Archive for Reviews

Let’s play: ‘Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise’

Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise

I just played through Jason Nelson’s latest, Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise (via Terry Cavanagh at Free Indie Games).

I wrote about Jason Nelson’s games right here in late 2010; NYHDDSP basically picks up where Jason Nelson’s School of Games left off. It’s a send-up of big-budge AAA titles, and in particular, the way those video games reward the player for jumping (and landing) in the correct places, for moving in a straight line from point A to point B. This game, like the best AAA titles, rewards the player with huge, unwarranted explosions.

One common reward in these types of games (and indeed, in most games) is the Power-Up. Of course, once the player achieves higher jumping ability—in NYHDDSP this ability is called “Super Legs”—the platforms are accordingly spaced farther apart. Since any New Ability is usually also necessary to proceed in a game, the player has ultimately “gained” nothing at all. He is, in essence, jumping the same distance as before.

Still, NYHDDSP might be less a condemnation of Obvious Game Design so much as it is a scathing remark on a larger “entitlement culture.” It’s taking piss out of achievement badge bros who have completed the same tasks another million players have already achieved. This has broader social implications. Especially in the educational system, but also in the workplace, students and underlings who conform are also rewarded: for falling in line; for showing up on time; for jumping when they are supposed to jump; for completing life in the “right” “order.”

Completing NYHDDSP is less a matter of skill or intellect than it is a sheer act of duty—so why do we, the players, tend to feel so triumphant? For accomplishing even the bare minimum required to “pass” or “progress”?

I didn’t notice during the first playthrough, but in NYHDDSP the player’s sprite is moving through the human body, specifically through its limbic system I think? In the next-to-last stage—a Coin-collect in which the player’s score artificially inflates by literal leaps and bounds—the player passes through the human head.

This is all an interesting thought experiment. But maybe the final stage ends too quickly. Its thesis—that we all play video games in a race against our own (geographic, sociocultural) alienation, to ward off our own sense of inefficacy—is a damning one.

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A review of ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ in under 1,820 characters

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial title screen

I’m a big, big fan of “My World of Flops,” an ongoing series of movie reviews by Nathan Rabin of the A.V. Club. “Flops” conducts post-mortems of critical and commercial failures, reevaluating each film with fresh eyes. And Rabin gives every movie a fair shake (his review of Tom Green’s Freddy Got Fingered is, in a word, generous), ultimately grading each film as a “failure,” a “fiasco,” or a “secret success.”

I have always held that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the 2600 is a “secret success” (Kevin agrees), and when Rabin first announced to Twitter that he was going to score the video game for “My World of Flops,” I was floored with delight.

For one, this is the first time a video game has ever made it to “Flops,” and E.T.’s notoriety certainly qualifies it for inclusion. For another, the “Flops” series was only meant to last a single year; not only has it endured, it has spiraled out of control! Video games! Licensed video games! What next?

So I was totally thrilled when Rabin tweeted that his review is complete:

@nathanrabin I just turned in my first, and possibly last game-themed My World of Flops piece on Atari’s E.T. It is less than glowing.

In an effort to rally interest in Rabin’s upcoming E.T. review, I took to Twitter to inflict my own opinion of the game on everybody. There are a lot of inactive verbs. The whole thing could stand a rewrite.

Here, now, and unedited for posterity (mostly), are my E.T. tweets.

jennatar In honor of E.T. (Atari 2600, 1982) making it onto @nathanrabin’s Flops, here is my GLOWING review, presented one painful line at a time.

jennatar E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is about an extra-terrestrial named E.T.

jennatar In it, you play ET. You are trying to assemble an “interplanetary” phone, because you believe in liberties and that VOIP ought to be free.

jennatar In the game, your only ally is a 10-year-old child named Elliott, here rendered in stark, rudimentary pixels.

jennatar In the film, Elliott’s idealism and childlike naïveté are tested when Spielberg replaces all the guns with walkie-talkies.

jennatar Your adversaries, alas, are numerous. There are, for instance, a number of gov’t agents who are trying to strip-search you.

jennatar There are also scientists, no doubt working for Big Pharma, who probably want to capitalize on your organs and turn you into the latest pill

jennatar Despite all that, your greatest obstacle, poor ET, is yourself. Yes, the landscape is riddled with enormous pits. Step carefully, ET!

