some games I played in

Block Legend DX
PC (Steam)
Jan 15 ~ (unfinished)

This has not been a good year for putting my brainpower into things. If it's completely thoughtless and requires the bare minimum of effort, then that's all I'm capable of. On the bright side, that's what got me to finally play this Steam game I bought who knows how many years ago. I'll sample my library in full someday...!

Billed as a fusion of an RPG and a tile-matching game... honestly, is this just a clicker game? I barely know what the definition is, but it feels like one. You automatically progress on your journey until you hit a random encounter, wherein you can't move on 'til you defeat them. You click on connected tiles that match to use them; swords and orbs are attacks, hearts refill your health, shields add to your guard gauge, and coins will add to your gold, of course. Treasure chests also offer random bonuses, or sometimes random detriments, like halving your gold total. Sucks!

As such, it's a game of board and number management. Between encounters, using attack tiles will add EXP or refill health, and it's an ideal time to trim the fat and line up some good tiles for the next encounter. It's satisfying to land a succession of good hits, but it's only possible when they're actually available -- having to fumble about mid-match and remove stuff solely in the hopes of good tiles dropping can be a pain, and in boss fights is essentially the kiss of death.

There's a lot of factors on top of this, like the character you choose, who all have different stats for strength, magic, agility and vitality. Defeating enemies earns EXP, allowing you to upgrade one of those stats, and you'll periodically run into shops where you can buy weapons or one-use items to further buff them, or even items to modify your grid tiles.

The Zweihander weapon will increase your strength by 5 but also lower your agility, yet this is a godsend in the early game as it means you can dump all your stats into vitality, allowing you to take more hits as you line up a devastating chunk of attack tiles. It's all the more devastating when I decided to buy a magic weapon instead and realised how much I relied on attack tiles. It's not the same..!

There's an idle satisfaction in figuring out the rules and tricks of the game, or even just working with what you've got, pulling a clutch victory at the brink of death with an otherwise crappy loadout. But at the same time the game almost immediately feels like a bad habit. The repetitive gameplay is pleasantly numbing, the sort of Tetris (or Puchi Carat) effect where I get lost in the sauce, imagining the kickass comboes I could get if lady luck were smiling on me.

In theory it's ideal for short pick-up-and-play sessions, but I'll often find I'll have played for half an hour and not sure what I've got to show for it. One Way Heroics at least had roguelike mechanics to keep my problem-solving skills at play. Block Legend DX has some degree of strategy, but it goes hand in hand with luck. It's very easy to play with your brain firmly switched off.

The pixel aesthetic is simplistic and cute, if extremely cluttered. On a 4:3 1024px resolution the window is as big as the screen, and every inch of it is eaten up with something. My character, my stats, the tiles, the enemy, the progress bar, the enemy health, a punny name and dopey taunt coming from them... there's far, far too much to parse on just one screen, and there's zero breathing room.

The game obviously wants to cram in character wherever it can, be it through quirky cast members, silly names or dumb dialogue, but it's such sensory overload my eyes are locked firmly on the tiles. The most I can parse is my stats versus the enemy's health, which is all that's important. It wants to make an impression, but it's just a bit much, is all.

The game obviously aspires to be replayed again and again and again, with lots of mobile gaming elements like stars acquired from feats and bosses, used to unlock new characters or starting levels, as well as to start the game with heavy-duty items and equipment. Unfortunately, the star requirements for unlocks rise extremely quickly, and your handouts are very paltry in comparison, with a surprising amount of opportunities to just lose your hard-earned stars.

It feels like some characters are inherently better than others; why play as the mage when Tony Meow has far better magic prowess? Or, heck, why take Tony Meow when the idol has identical stats but with one extra agility? You don't even know what the character is or their stats until you pay for them, mind, but if there were guides out there you could no doubt optimise who to get first. Again, not that strategy's important or anything. It's all about visual appeal, and you'd hardly pass up the chance to play as a paired-up cat and dog who are wandering swordsmen.

Block Legend DX has stuff, but it's hard to get enthusiastic about it when the game just feels so unhealthy from the get-go. Cotton candy for the brain. The premise is quirky and interesting, but despite its attempts at flavour, it comes across like well-chewed gum where the taste has long since expired.

That's harsh. I had fun, but knew it'd only do me harm if I stuck with it. I oughta uninstall it...!

Who Goes There?
by John W. Campbell Jr.

The short story that served as the basis for The Thing. I'm always curious to read stories that get adapted into film, because it's such a rich medium for imagination, but the foundations of how they work are so different. The Thing is among my all-time favourite films and it owes a lot to John Carpenter's direction, with quiet unease and a slow but sickly reveal of the monster's true capabilities, through terrific low-key tension.

The book is a lot more old-school science fiction, in the sense that the characters sure do sit around talking science a lot. characters hypothesise what the frozen creature is capable of, and make great assumptions based on minor phenomena or even the fact a few of the crew had bad dreams by having it around, leading them to assume the thing is telepathic and can read minds. It's... interesting, but obviously a lot more telling rather than showing.

Which is fine, as the action can be quite hard to follow when it starts up. The fight in the dog pen was hard to grasp, and afterward everyone was suspecting Connant to be one of the infected, a leap of logic that might have been mentioned in the thick of battle, but came across as out of the blue to me. Might've just overlooked it!

The climax is built around the blood test from the middle point of the movie, where Kinner the cook is found murdered after driving everyone mad with his raucous hymns, only for his dead body to bisect and make a break for it. Armed with a makeshift cattle prod and a scalpel to draw blood, MacReady thins out the herd, showing through sheer force of numbers they're able to kill a monster before it can steal a weapon or even form one from its own body.

The very final climax with Blair seems to involve only three characters, and it's unclear if that's all that was left. The final monster was building itself an atomic generator to keep itself warm, and to power its escape vehicle -- an anti-gravity belt. It's seemingly a more positive take on things, with all the monsters successfully killed and the heroes safe in the knowledge they prevented the takeover of earth... but it lacks punch because of it.

There's at least fourteen people on base, with MacReady presented as the main focus of narration. We get fairly acquainted with some of them, like the neurotic biologists and the paranoid cook, but a lot of the others are just lost in the shuffle. When they mourn them at the end after realising they were secretly monsters, it doesn't hit as hard because it's so dang hard to keep track!

Likewise, a lot of the horrific scenarios it presents are just that -- scenarios. It's not until towards the end do we genuinely see the unease and distrust in one another, where they eat silently in the communal diner and express open contempt over the thought of putting down their guard to pass the time. Prose feels like a great place to really enter the psyche of these stressed out, paranoid individuals, silently judging one another or coming up with their own schemes, but for the proposed scale, the focus just feels a bit narrow.

Still, it's not a bad read. It does seem to be the case that sci-fi movies that really tickle my fancy are almost invariably based on stories that fail to hit the mark. Again, it's no doubt because I go about them backwards, watching the film adaptation first and then the written story later, but I'm still salty over The Space Vampires.

Adapted into the beautifully morbid Lifeforce, where all hope for humanity is at risk of some doomsday scenario at the end, the book literally ends with them talking the alien to death, kindly inviting it to fuck off and leave us alone. It's... certainly iconic, as I still remember it years afterward, but man alive. Interesting themes of vampirism divorced from the common pop culture idea of vampire, but a real lackadaisical approach to what should be shit-your-pants territory. Oh well.

Pilotwings Resort
Nintendo 3DS
Jan 29 ~ 30

A preamble: I've never played SNES Pilotwings, but the N64 one was an old favourite. Not quite sure I ever quite understood its game design, wherein you play for points and accuracy and you have to get a passing grade before you can unlock the next challenges... but I just loved its worlds, y'know? Exploring these varied locales in a gyrocopter or a rocket belt was so investing, and really played into how the N64 opened my eyes to the wonders of simply exploring 3D space.

The geometry was simple with nothing but vague facsimiles of landmarks to go off of, but to me it was mesmerising. I would intentionally ignore the mission to just go sightseeing, even refusing to perform the take-off procedure with the gyrocopter, instead driving around the town on ground level. The game itself was good, of course, but that kind of stuff was what made the game so special to me, personally.

With that said, it's clear I won't get nearly as attached to any new version, because those memories hinge on what kid-me sought for from a game -- stuff that current-me just isn't nearly as inclined to do. Kid me had imagination while current-me just wants the validation of beating a game so I don't have to play it again. I'm cynical!

The formula does make a nice transition to 3DS; the gyrocopter is swapped out for the plane from Wii Sports Resort, same controls and all. The plane shoots targets, flies through rings and performs stunts. The rocket belt does the occasional fetch quest or gauntlet of landing on fuel pads. The hang-glider has you managing your speed to fly through speed-sensitive rings, or take photos, or whatever. The usual gamut!

There's a very robust scoring system (now that i'm actually paying attention to this stuff) and the slightest fuck-up will deprive you of a perfect score. Proper take-off and landing procedure, accuracy to the intended flight path, not banging into things... if you're a score freak, there's a lot to come back for and improve.

While the mission mode is adequate, it's hard not to compare it to the N64 game in terms of scale and scope. That game had at least 4 locales to play on, and though the visuals were simple, they helped give a sense of progression or even just imagery. The daredevil dive in the hang-glider still sticks out in my mind, not just because it's a tricky mission, but because the snowy mountain it's set on felt so exciting and desolate.

The entire game is set on Wuhu Island from Wii Fit and Wii Sports Resort. It transfers to 3DS well: all the landmarks are there, and it's a great showcase as a launch title for the 3DS' visual capabilities. The DS barely got any better than Mario 64, but here's the 3DS with a full stinkin' world to play with!

