Monday, September 16, 2013

Crayon Physics Deluxe (Petri Purho, 2009)

I've mentioned before how the touch screen interfaces on mobile devices offer both design challenges and opportunities as the game industry tries to move beyond physical buttons. While more traditionally popular genres feel awkward on these platforms, others feel incredibly intuitive, and have managed to flourish. One of the biggest genres in mobile gaming is the physics puzzler. Physics puzzle games such as Cut the Rope, Where's My Water, and the enormous mega-hit Angry Birds series generally give the player a limited number of physical objects to interact with in order to complete a simple task. In the case of Crayon Physics Deluxe, those limitations are thrown out the window as you get to freely create the world as you play.

The basic interface of Crayon Physics Deluxe is about as simple and intuitive as you can get. The screen looks like a piece of paper, and you draw on it using your touch screen or mouse as if you had a crayon. You either already know how to do this, or you're spending your Rumspringa reading video game blogs.

Each level of Crayon Physics Deluxe presents you with a small red ball, and the point of the game is to get the ball to reach a star. It's possible to nudge the ball one way or another, but for the most part it's all about what you draw. The objects you draw take on physical properties responding to forces such as gravity, collisions, and friction. In order to complete each level, you have to figure out what combination of objects will accomplish your task.

Crayon Physics Deluxe essentially becomes an engineering simulation in a way. You can create hinges, ropes, ramps, pulleys, wheels, and even rockets. These can all be combined to create your own makeshift machines as you try to manipulate the ball across the screen.

What I enjoyed most about Crayon Physics Deluxe is that there was never just one right answer. Do you need to get the ball up to a higher platform? Maybe you should draw a cage around it, tie a rope to the cage, and then draw a heavy weight on the other end of the rope that will fall off the opposite edge of the platform pulling the ball up. Maybe you'd rather draw a giant half pipe and Tony Hawk the ball up to the platform. Maybe you're more in the mood for a rocket powered golf club? Go crazy and see what works!

Sometimes it's fun to replay levels different ways to see what all the game will let you do. I managed to create some fairly elaborate machines in some of these levels. I didn't actually need to, but it was nice that the game let me.

It's not a grand adventure or anything, but as far as mobile puzzle games go, it's a fun distraction that will force you to think and be imaginative..

Monday, September 9, 2013

Kirby’s Dream Land (HAL Laboratory/Nintendo, 1992)

Unlike music, movies, or sports, the video game industry doesn't really have any recognizable celebrities. Sure, there are some well known designers who's names hard core gaming fans will recognize, but nobody that would really get stopped for an autograph walking down an average street. What games have instead are mascots, characters that are so recognizable they provide all the fame the industry needs. Mascots such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Duke Nukem, and Lara Croft have faces that you can immediately recognize on a t-shirt or poster. However, the undisputed king of video game mascots has to be Nintendo. Most of their biggest mascots such as Mario, Link, and Samus rose to fame in the 80s, but they still managed to squeeze out a now familiar face or two in the 90s. One of those child-of-the-90s faces belongs to a strange little inflatable blob named Kirby.

Over the past couple of decades, the Kirby franchise has spawned almost two dozen releases on almost every console and handheld Nintendo has created. Most gamers today assume this all started on the NES, or even the SNES, but the first appearance of the iconic face was actually with Kirby's Dream Land on the humble original black and white Game Boy.

Kirby's Dream Land is a simple platforming game about trying to recover stolen food. The casual plot nicely reflects the casual gameplay. Don't expect your typical early platformer hair-ripping-out level of difficulty with this one. This game is a nice short relaxed light-hearted adventure that's aimed at younger audiences, or players new to (or just plain not good at) the platformer genre. The most obvious reason is that in addition to jumping between platforms, you can simply start flying whenever you feel like it. As with Unmechanical, this brings into question whether it should really be considered a platformer at all, but the overall design of the game and its levels make it clear enough what they were aiming at, and getting too picky beyond that just seems a bit silly.

There are different methods of dealing with enemies in Kirby's Dream Land. I mentioned earlier that you can fly in this game, this is accomplished by inhaling and inflating yourself. Once inflated, you can spit out a gust of air to knock back enemies, but this will stop you from flying as well. Another method is to inhale the enemies themselves, and then spit them as projectiles at other enemies. This mechanic might seem familiar to anyone who's played Super Mario World, as it was used while riding on Yoshi as well.