jennatar You could become a captive—by your own hand!—in one of these deep furrows, which itself is a metaphor for the “liminality”

jennatar For you are a stranger in a strange land, stretching yourself across space and time in search of a moment of connection, and small candies

jennatar It is during these liminal fugues, when ET is lower than ground itself, that most players, disgusted, switch the Atari off.

nathanrabin @jennatar Color me impressed. Beats the hell out of my infinitely more verbose take.

jennatar @nathanrabin Shh! Not yet; I’m not finished.

jennatar That players leave w/out finishing—that is, without making “contact” with “home”—is a potent metaphor for a collective lack of agency.

jennatar Finally, the graphics are OK but maybe the framerate could have been better. I’m not sure the 2600 is being pushed to its full potential 3/5

P.S. This E.T. “strategies” video rules (thanks, Andrew!).

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Replay: ‘Scapeghost’ (1989)

Scapeghost

A screenshot of 'Scapeghost' in DOS

AKA Spook
Level 9 · text adventure · text parser · 1989
Platform · Amiga · Amstrad CPC · Atari 8-bit · Atari ST · C64 · DOS · ZX Spectrum
Download · DOS · Spectrum


There is only one reason I would ever deign to tell you about some boring old text adventure, and here it is: Scapeghost is awesome.

For one thing, the game is well-written—we hardly get to applaud computer games for good writing anymore!—and for another, it is authentically creepy.

A lot of the creep factor is indebted to the atmospheric artwork that accompanies each new location’s block of text. (One 1990 review calls the VGA art “photorealistic,” which, no, but all the versions really are very good.) You can’t interact with the pictures—that’s the sort of thing you’d find in Déjà Vu, a super-duper-early Macintosh point-and-click adventure game—but each backdrop goes a long way in establishing the setting’s grim moodiness.

You were Alan Chance. You were a good cop; now you’re a dead cop. You were trying to bust a dirty drug deal and now, in death, everyone assumes the worst about you. You wake up at your own funeral. You can practically taste the mist.

From the get-go, this adventure is slim on real mystery. If you already know to follow the one especially-suspicious dude, he basically confesses to your murder under his breath. God, why do murderers always talk to themselves? I ask you.

So you already know the identity of the two-timing detective who offed you. All that’s left is to vindicate your own death… FROM BEYOND THE GRAAAAAAVE.

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What ‘Glitch’ can teach us about being alive

A screenshot from the free-to-play MMO 'Glitch'

Derek and I have been spending an awful lot of time in Glitch, the free-to-play MMO that launched, finally, last month. (And when I saw “an awful lot of time,” I mean it. I’ve gained noticeable weight in the last three days. I’ve practically forgotten to keep eating, breathing, pooping, et cetera.)

Gameplay is ostensibly based on, of all things, the theory of ‘infinite play’ as outlined in this ultra-slim work of philosophy. The real point of Glitch, then, is “to continue the game for continuing-the-game’s sake.” There are gods and cities and objectives, sure, but there is no win: there is only forward.

In the earliest portions of Glitch, the dreaded ‘tutorial’ phase is scuttled in lieu of a long, unslodgy process of exploration. Your “Familiar”—he’s a google-eyed rock at the top of the screen, with occasional speech bubbles blooming from his sweet, mouthless little face—will give you small, achievable quest missions, which are less ‘go fetch’ and more ‘go discover!’ Your Familiar also helps you learn different “skills,” which open doors, in turn, to other skills. (When the Familiar is “studying,” his blank visage assumes a pair of reading glasses, adorably.)

Your autodidacticism is always and invariably rewarded with a triumphant trill, maybe even a badge or trophy, but then there’s that terrible carrot—there’s always more. And here is the truth about Glitch: the tutorial never ends. Because you’re always learning. That’s the game. And this could make you feel tired, but instead, it makes you feel awake.

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The Best Video Games… of the DECADE

Kevin and I wrote this end-of-decade wrap-up last Christmas, and even as we neared the piece’s natural end, we couldn’t stop adding to our joint Google Doc. Maybe our selections are obvious and not inventive, and probably we are blowhards who like the sound of our own writing, but here is the whole unwieldy mess, not even in its entirety, as it has appeared in my draft box since 01/01/2010. Blah, blah, blah. —ed.

When Jenn asked me if I’d assist in compiling this list, I was pretty excited! Ten years of games! I thought. Why, I have quite a few favorites in that lengthy time period I could mention.