But the N64 game had variety too. Photography missions, bouncing balls into targets, fighting Mecha Hawk... even the unlockable bonus missions like Birdman, the Jumble Hopper, or cannonball, although simple, were a fresh new way of approaching the game's world. Pilotwings Resort... has nothing. At least, not in the mission mode. If you want something more than the three vehicles (and their "super" variants), you're out of luck.

Free play mode is in the vein of Wii Sports Resort, allowing you to explore the island at day, evening or night and find information waypoints and balloons, as well as vehicle-exclusive trinkets -- gold rings, hidden packages or stunt markers. The types of items are recorded both in total and on that session, so you can try and get a high-score of items in a single run. Each item has a purpose: getting 25 and 50 info hotspots will unlock the times of day, getting 20 balloons will add an additional 30 seconds to the total play time, and the others will unlock dioramas -- 3D models you can zoom in and look at.

I found myself playing Free Play the most once I'd done the missions. The missions are fine, but going back and fighting for better scores just seemed a chore. To fly around leisurely just seemed more compelling... but I'm kind of at odds with how it's done.

I love Wii Sports Resort, but it's kind of emblematic of Nintendo's game design of "you play it our way". There's different modes for bowling, but you can't just toggle options on or off -- bumpers are on only in this mode, for instance. You can't add a handicap to table tennis or something like that. Everything's got a limit to make it a reasonable game, but if you want a sandbox, you're looking in the wrong place.

And the flight mode was like that. You had a 5 minute time limit, which did add to the score attack vibe... but sometimes you just wanna fly leisurely, y'know? And you'd think when the entire game is your flight sim, you'd grant that option. But now you're actively collecting objects just to extend your time limit next time.

I can see the appeal in that design; it obviously worked since it had me coming back and furiously collecting trinkets I thought I had no interest in... but it feels like a game that refuses you let you play how you want to play.

The game is mechanically a huge step-up from the N64 version -- it helps it's not PAL so it doesn't run like slow-motion dirt. All the vehicles have a believable weight and physics to them, so coming to grips with their quirks is vital but easy to understand; it's the first time the hang-glider has made sense to me. And to have this so portable and accessible on a handheld console is really nifty.

So why can't I play as long as I want...? If all you want is to explore without limits, then you're forced to just pick a mission from mission mode and go off-course... and for the rocket belt, you're shit out of luck since that only has 15% fuel at the best of times.

Hell, even the fact the main collectible in free flight mode is information waypoints on the island's landmarks... that you can't read on the menu, as far as I can tell. Wii Sports Resort let you do that, so you could stop and acknowledge your accomplishments without time pressure. Though that's very much my unhealthy mindset; why relax when there's stuff I could be doing? I can't rest until everything's taken care of first!

While the gameplay fits onto 3DS shockingly well, it does feel a crying shame this wasn't on the Wii, or even Wii U. I can't vouch for how well its 3D functionality is because all 3D just makes my eyes hurt, but there's bizarre omissions that could've made it that bit more immersive.

You can only look around using the D-Pad, or the Y and X buttons in rocket belt mode... but surely skimming your nail along the touchscreen could've served that purpose? You just want a quick sweep of the land, and to wait for the camera to turn is a nuisance.

Heck, even the gyro functionality could've worked, holding a button and moving the console to look a certain way. Navigating can be tricky at times because you just can't see everything you want on screen at once, and fighting with the camera while rocketing ahead and unable to stop is a bit of bother -- especially when my score's on the line!

The vehicles all handle very efficiently with just a few buttons and the thumb-pad... but the plane is missing something without the sensitivity of the Wii Motion Plus. I'm very glad to have the option to play without it, mind, but there was something appealing about having to physically rein it in and learn how to fly it with your wrist; it made pulling off tricks and stunts all the more satisfying, and the simple act of flying or goofing off really engaging.

I can't imagine how you'd handle a rocket belt with a Wii Remote (maybe the Nunchuk...?), but I could see that being a lot of fun just in learning how to handle the thing. People give it a lot of crap, but the Wii had a knack for making just learning a game a lot of fun, and also fun to watch -- popping on Wii Sports Resort for the first time with friends and family is a trip, seeing everyone wrestle with the commands but sometimes they'd do it just right. Lightning in a bottle...!

There's still finesse to handling vehicles with the thumb stick; handling the hang-glider to perfection still requires very precise movements otherwise you'll flail around and lose speed, but it's not the same. I wouldn't have believed it if I told myself ten years ago I'd be advocating for motion controls, but Nintendo knew how to do it right, y'know? And it saddens me to see it all discarded; not just by themselves, but effectively for the whole industry. What platforms have motion control any more? Is it all VR? Nuts to that, man. The Wii was perfect, warts and all. Stop me before I cry.

Again with the omissions... the game retains the sharpshooting of Wii Sports Resort and N64 Pilotwings for the plane, and has two missions where you must take photos while on the hang-glider -- but these abilities are only available in the missions that require them. You can't shoot if you're not meant to shoot, be it a gun or a camera.

I can understand not wanting to have people go all North By Northwest on this cheery tourist reosrt, but it's frustrating to have functionality only available when the game lets you. Again, you're playing on its terms, whether you like it or not.

It's particularly egregious for the camera, because you'd think highlighting the camera functionality in a game about a resort island would be a draw? Heck, even the first-person perspective is appealing! It's the only way to view through first-person in the entire game, which is shocking when the N64 game allowed that for all vehicles. The console is all about 3D! You want to perceive it head-on, don't you?

Speaking of wasted potential, there's exactly one mission when you use a wingsuit and have to dive through rings. It's far more intense than similar missions with the hang-glider, and is perhaps the only mission to enforce speed through actual necessity rather than just wagging a finger at your crap score. It's a bit of a one-trick pony, but it would've been neat to see it come up again. But... nope! Once is your lot! Not even in free play!

I burned through the mission mode in a few short sessions, and got my fill of the free play across an afternoon and an evening. It was a pleasant distraction; the gameplay itself is solid, flying all of the vehicles is satisfying, and while the actual mission content is perhaps a bit samey, they all offer a decent challenge with enough score thresholds to keep you satisfied if that's your jam.

But playing the game only made it clear how much I clash against Nintendo's game design philosophy. Pilotwings Resort could've been a delightful little flight sim in your pocket that doubled as a relaxing way to just fart about on an island, do some flying for leisure. It certainly can be, but its imposed limitations and reluctance to offer meaningful variety is just a bit of a bore. The N64 game's extra modes were hardly amazing once I finally unlocked them, but they offered a fresh new take on things.

To design another locale with the same lush detail as Wuhu Island is a tall order, but it just feels a bit crummy to only have one island to explore. Wuhu Island was magical on the Wii because across the different modes you become acquainted with all its facets; travelling through the town, cycling uphill, exploring the caverns... flying through the volcano felt like a whole new world had opened up.

But when flying is your only option, the island quickly begins to feel very small. Hunting for trinkets because I'd exhausted the main game will do that to you, and when the rest of them are hidden on the golf island which requires 30 seconds of air travel just to reach, you get a bit salty.

It's very "launch game", to put it simply. Solid foundations, and you're guaranteed to get some enjoyment out of it, but for how long is the real question.

Pokémon Dash
Nintendo DS
Jan 31 ~ unfinished

I was doing a bit of sprite-ripping around this time, running macros that meant I couldn't touch the computer for the duration. Not unlike when I played New Super Mario Bros. while scanning stuff for ONM Remembered years ago, here I am again checking out DS and 3DS guff I'd otherwise little incentive to try! Is it any surprise it's mostly stuff I've looked at to determine if it's worth ripping sprites from? This is a year of creative bankruptcy.

This is one of the bizarre launch titles for the DS -- it's too early for a fully fledged Pokemon game, so here's some silly little toy that makes extensive use of the touchscreen and second screen. Sort of a racing game cum treasure hunt?

You have to run between checkpoints across a huge sprawling map, using your compass, radar and occasional vehicles to help get you from A to B. Your input is pretty minimal -- you just scratch the screen like a track ball to run in that direction, and all pickups are used automatically, more or less.

I'm a sucker for obtuse approaches to racing games, and this one really stretches the definition. It's so simple! The maps aren't even designed like looping courses or anything even resembling a race track, it's just... wilderness. Sometimes there's paved paths, sometimes it just gives way to a swamp. A key part of the game is using either Lapras or hot air balloons to cross between islands. The hot air balloon lets you travel huge distances, with the radar swapped out for a zoomed-in indicator of the next checkpoint, and it's up to you to identify it from high-up.

It's a strange, nifty feature, one that adds an interesting dynamic to the affairs -- how many racing games have fast travel?! You first want to find your destination in a timely manner, before jumping out; you can quicken your descent by popping your balloons, but you have to make sure there's a soft landing beneath you. This in itself adds a bit of thinking -- do you jump out as quickly as you can, or do you try your best to line up perfectly? Running on certain types of terrain slows you down, so hiking to the sandy checkpoint might take more time than if you stopped to perfect your dropzone.

Not that it seems to matter in the long run; I've completed two cups and although the paths between checkpoints gets trickier, I'm not sure how many more surprises it can throw at me. I've yet to come in second place even once, or even be dethroned from first place for long. I might just download a save to see what the later cups are like. by the nature of the game it seems like you don't spend very long in the company of your opponents.