As with many classic games, there is no save option or password. Kirby's Dream Land is always started from the very beginning, and played in a single session. Because of this, and the young audience targeted, the game is kept fairly short. If you're playing it on a modern emulator with save states, or even on the 3DS Virtual Console with the ability to put it away and come back to it later, the game might feel too short, but if you're left with an appetite whetted yet not satiated, there are always plenty more Kirby games to dive into after this one.

The sound, music, and overall pacing of Kirby's Dream Land give the entire experience a very happy and bouncy feel. This is one of those games that you just feel good playing. It's not the greatest game ever, or even the greatest platformer for the Game Boy, but it's a nice relaxing game to play if you're ever in a classic platformer mood, but don't want to put too much effort into it.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Alan Wake (Remedy Entertainment, 2010/2012)

Let's talk about TV...

If you've turned on a TV lately, you've probably noticed that these days every show is a soap opera. The sitcoms, the dramas, even the game shows (yes, American Idol and The Apprentice are game shows), they all have continuing story arcs that flow from episode to episode and expand over the entire season, or even the entire series. Before the days of DVRs, DVD box sets, and On Demand streaming, things weren't like this. For the first several decades of TV's existence, reset-to-zero was the standard. This meant that situations and story lines would generally wrap up by the end of each episode.

You would have the occasional series that pushed beyond this, but it wasn't until an award winning movie director named David Lynch created the groundbreaking TV series Twin Peaks that TV really started to hint at what it could be, and what so many shows today aspire to be. These shows with their long form continuing stories offer a single piece of entertainment that lasts potentially dozens of hours and allows the audience to really experience the world of the story in a way that a movie's short glimpse simply can't offer. You know what other form of media does this? That's right, video games. But while most games try to emulate the feel of a movie, a company called Remedy Entertainment realized that emulating the feel of a TV drama series makes much more sense. And with that idea, they created Alan Wake.

As with Remedy's earlier hit series Max Payne, story telling is an integral part of the experience of playing Alan Wake. It tells the story of Alan, a successful horror writer (sort of a Stephen King type), who has been suffering from writer's block for a couple of years and is afraid that his career might be over. In an attempt to get his mind off of it, Alan and his wife Alice take a vacation to the sleepy little town of Bright Falls Washington. Bright falls is a place full of secrets, colorful characters, mysterious paranormal phenomena, and a diner that serves some damn good coffee.

At this point, every Twin Peaks fan reading this is eye rolling, but it really does come across as much more of a loving tribute than a blatant rip off. I constantly got the feeling that this is what it might feel like if David Lynch and Stephen King teamed up to reinvent Twin Peaks for a new audience, and on a new medium.

The change of media isn't even as big of a change as one might imagine, as Alan Wake is constantly pulling TV drama tropes to give it the feel that you are inside the world of a TV Show. Each level is presented as an episode, beginning with "Previously on Alan Wake" and ending with an edge of your seat cliffhanger and a slow fade as a random song plays in its entirety.

And while many games would use the latest overplayed pop single, or some up and coming act the label is paying to promote, or maybe just some unknown band who's music could be licensed cheaply, Alan Wake instead uses perfectly fitting classic songs from artists such as Roy Orbison, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, and even Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Seriously, how often do you get to hear Nick Cave in a video game? (If you don't know who that is, open a new browser tab and google it, you can finish reading this review when you're done.)

The music plays a role in game as well. Throughout your adventure you'll often find radios to turn on, letting you listen to the local talk radio show to get an idea of what's going on in the town around you. These radio shows often play music as well, including music by the game's fictional band Old Gods of Asgard, a heavy metal band from the 70s whose two surviving members have a farm just outside of Bright Falls. Their songs provide clues to the town's past, and at one point have you in an epic battle on a full blown heavy metal stage in the middle of nowhere using the stage lights and pyrotechnics to battle monsters.

I should probably mention these monsters while we're at it. While the presentation of Alan Wake as a story driven dramatic interactive TV show certainly all holds true, at its foundation Alan Wake is still an action game. Most of this action is in the form of running from, or doing battle with shadow monsters. Because these creatures draw their energy from the darkness, light is used to fight them. While you'll generally have some sort of rifle or pistol on you, bullets won't hurt these monsters until they've first been weakened by light. For this reason, you'll also have a flashlight on you most of the time, which is every bit as useful in combat as a shotgun.

