Category Archives: Games Of 2012

The most meaningful games of 2012.

Games of 2012: The Rest

Here’s a shocker: despite there only being 26 games in my blog post series, I played more than 26 games this year. A number of these games didn’t warrant a full blown post, but I did want to at least recommend them or give them their due. So here’s a big list of 30 games that didn’t make the list that might be worth a look (or a pass) – in three sentences or less per game.

Analogue: A Hate Story (Steam): A well-written interactive fiction game that has you digging through an abandoned space ship’s computer to figure out what happened to it. A lot to dig into, and the interactions with the AIs are well scripted. Originally on the list for this year, but left off because other games took its spot.

Chip Chain (iOS): A pretty recent title that sort of plays like a match-three game, but with some unique mechanics I hadn’t seen before. Good style and polish on it, although just slightly hampered by some IAP pushing. Worth a look for iOS gamers in need of a puzzle game fix.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (Steam/PSN/XBLA): I’ve always felt I should’ve gotten into Counter-Strike, and this is the first one that felt accessible enough that I could. Plays really fast, runs well – perhaps this can finally bump CS 1.6 off the throne. Need to spend more time with this.

Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten (Steam): Puts some deep RPG elements on top of tower defense games, and tries to put a story on top of it as well. Tower defense lovers should give this a look.

Double Dragon: Neon (PSN/XBLA): I wanted to hate this game for coining the phrase “bro-op”, but it overcame that. Really amazing soundtrack by Jake Kaufman that serves as both an homage to the original series and to 80’s pop.

Dyad (PSN): Trippy as hell tube racer/shooter/puzzler/something. One of those games that just seems to fit on PSN. Really hard to describe, obviously.

FIFA Street (PS3/360): When I played soccer as a kid, I loved indoor, so a game that focuses on the smaller version of the game seemed like a great idea. But of course the execution was flawed and I forgot about it after two weeks. Left off the list because I already had enough soccer games and enough counter-example games.

Football Manager 2013 (Steam): It’s the first year for FM where they’ve actually tried to make the game more accessible to newcomers, and that’s a big deal – those looking for a robust sports sim should get in the door now. I should be happy I haven’t lost my soul to this game yet.

Gasketball (iOS): Good physics puzzler that has you making trick shots with a basketball. Frustrating at times given the game’s unforgiving nature, but nailing a shot feels really good.

Gotham City Impostors (Steam/PSN/XBLA): Got slogged in the press, but I actually liked what this was trying to do. Team based shooters have gotten pretty same-y, and GCI at least tried to change up the formula. It’s free to play now on the PC, so it can’t hurt to try.

Hell Yeah! (Steam/PSN/XBLA): A really bizarre Sega release that feels like they were trying just a little too hard to channel Disgaea into a platformer. Still, it’s not bad at what it does, and the humor isn’t unbearable. I like seeing Sega take a chance on a new franchise rather than rehashing Sonic again.

Iron Brigade (Steam/XBLA): Doublefine’s take on the Tower Defense genre, with a fun cross of early 20th century war and sci-fi trappings. Probably a ton of fun in co-op, but I barely spent any time with it beyond the tutorial levels (mostly for lack of friends with the game).

Karateka (iOS/PSN/XBLA): I adored Jordan Mechner’s original game, and I’m so glad to see it back on modern platforms. Feels right on iOS, although I haven’t tried the console versions. Just came out on December 19th, so it was a little too late-breaking to make it into the list.

Knights of Pen & Paper (iOS): This has become my renewed addiction over the past week: a mobile RPG that works in short bursts. The concept, which is that you’re a group of people playing a tabletop RPG, gives it a good sense of humor and place missing from a lot of RPGs. Had my addiction came weeks earlier, it would’ve been a lock for a post.

Legend of Grimrock (Steam): I am so glad someone finally did a modern take on Dungeon Master. I missed crawling around chunky grid-based dungeons. Cheap during the Steam sale this week, so if you have nostalgia for dungeon crawling 80’s style, get on it now.

Little Inferno (Steam/WiiWare): I burned through this (hur hur) in one afternoon, and while I loved what it was trying to do, I didn’t really like how it did it. Not quite enough of a game to warrant the $10 asking price.

Lost Cities (iOS): From the same team that did Carcasonne comes a great port of a modern card game. As fully featured and well polished as one can want in a card game. Exemplary stuff for other iOS developers.

Mark of the Ninja (Steam/XBLA): Got a ton of love from XBLA enthusiasts, and I have not gotten enough time with the Steam version. Definitely seems to have the stealth gameplay down cold, though.