Much like Yoshi Touch & Go (which I also played and had little to remark upon), it feels very much like a tech demo, a toy designed to show what the DS is capable of; its touchscreen, its 3D and 2D graphic scaling capabilities, its wireless multi-player. It just feels so very simple. You can't play as any of the other Pokemon (except in multi-player, allegedly). There's a grand prix and a time attack, and that's your lot. No point having a free-play treasure hunt if that's the main premise, is it?

But it is strangely compelling... possibly because I can't think of many DS games that used the 'trackball' approach to movement, and it's weirdly satisfying. It lends a certain manic energy to the game, having to stroke furiously to maintain your speed, having to scribble across the screen to course-correct. Pikachu runs a few steps before he registers the next input, so you're not in 100% control, you're just guidiing him more than anything -- it's only when you panic that it really shows.

I can't vouch if this is actually a good thing or not; the game would be mostly the same even with D-Pad controls, but it does give the game a bit of identity. Besides, it's not like there's any other Pokemon racing games out there. Shocking, isn't it?

I'm fascinated by the format and presentation, and again, I wonder if something in the vein of Sonic R would make it more appealing. Not just racing, but proper exploration, with more tangible worlds than just these huge multi-biome plains. At that point you're just making an open-world Pokemon game, probably, but darn it, it'd be a neat way to experiment. I can't be the only one who thinks on-foot racing is a genre worth exploring...!

The Simpsons: Bart's Nightmare
Super Nintendo
Feb 11

I was still on my impromptu Simpsons kick this year, consuming every darn podcast and blog post I could find on the subject. I seem to love gleaning melancholia from comedy, or moods it never intended as the main focus; Scampy's outstanding posts at The Spirochaete Trail do a great job exploring the philosophical sides of certain stories, with an especially analytical take on the captivating qualities of Simpsonswave.

Anyway, that's why Bart's Nightmare still sticks with me even after I rented it once a million years ago. What the heck is this game?! It's so cryptic that your first couple of hours are probably spent just figuring out how it works -- despite its presentation, it's a glorified mini-game collection, putting you in the shoes of Bartman, Bartzilla, or up against Itchy and Scratchy in a bid to complete all eight challenges... but only after you spend anywhere from thirty seconds to twenty minutes walking through endlessly-looping streets to find the entrance portal.

By the time you realise what you're meant to do, you're now left with the knowledge that none of it is very fun. Bartman is easily the most robust game, but is murder without auto-fire and has no checkpoints. Itchy & Scratchy looks madcap, but is best played standing in one spot zapping foes from off-screen. And Bartzilla, easily the star attraction in all the promotions, is shockingly dull and unsettlingly dour.

But what a fascinating game, right?! The soundscape is something else, with the hub world's eclectic music turning especially off-kilter when you're low on health, sampling Bart's quips as a weird backing track. Most mini-games only play ambient noise in place of music, rendering Bartzilla and Temple of Maggie more unsettling experiences than they were probably intended.

Although it has no bearing on progress beyond finding the portals, the hub is chock-a-block with features and mechanics, with all manner of hazards and obstacles that effect Bart in different ways or even interact with one another. Learning how to even engage with it is half the learning process, but it's vital to staying alive; figuring out how to even acquire the health that's floating everywhere is a skill in itself...!

This is another one I'd like to write about more sometime, though I'm not sure what my through-line would be besides "what the heck even is this?!?" Although another tick on the list of dodgy Simpsons games, it's got such a mesmerising structure I can't help but respect it more than is probably appropriate. The sort of thing that feels like it was expressly designed to confound and captivate anyone who rented it.

It's a bummer that I'm left with very few Simpsons games worth exploring, though. Virtual Bart is not a worthy successor to this. I tried Hit & Run and just found myself disenchanted with it; I loved Road Rage, and the thought of running around Springfield on foot sounded exciting, but it felt kind of blah? The same pool of repetitive missions and incessant quips... I guess I've got a very particular idea of what I want from The Simpsons now. God help us.

Flame Over
PC (Steam)
Mar 04 ~ 10 (bad end)
Mar 25 (good end)

Here's a game I bought years ago that, for whatever reason, made nothing but a negative splash on first impression. A roguelike firefighting game sounded like a great pick-up-and-play concept, but the execution left me cold for whatever reason.

Maybe the game was too front-loaded with mechanics and features that were poorly conveyed to me? Maybe it was before it got some quality-of-life improvements through patches? Or maybe it just wasn't what I wanted at that particular instant? Whatever the case, it just kind of sat there. Time to give it a fresh look!

So, firefighting roguelike. You explore a randomly-generated floor and are tasked with extinguishing all the fires, natch. Water is long-range and suited for most all-purpose fires, while the extinguisher is optimised for electrical fires, signified by black smoke, and works best in close quarters. Along the way you can rescue people and animals for extra time or hearts, spend money on power-ups and buffs, contend with gimmickry like gas leaks, or run errands for the enigmatic Miss Ion.

I've always been partial to the concept of firefighting games, because it's a nifty action premise that's ostensibly positive, and not tied to intentionally murdering dudes (unless you're a firefighter without ethics)... but the act of fighting fires kind of blows. There's not the visceral impact of smacking an orc, nor the satisfaction of draining an enemy's health to zero -- you just have to keep whittling away at it, and there's no guarantee it won't spark up again from another stray flame. Alone in the Dark on Xbox 360 made fires a distinctly miserable experience, and what little I've tried of Burning Rangers hasn't won me over yet.

I won't lie that Flame Over was giving me the same impression at first; it's a very back-and-forth process. Fires will spread from the corner you're not attending, where it can be easy to overlook them because of viability and how tricky they are to reach. You have to constantly run in and out of the room to lower your heat gauge so you don't lose health, and double back to restock on water or extinguishing foam.

And while saving dudes and putting out fires has its own virtuous charms, there's a lack of evolution built into the core concept, isn't there? A fire can only be big or small, but there's not much it can do to expand on the concept; it's not advancing the way you would moving up from fighting skeletons to fighting dragons.

Flames will occasionally launch fireballs, either in explosive arcs, igniting sparks, or even flaming trails, all capable of harming your character or setting more of the room ablaze. It keeps you on your toes, but I won't lie in my initial hour I was kind of dreading how it'd progress. What much can you do when that's your only threats?

Once I realised the game is more about resource management, then it clicked into place. Alongside your limited on-person resource of water and foam (you can restock at the entrance or from special points on the map, including slowly filling from a tap), you've got your 5-heart health bar to worry about, and also your time. You restock those by rescuing people or from random pickups hidden in the scenery, and as the game progresses you find yourself choosing some gonzo priorities just to theoretically keep yourself alive.

Rushing through burning corridors to book it to the shop in the hopes of buying more time, or scouting a fiery office just to grab the workers and dash -- that time's important! Because the game doesn't end when time's up, but the grim reaper appears who'll pursue you and kill you on contact. A very Bubble Bobble move; he can float through scenery and you can't, and you've no idea where he may be coming from, but it's a fun way of keeping the pressure on.

There is a satisfying ebb and flow to firefighting -- it might not escalate in the way a Mystery Dungeon might with stronger enemies, but simply not knowing what you're going to face in each room is enough. Cumbersome terrain to navigate, people in harm's way, a surplus of electrical fires... trying to stay on top of it all, while also making sure you don't run dry in the middle of a fight, is an entertaining lark.

You can park rescuees in a doorway to escort on your way to get more supplies, but a stray flame might fly from the next room and kill them without your knowing... so you have to account for all possibilities, unpleasant as they may be. It's no big deal when you can revive them with the defibrillator, but when you're jonesin' for time and all your escorts perish, it only turns up the heat.

The skyscraper has 16 floors, split into four sections, from relatively mundane offices and executive suites, to bizarre robotics and alien autopsy labs. Each comes with its own brand of hazards, from something as mundane as incredibly flammable shag carpets, to the far more aggressive like poison gas vents, explosives, toxic fires, and radioactive waste, most of which demand extinguisher foam or a combination of both.

It's satisfying to figure out the best way to deal with certain fires -- spraying foam and then washing it with water seems to get good results, but toxic fires are a particular nuisance, demanding sustained extinguisher spray... and can be easily reignited by any other flame nearby.

Electrical fires are a common threat that are a nuisance since they reignite easily and can be hard to detect if they're extinguished or not -- turning off the electricity is usually my first priority, removing all black smoke and electrical fires.. instead instantly erupting all electronics into flames. Your personal strategy may vary, but I like only having to worry about one type of fire and using my extinguisher when I want, not on something that demands so much maintenance...!

Escorting civilians can be nuisance since you need to manually lead them to the exit, and they like to get caught up on finicky scenery, but the rewards are worth it. Miss Ion grants you a mission and won't budge until it's done, ranging from simple fetch quests to tracking down objects hidden in the scenery, or even rooting out robot spies, apparently? Some are far more hassle than others, but this is the only way to get badges that unlock new perks.

When you die and restart, you can spend your badges and leftover money (earned from putting out fires) to unlock buffs. Increase your water bomb supply, effectiveness of items, etc. It's a neat feature, though a bit fiddly. Your leftover money is lost once you start a new game or quit, and you can't actually see what a buff does until you unlock it; you've only got the name to clue you in. Waste valuable badges on a perk you don't even want? welp! Time to save them up again!

I didn't expect to get so into the game, but it's an ideal roguelike experience, one that apparently capitalises on my love of juggling ridiculous amounts of tasks. It definitely makes a rough first impression, though -- the tutorial is little more than a premade stage that pops up explanations when the context is appropriate. You can still die and get kicked back to the menu, and the amount of information it dumps on you is a tad overwhelming.

