Results tagged “reviews”

All-Star XYZZY Reviews, 2012 edition

For two years running, Sam Kabo Ashwell has done a heroic job organizing per-category reviews of the previous year’s XYZZY Award-nominated works of interactive fiction, written by authors of prior award-winning games. This year it took the form of a blog, with one writer’s take on a single award category’s nominees rolling out every day over the course of several weeks. Sam posted the final summary on Monday, linking to all the past posts by reviewer and category.

I managed to write four reviews, all covering the 2012 nominees for Best Implementation. I found an interesting challenge in not reviewing the games as whole works, as I normally would, but instead examining them in light of their epitomizing — according to the greater IF community — how a well-implemented text game ought to play. In at least one case this directive let me to write a rather crabby review of a game that I actually quite enjoyed playing, as I found myself rather disagreeing with the community about that particular game’s strongest aspects. I’ll leave it to you to read more about that, if you wish.

I thought the project worked quite splendidly, both as a reviewer and especially as a reader and player, and I look forward to reading more next year. But well before then, I look forward to returning to read many of these reviews, whose mere presence has moved me to queue up and belatedly play a bunch of these 2012 games first. I very much expect I’m not alone here, and that thought does please me.

Speaking of console games

Blogging has been slow, because I've been writing code and Jmac is off at Origins. Surely he will have tales to tell when he returns, but in the meantime, I will talk about games.

Not in any incisively analytical way, mind you. It's just that I snarfed four PS3 games this gaming season, and in the past month I booted them all up.

What game reviews on the web can be

Kill Screen magazine, the praises of which I have sung before, recently started publishing game reviews on the web. Despite my open disgust with mainstream reviews, I’ve been so far reading and enjoying this welcome alternative review source in silence. Today, a review by J. Nicholas Guest of Infinity Blade forces me to shout and point.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a review quite like this before, a piece of animated and (lightly) interactive text-art sharing a thematic groove with the work it addresses. It strikes me as possessing a digital version of what makes Mathew Kumar’s zine exp. worth reading, but I won’t otherwise spoil it for you. Block out 20 minutes and have a look.

(There does lurk an interesting — if surely coincidental — confluence between this review and Zarf’s The Matter of the Monster, eh?)

[IFComp2010] Seven Games Reviewed

I played some more IFComp games. Behind the jump you’ll find mini-reviews of seven games. There will be some amount of spoilerage after the jump, so be warned. If you would just like to know whether I think these games are worth your time, here are the non-spoilery micro-reviews:

  • Rogue of the Multiverse: Highly Recommended
  • The Sons of the Cherry: Not Recommended
  • A Quiet Evening at Home: Not Recommended
  • Gris et Jaune: Recommended
  • The Chronicler: Not Recommended
  • Death Off the Cuff: Highly Recommended
  • East Grove Hills: Highly Recommended

Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, by Aaron Reed. Cool-looking book, eh? It's been out for a few weeks, and I haven't seen a review beyond short "this book is awesome!" posts. I finished reading it last week. I ought to write a review.

This book is awesome, and... hm. What is it? Hm. Okay, what isn't it?

The clouds clear for The Silver Lining

I can never resist the chance to follow up on two Gameshelf posts at once, so here you are:

The Silver Lining is a fan-made King’s Quest game that, as Kevin noted back in March, found itself cease-and-desisted earlier this year by the company that owns that IP. Rather than vanishing quietly, the project’s fans got the word out, bringing global attention not just to its legal plight but to the fact that the project existed at all. Certainly, the first I’d heard of Silver Lining was its “Sorry, we’re shutting down now” announcement page, concluding with a heartbreaking image of game-protagonist King Graham’s trademark cap lying abandoned in the dust. And somewhere nearby lay a link to a petition…

Today, I learn via a review by John Walker in Rock Paper Shotgun that the project has ridden the resulting wave of new fan support to overcome its legal disputes, and has also followed through and made its first episode available for play. It’s a short review, but then, it sounds like a very short game. It does make clear that the game attempts to pack a lot of narrative into tight quarters in novel ways:

Look at a vase in the halls of the castle and you won’t hear, “It’s a vase.” You’ll instead hear a tale about the Queen when she was young, playing in these hallways. Look at the floor and rather than being dismissed you’ll likely listen to lines and lines about how King Graham feels about the situation he’s in - his son and daughter-in-law’s wedding being interrupted by a mysterious, cloaked figure, who has put the pair into an undisturbable sleep.

(Rather reminds me of IF games like Bronze, actually, but that’s another rack of bells.)

I consider this news a twofer because Gameshelf reader JayDee offered up the site as a source of solid game reviews, one of several great responses I got to my previous post asking for exactly this.

I note with interest that the site seems to divide its reviews into two categories: “An Hour With”, providing initial impressions soon after a game is released, and (as is the case with this piece) “Wot I Think”, essays written after the reviewer has spent enough time with the game to fully digest it, perhaps weeks later. Many titles eventually get representation in both categories. I find this dichotomy an interesting tactic of dealing with the fact that games can often take a long time to absorb well enough to properly comment on, while acknowledging the reality of the pressures a review-based publication faces to react quickly to the appearance of new works.

Seeking an alternative to enthusiasm

The best game ever made.pngThis image is one of the ads that has been flitting across my Steam dashboard lately. It depicts two characters from Half Life 2, paired with the blurb “The best game ever made”, attributed to PC Gamer magazine. And it, alone, provides an excellent summary of why I don’t read game reviews very much.

