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 2011: Pushmo

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, 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 2011 posts.

Nintendo has had a tough year. The Wii U debacle at E3, the “Miyamoto might be retiring” interview, their market share and profits being eroded by smartphones – they come across as a company who’s at their peak and the only way to go is down. One might even say their position looks a lot like Sony did in 2006.

2011 Nintendo is perhaps best encapsulated in the Nintendo 3DS – a new handheld that looks and functions remarkably like their last four (DS, DS Lite, DSi, DSi XL) handhelds. It launched at $250 with no compelling launch titles. It posted decent first days sales before swan diving off a high cliff. A $70 price cut came just four months after launch, which solved one problem – but the software problem lingered until the holiday season.

I picked up a 3DS right after launch despite my hatred of 3D entertainment – practically always gimmicky and an excuse to add cost – and despite knowing there wasn’t really anything at launch worth picking up. I subjected myself to it mainly because my DS Lite was getting run down, and it was the prime time to trade it in. Even with the lowest of expectations, I found myself disappointed, as the features I was looking forward to – the eShow, StreetPass, the camera – all had notable flaws.

And so, I joined the hordes waiting and hoping for that One Game, the one that can justify the cost of the device. And last week, I discovered it – and it wasn’t the anticipated Super Mario 3D Land or Mario Kart 7, but instead a title in a genre Nintendo executes better than practically anyone else: spatial puzzles.

The game in question is Pushmo (or Pullblox if you’re in Europe), a $7 downloadable title. A pushmo is a giant pixelart installation in a park (Pushmo Park, naturally), and children appear to keep getting stuck in them. To climb the pushmo and save the kids, you need to grab, push, and pull the blocks to build ledges and stairs that you can scale.

The gameplay resembles Atlus’ Catherine, which was also released this year and is targetted solely at adults. While Catherine challenges players as both an arcade game and a puzzler, Pushmo is more of a pure puzzler. As such, the game is able to focus more on the challenge of the level rather than you racing against a clock.

If the roughly 250 core levels aren’t enough, Pushmo also features a level builder, and levels can be shared via QR Code. Communities have start sprouting up to share puzzles, like this NeoGAF thread.

I hope that Nintendo can keep focusing on these smaller, well polished titles. If that Miyamoto interview is any indication, my hopes may come true.

Pushmo is available for the 3DS, via the eShop.


Rhythm Heaven as iTunes Visualizer

For all the things they get right – mass market appeal, price points, easy to understand interfaces – Nintendo occasionally gets things terribly wrong. Among their transgressions against the gaming world: failing to localize (translating + releasing in the US) great games that have appeared in Japan.

But sometimes, the good games make it through. Earlier this year, Nintendo of America came to their senses and released Rhythm Heaven. A localization of Rhythm Tengoku Gold, Rhythm Heaven is a collection of over 50 rhythm-based mini-games for the Nintendo DS. A typical game will see you rocking out with a ghost band, filling robots, playing ping pong, picking turnips, and joining a monkey dance party.

It’s extremely weird, but also extremely fun. Even Beyoncé likes it.

Today, I discovered that by not actually looking at the official Rhythm Heaven site, I missed something fantastic: a free iTunes visualizer, using artwork from the game.

Installers are available for OS X, Vista, and XP. (In case these links break, you can find the downloads through the official site on the left hand side.)

A quick install and iTunes restart later, and even an average song can be made amazing through the addition of trippy visuals from the game.

The visualizer isn’t perfect – I’m not really feeling a lot of “sync” with the music I tried it with, and sometimes the artwork clips oddly – but watching the assembled mass of ghost drummers, duck drill sargents, and lab assistants rocking out to anything you throw at it is a thing of beauty.

Download this, before Nintendo shuts down the site and we’ve lost the archive for this glorious piece of software forever.

(Many thanks to Offworld for tipping me off. If they’re not on your feed reader, they should be.)