Games of 2013: Desktop Dungeons

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.

Desktop Dungeons

In 2010, a little three man team in South Africa released an experimental roguelike RPG called Desktop Dungeons. It was meant to be consumed in short bursts: the games didn’t last longer than 5-10 minutes and there wasn’t any deep character progression.

A brief stab at how the rules work: you are a level 1 hero. Walking into an area of the map that’s unrevealed reveals the tiles, which can heal you. Monsters will be shown with a level, and the game clearly telegraphs what will happen if you attack (WIN/SAFE/DEATH being the three most common states). Beating up monsters gets you experience, which can help you level; beating monsters above your level is riskier but yields more experience. Your goal: kill the level 10 monster somewhere on the floor. There’s more to it than this, but that’s the crux.

Now, in 2013, the “final” version has finally been unleashed on the world. The core gameplay is still the same, but much like when Triple Town jumped from a straightforward iOS puzzle into a desktop version with some meta-game elements, so too has Desktop Dungeons. There’s a deep series of unlocks that bring you more classes, better start states, and differing environments.

I was going to say I love Desktop Dungeons because at its core it’s a beautifully stripped down RPG experience. Then I realized it may be unfair to call it an RPG – it’s a puzzle game that looks like an RPG. And while most game modes don’t run on into infinity, there is a familiar impending doom that you might get yourself stuck, with no good options but to crash your run and start over.

And having just compared it to Triple Town, I can’t help but realize that this is essentially my Triple Town of 2013. It’s that same addictive bite sized game that requires a level of strategy and critical thinking. Despite it being short, you can lose hours to it.

I just fear an inevitable iOS version.

Desktop Dungeons is available on Mac and PC. I played both versions evenly.

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 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.