This saddens me, becuase I would in fact love to regularly read a videogame reviewer or two, the way I follow a small group of film critics whose voice I’ve come to understand and trust over the years. My favorite film reviewers are sources of continual education and enrichment, not just about the work on the table, but about the medium and its history as a whole. But I find the field of videogame reviews so choked with the sorts of writers able to produce blurbs like the one in this advertisement that it’s very hard to find any other kind.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can confidently say that Half Life 2 does in fact represent groundbreaking work that anyone interested in the medium and its history should study — as discussed here before, it’s part of the canon. But neither HL2 nor its potential audience is well served by a ridiculous blurb like the one in that ad. If I heard someone say “This is the greatest book ever written”, I would assume that they were a religious person showing obligatory praise for their faith’s holy scripture. And even then, that person is not extolling the book’s literary merit, but rather its utility for spiritual improvement, or some other quality generally inaccessible to others.

That Valve can, six years later [1], continue to hold up this blurb with neither embarrassment nor (as far as I can tell) irony shows the much sadder fact: Both in 2004 and today, this kind of language is normal and expected from videogame reviewers. And that sentiment is, sadly, hard to prove wrong. And so you have tragic situations where a poor soul like me has no firm idea if, say, Alan Wake is worth the significant time-and-money investment to obtain and play through. I have no writer or publication that I can turn to with reasonable expectation of finding a review with an ounce of perspective.

To clarify: my dilemma more involves studio-produced, retail-sold works. More humble, independently produced games seem to be better served here. Sites like Jay Is Games and Play This Thing feature daily reviews, often quite satisfying to read, about works other than blockbusters. My own hobby horse, interactive fiction, has long been tied to a tradition of thoughtful reviews from its fans (perhaps unsurprising, since loving the medium enough to write about it requires a particular affinity for text). But when it comes to “triple A” titles — the big productions that get slices of retail shelf space, the games that gather so much news and attention and, unavoidably, enjoy a great deal of cultural cachet — I honestly don’t know where the worthwhile reviews for these lurk.

What I bought at PAX East 2010, Part 2

9780810984233.jpgThis week I complete my writeup of the stuff I hoovered off the merch tables outside the very first PAX East expo hall last month. As I mentioned last time, almost everything I bought at this game expo was some kind of printed matter.

Meanwhile, by Jason Shiga

I don't understand how I haven't run into Jason Shiga's work before last month[1], where two of his self-published books lay among the Printed Works of Interest on display at the PAX IF Suite. One of them, a black-and-white, intriguingly dogeared comic book called Meanwhile, caught my attention immediately, and I was delighted to discover that a brand-new full-color hardcover edition had not only just been printed but was for sale at the expo. For my money, it is a best-case scenario of print-based interactive fiction.

Games I played this holiday season

I spent two weeks sitting around playing games, because it was time to do that. Or, possibly, not yet time... because Bioshock 2 is February, Heavy Rain (from the Fahrenheit guy) is February, that Inferno game is February, God of War 3 is March, Prince of Persia the Movie the Game is May... Yes, I know, those are mostly the brand-name cranking for the year, and I am Part Of The Problem. There are other games that I'm looking forward to.

The point is, it's WinterStuffFair, and what is there out on the shelves that looks cool? Assassin's Creed 2, and a Silent Hill Wii game that they swear isn't another pointless sequel, but a (pointless?) remake.

I didn't play any of those. Instead, I played the original Assassin's Creed, and took breaks in Machinarium.

Planet M.U.L.E. - First thoughts

Planet M.U.L.E.ScreenSnapz002.pngYouTube review by me of the original M.U.L.E. is here, if you need some background.

Last night I played a couple of games of the brand-new Planet M.U.L.E. - one with some friends over the internet, and one by myself. It is a faithful (sometimes a little too faithful) adaptation of Dani Bunten's original economic simulation from the 1980s, and it does indeed finally meet the long-time dream to bring internet playability to this intrinsically multiplayer game. Unfortunately, at least in its current version, Planet M.U.L.E. is marred by some design choices that will, I fear, significantly limit the size of audience.

More details after the jump:

Xbox Indie Game: The Headsman

You, the titular axe-swinging noggin-collector, must efficiently behead an endless line of trembling wretches, timing your blows so that their tumbling melons plop into baskets whizzing past. Stash as many heads as you can in this deft manner before the game's timer ends. This timer serves at the game's real standout feature, taking the form of the eponymous song "The Headsman" by Deathlike Silence, a four-and-a-half-minute rock ballad about - yes indeed! - choppin' off heads.

Headsman_screenshot_3.jpgAn accompanying music video plays while you hack away at your gory work, the lyrics scrolling along in time. I had not heard of this band before I discovered this game, and this is at least partly because I'm not 15 years old. The Finnish band's act is a sort of cartoon death punk, with the video depicting the gothed-up contralto frontswoman leading her cloaked and cowled band through graveyards and dungeons while the camera frequently jump-cuts away to weeping angels or grinning skulls. It's the sort of thing a movie containing a parody of a goth band might put together, but as far as I can tell the band is playing it straight (look, they have a website), and that is bloody beautiful.

The game's own activity is lightly tied into the timing of the song itself; when the refrain comes around, even the condemned can't help but start nodding to the beat. More effort appears in the audiovisual treats you receive for arcing a flying head into one of the more distant baskets, which scores you the most points. These range from basso profundo cackling to the sight of your otherwise unseen audience rising to its feet to cheer your skill at rocking the axe.

These thematic rewards serve to create a sort of custom remix of the song's prerecorded video. Combine this with the one-button control scheme, as well as the jawdropping sight of Deathlike Silence doing their thing, and despite the game's core dopeyness I find myself not just inviting all my visiting friends to play through it, but occasionally returning to myself. If you're anything like me, you too will have fire it up now and again to see if you can improve your scoreboard rank from "Rarely-miss Randy" to "Bruce the Butcher" while taking guilty pleasure in letting the music make you feel like an oily teenager again. (Yes, I have gone ahead and purchased the song from iTunes, as well.)

Interestingly, "The Headsman" was created by David Flook, previously known for the highly praised 2008 Xbox Indie game "Blow", a mellow puzzler where you guide bubbles through a vernal obstacle course. It's quite polished and beautiful, where this latter game instead revels in its rough-hewn (sorry) graphics and overt silliness, lending it the air of something knocked out quickly to blow off steam between larger projects. Despite this, this deliriously short and fun game falls solidly in my own blood-soaked "totally worth a dollar" bucket.