Some assets get explained in serious depth, while others are practically glossed over -- none of the items are explained, encouraging you to suss out their purpose yourself. You can review the tutorial windows at any time via the pause menu, even in the main game, and it's perhaps worth revisiting if just to experiment.

One could grumble about a number of things. Like the camera, which can't see through walls and requires you to slowly rotate it to detect fires hidden in the corners. Or quirks like the fudgy terrain, the sheer random chance of bystanders dying instantly or a door forming a backdraft as you're in the middle of opening it... but that's probably just what you have to deal with in roguelikes, I don't know.

Like a lot of power creep roguelikes, the game kind of loses its lustre a little once you've acquired all the perks. I had every perk on my second completed run, and I don't think I ever took damage from the heat gauge; the only thing that hurt me were surprise fireballs and the like. I didn't get my favourite items like the holy water, but I was still able to make it through with very little threat to my time limit or whatever. At that point the only hurdles are just missions with obnoxious objective placement, but if I've unlocked everything, what do I need with missions anyway?

It took me a long, long while to cotton on to its style of play, but I really enjoyed my time with Flame Over. I'd dare say I warmed up to it, har har. There's something simultaneously breezy and panic-inducing about it, which is apparently my jam. Its quirky charms, British or otherwise, are a delight in just how unique they are. Now if only it had multi-player...! Mash this up with Flashpoint and we'd have something on our hands.

Goats on a Bridge
PC (Steam)
Dec 19 2020 ~ Apr 03

Last year's bday gift from RQ87! There's so many games on Steam I see and go, "that looks interesting, I oughta try it sometime!", add it to my wishlist, and then totally forget about until some gracious soul gifts it to me... and then I have to remember why I found it interesting. It looked cute, I know that much!

A 3D platformer in the Crash Bandicoot vein of running into the distance, where the central gimmick is you control two characters simultaneously on two separate lanes, using the respective sticks and bumpers to move them. They can jump over and roll under obstacles, and you're tasked with collecting trinkets and trying not to die on the way to the exit. It's a very simple formula!

Of course, keeping track of what's ostensibly two different sets of hazards at the same time is tricky. Early levels are more or less symmetrical, but later on they become a lot more intricate, with paths weaving over on top of one another, pitting you against very disparate hazards; one goat forced to roll under hazards while the other navigates tricky pits of spikes.

I feel like this was a hot design niche for an extremely short period, two characters sharing a screen but with different playing fields... though the only examples I can think of are Chronos Twins and Cookie & Cream. It's obviously something a certain type of player can really get into, but to me it just makes my brain sizzle and pop.

It's extremely adorable, the chibi goats an absolute delight, and a bunch of twee, family-friendly dialogue to tell of their quest for their missing sibling. You can't get too miffed when you die on account of this... but there's no checkpoints, so you can be literally within spitting distance of the goal, and if you manage to screw it up then, you'll have to redo the entire stage. It's very much a memorisation game, figuring out shortcuts to tricky situations, and learning what to expect next.

The game is designed largely for 2-player, but playing it solo is feasible, if a little head-melting. My Xbox 360 controller is showing its age and its sticks like to drift, which made it a touch maddening. Having to take turns navigating the goats is a total roll of the dice whether they'll stay put or just stroll off the side...! Adorable as it all is, it's a game I struggled to play for long sessions. 30 minutes was about my peak before I grew to loathe all things caprine.

The collision detection can be a bit dodgy -- the characters are long so they're prone to touching spikes when you least expect it, or getting stuck underneath platforms they're trying to jump on. The camera also feels like it should pan up a bit, as visibility's a bit compromised when lanes start to overlap later on. Still, it does the job.

The main campaign is very tough and took me a while to wade through -- trying multiple levels in one session led to quick burnout. Beating the game unlocks another 10 levels, billed as "episode 2", which introduces stacks more gimmickry -- springboards, moving platforms, and an emphasis on switches that effect the other character's lane, creating platforms and the like.

It actually made for a more pleasant experience? Maybe it's because the original levels are largely about timing and dexterity, while this take is a lot more placid and measured. It's easier to digest when the two lanes are so different, and one cannot proceed unless the other creates a path for them. It's a dynamic that more clearly emphasises the co-op element, compared to the first half where one goat's whiff can sink the whole thing, and felt like a more gentler introduction to the game... which is a bit frustrating when, you know, it requires you beat the manic part first to play it.

Points for creativity! It's a cute game, a pleasant change of pace. It's a simple but compelling formula that's bound to have its fans out there, and one I'm glad I got to experience, however little incentive I may have to replay it on my own. Not until I fix my controller at least.

Metal Slug
PC (Steam)
Mar 31 ~ Apr 01 (1CC Easy)
May 02 (1CC Normal)
May 04 (1CC Hard)
May 11 (1CC Very Hard)

Another gift from RQ87! (if you gift me anything it may take years for me to actually play it, and i am sorry)

I was having trouble setting up Kawaks on my gaming PC, so this was an appreciated fallback. The Wii Virtual Console version is still the most AES-accurate version out there as far as I know, and there's probably better outlets for netplay these days, but this'll do in a pinch. I just got the itch to try for 1-credit clears.

I think this is my first time playing one of the much-grumbled-about DotEmu ports? Their emulations have not exactly been lauded, let's put it like that. I'm sure if you play these games everyday you'll have a better idea of what's wrong. For a cheapie Steam release it gets the job done, I suppose.

What I noticed were occasional slowdown and outright framedrops when there was a lot of action on-screen, something I've never seen before in this game. Perhaps most critically, it also has an infrequent habit of eating inputs? You'll press a button and nothing will happen. It's a game about spamming the fire button, so one less pistol shot won't matter too much -- it's when you want to jump and the game refuses that it becomes a bugbear. Mission 3 in particular is where it matters most, on account of its death pits and all.

It's bit stodgy compared to its more smoother successors, but it's just a good-ass design. The sort of design that feels so smooth and effortless that you almost overlook the craft involved. When a game is less than perfect, you become very aware of it, like I did with Dragon Bros last year... but Metal Slug is like, eyyy, this just works.

Little hiccups like the stiff aiming for the Heavy Machine Gun or how easy it is to accidentally nuke your tank were fixed up in the sequels, and its jumping was made slightly less critical. This is the only one to include short-hops by quickly tapping the button, a feature I never knew was an intended feature until I read about it on Gaming Hell. I'm sure it has its uses, but in such an idiot-proof game, it seems to exist solely to screw over players who take their jumping arc for granted. Thought you were gonna clear those bullets, huh?!

I like just how straight-to-the-point the game is. Short, compact levels built on a few basic setpieces. I think come MS2 they really upped the level length, now possible because they had a better idea of how to reuse graphical assets -- the first game is almost entirely fresh assets throughout every level, isn't it? But the length of MS1 is just mwah.

MS2/MSX is still my favourite, but even early on it gets drawn-out with the Egypt stage, scaling the slope and the tower and all that. MS1 dips with the vertical snowy climb, its cheap deaths are a real blow, but I feel like it otherwise keeps a compelling momentum. It's not until mission 5 where it really throws out the welcome wagon and beats you to death with grenades and suicide bikers.

MS1 has always been regarded differently among fans; its more serious war vibes carrying a different edge than the more fantastical sequels, as well as its nuances towards bullet sponges and manoeuvrability. I think I prefer the slant of he sequels -- of excess, of variety, of sheer bizarre surprise -- but we wouldn't have gotten there without the first game. It's a solid production, and knowing about its origins as a tank-only affair give me a greater respect for it, knowing they had to overhaul it significantly in just a few months.

Because of the achievements I think this was the first time I set out to get a 1CC? Or at least, the first time I had a record of it. The Easy difficulty is way easier than I remember, but it took a couple of tries (and a couple of lives in my finished run), but I managed. I managed to 1cc all four AES difficulties; Very Hard gave me a lot of trouble until I somehow did it flawlessly while playing it during a phone call. Its short levels and overall length make it really satisfying to learn the tricks for each stage; the whole thing can be beaten in around 20 minutes, the first level rushed through with barely any stops.

The biggest hurdles were Allen O'Neill, whose pattern has a few wrinkles: you're safest directly above or below him, but he can also drop down to your position and stab you when you least expect it. Mission 5 and 6 are when you really need to take it slow and steady, carefully inching forward and sniping foes before they can create a wall of projectiles. Throwing grenades while the Slug recovers from its cannon is key to blitzing through the barriers in Mission 5, as well as exploiting the invincibility from ejecting from it or the turret in 6.

Metal Slug's a good game. I've still got a big soft spot for the franchise, however much SNK and the fandom strive to make me detest it. While it's nifty seeing weird new offshoots like Metal Slug Tactics and the bizarre mobile games, it would be nice to see a new run-and-gun.

Dragon Boar and Lady Rabbit
PC (Steam)
Apr 13 ~ 25

Hey, so, lemme tell you about one of my (mercifully short-lived) bad habits this year.

Steam's got trading cards, right? Part of its wackadoo gamification system. You can flog them for pennies and maybe that'll buy you something terrible on deep discount down the line.

But then I discovered: assembling the full deck and "fusing" them gets you a bunch of digital trinkets -- emoticons and things to decorate your Steam profile, but also a discount voucher for a random game!

I used to browse Steam's library exhaustively on sales, hoping to find some rare gem I'd never heard about, because actually discovering games in this day and age is a terminal crapshoot -- I haven't actually browsed the store in years.

But this...! By fusing cards, I could get vouchers for random games! I'd be getting recommendations, and saving money! Don't think about what I spent on cards to make those fusions, though! DON'T THINK ABOUT IT!

