapper is another puzzle game, but this one is played from a side-scrolling perspective.  The main mechanic is that the player can materialize clones of themself across the environment that move synchronously with each other.  Set aboard a derelict space vessel, the game’s story has a highly philosophical bend to it.  This is a great game for gamers seeking out something a little more cerebral and thought-provoking than the average title.

D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die – $4.94

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D4 is a modern narrative-focused adventure game, similar in vein to Life is Strange or Telltale’s work.  D4 tells the story of David Young, a former detective of the Boston police who has gained the ability to travel through time to the scene of murders after witnessing the bizarre death of his wife.  From the creator of Deadly Premonition, D4 is heavily inspired by the works of David Lynch and his own iconic brand of weirdness.  This is a great game for those that enjoy bizarre tales of mystery, but I will warn you that the game ends on a cliffhanger, as it was meant to be the first “season” of an ongoing series.  Unfortunately, the director has recently taken a break from game development due to medical issues, and I fear that the story of D4 may never be finished.  Nonetheless, the game is a wild and bizarre ride while it lasts.

 
Organ Trail – $2.99

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A lot of you probably fondly remember Oregon Trail, an old educational game that was widely available in elementary schools all across America in the 90’s.  (I’m not sure how popular it was outside of the US.)  Oregon Trail was about the planning and management of an expedition of American colonial settlers that sought to settle in the Oregon frontier.  Proper decision making with regards to the expedition’s limited resources was key to the survival of the group to the end of their arduous journey.  Fast forward to the modern day and here we have Organ Trail, a mixing of Oregon Trail nostalgia and zombies.  Very similar in design to its inspiration, Organ Trail instead features a group of survivors in a zombie apocalypse setting out across America in search of a safe haven on the west coast.  Yeah, I know it sound a bit contrived, but I thought it was an amusing game for only a few bucks.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet – $2.99

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Games based off of the “Metroid-vania” structure are getting to be a dime-a-dozen these days, but Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet came out before the craze took over, and I think it was a bit overlooked at its release.  Featuring art similiar in style to the works of Genndy Tartakovsky, ITSP is a dual-stick shooter with a heavy focus on exploring a vast interconnected map, ala Metroid.  Players take on the role of a tiny UFO who must venture inside the titular Shadow Planet to save his homeworld.  A good title for those looking for a light-hearted, visually-striking action adventure game.

VVVVVV – $1.24

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VVVVVV features an aesthetic and design that is reminiscent of old Commodore 64 games.  It’s one of those retro-inspired platformers that is hard as nails.  You guide the captain of a starship that has crash landed in an alternate dimension and must explore a large interconnected map to find his missing crew members.  The game has no jumping, but instead the player hits a button to reverse the flow of gravity from either up to down or down to up.  VVVVVV is not a particularly long game, but I think most players looking for something with a tough but fair challenge will be satisfied with it.  The soundtrack is also an incredible collection of catchy chiptunes and electronic beats.  Veni, vidi, vici.

Nova-111 – $3.74

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Nova-111 is a highly unique and experimental action adventure game that came out late last year.  The game centers around a tiny spaceship exploring alien worlds filled with hostile creatures and dangerous obstacles.  What makes Nova-111 unique is that it has a turn-based and grid-based structure akin to old roguelike RPGs.  That is to say that the ship and enemies move around on a grid, and each time the player moves the ship (which counts as one turn), the enemies take a turn to move.  It’s not really an RPG like the old roguelikes, more of an action adventure game, but I think it blended the elements of these two genres very well.  The game was a great surprise to me earlier this year when I played it on the Vita.

Outland – $0.99

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Outland was a game that recently released on PC, but was released on Xbox Live Arcade ages ago.  It’s a melee-focused sidescrolling action-platforming game that takes place in a beautifully silhouetted world.  The main gimmick behind the action is probably familiar to the Ikaruga fans out there.  Enemies and projectiles are colored either blue or red.  The player has a barrier that can be shifted between blue or red, and the color of the barrier dictates the enemies and projectiles that the player is immune to.  At its core, Outland is just a well-designed action-adventure game that I think fans of these sorts of things will love.  I cannot emphasize enough that at 99 cents, this game is easily the best deal on this list.