Embittered Movie Review: "Metro Polis"

If you enjoy my game videos, perhaps you will like this. The idea for this literally woke me up in the pre-dawn hours last Saturday, and I found the time to put it together last night.

There actually is a game connection, here. I was inspired to try applying the attitude of certain contemporary reviewers of very old video games -- who often make little to no effort to place their comments in the games' historical context -- and apply it to a very old movie. It flew off the rails from there, of course, for the sake of comedy. But, there it is.

I post some game reviews here, but I also write game reviews that appear on my own web site. I've been doing this for over a decade now, and I live in the iron grip of much shorter-lived habits than that, so I'm not going to abandon that page now.

And I don't want to double-post everything.

So, I'll just link to the backlog. Here are the last few adventure games I've reviewed:

Up in the next couple of months: Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis.

And now I will pass out, because I blew too many hours this evening playing Endgame: Singularity. This is a free casual Civ-style game which I found cute and clever. You're a newly-arisen AI, living in the Internet, trying to rent enough server space (under fake ID) to survive and grow.

I usually avoid Civ games, but this one had sufficient chill factor to pull me in -- once. Keep in mind that I avoid Civ games because I like the exploration factor, which means I hate failing and starting over. In fact, I don't even care for succeeding and starting over. I grabbed Endgame in order to play it once, and I succeeded (thank you, Easy Mode), so it was all good.

This is not a struggle of several AIs under symmetric rules. You are the AI. Your only enemy is the complacent herd of humanity: ignorant of your existence, and you'd better keep them that way, because if they find out about you, it's plug-pulling time. You set up computational bases on rented servers (and, eventually, larger facilities). Occasionally -- purely by chance -- one of your bases will be discovered and shut down. When this happens, humanity becomes more suspicious about Weird Stuff On The Internet; the more suspicious they get, the greater the chances of another base being discovered. You, in turn, can use your CPU and capital resources to research technologies to hide yourself better -- and, of course, to build better servers.

So, rather than a war, it's a building game with intermittent, localized disasters. Keep a few backups and don't get greedy, and you'll do well. This is the sort of dynamic I enjoy. (The dynamic I don't enjoy is when a rapacious horde of rivals comes over the Wicked High Mountains and outcompetes me. Or when an earthquake destroys my whole country. These are things that Endgame does not do to you.)

I also enjoyed feeling like I was a cross between Daniel Keys Moran's Ring and the bad guys from Odyssey 5. These are not virtues of Endgame, but riding a cultural wave is one of the things that games can succeed or fail at, and this one succeeds.

Open-source smugness: Endgame is a GPL project written in Python. Maybe somebody will write that multi-AI struggle version someday.

Review: The Tower SP (GBA)

Many people are not aware of the history of this game. At first glance, most people would call it a “SimCity rip-off”. However, this is completely false! It is SimTower, with a few cultural differences between the Japanese and North American versions.tower1.png

The Tower is a construction management simulation game designed by the infamous Yoot Saito while his original company OPeNBooK Co. was around. During this time, SimCity was a critically acclaimed game and was a major factor in Will Wright’s popularity in the simulation game industry. Saito’s The Tower was published in North America by Maxis and the game was renamed to SimTower as a way of standing out better in stores and increasing sales. The name change worked to benefit Maxis, but never replaced the critical acclaim of SimCity. Again, I must stress that Will Wright had nothing to do with this game in any way.

After this, Saito retained all the rights to the game, with the exception of the name “SimTower”, and stuck with the name “The Tower”. OPeNBooK later joined forces with Sega, and made a new version of his game for the PC and named it “Yoot Tower”. In addition, he created The Tower for the unsuccessful console, the Panasonic 3DO, and was only released in Japan. These versions were more complex than SimTower with different types of buildings that had various effects on a residents stress levels (e.g. restaurants, restrooms, etc.).

tower2.PNGYoot Saito formed another company, Vivarium Inc., which is well known for the Dreamcast game, Seaman, a pet simulation where the player uses a microphone to speak with the character directly to interact with it in addition to regular caretaking activities. OPeNBooK later on merged into Vivarium Inc and continued to develop more games with Sega.

The Tower SP is another game made directly by Vivarium. It still retains the visual similarities with its previous versions and makes good use of the GBA hardware with better controls and a better interface. The letters SP is a reference to the latest revision of the Game Boy Advance, the SP version, which is more compact and opens like a laptop computer and the newer Nintendo DS. This is the first time I recall a GBA game adding the letters SP to its name, where other games would use the word Advance.

The player takes on the role of a constructor for Yamanouchi Construction and needs to construct a building that people can live and work in, while making sure that everything is easily accessible, in good condition, secure, clean and making profit at the same time. As the building gets a higher population, the player is allowed to add different things such as a hospital and a train station to accommodate different people. The final objective is to have more than 40 floors, a population of 2000 and a wedding must take place during a weekend to receive a 5-star rating and the label of “tower” status. At the time of this writing, I have a 4-star rating and a population that fluctuates between 500 and 1900 and I am starting to slowly redesign the placement of everything to make it less stressful for the residents so they people don’t leave so much. It’s very challenging.tower3.PNG

The controls on the GBA are much better than the PC versions since there are buttons mapped to functions such as construction, increasing the rate of time, saving, reading help documents about various structures and examining people and rooms. In order to speed time, the player needs to hold down the A button. At first, I had a problem with this, because I’d end up holding down the A button for several minutes just to watch people move in to empty condos and fill up offices, then I realized the reason why they force players to hold down buttons is because there are messages that show on the screen such as “Single 40s female demands restaurant” and “Elevator #3 too crowded” which may or may not have a fatal impact on people’s stress level causing them to leave the building completely and it is important that the player has a chance to deal with these issues.