Orcs Must Die! 2 (Steam): Loved the first one, and the second seems like a good refinement on the formula. Half over-the-person shooter, half tower defense. Also, co-op!

Puzzle Craft (iOS): Draw-to-match tile puzzle mixed with town building and upgrading? Would have been pure digital crack were it not for performance problems and bugs. Should be safe now, though.

Retro City Rampage (Steam/PSN): Suffers from “references overpower the gameplay” syndrome – too many jokes, not enough original ideas. Wanted to like this but ended up just feeling let down. May give it another shot since the PSN/Vita version was recently free.

Sleeping Dogs (Steam/PS3/360): Impressed by Squeenix’s take on the GTA formula. World seems pretty nicely realized, enough so that I’m looking forward to getting back to it. If you’re waiting on pins and needles for GTAV, give this a look.

Sound Shapes (PSN): Such a cute, smart, well built platformer. Great art, great music. Just felt way too short in exchange for a level editor – community can’t replace solid game design.

Spaceteam (iOS): Absolutely love the concept: all your networked iOS devices show controls and instructions, which need to be shouted so someone else can fidget with the dial to avoid your ship exploding. Always a big fan of interactive group games. My only issue: I haven’t played this with anyone yet.

Spec Ops: The Line (Steam/PS3/360): I’ve been told there’s an amazing twist and writing waiting beneath the surface of this. But the couple of hours I spent with it just felt like a really janky third-person shooter. Will return to it in the future.

SSX (PS3/360): I need to stop getting my hopes up for SSX games, as EA has broken my heart more times than they’ve won it over. The endless array of equipment and stats tinkering here lost me. A shame, because the snowboarding itself was pretty fun in the right circumstances.

Tokyo Jungle (PSN): Again, a quirky title that feels like you would only find it on PSN. I enjoyed running around the abandoned streets of Tokyo as a pomeranian – until I was attacked by a rhino. Lovers of quirky titles should not pass this up.

The Walking Dead (Steam/XBLA/PSN/iOS): Has won so many damned end of the year awards, I felt like re-iterating that I hadn’t had a chance to play it yet. Have just dipped my toe into chapter 1, and I can tell there’s quality here. Probably a safe bet if you like point-and-click adventure games.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Steam): If there’s any game I regret not spending more time with, it’s XCOM. Loved the demo, but the ongoing issues with my Windows install took me away from it and I desperately want to play it again. Expect to see me logging series time on this on Steam the minute I can install Boot Camp again.

Zookeeper Battle (iOS): Competitive Match 3, with cute blocky Japanese style. Gets surprisingly tense when you can’t make matches or when you wait to see how the rounds resolve. Online live play only, but it’s free, so give it a try.

Games of 2012: Pinball Arcade

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Pinball Arcade: Bride of Pinbot

I am probably alone in choosing Farsight’s Pinball Arcade as my game of the year, and I understand why I’m outside the norm. It is an incredibly flawed title, where even the smallest Facebook note from the developers triggers a wrath of complaints. But flaws and all, Pinball Arcade represents the ambitious dreams, flawed execution, and modern quandaries that defined gaming in 2012.

The Need

I absolutely love pinball, and have for almost my entire life. In my formative years, when I needed a little stool to reach most arcade machines, I devoted plenty of time to flinging around silver balls. Didn’t matter if it was an arcade at the mall, a restaurant down the road, a little nook in a hotel, or an amusement center on a boardwalk in New Jersey – if there was pinball, I wanted to play it.

But pinball has been dying for years. Arcades have dried up thanks to console growth, and are nearly impossible to find, especially one that might house a pinball machine. The major manufacturers – Bally, Williams, Midway, Gottleib – all went bankrupt or out of business. Stern Pinball has opted to half-heartedly market themselves as “the only company presently making pinball machines.” Should they fall by the wayside, then pinball as an art form is dead.

It seems likely at this point that pinball will be relegated to the scrap heap of gaming history, a platform that couldn’t be sustained as the world changed. The generation currently growing up may never know the joy of hitting a ramp perfectly or getting a third lock and triggering multiball.

There’s been a shift over the last decade in how game preservation is done. It used to be solely the domain of emulation buffs, enthusiast collectors, and casual pirates. Over time, publishers and rights holders alike started to see the value of re-selling their existing titles on new platforms, so that the works can live on.

Pinball hasn’t really had that hero. While there are ROMs to dump and chipsets to emulate, there’s a lot of physical space and characteristics that also have to be modeled. And outside of some enthusiast communities, no one was really performing that – that is, until Farsight came along.

