Tag Archives: ios

Games of 2013: Dead Man’s Draw

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, 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 about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

Dead Man's Draw

If there’s anything I’ve found lacking on iOS over the years, it’s been the total wasteland that is card games. I’m not talking trading card games or solitaire or Texas Hold’Em; I’m looking for classic-style card games. Spades, Hearts, Cribbage…everything that tries to provide a sort of classic card game experience tends to look and play poorly.

So imagine my surprise when Stardock – who had never done an iOS game before – dropped Dead Man’s Draw on the world. It’s a new game, but with easy-to-learn mechanics, some deep strategy and risk/reward play, and a very easy to deal with interface. Reminds me a bit, in terms of polish, of Lost Cities, which I gave a small shout out to last year during this series.

Also: it’s full of pirates. I’ve been told people dig that.

But hey, iOS programmers: you want to strike it rich? Card games are a wide open category on the store. It’s largely casinos and solitaire. Design a great card game experience, and you’ll be almost alone in the marketplace. Please. I’m nearly begging you here.

Dead Man’s Draw is available on iOS.

Games of 2013: Battrix Floating Continent

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, 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 about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

Battrix Floating Continent

The genre of the RPG is in an odd state these days. As someone who grew up with 60+ hour slogs through SNES era Final Fantasy games, I know these games are becoming less and less frequent. With mobile platforms on the ascendancy, casual RPGs are becoming more frequent, but many get bogged down with freemium mechanics. So that balance – an RPG with some length and depth, that fits into current platforms without indulging in the more anti-consumer practices – is a tough one to strike.

The closest I’ve found (and it’s by no means perfect) is Battrix Floating Continent. Done by Opus Studio, who brought the world another great RPG twist with Half Minute Hero, Battrix starts with you having just a single square on an expansive world map. To claim a new tile of the map, you fight off monsters in a tap-focused battle system. Towns get discovered, mechanics get mixed up, weapons level up and get upgraded, and eventually the map starts to pull itself together. It’s like any other RPG, just…mobile, I suppose.

It became my perfect subway commute game for a good chunk of the year, and anything I can sink an hour into every morning for a solid month is worth mentioning in this series. RPG fans might want to poke at this one a bit.

Battrix Floating Continent is available for iOS for free.

Games of 2013: QuizUp

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, 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 about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

QuizUp

Last year’s series started in a car with coworkers; this year’s shall as well. These series always tend to start with a game that does one thing fairly well; this year’s shall as well.

We were piled in a rental car today, making the lengthy journey from New York City to Ithaca for a work trip. The miles started to drag across Route 17 as the afternoon wore on.

One member of my team, wondered aloud: “Man, I wish we had a multiplayer game or something.”

I didn’t need to pause to think of a good option – I spat out QuizUp almost immediately.

It is a weird sort of situation that while mobile platforms are becoming increasingly known for social gaming, it’s become less about direct gameplay with a small group of others, and more about nebulous MMO-like elements in whatever the latest Farmville clone is.

QuizUp is a very cleanly designed two-player quiz game. Seven questions, all multiple choice, with response time determining the points awarded. Get more points, win the match. It has a very well-maintained layer of polish (the animations), clever little addictive nudges (a per-category experience system), and generally works very well, even over a cellular connection.

The only place QuizUp needs improvement is in integrating existing friends back into the game’s friends system, where it occasionally struggles to understand that I shouldn’t have to invite someone I’m already GameCenter friends with to play.

Small concern aside, it’s the best the trivia game I’ve played in a while, and perfect for long rides in the back of the car. Check it out.

QuizUp is available for free on the App Store. An Android version is planned.

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: 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: 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.

Games of 2012: The World Ends With You Solo Remix

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.

The World Ends With You: Solo Remix

I remember getting my hands on The World Ends With You for the first time. It felt like an eternity since the last time I was had my world flipped by a Square RPG. A weird blend of modern Japanese culture and supernatural plots to destroy the world, TWEWY tied together a unique combat system, well-polished art and music, and memorable moody teenagers (this was a Square game, after all). It felt revolutionary, and possibly the start of a great new RPG franchise.

But that was 2008 – and following its release on the DS, nothing more came out of the franchise – until this year. Out of nowhere in August, Square Enix quickly announced and released The World Ends With You: Solo Remix. It didn’t launch on Nintendo’s floundering 3DS, nor was it a near-launch title for Sony’s Playstation Vita. No, it came out solely for iOS, at price points rarely seen on the platform: $18 for the iPhone/iPod Touch version, and $20 for the iPad version. People flipped out.

There are plenty of takeaways from the release – you could spend months trying to break down Square’s pricing strategy, or the effectiveness of reducing a dual screen game to a single screen, or lambasting Square for blocking the iPhone version from running on the iPad and/or not releasing a universal version. But I’d rather focus on the biggest takeaway: it marks the clearest turning point that the mobile gaming landscape has turned away from Nintendo and Sony to instead concentrate on smartphones.

This writing has been on the wall for a while, but it feels inescapable this year. If we’re going off of Metacritic scores to judge quality, there was a single game above 90 on both the 3DS (the eShop re-release of Cave Story) and the Vita (Persona 4 Golden). But somehow, there are 18 games in 2012 that met this threshold on iOS. Many of these are from indie developers; the major studios are represented (EA, Namco, Popcap, Warner Brothers); and the iPad version of TWEWY tops out the list at 95, technically the best reviewed title of the year.