So that's how and why I bought this game for 40p.

It's a collect-athon platformer where you collect carrots to open the exit... except none of them are visible. Instead you have to use your 'concentration' ability to suss out where they are, which also highlights helpful objects like switches and utilities used to defeat enemies; a torch that shoots flames, or a bush that'll rustle up a boar. You can't exit unless you get all the carrots, so it's very old-school Amiga design in that regard, for good or for ill; at least the levels are linear rather than obtuse mazes.

In the final stages (of six) you can summon a dragon to ride on, who can shoot fireballs to kill any enemy, and serve as a steed and platform to help you reach out of the way places. It's a neat mechanic, a bit of a power trip, if somewhat underutilised... like a lot of the game.

It's pretty much an asset flip. The few games by "Classic Game Software" look to use the same engine and use sprites from graphic sets -- the same Lady Rabbit appears in Fox & Bunny by YELTYSH, also published by Droid Riot. They're nice graphics, but they're hard to appreciate under the garish CRT filter that bulges the screen and can't be switched off.

It's short on any kind of features, unsurprisingly -- no gamepad setup, no level select, no nothing. Six levels you can beat in 25 minutes, and you're done! The one option you do get is... to toggle greyscale on or off. "70s Style" they call it! The gamepad detection seems to fuck up a few things for some reason; it makes collision detection for stomping enemies that much worse, and also turns the dragon around every time you move up or down.

I guess for 40 pence it's solid? Controls are fine, figuring out where to go between switches producing platforms and instant-kill enemies is an adequate challenge. For cheap guff to occupy yourself for half an hour it's perfectly middle of the road.

It is a monument to my bad decisions, though, as I did seriously consider collecting trading cards to fuse them for vouchers to spend on obscure games to then record for YouTube... before realising that was a terrible idea. The last thing I need to do is find more bad games to play. That's what outsourcing is for!

Toxic Terror
PC (Steam)

Man, I miss buying obscure bullshit because it was cheap and I wanted to support indies. I think this might've been another Steam Greenlight game I thought looked neat. I'm sure I've said it before, but I miss Steam Greenlight. I guess is the place to go, but still...!

It's a maze game, basically! Collect keys to open the exit, while avoiding the ghouls patrolling the sewers. you can push boxes, some of which the monsters can also push, to help give you cover to kite around them or outright box them in.

It's all tile-based, so it's mechanically simple -- figuring out the quickest route and skirting around the troublesome monsters is the hard part, with a whole lotta trial and error. take too long and a ghost chases you down, so there's that to worry about, too.

It really is a trial and error game, with the random behaviours of the monsters making or breaking a run. It's only ten levels long, but what's there kept me occupied for a while -- one of those games I'd pop on, make a couple of attempts, then put down again. Recording a playthrough for YouTube is what incentivised me to finish it. There's a sequel that I may or may not also play, if the world really needs video coverage of it. Good to know there's more out there if you liked what you saw...!

PC (Steam)
Apr 20 ~ unfinished

I think almost everything I played on Steam this year was either a poorly conceived notion or a bad habit. I can probably blame my short-lived kick for recording playthroughs of games that hadn't been fully covered on YouTube. This is one of them! It's cheap, it's a compelling idea, I want to like it... surely it deserves some love, right?

Pongo's a big 3D platforming challenge -- jump across islands with your pogo stick and get to the exit. The pogo gets some dizzying heights, so there's an exhilarating sense of verticality to the affair, leaping across gaping chasms to faraway platforms... it's pretty nifty!

The first few levels are pretty benign, but it soon brings about some tricky jumping puzzles, mostly waiting for moving platforms to get in range, or hopping strategically when they dip beneath the ocean. You're graded on your time, so speedrunning is very much encouraged, learning the lay of the land for the best record possible.

The primary gimmick is you swap between pogo stick and blowgun, used to shoot enemies that either pursue you or shoot at you. It just feels clumsy, though, and having to manually swap between them robs the game of daring aerial manoeuvres, shooting at foes below from midair or whatever.

I've fought one boss so far, but it's no different than any other slowly-pursuing threat. It's a part of the game that just feels blah -- there's not enough to give it spice, and it can't actually intertwine with the jumping because of its implementation. I'd argue the enemies as a whole are kind of superfluous, but I'm only 20 levels in, it's early days.

The formula has promise, but the execution just leaves something to be desired... especially in the controls department. Dear god, is this Hand Cramp: The Game. The mouse is relegated only to aiming and shooting, while running and jumping -- the far more useful keys! -- are placed on Shift and Space, meaning your left hand is spider'd across the entire bottom corner of the keyboard. Running is a toggle, but only after you've started moving; stopping will reset you to walking speed, so you can't just hold the button. That'd be too simple!

That, and gamepad support is completely busted! Being a Unity game it'll automatically recognise XInput controllers... and totally fuck up the analogue support. The left stick moves fine, but the right stick will only aim up and down... by pressing left and right. You use the triggers to turn! And if any analogue input is recognised, your view will automatically drift up or down and refuse to sit still, even if it's just a one-stick controller!

I had to finagle a solution using both Xpadder and X-Mouse Button Control to map Space to Right Click, and then Shift to the shoulder button on a D-Pad controller (the game automatically assigns weapon toggle to L1). This meant playing the game with mouse and half a controller. This whole mess could've been circumvented if the game booted with the Unity launcher, or if its controls matched what it described on the help menu, but here we freakin' are...!

It's a game I'd like to play more, frustrating as it is, but the control situation really is outrageous. Playing on keyboard is rough, native gamepad support is busted, and having to use two programs just to finagle support on a D-Pad controller to play with 15% less hand cramp is absurd. I wanna see more jumping games like this! Jumping Flash is good, but where's the competition?!

Super Bouncy Cat
PC (GameMaker)
May 10 ~ 11

I played a lot of indie and fangame guff to record for YouTube this year (with backlog for next year!). I might as well drop a few plugs, right? Highlights included the Walkerton series by webcomic boy David Willis; Koopa: A Winter's Tale made by pal Matt; the Eggit! series; weirdo indie game Life Beetle; old-school shooter Factor X (requested by herrDoktorat); the Super Wario series, and probably a bunch more, I forget.

I do admit this year was nothing but a parade of manic hyperfixations that I struggled to tear myself away from, and furiously recording backlog was one of them. I did aim to have fun, though; it's always interesting exploring old creations and finding merit in them, and getting acquainted with the YoYoGames Archive was a whole new avenue to explore. But of all the indie games I played this year, this was the one that left the biggest impression on me.

Controlled entirely using the mouse, you guide Neko, Mao and Princess Princess on their quest to rescue the missing moon princess, taking them across a whole bunch of places and clobbering everyone in their way. The game is controlled entirely using the mouse, used to move the character along the ground and also to charge up their jumps. At maximum charge they can smash into enemies or bounce off walls, and careening off surfaces is essential to navigating the often vertical levels.

It's a simple formula with quirky controls that give it a great identity. It takes some getting used to, but it's very satisfying to careen through levels once you get the hang of jumping, and the boss battles are a great opportunity to learn on the fly, avoiding attacks and finding your moment to strike. Each character has their own special trait, from increased speed and jump strength, but Mao's double jump is too darn handy not to use. Making use of them all is half the fun, though!

The presentation is admittedly what sold me on the game at first glance. Everything, from the graphics to the music to the coding, is Nick's handiwork, and it's oozing with clean quality and cuteness. Each of the characters is packed with personality, from the players to the enemies, no matter how big or small they may be. There's so many adorable little details, like the cats changing into swimming togs in water, or background details lending texture to the worlds, or allusions to Nick's other games.

Its 20-plus levels can be finished in a couple of hours, plus some time to collect fishcakes to unlock the extra routes and final boss, but it's a really solid experience in my book. Surprisingly quality! The mouse can be a bit imprecise to use in some levels, and the final boss murder on the clicker finger, but this one really made a splash with me.

So it's a good thing it's not the only game! I ended up playing the series in reverse order, but getting more out of it from the two prior Bouncy Cat games was a treat, the first one a spectacular example of games oozing with way more content than anyone probably asked for -- so many characters, so many secrets, so many unlockables...!

That, and Nick's deviantART gallery has oodles of doodles, from concept art and portraits to even comic adaptations of his games, Bouncy Cat's reaching past a hundred pages! My video commentary addresses it a bit, but seeing an indie work that's got so much visible material out there is really heartening, and as someone who's a sucker for cute mascot crap with more depth than they probably need, this was an absolute treat.

I found this the easiest of the series to get into; Bouncy Cat Mao is a bit persnickety, while Hazumu no Neko requires a touch more patience to get the hang of. They're the sort of games I'd love to make a shrine for, to cast a spotlight on them and show there's someone out there that loves them...!

It kind of sucks getting so invested in it because what do I do with all this energy? It's already got great sprites and its own games and even a comic. How's a fan left to express their love? The obvious answer would be to email the creator and say nice things. That's on the to-do list! Until then all I can say is please check it out and also make more games with adorable sprites and tie-in comics, thanks.

Jet Gunner
PC (Steam)
Jun 05

Yet another Steam game I've had forever but didn't play until now. Retro 8-bit run-and-gun platforming, but with a jetpack: a one man army goes to stop robot uprising. The usual affair!

As far as run-and-guns go, it's very straightforward. You run and you gun, as you might expect, and you have a jetpack that gives you a limited amount of airtime. The first few stages are pretty simple, letting you use it simply as a means to avoid enemies, but later on it plays with that convention, forcing you navigate past pits with no footholds, up vertical passages, or use wind currents to mitigate its movement or even disable it entirely. Playing on hard cuts its airtime in half and slows its refill rate, and you truly realise how much you need it.