The Promise

Pinball Arcade: Medieval Madness

Farsight rose to some level of prestige for executing on two widely hailed collections of pinball tables – one for Gottleib, and one for Williams. They hit the market at a time when a console pinball title normally meant a wacky, physically improbable table that didn’t play like real pinball ever did. (Zen Studios, I am looking directly at you here.)

So when Farsight announced Pinball Arcade earlier this year, and promised “REAL PINBALL”, I was listening. They laid out their grand plan: an expansive digital platform, available digitally for every console and handheld device imaginable. Perfect recreations of the best pinball tables, released on a regular basis for reasonable prices. Network tournaments.

I was in. I was so in.

The Hiccup

Farsight’s vision neglected one key point about digital distribution platforms: they’re all different. So when they planned their monthly updates, they ran into issues – LOTS of issues.

On PSN, Sony’s approval processes take weeks and demand recertification for each region. So while the US might get tables released, Europe would have to wait, which made Europe cranky.

On XBLA, Microsoft’s limitations on the number of DLC packs meant Farsight had to try and lump them together. Then their publisher went out of business, and since you can’t self-publish on XBLA anymore, they’ve been months behind as they try to get a new publisher lined up.

On iOS and the Mac App Store, they ran into the usual Apple approval process snags, especially when a release would go out with bugs, which happened fairly regularly.

On Windows – well, it’s still not released. In a bizarre decision by Valve, they were rejected from being put onto Steam. They have been trying to work their way through Steam Greenlight instead, but they remain frustratingly out of reach from being greenlit.

In sum: no matter what platform you were on, you had something to complain about. And that lead to a fairly intolerable situation with the community.

The Dream

Pinball Arcade: Twilight Zone

While they were dealing with all of these platform issues, Farsight came hat in hand to the community – not to resolve these issues, but to ask for money to make something that had never been done before possible.

Some of the most popular pinball titles of all times have pretty major licenses attached to them – Twilight Zone, Star Trek, or The Addams Family to name a few. As anyone who remembers the struggle to get Freaks And Geeks released on DVD because of all of the music clearances they needed, so too do pinball games need a lot of licenses holders made happy before a game can be recreated.

And so two Kickstarter campaigns would appear in the middle of 2012: one for The Twilight Zone and one for Star Trek: The Next Generation. These are not just licenses for the sake of churning out tables that might sell well to people new to pinball. They are (respectively) the #1 and #2 rated games of all time on IPDB. They have never had digital representations, ever, and to do so would be a major coup.

Because of the licensing costs, Farsight needed to be fronted some money to make it happen. The community came through, and both projects were funded. And the tables were just released, at least on iOS and Android, in November (TZ) and December (STTNG).

For Farsight to have accomplished this with even one table is a landmark moment in video game preservation, let alone two.

The Nightmare

Farsight’s quest to keep the big, notable tables coming lead to some pretty massive quality control issues.

As an example, let’s take Cirqus Voltaire, one of Williams/Bally’s last tables from 1997. Since release back in the summer, CV has suffered from an issue where the game doesn’t know what to do when you lock a ball. Sometimes a new ball will appear in the plunger, but the camera won’t shift so you can properly fire the ball. Sometimes a ball won’t appear, and the game won’t know what to do – until it gradually cycles the table (as all pinball tables do when a ball may be lost) and tells you it’s going to kick out the balls you already locked. It breaks the game in a bad way.

This has been broken since release. Every month I hope for a table update that will fix it, and every month it is not.

Were that not enough, the UI and infrastructure for the game has gotten progressively worse. Table purchases need to be restored on occasion, especially if you backed the Kickstarter campaigns and have a mixture of bought and comped tables. Facebook integration flat out didn’t work for a few months, and even now is pretty shoddy. Game Center achievements don’t fire from time to time. And the recently introduced “new UI” to handle the increasing number of tables looks laughably bad on a Retina display. I would embed the screenshot I took but I don’t want to force anyone to endure an eye injury – so here’s a link.

The Reality

Pinball Arcade: Theatre Of Magic

There are plenty of negatives to gripe about with Pinball Arcade – but they are easy to look past. As much as it can frustrate me, a few good minutes with it can melt away all my frustrations.

It lets me revisit tables that were part of my childhood – the Elvira And The Party Monsters table at a local pizza place, Taxi at the local skating rink, Funhouse at the restaurant on the lake.

It gives me a chance to study tables that I never understood before. Twilight Zone is the most notable here, a table that utterly perplexed me until I got my hands on the digital version.

It’s gotten me familiar with tables that I can now better deal with the few times I do get to play pinball. My most recent trip to Ground Kontrol let me get some time on the real version of Cirqus Voltaire, Scared Stiff, and Medieval Madness. Without knowing these tables are beatable, I probably would’ve just stuck to The Addams Family (again).