Such a marketplace shift is anathema to long-time mobile gamers, as it seems inconceivable that a platform not dedicated to gaming could provide experiences on par with the big handhelds. But here it is: one of the most lauded, most beloved games in the DS generation, available for the half a billion iOS devices out in the wild.

Some may try to argue the release means little. Isn’t TWEWY:SR just a remake to rake in quick cash? If you’re willing to believe that, then you also have to discount the highest rated game on the Vita (Persona 4 was a Playstation 2 game), and you have to doubly discount the Cave Story release for the 3DS, a veritable remake of a remake! (Cave Story was released for the 3DS as a cartridge in 2011.)

I can’t understate how much of a disruption this is to a handheld market that was rock solid for the last 10 years. It’s almost reminiscent of the gaming market crash of 1983 – although a bit slower, and there’s already a new business model in place to save us waiting a few years for a new savior. If we don’t have dedicated handhelds after this cycle ends, I won’t bother to feign surprise.

(As for TWEWY:SR itself? It’s pricey, but you get what you pay for – a high quality RPG in a unique setting. It doesn’t feel any different compared to the DS version, save the combat – and I actually liked the single screen version better. If you didn’t play through it in 2008, I highly recommend you save up and splurge on it.)

The World Ends With You: Solo Remix is available for iPhone and for iPad, but not in the same app, because Square Enix doesn’t believe in such things.

Games of 2012: Organ Trail

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.

Organ Trail

By this point in popular culture, we should all be fed up of zombies. We’ve been on zed-word overload for the past few years – not just in the gaming industry but in culture overall. Just this year alone we’ve had Lollipop Chainsaw, Resident Evil 6, ZombiU, The Walking Dead1, DayZ, Deadlight, Into The Dead…even Call Of Duty seems to be perpetually infested with the damn things. I’ve grown a little tired of shooting them in the head.

But I have to hand it to The Men Who Wear Many Hats – they’ve somehow managed to find a way to break my zombie ennui by smashing shambling hordes into the nostalgic edutainment fun of Oregon Trail – giving us Organ Trail.

Plenty of people have tried to get the tone of MECC’s Apple II era classic right, but attempts to modernize it generally feel off. Just look at Gameloft’s mobile version, which was at least kind of okay until they added in-app currency and tried to squeeze people for further money. Organ Trail has no qualms about sticking to the chunky graphics and limited color palette that was a staple of late 80′s computer labs.

It’s that level of dedication to really nailing that feeling that makes me love Organ Trail – it’s not really the zombies. Some grew up on an NES, others on the Genesis. But my gaming life would start on an Atari 2600 and then transition to the 4-color, no-sound-card world of a basic DOS PC.

When you complete a minigame in Organ Trail – maybe a shootout with bandits or just scavenging for supplies – the result screen pops up with a cheerful but glitchy BLEEEP~!. And when you tap the screen to dismiss it, you get the sound of a key being pressed on a very chunky keyboard. The bleep and the chunk are the best reminder of my gaming childhood I’ve had in a long time. Hits me right in the nostalgia muscle.

Organ Trail is available a universal iOS app as well as a Flash game.

  1. An aside about The Walking Dead: yes, yes, I know it’s been praised to the high heavens. I’ve been a little gunshy about Telltale’s episodic games as I’ve bought 4 seasons of their stuff but tend to never follow through through on them. I’ll probably give it a whirl next month. Sorry?

Games of 2012: Letterpress

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.

Letterpress

Loren Brichter’s Letterpress is all kinds of wonderful. This is probably not new information to you. A little bit Scrabble, a little bit Othello, all tied together with a perfect minimal design – it was a breath of fresh air in the iOS gaming scene this year. Not having played it is some sort of disservice to yourself.

Just a week or two ago, my friend Lia picked up a new-to-her iPhone 4S. As she was telling me about it, she made a telling comment:

just realized: i will finally get to play letterpress now that everyone’s sick of it.

And that got my mind churning a bit.

I’ve been worried a bit lately about the longevity of good games. A strong game – especially one that relies on a network component – requires a constant level of care, feeding, and gamer interest to thrive. Be it a studio closure or middleware getting discontinued or servers being shutdown – games that once grew a following can quickly become unplayable through business decisions. (Of course, the crowd can always head for the door for no discernable reason.)

One of the games I featured last year, Glitch, just shut down last weekend. MMOs come and go, as they have since the format became popular – and I don’t think I ever really expected Glitch to be around forever. But it died ahead of its time, and there’s no way to convey how it really functioned to someone who never experienced it.

Letterpress may not seem in danger of this. Loren released the game on his own, and so long as he is able to keep supporting it, it should be fine, right? Except for the small fact that he built it on top of Apple’s Game Center – and while I doubt Game Center would disappear almost overnight as OpenFeint just did, these things can and do happen.

I work in IT; having just gone through Hurricane Sandy, disaster recovery has become the word on everyone’s lips once again. I urge people who work in the gaming industry to make sure they consider the unthinkable when architecting their games. What happens if the code libraries you use never get updated and break? What if you get bought out and can never work on the game again – and then that company discontinues it? What happens if your servers die? What happens if you die?

I’m reminded of Duane Blehm, a guy who churned out a few small shareware titles in the late 80′s for the Mac. If you grew up with classic Macs, you probably remember Stunt Copter, and maybe even Cairo Shootout. Duane died unexpectedly in his 30s, which could have left his games stuck in limbo forever. Luckily, his parents opted to release the source code into the public domain – and Stuntcopter still lives on.

I don’t want smart, well-conceived games like Letterpress to ever get lost to history; let’s do everything we can to make sure they don’t.

Letterpress is available as a Universal iOS app.