In addition to managing stress, the player needs to ensure that they are always making a profit with everything in the tower. This part requires plenty of patience. If the prices are low, people will move in, but move out if it’s too expensive and the stress level rises again. A trick I love to use is to lower the prices of offices and condos, and slowly raise it as people move in. One thing I had to do often is after a lot of people move in, I hold the A button to speed up the time and simply wait and watch as my money grows to 1 million dollars or more so that I can spend more time expanding.

tower4.PNGAs the player’s building expands, it will need more cleaning staff. Every morning, they will go through each floor and clean as much as they can. If there are not enough cleaners, there will be rooms left dirty, cockroaches will grow, causing more stress, forcing residents to leave the building. The player is capable of directly taking part in maintenance in strange ways. For example, the player can select a dirty bathroom and rapidly press A to clean it, saving the cleaning staff time when they do their daily routine. When a new restaurant is made, sometimes the player can select it and press A to increase the chances of residents to buying food there. This is a very miniscule way to add more player action so that they’re not always just waiting for money to roll in every time.

There aren’t too many bad things about this game, being that it is of the simulation genre. The thing I like the least about The Tower SP is the complexity of the rules. For example, a building can only have 4 elevators with a maximum of 4 carts and they cannot expand over 20 floors, people can take a maximum of 4 stairs at a time, there can only be 1 big elevator and can only be accessed every 10 floors, there is a limit to the number of restrooms, etc. The list goes on. Although, as the player gets a higher star rating, the president of Yamanouchi Construction will inspect the building once a year and give advice to make the building better.tower5.PNG

As a simulation game, it certainly lives up to the genre’s name. There’s just something about constructing a large building filled with little pixilated silhouettes that I find so appealing. Even with the complex rules and limited graphics compared to the PC versions it’s still a good game for anyone who is very patient and likes simulation games such as SimCity.

towermario.jpgWhile I was reading about this game, I found out that Vivarium Inc. made another sequel to this game for the Nintendo DS in Japan, appropriately titled “The Tower DS”. They did this to celebrate The Tower’s fifteenth anniversary. When The Tower SP for the GBA was released, most of the reviews for it were negative due to the fact that it is fairly long for a portable game and is still wrongly called a “SimTower rip-off”. The Tower is virtually unknown to most people, and the label “SimTower rip-off” causes so much confusion amongst people.

Due to the negative reviews, I don’t believe The Tower DS will ever reach North America in English. Reading text is a very important part of this game, and is nearly impossible to expand a building if the player is unable to tell what residents demand, so it’s not a game I can import from Japan and still understand. It makes good use of the dual-screens, so I don’t need to scroll up so high, since both screens display the tall tower better than on the GBA.

The only reason why The Tower DS was mentioned in some game news pages is because people saw the statue of Mario standing similarly to New York City’s Statue of Liberty, and there will be a point where the player can add rooms inside of the statue of Mario.

In addition, Sega did not publish The Tower DS. It was published by another Japanese company called DigiToys Inc. I don’t know if this is because Sega wasn’t interested in The Tower, since they were willing to produce a sequel to Seaman for the PS2 in Japan. It could also be due to the fact that The Sims and Spore are dominating the simulation game market here. Those are great games, and it’s a shame that Vivarium Inc. developed 2 games that we will most likely never see in English.

Review: Every Extend Extra Extreme (XBLA)

Listed as E4 on Xbox Live Marketplace.

E4.jpgEvery Extend Extra Extreme (E4) is an enhanced remake of the PSP game Every Extend Extra (E3) which is an enhanced remake of the freeware game Every Extend (E2). Every Extend Extra Extreme has been developed by Q Entertainment, the synesthesia wizards who have also made Rez and Lumines which also make excellent use of light, color and audio.

The freeware game only has one level which can be easily finished in less than 10 minutes. It is very basic game and it started to truly evolve into an arcade masterpiece once Q Entertainment got their hands on it.

There are 4 modes of gameplay: Unlimited where there is a countdown timer that can be extended, timed where the countdown timer cannot be altered, a mode to use music stored on the Xbox hard drive to affect the level and a mode called “The Revenge” where the player shoots down multiple objects instead of using chain reactions.

The controls are simple: Left analog stick to move around, A to explode (or shoot in The Revenge mode), and B to end a chain reaction.

There are 4 levels in single player mode, each with its own music and behaviors. As the music plays, objects fly across the screen in geometric patterns such as V shapes, and the sounds in the songs affect their speed, direction and how fast the screen will become crowded.

When the player pops in the level, they have a shield and remain invulnerable for 5 seconds so they don’t die immediately in an over-crowded level. When the shield goes down, they can still freely move around, but cannot touch any enemy objects. If they do, they will be destroyed, and seconds will go down before the next player appears in the center of the screen, so they need to move more carefully.

As enemy objects move in, the player must find the best possible place to explode to start a chain reaction. When the player presses A to explode, any objects caught in the explosion will also explode, continuing the chain reaction. The player can press B to end the chain reaction to respawn and collect time extensions for more time to score points.

There are 4 objects the player can collect to help rack up a high score: Quickens make explosions faster, multipliers increase the score for every exploded object, shields which give you a short time of invulnerability and time extensions which increase the countdown timer.

The player’s score will increase at an alarming rate. For example, when I played for 10 minutes, I had a score of 1 trillion. This is because the player receives 1 point for every object that explodes in the chain reaction times the multipliers that have been collected. If a player gets 2000 chains and 2542 multipliers, they will receive 5084000 points.

In addition to simple controls, score modifiers and simple strategy, E4 has the same attributes that can be found in Rez and Lumines: The player’s movements and actions create sounds that match the level’s music, there are plenty of colors, flashing objects, different modes, the controller vibrates with the music and it be played for long periods of time. I found myself bopping my head to the music as I watched my 45-second chain reaction make clapping sounds that are in sync with the upbeat techno dance music.