And even though holding an iPad is a poor replacement for a giant table you can bump and nudge and thump, the same thrills are still there. Making a tough shot, popping an extra ball, and entering a wizard mode still gives you that high. Watching a ball drain straight down the middle still makes you want to swear.

I can look past the flaws and approval delays because Farsight is not only doing important work, but deeply cares about pinball as a thing. The recent posts on the fan forum about one member’s trip to the studio illustrate that this is a company that is trying – passionately, desperately, possibly even foolishly – to give pinball its due.

I can’t think of a game I’ve spent more time with this year, or one released this year that’s more important to preserving a key part of gaming history. And that is why Pinball Arcade is my game of the year: it’s a museum and a great game, all in one.

Pinball Arcade is available for PS3, Vita, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android. My experiences were largely with the iPad version.

Games of 2012: Hotline Miami

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Everyone Dies.  No Exceptions.

It seems perverse to put [Hotline Miami](http://hotlinemiami.com/) so high on my list this year given the all-too-recent events of Newtown, CT. Had this been released by a major publisher or available in stores for home consoles, it would’ve incited a media frenzy, networks falling over each other to blame it for the tragedy. It could have easily replaced “Mortal Kombat” as the game to name drop when trying to source the evil in the hearts of those who would commit atrocities.

Improbably, Dennaton’s opus of neon and violence and Amiga-style graphics and blood and pounding electronica and dismemberment has escaped that scrutiny. For now, at least.

The game’s structure is rhythmic: there’s a message on your answering machine, a mysterious voice speaking in code about a location that needs your attention. You head down the stairs and into your DeLorean, and roll up to the location, which is always swarming with armed thugs. You pull on an animal mask of your choice, and head inside. Everyone dies. You leave, head to another location to receive what might be your payment, and then wake up for another day, and another message. Repeat.

Hotline Miami

It’s the “everyone dies” part that requires the most of your attention. Hotline Miami is all about the high-energy, high-tension rampage that you must execute to complete a level. With an improvised array of weapons, you’ll dance between lying in wait to take down a solo goon to busting into a room with guns blazing. Those conditioned on modern FPS games – soak up 20 bullets, hide behind cover until you’re back to full health – will be frustrated by an NES-style “one hit and you’re dead” health system. The button you may end up hitting the most is not the “fire” button but the “Restart” button, as though you’re playing Trials. It’s been called a “violence puzzle” – less about the aiming of your guns and more about managing ammo, avoiding sight lines, and keeping quiet.

The style drives the experience home. The ultra-violence is tapered somewhat by the garish 8-bit graphics, but gruesome close-range assaults make it clear what body parts are going where. There’s a [fantastically assembled soundtrack](https://soundcloud.com/devolverdigital/sets/hotline-miami-official), pounding and driving through the levels, that easily takes my favorite soundtrack of the year honors. And there’s small details – the way the camera swings the world just a little off-kilter, the shadows passing as you drive the car – that raises it just a notch higher.

You Don't Look Well, Sir

And then there’s the ultimate question: why *are* you killing all these people, and who is that voice on the answering machine? The game delivers the story in small drips of ephemera, like newspaper clippings or audio from a television, but it’s not long before things go off the rails and you’re questioning if any of what you’re seeing is real. Is it a fever dream? Is it a geo-political plot? Is it a [meditation on violence in video games](http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RamiIsmail/20121029/180408/Why_Hotline_Miami_is_an_important_game.php)?

I do subscribe to the idea that Hotline Miami is a meta-commentary about violence in games. When I consider my most lasting memory of the time I spent with the game, it is not any particular murder it asked me to commit. It’s not the bizarre conversations I had with what seems like the in-game representation of my psyche, or the corpses that randomly appeared in the video store. Instead, it’s that frequently moment right as the last man falls lifeless to the floor in a level, and the music fades into a cycling low hum and static. The adrenaline running through you and the accomplishment you feel for finally toppling the levels fades to emptiness. You step back through the level, revisiting everything you’ve done – all the blood spilled on the floor and the walls – and you are left to consider it all. And as your world and sanity fall apart in the game, it doesn’t always feel good.

That’s why I fear the day that Hotline Miami finally triggers a media shitstorm. For all of the violence and murder and carnage you’re instructed to commit, it provides a strong (albeit not easily deciphered) message about violence, mental health, and the power of suggestion. In a strange way, it’s reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange – and like the reaction to both Burgess’ book and Kubrick’s movie, I worry that the lessons could be missed entirely.