Of course, narrowing it down is no easy feat. In terms of gameplay, video games haven’t exactly taken the huge technological leap the way they have in decades past, and graphically, the only real change is in visual detail. Nonetheless, this decade heralded the advent of downloading games and the return of in-console saving. Some games introduced these fresh innovative ideas; other games didn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table, but did what they did extremely well.

I’m not saying I played all the AAA titles and underground hits—I have eclectic gaming tastes, a low budget, and a proclivity for gaming mostly with other friends—but that has not stopped me from proselytizing the multiplayer goodness of Powerstone 2 or wild system-pushing 2600 homebrews like Adventure II to anyone unfortunate enough to get me started on the subject.

So here are some top picks from the gaming experiences of both Jenn and myself from the past 10 years, and hey, maybe you’ll find something interesting to check out! Kevin B.

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Playing through the 2011 IGF Nuovo final-list: A House in California

I have a Mystery House ROM for my Apple II emulator, and I’m going to be truthful, Mr. Jake Elliott: your A House in California did not exactly resemble it as advertised.

Oh, sure, A House in California, recently named a nominee for the IGF’s coveted Nuovo Award, is all stark white flixels against a black backdrop, in the style of some early 1980s graphic adventure game. It is point-and-click interactive fiction, terribly sparse, with all possible parser commands weighting the bottom of the screen.

But the commands are strange—“Remember”? “Forget”? “Befriend”?—and sometimes, depending on what I accomplish in the game, the commands change. That is disturbing. But also, inexplicably satisfying, to see that I am somehow changing things with my actions?

I now totally get why House in California was included in this year’s Learn to Play gallery exhibit: the game uses a lot of “dream logic” and “guess-what-the-designer-wants-you-to-do,” and as you explore and progress, you find yourself making real sense of the game’s mediations. Like other good games that toy with their chosen genres, this game demands that the player learn its secret language.

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Talkin’ bout Jason Nelson’s art games

Right before I started playing Jason Nelson’s games, I had been reading an article by some neurobiologist about the connection between agoraphobia and “spatial estrangement” and modernity and urbanity. I was in exactly the right mental room already.

Then Mr. Nelson emailed me about his “odd art games,” many of which you can play right in your web browser by visiting Arctic Acre. (In his email, he also suggested that I visit Jason Nelson’s School of Games. You should probably go watch his video lecture series, too, because it is hilarious. There are currently 16 episodes, each only seconds long.)

Maybe ‘odd’ is almost the wrong word for his games: they’re straightforward 2D platformers, with moving and jumping and spatial circumnavigation and an end destination in sight, so that the way to play is immediately discernible even to your mom. But as you run-and-collect, the screens become cluttered with prose noise, taking on the likeness and verve of treated text. Everything feels very inaccessible and obfuscated despite the mechanics’ simplicity.

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Hello, Homebrew: Halo 2600

With the release of Halo Reach, Bungie—the studio that created and developed the series—has officially washed its hands of the Halo franchise for the foreseeable future. Now the baton has been passed to other developers, which has resulted in real anxiety from some circles in terms of the game series’s fate.

Not that this worry is anything new: Halo Wars was, in fact, developed by an outsider—Ensemble Studios—and is generally considered to be a top-notch RTS game. I Love Bees, the ARG by 4orty2wo Entertainment, is so highly regarded that it is arguably better, and certainly more inventive, than the game it was meant to promote. At the 2010 Classic Gaming Expo, however, another non-Bungie Halo game made its debut: Halo 2600.

Halo 2600 was an unexpected product from the people at AtariAge, who had previously promised a surprise homebrew release at what would be the first CGE convention since 2007. Developed by Ed Fries, former vice president of Microsoft’s game publishing wing, the game was borne out of an interest he had taken in programming for the Atari 2600 after reading Nick Monfort and Ian Bogost’s book, Racing the Beam.

“I wasn’t sure what to write, so I created a little Master Chief from Halo and made him run around the screen. Then I created an Elite for him to shoot at,” Fries explains in a post on AtariAge. “At this point it wasn’t my intention to make a full game. I was just screwing around.”

After getting tacit approval from Bungie and Microsoft to go ahead, Fries put together a game quite similar to the seminal Atari title Adventure, and on the first day of CGE, the game was announced, sold, and the ROM, dumped. And perhaps most impressively, the game is also one of the best homebrews to come along for the system!