The next mode, titled “Wiz Ur Musik”, prompts you to choose a song from your hard drive, which will be played and used to control how objects will move in the level. Prior to this, I inserted one of my music CDs into the Xbox and had it copy it to the hard drive which took a while. While I played this mode, I didn’t feel or see anything different from other songs. It looked like it was only counting bass and snare sounds and using that to control the pace of the game. In any case, it was nice to hear my own music for a while.

The final single player mode, “The Revenge” gives you the power to fire a weapon instead of exploding. Before the game starts, the player can choose if they want to fire in all 4 compass directions, or have those 4 directions of fire concentrate in the forward direction in a cone shape. Afterwards, the player can also choose the speed of the levels before it starts. When the game starts, the player has the same 5 second shield, but this time, must destroy a certain amount of objects, then defeat a boss afterwards. The enemies move faster and in different patterns as the levels progress. This is a fun variation of E4, and it’s a lot more challenging too since I can’t use the explosion to escape when I’m surrounded by enemies and I have to find a way to shoot my way out.

There is online multiplayer over Xbox live, but there’s nobody hosting or seeking any matches so I can’t say anything about this feature. If I wanted to play online, I’d have to add a friend who has E4 and send a message to them to arrange some time to play together.

Overall, this is an excellent game on Xbox Live Arcade. It is definitely without a doubt, much easier, more addictive and fun than Geometry Wars. This led me to believe that Geometry Wars became more popular due to the fact that Microsoft Game Studios was publishing it. This is the simplest and most addictive casual game I have ever played in my life. Even though there are only 4 single player levels, it can last from a few minutes to a few hours depending on how long I can stay concentrated and gather multipliers, quickens and time extensions. I know that not many people are aware of this game and if you have 800 points lying around in your live account and you want something to do for 10 minutes to an hour, then E4 is worth it. I wonder what they’ll make the fifth E stand for in E5 if they ever make a sequel: Every Extend Extra Extreme... Elephant?

Link to the freeware game: Every Extend

Review: Laser Quest (Danvers, MA)

Did you know that laser tag still exists as a commercially viable concept? When the gf stated that she wanted to celebrate her birthday this year by playing laser tag, I reacted quizzically. My concept of laser tag does not stretch beyond memories of the Worlds of Wonder-branded toy that flared into a bright but brief fad in the 1980s. I recall the spread it had in the Sharper Image catalog, and its cheesy Saturday-morning cartoon. My friend Jaimy and his little brothers got some sets for Christmas one year, back then, and we played at running around zapping each other in his driveway at least once. But that was all long ago, and I'd assumed it had long since gone the way of all gimmicky plastic.

ltvests1.jpgBut according to Wikipedia, the concept of laser tag - that is, mounting an infrared flashlight into a gun-shaped casing and firing it at wearable, IR-sensing targets - originated with the US military in the late 1970s, and started appearing in a variety of toys at around the same time. While home versions no longer have an aisle to themselves in toy stores, there continue to operate across the US laser tag "arenas" operating under a variety of names and trademarks. The closest one to us happened to be Laser Quest in Danvers [noisy Flash link, sorry], so we grabbed a dozen or so friends and tripped out to the suburbs.

We played two 20-minute games, both of which had rules I can best summarize as those of a first-person shooter deathmatch - every man for himself, basically. As with an FPS, the penalty for "dying" - getting beamed in any of the sensors attached to your vest or gun - was to leave play for a few seconds, during which you can't fire (or be meaningfully fired upon). You gained 10 points for zapping someone, and lost some points for getting zapped, varying by the sensor's location and who shot you. And the end, everyone receives a scorecard detailing whom they tagged and were tagged by, on which sensors, and for how many points.

The arena was impressive, despite (and perhaps somewhat assisted by) a certain low-budget-ingeniuty charm. It was essentially a large wooden labyrinth, its walls painted with goofy fun-house designs in colors that reacted well to the black light employed throughout. While it wasn't truly multilevel - there were no bridges to walk under - it did employ a lot of variance of elevation, accessed through a series of ramps. This gave a sense of high ground you could take, which actually did give you a better view of the whole maze (and all the potential targets within).

The biggest surprise for me was the use of real lasers in the guns. While the actual "munition" was the usual IR beams and sensors, the guns also shone red lasers forward when their triggers were pulled. What made this actually impressive was that the labyrinth was filled with mist before each match, not thick enough to obscure vision (especially in the dim light) but enough to make the lasers fully visible. I was truly taken aback the first time I pulled my trigger and saw a coherent beam flash out!

In this mode of play, the Laser Quest organizers seem to prefer piling as many players as they can at once into the maze. So our first game pitted our group against a horde of 10-year-old boys who happened to also be visiting that day. We then took a breather while the boys were allowed to play by themselves (while a theory circulated among our group that the boys' parents were tweaked to see them being pursued aggressively by some 15 adult men and women of questionable maturity). I scored 12th out of 28 players; not bad! First place went to one of the little ones, while one of our party took second.

Our second game was just ourselves, along with three teenagers who came alone. I am embarrassed to admit that, during this second round, I forgot the rules that explicitly prohibited sitting, lying down, or taking any other non-vertical pose. Wigging out a little from the relentless fog of war, I commenced crouching and tumbling around all bad-ass like you see in movies. Don't do this, perhaps especially if you're of a certain age or older. While it was fun for a while and I felt all hardcore, after a few minutes I spontaneously overheated (the place is not the most well-ventilated or air-conditioned in town) and had to sit down because I couldn't move anymore. The gf found me in this state and valiantly defended my prone position for a while. After I told her I was OK, she kissed my forehead, shot me in the chest and ran off to seek more challenging targets. It was truly a touching scene.

Anyway, despite this momentary lapse (where I quite deservedly came in last place) I had a delightful time, and look forward to playing again sometime. The scorecards imply the existence of other rulesets, including team-based and even capture-the-flag-style play. Some in our group, intrigued by this, are already talking about the 60-person all-night special the facility offers. I shall have to remember to take it easy, that time.