Hotline Miami is [available for Windows](http://store.steampowered.com/app/219150/). An OS X version is allegedly coming in the future.

Games of 2012: Virtue’s Last Reward

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Virtue's Last Reward

Moral choices: so common in real life, so frequently deployed as a game mechanic, and so frequently botched in their execution. We’ve come so far in a short time with gaming being able to tell stories and evoke emotions in the player – but forcing a real and meaningful choice seems impossible.

I think it’s caused by the nature of the medium. We are conditioned to stockpile extra lives, to save frequently, to reload our game if we get a bad break. It’s hard to force a meaningful choice – or at the very least, one with permanence – when the world you are making that choice in is so temporary. And so the choices get watered down (Bioshock‘s “Harvest or Save” mechanic) or don’t really matter (Mass Effect 3’s ending) or come so close to the end of the game they don’t cause much divergence at all (the big decision in Grand Theft Auto IV).

So when I started playing Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, I wasn’t quite ready for what would unfold in front of me. VLR is a visual novel game, a genre relatively popular in Japan but rarely seeing the light of day in the US. It’s the sequel to the very well regarded 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, which I hadn’t played but had been told was excellent.

Some spoilers are going to follow because part of what I love about the game is intrinsic to the plot:

The game focuses on the running of “the nonary game”, somewhat reminiscent of what you might see in a knockoff of the Saw movies. 9 people are trapped in a strange facility; they are forced to explore it in groups (which are basically a series of Escape The Room puzzles). On occasion, the teams get sent into isolation rooms to vote whether to trust or screw over their partner(s)[1. If this sounds a lot like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, rest assured the game is not trying to hide that. In fact, it provides you a full logical dissertation on how it works and all the strategies that one might implement.]. Points are gained and lost based on those votes; anyone who reaches 9 points can leave the facility, but once the door out closes, it will never open again. And if your points hit 0? That friendly bracelet injects you with drugs and you die.

From the get go, VLR makes what seems like some odd design decisions. It puts the story tree front and center on the menu screen, telegraphing when the choices that matter (largely those votes) are approaching. You can jump around the story tree whenever you see fit. So it seemed straightforward for me to grind through it: play to the bottom of one decision tree, jump myself back to the last decision point, go the other way, and gradually see all the endings.

I barreled down the right-hand side of the tree in a couple of hours, but something odd happened. I neared the bottom, but the game hit a cliffhanger and I was sent back to the tree. Confused why I couldn’t proceed, I went to the previous choice and went the other way – and got completely mind-fucked when a character was confused why I hadn’t made the other choice. The one I had made minutes prior. (And that still didn’t help me get past the roadblock.)

Virtue’s Last Reward is a brilliant game because the temporary nature of your choices is not merely a gameplay mechanic, but also integral to the plot. The game doesn’t just allow you to you skip around the story tree, it demands it if you’re going to see the complete ending. You will repeat events under multiple circumstances, and the information from one distant timeline may help you get past challenges in another. (Of course, your ability to know about things that haven’t happened becomes concerning to the other characters, who all have their own motivations and backstories.)

Working up and down the story tree is time consuming, although a brilliant “skip dialog I’ve already heard” button saved me from deja vu. But I started from a state of knowing nothing, absorbed the world across multiple timelines, and then suddenly understood why I needed to understand all those timelines. Kotaro Uchikoshi’s script twists and turns in ways I’ve never seen a game manage before.

The biggest compliment I can give Virtue’s Last Reward: its unique storytelling and construction hooked me so hard, I ended up with a platinum trophy on PSN for it. (And I can’t wait for the next game.)

Virtue’s Last Reward is available for the 3DS and Vita. My experiences were with the Vita version.

Games of 2012: FTL: Faster Than Light

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

FTL: Faster Than Light

It’s hard to think of a bigger source of both hope and anguish for the gaming community this year than Kickstarter. The success of some high-profile crowdsourcing campaigns brought on a massive flood of projects, many of them with lofty aspirations and promises that seemed too good to be true.

I’ve been told by a few friends that I have a “Kickstarter problem”, as I’ve now backed 34 projects. 19 of these have been for video games. FTL: Faster Than Light was the fourth game I backed, and the first one to actually ship. (None of the three I backed before it have shipped yet.) With just one play, the game reenforced my faith in the power of the funding model. If even a handful of games this enjoyable could come out thanks to Kickstarter or IndieGogo, it’s worth the risk.

I have never had a great relationship with space games. I have tried time and time again, but whether it’s a dogfighter ala Wing Commander or 4X games like Masters of Orion, there’s something about them that makes a game clicking with me much more difficult.

