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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: Rock Band Blitz

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.

When game historians look back on this era, they will hold up Rock Band Blitz as a shining example of muddled, poorly thought out game design.

This should’ve been a slam dunk. Take a beloved music game franchise, and give gamers who have invested in that franchise a way to reuse all their content. Wait, no, even better: give them 25 more songs for that franchise they love when they buy your $15 game. And don’t even go very far in inventing a different model of actively playing the game – it plays similarly to Frequency or Amplitude, games Harmonix released a decade ago. (Hell, it’s even simpler: there’s only two notes per track!)

But then Harmonix decided to tinker. They added a “coin” system in which one has to buy power-ups per song. This mechanic has been beaten into the ground by Popcap and other Facebook game developers, who tend to make sure there’s a giant button nearby that says “BUY MORE COINS”. Weirdly, there’s no opportunity to buy additional coins; there’s no appeal for you to spend any money other than on additional songs. But a full slate of powerups cost enough that you won’t earn as much back, so it’s a pretty constant dwindling of your coin stash.

But wait! Harmonix added a special challenge system, where weekly goals provide you the opportunity to win additional coins if you play well. It would’ve been an acceptable trade-off, except for one tiny thing: the only way to get into the goals is through a Facebook app, not in the game itself. Almost all of the social elements of the game are driven into Facebook; if you don’t sign into the app, you will never get to touch that part of the game.

Want to accept a new goal? Have to go to your computer and log into Facebook.

Want to check on how far along you are on a particular goal? Have to go to your computer and log into Facebook.

Want to challenge your friend to a “Song War”? Have to go to your computer and log into Facebook.

We are 6+ years into the current console generation. Sony and Microsoft have both put a ton of energy and money into developing reasonably functioning social networks within their consoles. Forcing your paying customers to use an interface outside of the game to access core functionality is such a shockingly poor move, I honestly can’t believe it game from a developer with the level of good will and community faith that Harmonix had.

Long time Rock Band fanatics were all crushed. Plaguefox on NeoGAF provided a good take on why this is all so messed up, with this money quote:

Unfortunately, it isn’t working. I am coming away from each play session aggravated. I’m not ending sessions just because I’ve had enough play time, I’m cutting them short because the game mechanics are working against me in a way that saps all of the joy of playing out over the course of a handful of songs. I think I’m officially in the “I regret buying this game” camp at this point.

Rock Band Blitz easily takes the cake for the most disappointing title I played in 2012.

Rock Band Blitz is available on PSN and XBLA, and is perhaps only worthwhile as a cheap songpack for Rock Band proper. My experiences were with the PSN version.