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The Room, the video game

I saw this posted to Twitter eight gajillion times yesterday, and I never even got to play it until only just now, because I was on my goddamn iPhone, far from a laptop computer with all its Flash capabilities. But! The story is this. The Behemoth’s Tom Fulp (Alien Hominid, Castle Crashers) has created a playable version of The Room for Newgrounds, and it is so amazing.

I watched Tommy Wiseau’s cinematic masterpiece The Room last month, and for weeks it was all I could think or talk about (and sorry for the protracted absence, but, The Room, people). The movie, though: it is incredible. My friend Robyn’s DVD player is all messed up, so we had to watch the movie with subtitles. Believe me, you should watch with subtitles. The disc even subtitles all the R&B songs that play during the lovemaking scenes! And there are myriad lovemaking scenes, so. Subtitles!

From its very introduction, the point-and-click adventure game establishes a number of familiar themes you’ll likely remember from the film: Johnny’s martyrdom; the implausible San Francisco vista; the music. As you play on, you’ll discover that the flower shoppe is meticulously recreated, as is Johnny’s apartment’s rooftop and spiral staircase and bowl-full-of-apples table centerpiece, and the dialogue. If you’ve never seen The Room, you might think the game dialogue’s utter lack of punctuation isn’t deliberate, but you’d be wrong. Perhaps the game reproduces the film almost to a fault—as a fairly straightforward adaptation, it does bill itself as a “tribute”—and yet there are other creative licenses taken. For instance, the interior of Denny’s apartment, heretofore unseen, rings sociopathically true. Other cinematic plotholes, like whatever happened to Chris the Thug, are kindly cemented in by Mr. Fulp (“Thanks Johnny, you’re our favorite citizen!”). And most impressively, within the adventure game’s limited narrative framework, the characters and their intentions make a lot more sense here than they do in the movie version. Which is weird.

The game is, by most standards, NSFW, as it includes cartoon nudity, as well as—true to its source material!—cartoon sex. In the end, The Room The Game is a labor of love by a guy who has seen the movie far too many times, and who absolutely gets it. The adaptation of The Room, absurdly, works better as a game than it ever did as a movie, if only for Mr. Fulp’s competence as a designer.

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The core basics of Bit.trip Core

I really liked Bit.trip: Beat. The combination of retro gaming style, excellent music, underlying narrative, and addictive gameplay put it up among my favorite Wii titles. So imagine my surprise last Monday (editor’s note: Jenn sucks) when I noticed that a sequel, Bit.trip: Core had been released on WiiWare for 600 points!

As its predecessor had done for Breakout-style games, Bit.trip: Core takes the notion of classic, single-screen shooters and spins it off into a new, equally rhythmic direction. Whereas in the first game you were a paddle bouncing pellets to create musical notes, here you are an icon in the center of the screen capable of aiming and firing a beam in four directions, albeit only one at a time. Pellets will appear from all corners of the screen, and you must shoot them before they escape. It sounds deceptively simple, but the game is difficult. Ample reflexes, pattern recognition, and spatial skills –- which block will enter your range of fire first?—are important, but as with Bit.trip: Beat, to truly excel at the game you must lose yourself in it and the music. It’s a zen gaming experience.

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Hello, Homebrew: Thrust

This is the first in a series of articles about homebrew games. Quite simply, outside of the fanbase for a particular system, a number of these go clear under the radar. It’s a terrible shame, given that a lot of these homebrews end up being better than commercial releases. As such, I’m going to highlight some of my particular favorites for a variety of systems!

I had written previously on the subject of gravity in Spacewar, one of the earliest computer games ever made. The concept of gravity’s effect on games has extended beyond that, but only a few noteworthy games have ever stood out. One in particular, a BBC Acorn game (later ported, famously, to the Commodore 64, among others) entitled Thrust, became something of a cult classic.

Thrust was something of an evolution from Atari’s arcade game, Gravitar. In that game, you were flying from planet to planet, destroying guns and grabbing fuel before taking off to the next one. Ever present was the gravity each planet would ensnare you in, forcing you to make your moves carefully, lest you fall too far and crash.

Thrust took this a step further—instead of flying from planet to planet, now you were warping onto a planet, battling turrets and the forces of physics as you made your way deep into planetary chasms to grab a fuel cell. Once you had latched onto it with your tractor beam, you had to carefully maneuver your way back out, all the while fighting with the weight and inertia of your cargo.