FTL avoids falling into that trap because it’s not rooted to the way space games normally flow. The pitch from the developers told me it was going to be different:

FTL is a spaceship simulation roguelike-like. Its aim is to recreate the atmosphere of running a spaceship exploring the galaxy (like Firefly/Star Trek/BSG etc.) In any given episode of those classic shows, the captain is always yelling “Reroute power to shields!” or giving commands to the engineer now that their Warp Core is on fire. We wanted that experience, as opposed to the “dog fighting in space” that most videogames focus on. We wanted a game where we had to manage the crew, fix the engines, reroute power to shields, target the enemy life support, and then figure out how to repel the boarders that just transported over!

The roguelike elements are (as is the case with most roguelikes) both fun and frustrating. There’s a variety of randomness in the systems you explore, but there’s nothing worse than wandering into a battle that wipes out a carefully upgraded ship you’ve spent hours with.

The combat is fulfilling in ways that dogfighting is not. It’s tactical rather than reactive, less about looping circles behind ships and more about running your crew around to boost and repair the systems you need to win the fight. A wide array of upgrades and components mean you can customize the tactics to your taste. Maybe you want to use energy weapons to spare yourself having to stock missiles, or load up on drones, or use a teleporter to beam your crew over to the enemy ship and take it down from the inside. The flexibility helps convey that feeling that you’re commanding the ship.

There’s also pressure driving you forward, which is rare in space games. You’re being chased by rebels across the map, which keeps pushing you forward. While you get some time to explore, sticking around for too long will lead to your inevitable death. There’s no market system to pump your resources with buying low and selling high – you have to acquire money and parts largely through combat or interactions with other ships.

It really is a wonderful and unique experience, and one that provides a shining example for what Kickstarter can do for the gaming industry. Of course, out of the remaining 18 projects, 14 still haven’t shipped – so it’s a little discouraging to have so many projects sending me constant text updates but not having games in hand. Hopefully by this time next year, I’ll have more examples than just FTL.

FTL is available for OS X and Windows.

Games of 2012: Triple Town

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Triple Town

I generally try to avoid hyperbole, but not tonight: Triple Town is one of the best puzzle games I’ve ever played. I’m putting it on the level of Tetris or Bejeweled or Picross.

One sign of a great puzzle game is being able to explain it simply. I can reduce Triple Town down to three points:

  • You’re given a tile, and you place it on the 6×6 play field.
  • If three tiles of the same type are touching each other, they combine onto the last placed tile and upgrade to the next type.
  • Repeat until the play field is full, at which point the game ends.

Simple and unique. It was so unique, it was effectively stolen from the developers by a trusted partner and cloned, which forced Spry Fox to file a lawsuit.

The path of the tiles follows the natural construction of a town. Grass turns into bushes, bushes into trees, trees into small houses, and then larger and larger houses into castles. The game’s internal geometry clicks quickly, as you’ll quickly devise ways to block off areas to farm lower tier tiles into higher ones.

If that was all there is, Triple Town would be fairly mundane and straightforward. But then come those damned Giant Bears (or as they’re referred to around my house, “Chocobears”) and Ninja Bears. Occasionally appearing in your tile pile, they will get in the way of your attempts to put tiles down. Giant Bears will keep shuffling around until they have no path to follow – at which point they turn into a tombstone. Ninja Bears have to be killed off with a robot.

Like Tetris and Bejeweled, Triple Town balances on the fine line between executing your plan and dealing with curveballs. I have lost track of the number of times I’ve gotten into a flow of my build before an inconvenient tile pops up, forcing me to re-plan. The play field is relatively small, keeping you from having too much breathing room. For a puzzle game with no timer, it can get frustratingly stressful.

It’s been fun to watch Triple Town keep evolving on its own since its launch. When I first played the game, there was just a single map generator, but later updates introduced variations on the theme, like Peaceful Valleys (no bears, but lakes permanently block off some tiles). The recent Mac/PC release added a meta-town; successful upgrades in your meta-town yields items for use in regular towns, and vice versa.

If you’ve ever found yourself deeply addicted to a puzzle game, stay far away from Triple Town. It is crack for puzzle enthusiasts.

Triple Town is available on iOS, Android, Facebook, and Mac/Windows. My experiences were largely with the iOS version, but if you have a choice, get the Mac/Windows one, as it is the “ultimate hardcore version”.

Games of 2012: Journey

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Journey

I was born in 1980. It wasn’t too long after my birth before I could be found playing video games.

I have lived through the Atari age, the Nintendo hey-day, and the 16-bit wars. I have watched the popularity of arcades rise and fall in long cycles. As a song famously states, I was there.