In addition to weapon pickups, you can also acquire helper robots who have their own arsenal. Their operating time is only for 30 seconds, but you can refill it by killing enemies: 1 second for small enemies, or 15 seconds for mini-bosses, while collecting a new robot resets the timer to 30. It's quite fun trying to raze foes to keep the timer well stocked, especially when it's a powerful weapon like the robot-exclusive laser, that can mow down bosses in just a few shots. Without a helper robot you might be inclined to avoid enemies, but if killing them keeps your buddy around...!

What's curious is that all the weapons are completely randomised. This isn't like Contra or Metal Slug where this specific area is predetermined to drop this specific weapon... in Jet Gunner, every time you reach that area the weapons will be different. It certainly mixes things up, but it means you're lucky to find a weapon in its optimum environment.

The machine gun is pretty bog-standard, but the others are an unorthodox selection. The spread shot is very short-ranged, and there's a gun that only fires directly up and down! The bazooka is the most powerful weapon the player can carry, but its shots fire in random directions with huge disparity in how far they stray, and only two can be on-screen at a time. Likely a homage to Metal Slug's distinctive drifting rockets, but in that game they at least home in a little and have splash damage on their side. You've no such luck here!

Given how straightforward the game is, it's perhaps the one chaotic element it has and possibly needs, otherwise it'd just be too easy. It does mean there's times where you're better off taking a death and hoping for something better, as there's no hope of beating the mini-boss with this crap gun.

The game has a somewhat brainless vibe to it at times, literally running and gunning forward with very little thought required, especially with the right arsenal. And yet that's perhaps why its unusual weapon loadout is the way it is, because it forces you to seriously re-evaluate how you approach these upcoming challenges. The speed and range of some weapons can force you to slow down to accommodate -- you can't rely on the rockets to actually make their mark half the time...!

The game has 25 bonus challenge stages, pitting you against time limits, one-hit deaths, or disabling the jetpack entirely. It's in these gimmicky stages where your fate can rest entirely in getting the weapon you need. One of them relies heavily on jet platforms with floating enemies that zone in on you. If you don't have a specific weapon that can cover a wide area very quickly, the final platform is guaranteed to kill you because the enemy will knock you off, and the platform will speed up before you can land on it. The challenges are intense, but that one was definitely closer to maddening.

A reviewer on Steam said he had to inch through the game to snipe tricky enemy placements... and yeah, the game does have a habit of just parking enemies right in front of you that fire immediately upon spawning. The last world in particular is rough with cannons that have no mercy in launching rapid-fire barrages that you have to know are coming to avoid getting shot. The game is generous enough with lives, health and guns that you can generally breeze through Normal without much care, but on Hard you will definitely be stopping every once in a while to snipe dudes where their shots won't spawn.

I think the game was made in Clickteam Fusion, and it does a terrific job capturing the 8-bit vibe -- I swear it's effected by sprite limit and slowdown, too! It seems to use a persistent internal timer for when enemy behaviour takes place, rather than starting when they spawn. When an enemy appears in Contra, you know it'll wait X seconds before firing. In Jet Gunner, they will fire every X seconds based on when the level begins.

It's hard to describe, but it means you may or may not have a moment of merciful reprieve when a cannon is scrolled on, based on this invisible timer. There's no hard-locked mercy on this thing, it'll fire every 2 seconds, and if the thing appears at 19.5 seconds, you've got half a second to react. This is partly why I assume the game was coded in Clickteam, as that's a familiar standby for coding -- not based on when an enemy appears, but just on a universal timer.

For only a dollar, the game's a charming little package. If you want some no-frills retro stuff that may or may not leave an impression, it fits the bill. It's not as tightly designed the games of olde on account of being a one-man show, but for a good little challenge that'll keep you occupied for a couple of hours with a good spattering of content to come back to, it'll do!

It does almost feel like the game needs an extra hook to really shine, like its jetpack, guns and robots just aren't enough... but sometimes a power rush is what you want. Walking forward, vaporising everything and flying everywhere with no limits. It's pretty swell!

I've yet to put time into it, but the game folder comes packaged with another file: Alien Splatter. It looks to be a game that this was built off of, with very similar aesthetic and mechanics, but otherwise distinct. I don't think it's mentioned anywhere in the game's Steam page, and there's no launcher for it either -- you just have to snoop around the folders yourself. You can't be bad to two games for 50p!

Dungeon Souls
PC (Steam)
Jun 14 ~ unfinished

Tried playing this to distract myself from projects, and then I wound up making a short-lived study project out of it. I've had this game for donkey's years in my Steam library, back when I was still eager to find the perfect dungeon crawler that pushed all my buttons. I still am, actually, and at this rate I think I might just have to make it myself. Given how long it takes all the promises on this site to get fulfilled, expect that to happen a couple hundred years from now, give or take.

So there's this dungeon that's a collection of lost souls, and Merlin's there trying to get his lost daughter back, a story that's only told sparingly in optional chambers that are hard to come by. It ain't what you're here for! What does it play like?!

... well, a top-down shooter, honestly. You move with WASD and use the mouse for aiming and shooting. You walk around, activating seals to spawn a ring of enemies that you can kill or ignore. The exit opens once all seals are activated, and you do the same thing on the next floor. Sometimes there's a boss or a bonus area. It's a simple formula.

Being a roguelike, randomisation and excess is central; there's buttloads of items that buff your stats, add conditions and bonuses to your damage output or health regeneration... and then there's just bonus attacks like swinging maces, cannonballs, setting things on fire, the works. On a good run everything within five square feet will be taking automatic damage and you'll be absorbing that to refill your own.

There's a whole bunch of classes, a mixture of melee and long-range builds, and unlock more by fulfilling conditions, like killing certain enemies or getting a specific item. Each has a default attack plus two special moves (that are unlocked via level-ups) with cooldown metres, and all three attacks can be enhanced to the next tier up, increasing their damage or range, etc.

It's very much a numbers game. Enemies have basic patterns, but it's more knowing who shoots the most projectiles, and for how much damage. Bosses are basically bullet hells, launching chaotic patterns of projectiles that you gotta avoid or swipe through, spawning enemies all the while. They're engaging... but the combat -- or everything, honestly -- is just a bit chaotic.

The lo-res pixel aesthetic tries its best to give visual cues -- your status effect marked by an emblem above your health bar, boss attacks forecast by symbols marking where they'll fire... but it's just hard to keep on top of it all. Killing enemies drops gold, and it's often easy to lose targets in a crowd because the glow of the loot drowns everything out! This is bad in the later game when tiny flies are among the most hazardous enemies; if you deal damage their floating health bar is a good way to see them, but if they're unscathed and behind a wall you're none the wiser.

There are traps, marked by red pentagrams, that cause explosions or rolling boulders after a moment's notice, marked by "watch out!" text appearing. Since the same font is also used for picking up items or dealing critical hits, again, this can be hard to see in a room crowded with enemies and gold.

The game as a whole is kind of chaotic. It's designed for mouse and keyboard, but has a confusing array of pop-ups to level up your stats, your weapons, view your inventory or toggle the map... none of which can be done by pausing the game. Better find a safe time to adjust these, otherwise you're under attack! Numerous runs ended prematurely -- either a trap got me or I was struck by a strong attack... I don't know! It's hard to tell! If it was by an enemy it may tell you who killed you, but sometimes it's just like, welp, that's that. Time to do it all over again.

There's a whole load of systems at once. From all the classes and stats, its level up systems, using gold to boost your 'passive' stats at launch, as well as an entire crafting system where you gain recipes and resources to craft new weapons... none of which I could afford, nor have any idea if they're worth the trouble or not. It's a mite overwhelming.

I enjoy the variety in player movesets. The initial three are a bit crap, especially when the archer and rogue seem so similar, but as you unlock more you see the differences, and getting used to their playstyles is nifty. I assume down the line the game will encourage me to beat the game with all of them, but for now it's nice playing the heavy hitters and seeing how they all do it differently. The Nightstalker is great; slow and brutish, but able to toggle between a slow-moving axe with a long-range bouncing chakram, and an explosive dash to make up for slow foot speed. It gets inventive!

I guess I enjoyed my time with the game... I just wish I was getting more out of it, y'know? Like a lot of these types of dungeon crawlers (well, Super Dungeon Quest on XBLIG, my point of reference), it's all just a bit mashy. There's no finesse to your control or a sense of weight to it. There's stats for knockback and stun and all that, but you're still just mindlessly bashing everything with the limpest soundscape imaginable.

There's no oomph or impact to any of this, because it's just mobs of sprites with varying amounts of projectiles or collision damage. I think that's why dying feels so ungratifying, because there's no finality to it. There's no sign you're at death's door or any tangible difference between the amounts of damage you take -- you just look at the lifebar in surprise, or not, when the game just anticlimactically plops "game over" on the screen. What killed me? Was it even a climatic death? Who cares, you're dead, move on.

I think that's just the nature of roguelikes, mind, and I may have foolish expectations to expect otherwise. To its credit, it does support local multi-player; I don't know how practical that would be given the amount of mid-level upgrades and whatnot to juggle, but I appreciate the effort. I think Hammerwatch, another game in this vein, was netplay only, and I never felt confident in tagging along with someone. That game was also slathered in cryptic systems despite its similarly simple tactile gameplay.