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JitterPic, iPhone’s greatest weekend party app

jeremy

3D Me JitterPic for iPhone makes it easy to take two photos, align them with each other, and automagically make an animated gif that can be instantly uploaded to Myspace (I’m not even kidding—that’s a built-in feature). The 3D effect is accomplished using “wiggle stereoscopy.” Hours of house party fun! A live demonstration of the finished product, above.

JitterPic is US$1.99 in the iTunes App Store.

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Retry this sector: Eliss v1.1

eliss

Until a few days ago, the iPhone game Eliss was knuckle-crackingly, hair-tearingly, eye-drippingly tough. Multicolored orbs swarmed the screen too quickly, perhaps, and new game elements popped onto the touchscreen with hardly an introduction.

But Eliss’s creator, Steph Thirion, very actively sought out players’ opinions during this March’s GDC; even after, he went so far as to assemble a whole new crack team of beta testers. Seldom have I met a developer so sweetly wracked with concern after his game has launched—and, moreover, even after his game has already received generally favorable reviews.

Two days ago, Thirion released Eliss v1.1, an update that both eases the difficulty curve and lengthens the game. He’s also clarified the tutorial—although, for my own part, I really preferred the murkiness—and, on top of everything, he’s reduced the app’s price to a comparatively paltry US$2.99. That price point is honestly small potatoes, considering Eliss is every bit as full an experience as Every Extend Extra or Gunpey.

I think it’s really important to note all these changes. Destructoid posted its review of the old version of Eliss today, which is really too bad: a lot of major complaints have been addressed, if not resolved. In any case, if the difficulty curve frightened players off before, Eliss certainly warrants another look.

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Tripping to the blips of Bit.trip Beat

Kevin Bunch’s Otocky retrospective reminded me that Bit.trip: Beat just arrived on WiiWare!

bit.trip:beat

After rearranging my Wii’s disk space to accommodate the comparatively large download—catch you on the flipside, Paper Mario—I settled in for some truly excellent, old-school synesthesia.

Bit.trip: Beat is a paddle game: think Arkanoid, Breakout, Pong or, ahem, Circus Atari. Here, though, the paddle control is gracefully approximated by very gently rocking the Wii remote forward and back. As with classic paddle games, the controls are ‘twitchy’ and require only very fine movements.

Your onscreen ‘paddle’ (which is to say, your avatar, or, you know, the line) moves vertically along the far left of the screen, and little pellets fly onto the screen from the right, hurtling toward the paddle. And the point is to hit them. Simple. Each pellet represents a kind of a musical note, too, so as you bat the pellets away, the game’s melody emerges. So far, easy enough.

But as you progress through the game, the choreography of the pellets becomes increasingly intricate. Soon those specks are weaving in and out of one another, changing shape and size, or cruelly altering their course midflight. In that way, Bit.trip: Beat is a classic gamer’s classic game: it’s all reflexes and pattern memorization.

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Eliss would be great if I were any good at it

I’m really, really bad at Eliss, the multi-touch plate-spinning game for iPhone. I think my failure falls somewhere in my personal Venn intersection of shortsightedness, panic, and a total lack of coordination.

You’re nodding and thinking to yourself, “Stop worrying! No one can be that bad at Eliss.” You’re wrong. I am starting to realize there is something genuinely wrong with me.

There are 20 levels. I passed the first stage after a day of trying. I can’t pass the third stage.

I can see what needs to happen, and I want to make that happen, but I’m graceless and stupid, my brain motoring at half-speed. I’ve shown Eliss to others, demonstrating its artfulness and my stupidity. Friends invariably pluck my iPhone from my hands, to show me how it’s done, and then they don’t want to give me my phone back.

“Stop beating my phone game,” I snapped at Scott Sharkey, grabbing at my phone. I put my iPhone somewhere private he couldn’t get to it, like in my purse or in a drawer, I can’t remember. Scott smiled at me quizzically.

This is so frustrating because Eliss is obviously the raddest game for the iPhone yet. And I can’t play it! It’s right in front of me, and I can’t do it! I’d wanted to talk about it once I’d played it except I can’t. I can’t do it. And everyone else can!

Anyway, you’ll love it. It’s a $3.99 download.

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