As happy as I am to gripe about the state of the industry, there are positive threads that run counter to the negative ones. And one of the best success stories of those threads is thatgamecompany’s Journey.

Journey 2

Journey is a beautiful but simple game. It resembles a 3D platformer, with a very limited control scheme – I believe there may be two buttons to use. Your goal is to travel to the light you see coming off the mountain in the distance. You may travel alone, or you may happen onto a companion – played by a randomly matched player on the network, who you can’t really communicate with.

When I consider Journey’s existence, this is what strikes me:

Journey came from a relatively small studio, one that started making games for USC game innovation lab research projects.

Journey was initially released digitally only, avoiding the cost and risk that comes with trying to get a title onto a readily shrinking number of retail shelves. (A retail version did come later, but it was a bundle of three games.)

Journey has a friction-free network function – companions drift in and out of the game, without server browsing or firewall reconfiguring or friends requests. It’s less a game with multiplayer and more a game that just involves other people.

Journey has a strange, ambiguous storyline that’s open to interpretation. I’ve read people argue it’s about life, or death, or rebirth, or companionship, or religion, or God. (I have my own opinions but I don’t wish to argue them tonight.)

Journey

Could a game like Journey exist at any other point in the gaming industry’s lifespan than right now? It feels like it could not, like the pitch would’ve been shot down and laughed out of the room by business executives. It needed to wait until the industry changed as much as it has in recent years.

For all the negativity I have about the gaming industry, I have to recognize that titles are emerging unlike anything we’ve seen before. I can only hope the industry keeps evolving, because the world needs more experiences like Journey.

(There are five games left in my Games of 2012 quiver, and all of them (save tomorrow’s game) share a similar pedigree: I can’t imagine them existing in any year other than now.)

Journey is available for the Playstation 3.

Games of 2012: McPixel

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

McPixel

I spoke of “anti-gaming” as a concept earlier in the month when praising Frog Fractions. It’s a growing genre where antagonizing the player – or the gaming industry itself – is the fun. And no game did that better this year than McPixel.

McPixel is a point-and-click adventure game without the adventure. A level starts, 20 seconds appears on the clock. You know there’s a bomb *somewhere* on the screen. Clicking on something interacts with it – picking it up, manipulating it, or trying to kick it in the genitals. Your goal: prevent the level from exploding.

Sometimes it’s obvious. The bomb is exposed, you pee on it, the fuse goes out.

Other times, it’s not. You’re in a volcano with a lady, a cow, an oversized bone, and a river of lava that says “INSERT VIRGIN” next to it. Pick up the lady and throw her in the lava? Volcano explodes. Pick up the bone and insert it into the cow? The cow loves you, and the volcano explodes. Throw the bone in the lava? Volcano explodes. The correct answer: just click the lava. You jump in, and the volcano is calmed.

The game is an endless trial-and-error experiment; screwing up a level doesn’t penalize you, it just takes you on to the next in the series of 5 that you haven’t completed. But to fully complete the game, you don’t just need to find the right solution – you need to see all the wrong ones, too. Completing all the possible actions across the three rounds in each level unlocks a bonus set of levels. The humor takes ridiculous flights of fancy, and is often crudely animated, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t snickering the entire game.

The biggest joke of all comes when you unlock the final round. I don’t want to spoil it – because after you’ve played through something like 80 levels, you start to think you’re getting the hang of how the game thinks and acts. And when you see that last level, you can’t help but burst out into a full laugh. It’s that absurd.

For gamers who have lived through the rise, fall, and rise again of point-and-click adventures, the game is a reminder of the futility of the medium – clicking blindly, trying everything in the room, hoping something leads you to the solution. Most everything in McPixel is a solution – they’re just not all the right one.

Highly recommended for people who appreciate adventure games and have a sense of humor similar to mine.

McPixel is available on iOS, Android, Windows, OS X, and Linux. My experiences were with the iPad version.

Games of 2012: Diablo III

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Diablo III

This past weekend, one of the most reviled – and (it should probably be mentioned) most successful – figures in the gaming industry received a lengthy profile in the New York Times:

Mr. Kotick, 49, has reason to be annoyed. Not since the music industry’s heyday has there been a business with such a wide disparity between the popularity of its products and its customers’ perception of the chief executive who made those products possible. Video games are among the most successful segments in the entertainment industry, and the disdain heaped on Mr. Kotick in video game blogs is second only to the admiration for him on Wall Street.

Bobby Kotick is seen in such negative light not because of the success of Activision, but because of how he gets there. Notorious for rejecting games that couldn’t be “exploited” into yearly franchises, Kottick personifies a lot of disliked trends in the gaming industry.