I first played this on an Xbox 360 controller and... well, it's functional, but the controls are very much mouse and keyboard. Having to juggle the left stick, right stick and D-Pad to handle movement, menu navigation and item usage is a bit mad, as well as the fight the triggers and bumpers are used in a strange way. You attack with RB and use your ability with LB, and toggle that ability using the triggers.

That part had me flummoxed for ages. Couldn't you just, like, map the spare abilities to the triggers? There's only two abilities per character as far as I can tell...! But it just seems to be mapping the left and right mouse buttons to the triggers. Another mouse-related quirk is you need to aim with the right stick, otherwise you just shoot to the right. It's not very ergonomic and seeing this cursor stuck to your player all the time is pretty ugly.

Dungeon Souls is good, perhaps the best one of these types of games I've played so far. Lot of classes to play as, each with a unique moveset, just enough challenge and mechanics to get invested in, and immediate engagement thanks to its punchy randomised worlds. Again, it's disappointing to enter a game hoping for one thing and getting something else, as my disappointment is a poor reflection on a game that's doing its own thing. Game's good! It's just not pushing all my extremely niche and specific buttons...!

PC (The Games Factory)
Jun 21 ~ Jul 04

One of those games that's long been on the agenda to record for YouTube. I played the first one a couple years back! It was cute and compact, if also maddeningly obtuse at times... but the notion of folks making a fangame for something so new, at a time when there were so few resources to be found, is so charming to me. They loved the game so much they wanted to make their own! In a timely manner, even!

This game is way, way bigger than the last one, with sprawling levels and somewhat tangible objectives this time, not just trying to blindly interact with every possible object. While early levels are simply sprawling fields to find Jiggies lying in the open, later stages get quite complex, requiring you to swap between characters multiple times just to clear one mission.

Yes, multiple characters! Banjo's got the default moveset, Kazooie can fly over terrain, while Mumbo and Gruntilda (!!) have power over ice and fire, the latter also used to step on heavy switches. Being a top-down affair the differences aren't as robust as in Banjo-Tooie, where weight and animations go a long way to make Mumbo feel different from Banjo, but it's nifty to see a humble fangame made in the year 2001 get so extravagant.

While my recorded playthrough clocks in at two hours, it took about two weeks to finish the game, mostly because it can be shockingly obtuse at times, and there's no walkthroughs online...! Something as simple as where to go after level 3 had me stumped for a couple of days (you gotta break a window on the ship!), and levels must be completed in one sitting. Progress isn't saved until all 5 Jiggies are found, so if you're killed by a surprise attack on the way to the final Jiggy... play it again, Sam! This is especially obnoxious in the final two levels, where there are hazards that cannot be killed and extremely determined to kill you back, never mind how convoluted some of the solutions are.

I seem to have an infatuation with media that's hard to recommend, or even appreciate without undue nostalgia for it and the era in which it was made. BKPC2 is fascinating, a truly robust labour of love with a shocking amount of content for a The Games Factory creation, complete with Stop 'N' Swap-esque connectivity between its predecessor and fellow fangame Mr Pants 2001, with extra content unlocked across all three games!

... but it can be hard to appreciate, not just because of technical difficulties, but of how old-hat it is. Old Clickteam guff is an acquired taste when indie games are so much more robust nowadays, and we probably have skewed expectations of fangames now too. I don't know. It's neat! I'm glad I got to play it and record the experience for others, though if I were more salty I would've included the hours of aimless wandering and technical troubleshooting before I reached the end.

Forge Quest
PC (Steam)
Jun 20 ~ 22

I played this on the side from Dungeon Souls, still on the lookout for a good dungeon crawler, and I'm almost certain I played a demo of this on XBLIG; called Lootfest or something like that? Same customisable voxel aesthetic, attacks on the triggers... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

... or not, because I already said it's a dungeon crawler, didn't I, hurf. The setting is dopey and lighthearted, where heroes and adventures are an active part of the economy because peacetime just isn't that profitable, so you go through the license bureau on beginner tier dungeons to prove yourself, complete with an assigned partner to motivate/harass you. It's silly, perhaps a bit needlessly wordy at times, especially when shopkeepers have paragraphs of text when all you want is to see their wares, but it's nice to see someone bring their own distinct flavour to the genre.

The entire game world is generated when you create your character, so one assumes the voxel aesthetic is pretty practical in that regard. The initial levels are relatively straightforward and linear, but by the second dungeon get pretty wild with large open spaces and sprawling pathways.

Fighting is simple -- there's melee and ranged attacks, earning abilities from levelling up, and depending on your weapon you can hold the button to do a charge-up attack. There's also a dodge roll and a shield, but truthfully, the default movement was snappy enough to make both superfluous. It felt they were included because Dark Souls made it fashionable, but the combat has rarely felt like it demands I got defensive.

The game is equal parts streamlined and, uh, not at all streamlined. For its simple controls and commands, there's also extreme MMO levels of inventory space and quick-select abilities that, on gamepad, are spread across the bumpers, the face buttons and the D-Pad. I do appreciate that there's distinct resource pools for magic and physical attacks, MP and Rage respectively; MP refills slowly, while Rage fills anytime you attack.

Combat is adequate, a bit straightforward. I got a good Critical Bow early on and it made the ranged game seem too good to ignore, sniping dudes with rapid-fire and only using melee strikes to do big splash damage. Some foes will stun you, throw you, slow you down and the like, and this stuff is easier to parse than in Dungeon Souls, but it still feels like you're dealing with damage sponges. There's no point getting fancy, just run backward and launch arrows into them until your Rage is full, then spam a bunch of shockwave attacks.

The first dungeon was extremely simple, and I was worried I'd have to make a new file on Hardcore mode to give myself a challenge. The second dungeon steps up the difficulty of the enemies a fair bit, so much so that rather than exploring thoroughly I just rushed to the exit as best I could -- not an easy task given how sprawling and labyrinthine these floors were! Dealing with tenacious mobs of enemies is tough, but the boss is usually easier to handle, on account of just being one target and not fifteen.

The game supports online multi-player and apparently part of its deal is joining other adventurers on random quests in endless mode or whatever. I can see that being neat, but I admit it makes me question when games bank on the thrill of multi-player and co-operative play to make up for the lulls in its game design. Or is that cynical of me? Like, people dismiss beat-em-ups as brainless games, but Final Fight's got design, darn it. There's a challenge in mind for each of its encounters! The same probably can't be said for randomly-spawned enemy mobs. But I digress.

The Forge part of the title is in the fact there's a buttload of crafting. There's so many systems! You can bash gems into equipment to make them level up their stats, or fuse multiple items into one to amalgamate their stats. You can craft slots onto equipment to insert gems that offer percentage buffs -- reduced ability cooldown, more damage/defence, etc. You can purchase pets to help you out, attacking foes and probably other benefits. All of this grants nebulous results, mind you -- between the cost of items and gold, it's hard to tell the difference until you've got an inventory to sacrifice.

Once you max out the perks on your assigned class you can then branch out into other classes, all with their own abilities; some are just perks, but some are actual abilities you can use, magic attacks and the like. I mostly stuck to splash damage barbarian stuff, but the odd magic spell came in handy. There's a decent variety of weapons and by the end I was juggling rolling bombs and a fire-casting wand, which did around 200 damage with each charge-up attack. Paired with the maxed-out whirlwind attack, it was satisfying being able to kill most things in a few swipes.

... but combat just grew to be a slog. Dungeons get longer and longer, with more traps that are tricky to avoid (seemingly the only requirement for the dodge roll in the game), and enemies grow into damage sponges. The final floors of the last dungeon just turned into mad dashes to avoid wolves and giant spiders, and exploiting weird quirks to give me a breather.

You can't be harmed when an in-game menu is on screen (not the pause or inventory menus), so if a door needed to be unlocked, I could sit on the lockpick screen and let my health refill despite the crowds of foes battering into me. That, and sometimes they'd push me right through the door! I'd end up unlocking the door anyway so it's possible this is an exploit to get through without using keys or solving the puzzle, but whatever. Free experience!

The story goes some funky places halfway through. Your rival ends up killed off, and a mysterious benefactor infodumps a load of backstory on you regarding the bureaucracy of heroes, a mage whose magic threatens to tear the world apart, and the legendary hero's (who is a human) adopted son (who is a chicken) hero who's looking to use that magic as payback for getting shunned by society.

It's equal parts in-depth and ridiculous, with a shocking amount of wordage dedicated to this stuff at times... all told by some nobody running his gums at you. Before the final boss there's a meeting with the bureaucracy which is is all helmed by owls, a visage that's almost like something from The Far Side, but I just mashed through it because I couldn't give a shit by that point.

Unfortunately, the final boss seemed to consistently glitch out on me, just standing in place and performing no attacks. I restarted five times to try and get it to work, and was able to fight the first phase properly, but the second phase (where the chicken dons a robot suit, if you want an idea of how off-the-wall it gets) refused to budge after making its entrance. It might've had something to do with having a chicken as my helper pet, who knows.

The bosses are the most compelling challenge (drawn-out slogs they may be) so I wanted to experience it, but if I'm fighting to make the game cooperate, maybe it's best I put it behind me...!

The game is very much built on the grind -- levelling up to get new abilities, more equipment to craft into new tools, getting money to buy new luxuries... if you're into that sort of thing, I could see that being a lark. Playing with friends could be fun too, using your respective abilities to good use or splitting up to explore dungeons faster.

But it's just too grindy for my liking. I want combat and exploration to feel meaty and involved, and it feels like a lot of dungeon crawlers turn it into a process, so to speak. Mobs surround you, but it's just a wall to slice through because designing intricate combat is too much work.