This mechanic allows from some imaginative yet intuitive gameplay. Since the game is presented from a 3rd person perspective, the beam of your flashlight shows where you are aiming, and eliminates the need for any sort of cumbersome aiming reticule heads up display. Also, flare guns and flash grenades become devastating weapons against your enemy, which prevents the designers from having to shoehorn rocket launchers or grenades into the story in order to let you better arm yourself. Mounted spotlights take the place of turrets and street lamps provide small areas of safe haven. One thing to keep in mind is that this game often removes your collected equipment for plot reasons between missions, so don't be afraid to use that powerful weapon you find, saving it for later will often just waste it.

 It's not all shadow monsters though, sometimes the environment itself comes to life and turns against you. There are several points where using your flashlight or other light sources against flying inanimate objects is the only way to venture forward. It's also not a rare thing to be attacked by a flock of birds, feeling like a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and the Rakk sequences from Borderlands. Alan Wake sometimes provides puzzle elements as you try to connect power sources and start generators in order to illuminate your foes. A couple sections even provide some platforming challenges that work surprisingly well given the game's lack of focus on jumping. Even the driving in the game feels good as the occasional car or truck you get to take for a spin offer tight and satisfying controls.

On top of all of this, the main draw of Alan Wake is still the story. It's hard to talk about the story without giving away elements that are much more enjoyable to discover for yourself, but the story has a lot going on that will keep you wanting to play just a bit more, and keep you thinking about the game when not playing it. Elements such as the pages of the novel you find scattered throughout the levels would be simple collection side challenges in some games, but in Alan Wake it is an integral part of the story and sometimes provides valuable information about challenges that lie ahead.

Visually, the game looks amazing. The environments are highly detailed and realistic. The characters each have a distinct and recognizable look without looking stylized or cartoony. The entire town feels like a real town where people actually live, and after playing through the game you'll feel as if you've really been there. It's not perfect however, the lip syncing never really lines up right, and the occasional full motion video sequences on TVs in the game feel out of place and mostly make the game world feel less realistic, but these few flaws generally feel insignificant compared to all that it does so right.

There's a lot to like about Alan Wake, and I could probably keep going on about it far longer than anybody would care to read, but I'll try to wrap this up. It's been a few months since I played a game that I really enjoyed this much. I'm glad that I play such a wide variety of games, but playing this one reminds me of why I enjoy gaming so much in the first place. So, hopefully Remedy will continue to expand on this series and not cancel it before its time as was the case with the show it pulls so much inspiration from.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Unmechanical (Talawa Games/Teotl Studios, 2012)

After playing through Bioshock 2, I was in the mood for something a little less heavy, but after playing through so many retro pixel games lately I was really enjoying the dark detailed graphics my underwater adventuring had offered. At first it felt like an unfortunate contradiction, until I remembered a quirky little game I once demoed on Onlive, and later picked up on a GOG sale after it spent months on my wishlist both there and on steam. It seemed like it would be the perfect balance of light gameplay and dark visuals. It was a lesser known game called Unmechanical.

Unmechanical is a 2.5D side scrolling puzzle game about a cute little flying robot trying to escape a mysterious contraption. I would say it also had Metroid inspired platforming elements to it, but can you really call it platforming when you fly everywhere? It's a game of exploration, a game of wonder, and a game of occasional frustration. Don't worry, I'm talking about the good kind of frustration, the kind you encounter in a well balanced puzzle game.

The controls in Unmechanical are simple and intuitive. You can move your flying robot around a 2D plane, and activate a small tractor beam to manipulate objects, and that's pretty much it. You could probably play this entire game with a USB Atari 2600 Joystick! The tractor beam is really the key to playing the game. With it you can pick up small objects, drag around larger objects, open and close hatches, and manipulate switches and other controls. You're never left wondering how to interact with something, which is useful because you'll need to focus all of your concentration on the puzzles.