Blizzard, which is part of Activision, has generally been seen as the exception to Kotick’s rule. The studio famous for World of Warcraft and Starcraft, it is believed, tends to follow their own hearts and dreams. And when Diablo III began its long gestation (around 2005), it was widely given that the game would turn out magnificently. A ship date of “when it’s done” was grumbled about, but accepted. Genius takes time.

But with that long a development cycle, some questionable choices are always going to get made. The color palate went from traditional Diablo to something more akin to watercolor; gamers revolted, and it went back to dungeon-esqe. Achievements were added, something the series had never had before. Then came news the game could only be played online, leaving those people who might want to play without an active internet connection out of luck.

If there was any design decision that sucked the fun out of Diablo for me, it was the inclusion of an Auction House. I generally have nothing against the transfer of digital goods, but it defies the model under which I played Diablo in the past. The joy of the game was always doing runs through levels, hoping that some amazing loot would tumble out of a corpse or a chest. But why leave the game to chance when there’s seemingly every permutation of item in the game available in the auction house, so long as you have enough gold?

Once the auction house went live, my entire style of play shifted. I found myself no longer hoping for that magical drop – most of my loot drops were getting thrown into the auction house for someone else to buy. Once I stockpiled enough gold, I’d do a quick appraisal to figure out what I needed the most, and then quietly stalk the auctions until just the right gear was available. My character evolution became less about playing the game, and more about being a good shopper.

That’s what killed Diablo III for me. Not the lack of PvP all these months later, and not the rather dull end game. It was that they implemented a very modern, very smart revenue stream that ended up sucking the main reason I play right out of the game.

I blame Bobby Kotick for that – even if he had nothing to do with it.

Diablo III is available for Windows and OS X. My experiences were largely with the OS X version.

Games of 2012: The Grading Game / Cook, Serve, Delicious

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

I’m breaking my own rules tonight and highlighting two games that seem like absurd things to have been made into games. Both of these games were released after I originally put together my list of games for this blog post series. In the end, I couldn’t decide which deserved the feature more – and seeing as I can’t stop playing either of them, here’s praise for both of them.

The Grading Game

The Grading Game is proof that eventually, everything will get turned into a video game. In this case, you are a poor hapless TA trying to pay off your student loans. Grouchy faculty member Dr. Snerpus is more than happy to give you sums of cash if you’ll just do one thing: flunk your fellow students.

No, really. A virtual term paper (culled from various places online) will be thrust in front of you, and your job is to tap on the randomly added errors. Typos, capitalization errors, grammatical mistakes, and run-on sentences are all right before your eyes, in an assortment of different game modes. Sometimes there’s only one error in a fairly long paragraph. Others, there’s more errors than normal, but tapping on a non-error drains your clock heavily.

As a gaming concept, I know this sounds completely ridiculous. Who would want to grade papers (particularly terrible ones) for fun? But like any good “find the hidden object” game, The Grading Game works because you’re having to process information very quickly to find the things that are out of place. The pressure of the clock and the bizarre topics for the papers (Grief houses! Sun sneezes! Jigglypuff! Shoe Throwing!) make it a tense, abstract puzzler.

Besides, is any game that can help improve your writing skills that bad? (Everyone loved Mavis Beacon way back when.)

Cook, Serve, Delicious!

Cook, Serve, Delicious! is a little more traditional, but only just – it’s a “hardcore restaurant simulator”. The daily grind of operating a restaurant is an exercise in planning and multitasking.

Take menu construction: do you go with simple foods like french fries, which you can turn out quickly for limited return? Or do you tend towards expensive soups that require more prep work? You may think maximizing profits sounds great now, but when you’re fielding three orders and a sink full of dishes during the lunch rush? Not so much.

You’ll balance the need for equipment upgrades against buying new and upgraded recipes. Health inspectors will come by. You might get robbed and have to provide an artist’s sketch of the perp. Catering gigs become available. Invites to an Iron Chef-style competition arrive. I think there’s even a dating component and some sort of Kickstarter system.

It sounds like work, and it is work. And like all work, sometimes the reward is in doing a job well. When you get a large combo rolling and juggle complicated orders without missing a beat, you feel firmly in the zone. Completing a round in Cook, Serve, Delicious! provides a lovely sense of relief and completeness.

It’s a bit reminiscent of the original Cooking Mama, but with a shorter fuse and higher stakes. Definitely worth a look.

The Grading Game is available as a universal iOS app. Cook, Serve, Delicious! is available on Windows, OS X, and for the iPad. My experiences were largely with the iPad version. Both games are on sale for the immediate future.