System Shock Remake Has a New Demo and a Kickstarter

The previously announced remake of the original System Shock has just resurfaced with a new demo and a Kickstarter campaign.  I’m a huge fan of System Shock 2, but I’ve never been able to get far into the first game because it’s design has aged fairly poorly.  The demo is available via Steam, GOG, and Humble Store, and the links can be found on its Kickstarter page.  You don’t even have to donate to access the demo!  It’s great that this game is getting new found attention.  While it was a pivotal part in the early development of 3D gaming, I feel like most people know nothing about it, and if they do, they only know it through its more popular sequel.

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Image courtesy of the System Shock Kickstarter.

Aboard Citadel Station in orbit of Saturn, an experiment with artificial intelligence has gone awry, and the Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network, better known as SHODAN, that maintains the station now believes herself to be a goddess destined to re-engineer life and the universe.  She has turned against the inhabitants of the orbital colony, warping them into cyborg and mutant slaves, and has ambitions of annihilating humanity to begin her own ascension.  In System Shock, you play as the hacker responsible for SHODAN’s insanity and must overcome the horrors of Citadel Station as he (she?) desperately searches for a way to stop the rogue AI from launching an attack on Earth and the rest of humankind.  Released in 1994, the game was an early mix of FPS and RPG and had a heavy focus on player immersion.  If you’ve ever played a first-person game that focuses on storytelling through environmental exploration, you have System Shock to thank for that.  The game is also an example of a pre-Resident Evil atmospheric horror game, although it rarely gets credit for that.

System Shock was the team at Looking Glass Studios’ follow-up to the Ultima Underworld series that they had created years earlier.  Ultima Underworld was a first-person action RPG set in the Ultima universe and featured many of the key elements of System Shock, namely a focus on immersion, exploration, and allowing the player to discover multiple solutions to a given obstacle.  Ultima Underworld, itself, is also incredibly important to the history of gaming, as it was the evolutionary link between grid-based/turn-based first-person RPG dungeon crawlers like Wizardry and real-time first-person action games like Wolf3D and Doom.

System Shock had a number of high profile projects that were in some ways its direct descendants.  Warren Spector’s Deus Ex was heavily based on the ideas of immersion and exploration that were pioneered by his work on System Shock and Ultima Underworld.  System Shock 2 was released in 1999 by Irrational Games and is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest PC games of all time.  In 2007, Irrational would later use System Shock as the template for its biggest hit, BioShock.  And I’ve heard rumors that Dead Space was originally meant to be System Shock 3 (which is easily believable if you’ve ever played the two series).

With all the HD remakes and re-releases that come out these days, I have difficulty thinking of a game more in need (or more deserving) of the treatment than System Shock.  While it’s both important and influential, its UI and control scheme are incredibly antiquated.  The game predates such things as WASD and mouse look.  Today, these issues are notorious of early 3D games, but they are exacerbated in System Shock due to the game’s level of complexity.  The remake’s Kickstarter promises big improvements on this front.  To me, this would be a really valuable achievement.  While System Shock 2 has achieved a legendary status in PC gaming, I think the original System Shock has been held back from being as fondly regarded due to how obtuse it is to play for modern gamers.

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Images courtesy of the System Shock Kickstarter.

The remake is being overseen by Night Dive Studios, a company whose main mission has been to procure the rights to classic PC games so that they can be re-released on digital storefronts like Steam and GOG.  A while back they managed to rescue both System Shock 1 and 2 from legal limbo and re-released the original versions of those games for sale.  I’ve heard that back in the day Looking Glass sold the rights to the series to an insurance company to keep EA from getting control of it, and Night Dive was able to successfully negotiate the re-releases of the game with that insurance group.  Other classics that Night Dive have gotten re-released include I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, The 7th Guest, Turok, Shadow Man, and the old Humongous adventure games among many others.

Night Dive is promising that the remake is being built from the ground up and will feature numerous improvements and tweaks.  They’ve even gotten the original voice actress to reprise her role as SHODAN.  The demo is currently available from Steam, GOG, and Humble Store and is a good exhibition of their vision.  I’m excited for this project, because, while I’m a huge System Shock 2 fan, I’ve always been a bit deterred from playing the original due to the issues I’ve discussed above.  Hopefully, this project will meet its crowdfunding goal, not just for the sake of this remake, but also because there’s been talk of an actual System Shock 3 in the works, as well.

 

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