The puzzles are incredibly imaginative, and always require a new way of thinking. As with God of War or Ico, Unmechanical never falls into repeating the same concepts over and over. The early puzzles are fairly straight forward as would be expected, and they get progressively larger (Some spanning several areas) and more brain-teasery (Is that a word? If not, it should be!) as you make your way deeper through the underground caverns of Unmechanical's world. Some of the puzzles really surprised me. My favorite essentially had you programming a drum machine to transcribe a random beat that played for you in order to unlock a series of doors. Various upgrades are earned along the way allowing you to traverse areas that were previously unavailable to you, and opens the game up to a small amount of backtracking, further implying a Metroid inspiration.

The progression of the puzzles is logical and makes sense, and never requires tutorials. In fact, there is no text or dialog in the entire game. Everything in Unmechanical is conveyed to the player through subtle visual clues, and occasional on screen action that some might consider understated cutscenes that never break you from your gameplay. Despite the lack of direct narrative interaction with the player, Unmechanical still manages to tell a story. Throughout the game, you'll really start to care not only about the small robot you control, but about other robots you encounter along the way, and eventually this mysterious world you are trying to escape from as well.

Unmechanical isn't a game about saving the world, rescuing a princess, or defeating a great evil. It's a simple relaxing game about dealing with your situation and coping with your surroundings. In that way it's a game that's much easier to relate to our normal every day lives. While it is an adventure game that takes you on a journey through an unknown world, you could consider it a casual adventure. It's not surprising that it's recently been ported to iOS, but given the nature of the protagonist, I'm surprised that it hasn't yet made it to the Android platform. It's not a terribly long game, but it's a fun time while it lasts, and I have no trouble recommending it to anybody who likes to think and explore at the same time, without having to worry about constant danger.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Bioshock 2 (2K Games, 2010)

If you've been following my reviews lately, you might have noticed that I've pretty much spent the summer talking about indie games and retro classics. In fact, I haven't touched on any sort of modern mainstream titles since Heavenly Sword last june. Maybe it just left a bad taste in my mouth that put me more in the mood for something different? Well, with the recent release of Bioshock Infinite, it seems like almost everybody I know has been talking about the Bioshock series lately. I thought the first game was amazing, and I've heard nothing but good things about the latest release so far, but I couldn't bring myself to play it just yet. Thinking about Bioshock made me realize that I never fully played through the second game in the series, something I set out to correct.

Since this is a sequel, I should start with a brief overview of the original Bioshock game that this one draws so much from. Bioshock was a first person shooter about a plane crash survivor finding his way into an underwater utopian society that had gone horribly wrong. It was presented as a horror story with a basic message that Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged was wrong, and would be a terrible foundation for any society that wished to sustain itself. The original style and atmosphere were a groundbreaking breath of fresh air in a genre that had stagnated with realistic war sims and the occasional sci-fi alien blast-fest.

Bioshock 2 takes place in the same iconic underwater city as the first, but while the first game let you witness the downfall as it happened, this sequel is set years later as the city has taken on a more desperate post-apocalyptic atmosphere. While the first game had you playing as an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation, this release starts you off as one of the Big Daddies, the drill armed diving suit wearing behemoths often seen throughout both games escorting the Little Sisters as they harvest the juices of the recently deceased.

Bioshock 2 was a fun game that did a lot of stuff right, but it also did a lot wrong, so I'm going to get my ranting out of the way before I sing any praises to it. First of all, as with Mass Effect, 2K Games made the idiotic choice to scrap the already developed gamepad support from the PC release, even though it works perfectly well on the console versions. Also, the first Bioshock game wowed audiences mostly with the originality of its location and the strength of its story. This sequel has a much weaker story and the atmosphere mostly feels like just more of the same from the first game. The graphics don't really look all that different from the first Bioshock, even though the system requirements were much higher on this release.

The level design felt formulaic as well. Each area generally consisted of: You arrive at a new area, something happens so you can't get to the next area, somebody on the radio tells you that you need to go find a certain thing to be able to get to the next area, but it's on the other side of this area held by somebody who doesn't like you and has an army of people trying to stop you. When you get to this somebody who has the thing you need you get to choose if they live or die, with very little effect on the game's story either way. The gripping suspense and plot twists of the first game were nowhere to be found. You spend the whole game trying to rescue a girl you used to know, who you later find out is very important, but for most of the game you're not told why. For the most part I found myself ignoring the plot and just fighting my way to the dot on my map.