Review: Cursor*10 (Flash)

Don’t be fooled be the simplistic black and white vector shapes. Cursor*10 is a very quick unique and challenging puzzle game that can be played in any web browser as long as it has Adobe Flash installed.cursorx10title.gif

Cursor*10 is a flash game made by Yoshio Ishii, who has made numerous games for Nekogames, using a simple point-and-click control scheme and a simple visual style that reminds me of old DOS and Atari games. Even though the website is Japanese, the game is in English and doesn’t require anyone to learn button combinations or advanced tactics. All the player needs is quick reflexes and a basic understanding of the game’s objectives.

The object of every level in Cursor*10 is to click on the staircase that goes to the floor above, eventually reaching the 16th floor. There is no main character to speak of; however your own mouse cursor could be considered a character in this game. When you start a level, there is a timer at the bottom-right corner that starts at 650 and continues to fall down towards 0 increasingly faster as the player tries to move through each floor. When the timer reaches 0, the first cursor explodes, the message “Cursor No. 2 ready” is showed, and the player restarts the entire game from the beginning. However, this time, Cursor No. 1’s movements and clicks are being replayed as Cursor No. 2 continues to move around, and when No. 3 is ready, its predecessors will be replayed and this continues throughout all 10 cursors. This gameplay mechanic is first used where there is a button on the ground that reveals a set of stairs when the button is pressed and disappears when that same button is released. This forces the player to use Cursor No. 1 to hold that button down until it explodes, then Cursor No. 2 repeats those floors, but this time, Cursor No. 1’s movements are being replayed, which includes holding that button down, giving Cursor No. 2 the chance to go up that flight of stairs and get closer to the 16th floor. The multiplicity strategy is used multiple times, such as another situation where a box needs to be clicked 99 times for the next staircase to be shown but there’s not enough time for 1 cursor to do it, so another cursor must sacrifice its life so the next cursor can make it through.

Out of all the games I’ve ever played in my life, I don’t remember a single one that uses this concept of the player dying and as they use replay the game, their previous actions are replayed in real time in such a way that they help themselves out. It’s a very short game that can be finished in less than 15 minutes once you understand what needs to be done to get to the staircase to the next level.

This makes me wonder if this concept of multiplicity can be implemented in future games; there’s been many interesting puzzle games involving changing your visual perspective of objects (e.g. EchoChrome, Crush, Super Paper Mario), matching specific color blocks (e.g. Audiosurf, Lumines, Dr. Mario) and even blending adventure with puzzles (e.g. Zack & Wiki, Professor Layton). Whatever happens, I’m glad that the puzzle genre is no longer limited to jig-saw puzzles, crosswords and Tetris-clones.

Cursor*10 is a short, fun and original flash puzzle game that is easy on the mind and can be easily played from beginning to end once the player remembers where the stairs are and where the buttons are.

Link: Cursor*10

Review: ClayFighter 63 1/3 (N64)

I don't have Super Smash Bros. Brawl, but I do have ClayFighter 63 1/3 for the Nintendo 64, a game that feels like Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter and Killer Instinct mixed with clay and Ren & Stimpy.

There's some interesting speculation behind why they used the suffix of 63 1/3 instead of the number 64. The obvious guess being that it is making fun of the clichéd 64 slapped on the end of many game titles. The other is a rumor that Interplay was running out of time and that Nintendo kept rushing them without giving any extra time, so the 63 1/3 would seem to be a message this game could have been much bigger and better if it had spent more time in development.Kung Pow vs Taffy

There is no story whatsoever. The player simply chooses a character and fights to the top. It's simple, straightforward and doesn't force anyone to remember any character backgrounds such as "this guy killed my father" or "I want to be the best of the best to prove that my family is the greatest!"

All the character sprites and animation were made using photographs of clay models. It went for that funny cartoony, surrealist style for the characters and made the characters look very unique. Even though the sprites are two-dimensional, the levels which the fights would take place were completely 3D. This is one of the many things that madeClayFighter stand out in the first place. Other games did not even dare to try this approach.

As the fighters move closer or further away from each other, the camera would rotate around to show that this isn't just a sidescrolling level. Both characters can move around in a circle if they keep moving left or right. This is only the point in the level where neither character can pass. It is at this point, an opponent can smash the opponent with a strong attack then end up at another section of the level that isn't normally seen. This would usually be the roof of the level, inside a castle, or inside a sewer. The player can even knock the opponent back to the previous part of the level if they get cornered again.

There are 12 playable characters, with 3 of them being unlockable. Interesting enough, there are 2 characters that people may be familiar with who aren't ClayFighter-exclusive characters: Boogerman and Earthworm Jim who both had their own games on the Sega Genesis, which the previous ClayFighter games were initially made for. Even though there are no character stats that show which ones are stonger, faster or jump higher, the character that is chosen is pretty much a matter of preference. I always let the game choose randomly for me by holding the L+R triggers together. The 3 hidden characters can be chosen after pressing the right key combination at the character selection screen. Each character has unique animations and sound effects for every attack and damage taken. You will hear things suck as "cluck you", "quit it", "I will destroy you", "I told you I'd win" and even "you suck". It never gets annoying.

In addition to the quirky characters, there is also a combo and fatality system reminiscent of serious games such as Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter and Killer Instinct. At the beginning of every match, the narrator would shout "Let's get ready to crumble", which is aspinoff of Michael Buffer's catchphrase "Let's get ready to rumble". When the blue power meter is full, the player can pull off a combo that will set off into crazy combos causing the announcer to shout things such as "itty bitty combo", "tripple brown betty combo", "insane combo" and even "little girly combo". These combos can consist of landing 3 to even 400 hits (that's right, 400) and up depending on how high the meter is and how close you are to the opponent. When either player loses their health completely, they kneel to the ground waiting to be taken down with one hit or with a fatality, whichClayFighter refers to as a claytality. These claytalaties can range from throwing them in the air flying up from the island they're on hitting the camera as if they were going to fly out of the TV, being blasted in a cannon and even being chopped in half! The word "CLAYTALITY" would appear in big bloody letters.