The combat in Bioshock 2 was fun in short spurts, but again it was hindered by design decisions. If you've ever played a first person shooter before, you know that a big part of it is keeping up with how much ammo you have for each gun. This is standard practice that dates back to Wolfenstein 3D over twenty years ago. Some games only give you a handful of weapons, so there aren't many ammo types to worry about. Others, such as the Borderlands series, may give you hundreds of guns, but the ammo types are usually kept down to no more than around eight. Bioshock 2 on the other hand gives you about eight guns, but each gun has two or three different types of ammunition it can use giving you dozens of different ammo types to keep track of in order to fight your way across the underwater battlefields. I spent more time worrying about resource management than I did about the people trying to kill me, and that's just not a fun way to play an action game. Long story short, every time I started having fun during combat, I ran out of ammo. If you play this game, I'd recommend just running up and whacking people with your drill arm instead.

So, now that all of the nastiness is out of the way, what did Bioshock 2 do right? To start with, even though the atmosphere had little of the awe-inspiring originality of the first game, it still looks really freaking good! In many areas the world is much more worn down, rusted, and just plain creepy than before, and that's a good thing. Several of the areas are outside along the ocean floor, and even some of the inside levels were once flooded and filled with barnacle infested walls.

The plasmids (genetic altering injections allowing super-human powers, or Bioshock world speak for magic) are much more useful this time around giving access to new areas in interesting ways, in an almost Metroid style. Melting iced doorways with fire is always a good time, and freezing enemies in place so you can take your time destroying them has never been a let down. Actually, a lot of this game reminded me strongly of the Metroid Prime series, as did the first release. If you enjoy the lonely feeling of dangerously traversing dark and claustrophobic corridors by yourself as you launch destruction from your arm, this game is full of that!

The best part of Bioshock 2 is actually towards the end. It's in the last couple of areas that the game really finds itself and figures out what it is that it wants to be, to finally lift itself out from the shadow of its predecessor. If the first 8 hours or so of the game could have been condensed down into about an hour, and the final two hours of the game expanded, then it would have been a much different experience, and would have left a much stronger mark on the gaming industry at the same time. It's rare that a sequel lets you revisit the world of a previous title in such a different perspective that it really makes you rethink both games. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but the world of the Little Sisters will make much more sense to you after playing through Bioshock 2.

If you're playing the Bioshock series, you might as well play this one too. If you're new to Bioshock games, either of the other two games are probably a much better starting point. It's not a bad game, but it never really grabbed me. I never really missed the game when I wasn't playing it, and I never felt drawn back to it. In fact, I would often get bored with it while playing, and a lot of it felt more like busy work than gaming. I'm still glad that I played it though. Both because of how good it was towards the end, and because I'll be that much more prepared when I eventually dive into Bioshock Infinite.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hero’s Adventure (Terry Cavanagh, 2011/2013)

There are two great things about the recent popularity explosion of indie games. One is the ability to play some extremely weird and experimental games that would be too much of a gamble for a large studio. The other is that we can once again play games created by a single individual. Back in the early Atari 2600 days, games were generally created by one person. By the time the NES came around, it would sometimes take dozens. Having a large team certainly helps for creating a more in depth experience, allows for specialized skills to be utilized, and it certainly helps to get the thing out the door faster! Still, there's something magical about a piece of media created entirely by one individual. It's generally the standard in literature, but virtually unheard of in Film and Television. Thanks to recent technology, it's becoming more common in music and the occasional web series. And while it's taken a backseat for a while, it still shows up from time to time in the game industry.

I also mentioned that these games can be pretty weird, and with a team of one it's easier to get away with that since nobody has to convince anybody else that it's worth the risk. Sometimes it's an unproven gameplay mechanic, or an unusual art style. In the case of Hero's Adventure, it's a bit different...

Hero's Adventure is a game by Terry Cavanagh, most known for his games Super Hexagon and VVVVVV. It's a free game, available on multiple platforms. I most recently played the Ouya release, but it's probably most widely known for its online release at It's a short game that only takes a couple of minutes to play through, so if you wanted to follow the link and play through it before finishing the review, I wouldn't blame you.

Reviewing a game like Hero's Adventure is different than reviewing most games. I thought it was a great game, but it's difficult to explain what makes it great without giving away spoilers. At its core, Hero's Adventure is a satire of classic 8-bit JRPGs such as Dragon's Quest and Final Fantasy, but rather than simply offering a nostalgic romp through a pixelated forrest, you are instead presented with a more philosophical theme.

There are certain tropes of role playing games and of the fantasy genre in general that have been around so long that we simply take them for granted. Avid fantasy RPG players tend to think that if we were ever somehow put into one of these situations that we would know how to react. And, even though that reaction is much different than what we might do here in the real world, it would still be the correct action simply because of the setting and context. But, is it really?

One of the unique aspects of Hero's Adventure is that even though it presents itself in a typical fantasy style, it is very much set in a modern contemporary setting. When the game finally draws attention to this fact, the mood changes drastically, and you are left questioning your actions, not only in this game, but in almost every game you've ever played. What does it mean to be a hero? In real life, being a hero is much different than what is presented in most video games, and the actions considered heroic in most games would be seen in a drastically different light in reality. It's rare that a game makes you truly feel guilty about yourself, but Hero's Adventure manages this in a fantastic way. It's not even the trendy cop out of playing off the video game violence debate that is continuously shoved at us by the ratings starved media. Hero's Adventure looks beyond that, into a much more real aspect of society.

What's also notable about Hero's Adventure is that it was made for the Klik of the month Klub, an online event in which games are created over the course of two hours. Yes, two hours, meaning that this game was created in its entirety in less time than it takes to watch the cutscenes of some games. Again, it's a free game that only takes a couple of minutes to play through, so do yourself a favor and just go play it now.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters (Nintendo/Tose Software, 1991/1992)

It's hard to imagine it now, but the entire video game industry used to be pretty small. A few years after the legendary video game crash of the early 80s, Nintendo took a huge risk trying to release a new system to a largely uninterested market. Luckily for us, the NES (or Famicom in Japan) was a huge success and paved the way for the industry we have today. However, because the NES was such a huge hit, there was a much larger demand for games than the supply could satisfy, so every game back then got a lot of attention, even the pretty weird ones. One of those pretty weird early NES games was Kid Icarus, These days Kid Icarus is mostly known for its recent 3DS release Kid Icarus: Uprising, and Pit's inclusion in Smash Bros. Brawl, but back in the early 90s, a much forgotten sequel was released for the revolutionary (at the time) handheld system, the original black and white Nintendo Gameboy.

As luck would have it, the amount of time between when I last played the first Kid Icarus and when I played Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters is about the same as the amount of time between when they were released, which puts me in an unusually accurate frame of mind for reviewing such a classic sequel. The original Kid Icarus was one of the first NES games I had, and I played it enough that I can still hum the theme music on cue. Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters was a game that I was originally excited about when I first read in a classic issue of Nintendo Power that it was coming out, but for whatever reason I didn't get around to actually playing it until recently. Better two decades late than never I suppose!

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters has a lot in common with the original game. In a way, it could be seen as a way to provide a portable version of the game while improving on some issues, rather than an attempt to expand the series. Both games combine vertical scrolling climbing levels, Metroid style maze-like dungeon levels, and the more traditional left to right side scrolling platforming levels that were once the industry standard. Every other level is a maze level that ends in a boss battle. Defeating the boss earns you one of the three magical items needed to save the world, but unlike in a Zelda or Metroid game, you don't get to equip these items until the last level when you have them all, and the game becomes more of a Gradius/R-Type style side scrolling shooter.

There were many improvements over the original Kid Icarus in Of Myths and Monsters. Despite being in a black and white grey scale, the graphics are much more detailed in this Gameboy release, especially the backgrounds which were simply solid black in the NES release in a classic arcade style. The vertical scrolling areas in the original let you run off one side of the screen and pop into the other side Pac-Man style, but if you fell off the bottom of the screen it was instant death, even though you were just down there a second ago and it was perfectly safe then. In the vertical scrolling areas of this sequel, the screen smoothly scrolls left and right with you as well, allowing the area to loop on itself creating the illusion of the game having much larger areas than it actually does, especially in parts that have mostly diagonal travel. As you fall, the screen scrolls down to follow your descent allowing you to safely backtrack to earlier areas in case you missed the entrance to one of the many bonus rooms.