The controls were great. It utilized the obvious A and B buttons, and the C buttons were each used for attacking as well. The L+R triggers would be used to step sideways, which is useful to dodge projectiles, but I barely used it since I can jump over most attacks and I fought just fine without them. At low difficulties,ClayFighter 63 1/3 is a crazy button mashers, and at the "PSYCHO" difficulty, the computer will grab you and unleash 10-hit combos of their own. There are 5 difficulties altogether: Cookie, normal, whoa, dude and psycho.

It also allows two players to fight against each other. It is a simple one-on-one versus mode. It's been years since I've actually played against another person, so I can't say too much about this.

With all the jokes, funny characters, and slapstick sound effects, ClayFighter 63 1/3 still feels like an unfinished game. There is no save option anywhere, so any unlocked characters and victories will never be recorded. Once the N64 is turned off, the player is forced to start all over every time. The character movements are slower compared to other fighters such as Super Smash Bros. and Killer Instinct. A sequel was made as a blockbuster-exclusive rental,ClayFighter Sculptor's Cut and it suffered the same problems as 63 1/3. The fact that Sculptor's Cut could only be rented from blockbuster and not purchased made it appeal to an even smaller audience. To make matters worse, the developers of ClayFighter 63 1/3, Interplay shut down in 2004 due to financial problems, making it seem highly unlikely that a new ClayFighter will ever emerge. Since Interplay owns the rights to the game, it will may never appear on Nintendo's beloved Virtual Console or even as a Nintendo DS remake. When ClayFighter first came out for the Sega Genesis, it was a childish fighter that took place in a carnival after a radioactive comet crashed. On the N64, it evolved into a funny game that paid homage to the fighting giants Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter and Killer Instinct through parodies in gameplay mechanics. It appealed to an older audience and toned the violence down enough to make it youth-friendly at the same time. It is a real shame that it never skyrocketed into popularity with its visual style and the strangeness of the characters themselves.

The button-mashing style of play at the lowest difficulty was always my favorite and I loved pushing the opponent to different parts of the level and then finishing them off. The crazy clay characters and the parodies of other fighting games appealed to me and is a nice between a combo-crunching fistfight and being just plain weird. The lack of a story took nothing away from the game quality. The camera is always smooth and never obstructed my view. If Interplay ever gets back on their feet and starts making games again, I would beg them to work on ClayFighter somehow. It's been 11 years, and I can't think of anyone else who's made a decent fighter game that has a crazy style of humor that feels similar to other games mixed with clay and insanity. With the cartoon visuals of Team Fortress 2, Battlefield Heroes and Zack & Wiki, I can't see a reason why they can't make their own in-house visual rendering technology that can make 3D models look like clay. ClayFighter is one of those games that died too early in its infancy and needed more time to grow. It dared to go in the opposite direction while other fighting games became more complicated with higher-quality graphics and near-clunky controls.

Costikyan on the need for game criticism

Indie-game publisher/agitator Greg Costikyan returns from the recent Game Developers Conference all fired up from a session about game journalism he attended, where he feels he witnessed panelists repeatedly conflating art critiques with product reviews. He ends up writing a lengthy impassioned plea for the game-media community to learn the difference.

Have I made it clear now? Reviews are the inevitable epiphenomenon of our consumer society, writing to help consumers navigate the innumerable options available to them. They can be well or poorly done, but they are nothing more than ephemera. I'm sure the newspapers of early 19th century America ran reviews of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper; they are utterly forgotten, and should be, because by nature they were of interest only to the readers of the newspapers of the time. Contrariwise, Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is still considered an examplar of literary criticism.


Similarly, there would be no point today in writing a review of Ultima IV, since it is long out of print. A useful work of criticism, however, is entirely conceivable: discussing, perhaps, its role as one of the first games to consider the moral implications of a player's acts, and to use tactical combat as a minigame within the context of a larger, more strategic title. Such an article, well-written, ideally with an understanding of the influence of tabletop roleplaying on the development of the early western CRPG, and of the place of this title in the overall shape of Richard Garriot's ouevre would be of interest to readers today, even if they'd be hard put to find a way to buy the damn game. And it might find a place in anthologies and studies of the 20th century origins of the popular medium of the game, going forward into the indefinite future.

The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.

We need our own Pauline Kaels and John Simons -- and we need to ensure that when they appear, no one insists that they attach a damn numerical score to their writing, because that is wholly irrelevant to the undertaking of writing seriously about games.

And even in a more proximate matter, we need those drudges called reviewers, despite the meager pay they receive, to think more seriously about critical issues, too. Why should a review of an RTS which doesn't understand the historical evolution of that genre and the place a particular work holds in the spectrum of previously published RTS be considered of the slightest interest?

Yes. Inspiration to start producing The Gameshelf was born over similar frustrations over the game media I had a few years ago (and, for the most part, continue to have). I can only hope that the show and its blog can at least make reaching motions in the direction that Greg is pointing, here.

By the way, Greg's Play This Thing! is a very smart small-group blog about interesting games and related topics. By which I mean, if you enjoy the Gameshelf Blog, you should probably drop this other one into your RSS reader too.

Review: Audiosurf (PC)

Do you want to play a game like Rez without holding on to your PlayStation 2, Dreamcast or saving up for an Xbox 360 for Rez HD? On February 15 2008, Steam released a game called Audiosurf, a game that is very hard for me to explain, so I will try my best; it's just one of games where you have to watch some YouTube videos to understand what is happening...