As they did in the original, these bonus rooms range from health refilling springs, to shops, to endurance challenges. A memorable part of the series is the treasure rooms. Rather than just offering you free stuff, the treasure rooms are a test of your luck and greed. They hold several pots, most of which contain treasure, but one of which contains the God of Poverty. In a game show style, you can leave the room at any time and keep as much treasure as you've collected so far, but if you happen to find the God of Poverty you lose all that you've collected and have to leave the room. However, if you can open all of the pots, then the last one will contain an even larger treasure. On actual consoles, these are nerve-racking experiences of gambling, but if you play either of these games on an emulator with a quick save option, it's just free money.

The setting for the Kid Icarus series is an interesting one. Judging by the name and the scenery, the assumption is that like God of War, Kid Icarus must be set firmly in the world of ancient Greek mythology, but that's not actually the case. Even though there are references to Zeus and Medusa, and the lead character Pit bears a striking resemblance to the titular Icarus (who doesn't appear in either game by the way), the games are not actually set in ancient Greece, simply inspired by it. These games take place in an imaginary world called Angel Land. The instruction manuals (remember those?) for the games fill in the story of Angel Land being under attack, and Queen Palutena sending Pit to save the day. These plots are barely hinted at in the actual games, and even though the circumstances are different between the two releases, they are basically interchangeable, and if you've played one of the games, you've mostly played the other. Not that it's necessarily a bad thing. As much as I loved the original Metroid, the many changes made in Metroid: Zero Mission make for a much improved experience, and in that same way Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters could be seen as an improved (minus the color) re-imagining of the original Kid Icarus, which was already feeling pretty dated by early 90s standards.

If I have to gripe about something in this game it's the music. The music isn't actually bad, it's actually rather pleasant and fits the game well, it just isn't nearly as memorable as the music in the NES original. It's not a matter of the Gameboy sound chip being less powerful either, the melodies simply don't grab me. Now part of that may be the fact that I was hearing these for the first time, while the original music I've been hearing since I was a kid, but I simply liked the first game's music better. Luckily, the original game's theme does make a return at the end of the game, so maybe that will inspire you to play through to the end?

Overall, I'm glad that I finally got around to playing Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters. Even though I enjoyed it, I probably can't recommend it to everybody. Even in 1991 it wasn't an amazing game, and the black and white graphics might be a turn off for some modern gamers who've never even seen an original Gameboy. But, if you're a hardcore retro gamer who's up for some old school platforming fun and you've missed out on this game as I had for so many years, it's a solid classic game well worth jumping into and spending an hour or two.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Hotline Miami (Dennaton Games/Devolver Digital, 2012/2013)

Sometimes there's a game that I'm just really looking forward to. Sometimes it's a game that everybody says is great. Sometimes it's a game that despite how many negative reviews I hear, I just know they must be wrong because it looks like it'll be amazing (it's usually not). And sometimes it's something that nobody I know has ever heard of, but it looks like it's exactly the type of game I'm into. Then, sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes there is a game that even though everything I read and everybody I talk to says it's great, I'm just not looking forward to it. And sometimes when I finally reluctantly get around to trying the game I realize what a fool I'd been to wait so long. This is the case for me with Hotline Miami.

In my reviews on Wake and Evoland I mentioned how retro styled pixel art games are so common now, they're almost as much of a cliche as toon shading was a decade ago. A few years ago, it was a shocking change of pace that brought with it fond nostalgic memories. At this point however, it's so common that I imagine many developers simply use it to look trendy rather than to make a statement, or possibly just to save time on the art. Hotline Miami uses an 8-bit NES inspired art style, and as much as I enjoy that art style and games from that era, every time I saw screen shots from the game it just looked uninspired. Luckily for me, I decided to try it anyway.

I suppose the best way to describe what makes Hotline Miami so much fun is to start by stating what it's not, so anybody with my misconceptions can look past them. Despite its NES styling, Hotline Miami does not at all play like an 8-bit game. The control scheme is a simple one, you can move, aim, and shoot, but aiming and moving are independent of each other, similar to a twin stick shooter. On the gamepad, right stick aims, right trigger fires or swings your weapon, and left trigger throws your weapon. If you're playing the PC version without a gamepad, the mouse cursor and buttons handle this while typical WASD movement is used.