Before you start any level, the player will be asked to choose a ship with different abilities, and then choose a song from the computer; this can be any file format from an MP3, OGG, FLAC, M4A, WMA, and of course, CD format. It even reads the DRM protected files as well, so it can run those online purchased songs without any issues. After the song is selected, it will take a moment to analyze the track, which results in the design of the level.

After loading, the player will have his ship at the beginning off a strange looking wavy road that was shaped by the sound waves of the chosen song. The speed of the song and the beats in the song (e.g. snares, hand claps, bass, guitar, etc.) will affect the speed that the ship travels on the road and where and how many colored blocks are placed on different parts of this musical road. The player will see an aerial view of the road for a few seconds before the song starts playing.

Below the player's ship is a grid where colors go when they are collected. The objectives vary depending on the difficulty chosen; the easiest will only require the player to simply collect any block that is not gray; the medium difficulty requires the player to collect 3 or more of the same color and have them be adjacent to each other, and collecting gray blocks will make the player lose a significant amount of points; the highest difficulty will have a barrage of gray blocks, and the player will be required to collect the few blocks that are actually colored. The song doesn't get distorted when the ship miss blocks or hit the gray blocks by accident; the player simply lose points and can continue playing normally. At the end of the song, the ship enters a very geometric space tunnel, and you score will be compared with others in the world who have also played that exact same song; through this online scoreboard, I have learned that I am not exactly the best Audiosurf player out there and all that matters is that I had lots of fun! There were a few songs where I was the first person to play, and I popped up at the #1 spot by default; this is only because the game came out yesterday.

With this concept, every song in this world is basically waiting to be turned into a level; I found myself searching my hard drive for MP3s and my room for CDs for the simple reason to have it played in Audiosurf and collect points; it's not just a really cool visualizer; it's the perfect game for both hardcore and casual gamers; I played many songs from techno, dance, rock, pop, classical and even hip-hop; Audiosurf was able to scan each one and turn it into a unique level. The only one I couldn't use was this 176 MB MP3 file of a DJ Tiesto performance, because it was too long and Audiosurf just gave up because of the nature of its algorithm; I'm just mentioning this because I think it's funny and that most people in their lives may never have an MP3 file of that size. It had me listening to songs differently, wondering how it would look if I was playing it in Audiosurf. It is obvious that this will get people plugging in their Walkmans (i.e. the ones that actually play MP3s), iPods and Zunes to their computer to play more songs in hopes of making it on the online scoreboard.

When people describe this game, they describe that it has elements in other games, but there hasn't been any solid comparisons; for example, I'm the only one so far who has stated that it reminded me of Rez because of how it gets you hooked and you forget about everything else around you. The compared games are:

- Rez; I experienced the same synesthesia.
- Tetris; lining up those blocks
- Guitar Hero; the road scrolls vertically like the guitar's neck
- F-Zero; the futuristic vehicles

I actually came across this game by chance; I opened up my Steam client to play Team Fortress 2 online, then I saw a popup for a free demo for Audiosurf; the tagline read "ride your music"; it caught my attention with the futuristic ship it displayed in the ad, so I downloaded the demo quickly, and I played some songs I happened to have on my computer; it was awesome! However, I realized that the demo only allowed me to play 4 songs and after that, it kept telling me to buy the game if I wanted more; and I did want more! I paid the low price of $9.95 for the full version and I have no regrets! It's one of those games that I'll always play whenever I'm extremely bored and I want something to do for 20 minutes, or if there's a bunch of songs I've never heard and I want to listen to them differently. Also, this is a music rhythm game that is not a Dance Dance Revolution rip-off or a Guitar Hero wannabe; it's completely different and it's all about the concept of turning a song into a playable level and being amazed every time.

I can't think of anything I hate about this game; it's simple, addictive and it will never get boring with the limitless songs that can be obtained; the multiple file compatibilities and DRM support make Audiosurf even easier to use since I never reached a point where I had to convert something. The only problem I had was installing the game itself; when I bought the full version, the game would still tell me to buy the new version; at first, I thought I did something wrong, then I deleted my content for Audiosurf, and reinstalled Audiosurf then the game worked without any problems; at this point, I played as many songs as possible before I stood up to get some coffee. I am not the best player, and even though I make mistakes that make me lose a lot of points, it's all part of the experience; there's just something about collecting colorful blocks while driving a ship on a road that's been shaped by a song that makes this one of the most innovative and unique games out there. Whenever I played a song directly from a CD with the standard CD format, the game would freeze for a few seconds making it seem like it has crashed; it still works nonetheless and will be resolved with future updates. There was a short moment where I had problems logging my account in Audiosurf and that was only because of the heavy server load on the first day of this game's release. Other than those miniscule bugs, everything about this game is just good, clean and simple musical fun.

I looked at the credits, and there's only 5 people listed and a group called "Pedro Macedo Camacho" for composing an original musical score and "Paladin Studios" for the 3D models; they certainly did an amazingly good job at this game; this is definitely NOT the cliché "college game programming project" that they only did for the sake of getting a grade; this is an experiment that bloomed into a huge success! All I hope is that they continuing working on this, and I know that it will turn into something that is bigger than it already is; Valve did a very good job promoting it as well; with the purchase of the full version, they included their entire soundtrack of "The Orange Box", which includes Portal's end credit song, "Still Alive"; yet another good deal. In addition, there are even free songs available online from the Audiosurf servers that can be played if the player wants to play something that is not on their computer. All of these tracks have played well in the game, and perfectly in sync, and these people did an excellent job in mathematical calculations, sound wave analysis, and creating a nice futuristic feel that reminds you that nothing is real, and it's all about having fun.

With its musical versatility, fast pace, low system requirements, online scoreboards and incredibly cheap price of $9.95, this is definitely worth buying for anyone who wants to play a rhythm game that doesn't force the player to "be in sync or else" and wants an arcade-style experience. If you don't want to spend a cent, just play the demo to understand what it's all about, and you will love it; just make sure you choose your four songs carefully, because after that, it won't give you another chance to play.




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