These simple controls allow for some pretty flexible and complex gameplay. Each mission in the game consists of showing up at a location, killing everybody there, and possibly picking something up before leaving. What makes the game so fun however is that you're not told how to play it. You can bust into a room with machine guns blazing commando style, you can sneak around stealthily and take out the baddies one at a time, or you can get clever and try to distract and misdirect people to get them to separate into smaller easier targets. It's not uncommon to change your mind and start playing differently mid level because sometimes certain approaches are more effective. The game actually analyzes how you play and rates you on your play style at the end of each mission.

One of the more clever aspects of the game is how important the environment is. Line of site is very important for stealth reasons, and sometimes walls have windows in them that can not only be seen through, but shot through. More than once I thought I was safe walking down a hallway only to be mowed down by machine gun fire from a nearby office that I wasn't paying attention to. Doors are also a hugely important part of the gameplay. Not only do they block line of site, they can be used to knock down enemies. Often a room will have more than one guard in it, and taking out one of them while busting in the door leaves fewer for you to worry about when the fighting starts. Sound also plays a role in the game, as gunshots will alert others who will come to see what's going on. Sometimes you want to avoid this, but sometimes it can be used to your advantage to lure several guards into a trap.

If you've looked into the game at all, you've probably noticed the strange animal masks and wondered what that was all about. Throughout the game, you awarded various masks, each with a special ability. Some make you more effective with certain types of attacks, or let you run faster, or prevent dogs from attacking you. My favorite was the horse mask which made hitting an enemy with a door fatal. For the completionists out there, the owl mask doesn't assist in gameplay at all, but does allow you to see the hidden letter in each level. Finding all of these hidden levels will unlock an alternate ending, but attempting this will make the game much more difficult.

Hotline Miami's audio is another area where it's obvious that it's not purely trying to milk the current retro fad. If you're expecting chiptunes and FM chirps you will be surprised. The sound effects are all modern digital samples, and the music tracks, while heavily 80's dance synth influenced, are all full audio recordings as well. Overall, the game's audio track brings back more nostalgia for movies of the 80's than for 80's console games.

The next area where the game strays from the typical retro graphics formula is surprisingly with the graphics themselves. Even though the entire game is rendered in 8-bit styled sprites, the game is not at all something that could have been rendered in 8-bit. The entire level rotates subtly as you move around, and your character rotates smoothly as you aim in any direction. Eerie lighting and post processing effects give the game a surreal and sometimes gritty feel, far beyond the reaches of the 8-bit hardware the sprites try to emulate. I questioned several times throughout the game why they even went the retro sprite route at all. I suppose that the game takes place in the 80's, and it's a jab at that, and obviously retro sprite games are popular right now, but I couldn't help feel that the game might have been more enjoyable with a less retro art style. Maybe something similar to The Binding of Isaac or something?

So now that we've covered what I was expecting that Hotline Miami isn't, let's talk about what I wasn't expecting that it is. Well, in a strange way, Hotline Miami is sort of a puzzle game. Not a God of War style fight for a while and then solve a puzzle style game, but a game where figuring out how to kill your enemies is the puzzle itself. Each mission is confined to a single building, and each floor of the building is a checkpoint. You'll find yourself attempting each floor many times as you try to discover just the right method to take everybody out. Everything resets, so you can try over and over, getting a little farther each time, or getting stuck and trying a completely different direction. It's weird to think about knocking somebody out with a door, beating the next guy with a crowbar, then throwing the crowbar at the 3rd guy while you pick up the shotgun to let the bullets fly as steps in solving a puzzle, but in Hotline Miami, that's just how it works. What starts out as mindless fun quickly evolves into some real brain teasers.

Now to get controversial! Or at least, let's talk about controversy. Much like Mass Effect, the first thing I ever heard about Hotline Miami was the controversy around it, or more specifically, around its trailers. To build up hype for the game, teaser trailers were released involving real life actors acting out the violence from the game. Let's make something clear. This is an extremely violent game. The trailers did a great job of conveying that so when the game came out, people knew what to expect. And thanks to the controversial buzz, the audience who would most enjoy the game knew about it well in advance.

So, just to be clear, I really did enjoy playing Hotline Miami. It's a great game that I had a lot of fun playing. It has a unique feel, and like the Deus Ex series, allows you to find the playing style you enjoy most and do that. I wouldn't recommend sitting your 5 year old kid in front of it, but I'd highly recommend playing it for anybody into fast paced violent action that requires as much strategy as it does reflexes.