Did I enjoy Forge Quest? Well, comparing it solely to Dungeon Souls, it was nice to play something more longform, eschewing the roguelike elements for more tangible progression. It was a fine distraction, one I'm glad I tried it if just to see what I'm missing out on, one I'll have no incentive to go back to. Cute, charming, but not for me.

... boy, it kind of stinks to acknowledge that though, doesn't it? I wanna like games! I don't buy into these things expecting a lousy time! There's a degree of cooperation or leniency you have to offer a game to get your best experience from it, but it stinks finding a game that's in the ballpark of "what I want", but just not quite there. You must be sick of me singing the praises of Pineapple Smash Crew (still wanna write that article!), but it still pushes all my buttons perfectly. Gimme more of that!!!

Still, I'm always thankful to pals on Steam for gifting this stuff to me. It stinks ending up saying that it wasn't for me, but I'm glad to have experienced it, y'know? Ta RQ87! I'll get that perfect dungeon crawler one of these days!

Star Fox Zero

So... I bought this game around four or five years ago despite not even owning a Wii U, nor knowing anyone who did, in a foolish bid to show my support for the Star Fox series. My brother was chucking out his console this year and offered it to me multiple times, but I passed -- I was in no rush and figured I could wait.

Then I stumbled across a fandom blog and found myself neck-deep in my Star Fox obsession again, and just couldn't wait any longer. I needed a Wii U! It's the one game I hadn't played! I had to give it a fair shake...!

Gameplay leans heavily on the Wii U Gamepad, and controlling the Arwing takes some doing the first time. The right stick and face buttons are used for aerial manoeuvres like tilting, u-turns or speed control, while the triggers are for shooting and lock-on... but all aiming is done through the tablet. You tilt the controller to move the reticle, something that takes time getting used to its sensitivity (and a lot of manually resetting it to the centre of the screen), but it does add a great new dynamic, offering a much wider range of fire, even able to fire 90 degrees to the side in all-range fights!

The game seemed determined to give me whiplash with my first impressions, though. The first stage is an excellent romp through Corneria, taking the beats of Star Fox 64's intro and upping the ante, with flying buzzsaws cutting down skyscrapers and ending in a fight to defend the shores from incoming spider robots.

Sector Alpha then turns into a 'dungeon' stage akin to Star Fox 2, as you transform the Arwing to navigate inside an enemy ship. The Walker is cute, but a dickens to control at first brush, with twin-stick controls required to move and steer the thing, which is troublesome enough even without its twitchy dodge ability throwing itself everywhere without asking. Again, once you get used to it it has its merits, especially in ground-bound all-range stages, but at first glimpse it's an unwarranted distraction.

So... we'll be back in the Arwing after that, right? Wrong! Next up is Zoness where you spend the level in a silly little gyrocopter thing, deploying a droid to hack into terminals to disable shields. It's certainly interesting, a stealth mission where you use the tools on-site rather than your own arsenal, but it's mercilessly slow and shockingly easy to get lost in.

Things do pick up, but there's always some hitch in the way of my enjoyment. Levels tend to be huge with not enough action to justify their size, nor even a radar to tell where the targets are -- you're forced to pan the tablet around to scout your surroundings, something I assume is meant to make dogfights that more tense, but ends up wastin more time than anything else.

Boss fights are not the game's strong suit, honestly. Fighting against Star Wolf should be fun, but you're left running laps around each other and having to steer shots while you're on their flank. All-range bosses are huge and impressive, but also incredibly drawn-out. The Attack Carrier is insufferable as it constantly retreats and has a tiny weak point, one you have to carefully navigate around while it shoots lasers, all the while running the risk of waiting another half-minute for it to run laps again. And don't get me started on Andross. What a waste of a finale.

And yet... I enjoyed my time with the game? A lot of Star Fox games I find frustrating on the first go-around, I'll be honest, and replaying Zero I warmed to its eccentricities. It has some truly great stages and setpieces, with the epic scale of Fortuna a particular highlight. The controls have their quirks, but it's also very satisfying to master; where Star Fox Command gave you sensitive flight control like no other, this game's precision aiming is its strong suit. Learning to lead your shots and hit precise targets really is a boon.

It just feels like it wants to have its cake and eat it too. It's a playground of gimmickry and creative ideas, treating the Wii U Gamepad as a veritable toy to control the various ships -- flying with the Gyro, steering Direct-I, piloting the Walker... while also presenting an extremely tough arcade challenge.

The timing in many fights is extremely tight, with some of the endgame challenges requiring extreme mastery of the flight controls, expecting quicker reactions than any other game in the series. The traditional gameplay and gimmicky stuff just never fully gel, at least not at the level of difficulty it's striving for.

It's a bummer, because under less tense circumstances (and not interrupting my whiz-bang space stuff) this gimmickry could be a lot of fun. Put the Gyro and Direct-I into something like, I don't know, "Pilotwings: Spy School", and then you'd be talking. As a shocking swerve in an otherwise fast-paced Star Fox adventure, it just feels like an unwanted disruption.

That, and I almost feel like the dual-screen aiming mechanic would be a better fit on the 3DS? Looking between the TV and tablet never felt natural; I think having it all in one unit feels like it would've been more compelling than Star Fox 64 3D's flight controls, but I can also see that being a bad idea too.

Star Fox Zero took some doing, but I had fun with it. It's an extremely wishy-washy game, one with heaps of low points and wishy-washy facets, but also plenty of great bits, and darn it if I'm not just happy to be playing another Star Fox. I was holding out hope for it to get a Switch remaster (the one thing that would've prevented me from wanting a Wii U), because there's merit in here! It's just having to make do with the crummy parts, too. I wish all my furry animal games didn't require I make such concessions, but here we are.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U
Wii U
Jun ~ Aug

The Wii U I bought also came with most of the games I was interested in anyway -- Smash Bros, Mario Kart, Splatoon, so I was sorted. Not that I even got around to playing the latter two games, and this one I already played a buttload on 3DS. Look, I never said it was the wisest £100 I ever spent, but it scratched an itch, alright?

I missed out on this game when it was new, having gotten Brawl way back in 2008, so that's a long time without a new Smash experience! The updates are slick and the new characters fun, with a particular emphasis on tricksters from the looks of it. Bowser's still my jam, but I've come to main Wii Fit Trainer a shocking amount; her moveset just pushes the right buttons, and I think I like the challenge of working within her foibles.

Most of my points from when I played the 3DS version still stand, though it's just neat being able to use these characters on the big screen, and see the modes and stages I was missing out on in the handheld edition. The excellent Smash Run has been swapped out for Smash Tour, a multi-player party mode that's kind of the same idea -- your Mii runs around a board game picking up characters, items and stat boosts, and if you bump into another player you enter a fight using whatever you've acquired.

Playing it solo, it ain't great. There's content in here! Like boss fights! Fights that you can't see in any other mode, as far as I'm aware! But trying to find any of it is a complete and utter crapshoot. Where Smash Run was a chance to get acquainted with new characters, movesets or stat adjustments, Smash Tour is just pandemonium through and through. That is Smash Bros.' modus operandi after all, but still. It's charming, and in a house full of Smash nerds I imagine a good lark, but as a standalone experience it's just a bit paltry.

Master Orders is a quirky mode where you earn rewards by completing challenges -- harder challenges means bigger rewards, or you can do the gauntlet of Crazy Orders where you try to complete as many within the time limit before facing off against Crazy Hand. This one was a big draw, the kind of randomised challenge I could get behind more than Smash Board. The Events mode also returns with more robust progression and difficulty options, with sub-challenges based on unlocks... but, well, it's Events. It's a mode I play once to completion and then never touch again.

The stuff I liked most about the 3DS version, being able to tinker with character stats and movesets, just didn't feel as convenient in this version for some reason -- partly because I had to unlock everything again, harumph. Again, the handheld experience really did make that one for me. Being able to sit down for 10 minutes to hash out a way to make Link more my speed, compared to plonking in front of a console and trying to do the same. The game is quite playable on the Wii U Gamepad, but not quite as convenient as a 3DS, y'know? Can't take it out of the room without lugging the entire Wii U with me, first of all...!

The 3DS version just pushed all the right buttons for me; this is still the same game, but the modes make or break it, y'know? Maybe I'm a freak for getting so much pleasure out of Smash Run. It's good to play it on the big screen (i say after playing most of it in handheld mode, ooer), but for my needs, the 3DS version was the way to go. Your mileage may vary! Especially now that Smash Ultimate kind of covers both bases!

Persona 3: The Movie #2


Pal herrDoktorat was in a Persona mood, and the heat was killing me, so watching this seemed like an adequate way to spend the evening. This is gonna be all spoilers, natch, so if you don't wanna know about what happens between Ken and Shinjiro, paddle on.

Shinjiro was perhaps the character I enjoyed the most when Persona 3 last year, bringing a rightfully tragic side to the story. While Junpei and others are revelling in the notion of being gifted with such power, Shinji's burdened with the damage he's caused with it, and rightfully wants to step away with it all. To be dragged back in ain't something he wants, but to be given a chance at kinship and redemption is real dang appreciated.

Ken's mother was killed as a result of collateral damage from a Persona attack, so he's a trifle miffed about that and craves revenge more than a 10 year old probably should... but darn it if he and Shinji don't get along super well. The game made Akihiko the kid's idol instead, but the film gives Shinji the focus and does a really sweet job showing the two bonding.

Shinji is rightfully stand-off-ish at first -- he wasn't exactly eager to rejoin the group! -- but darn it if he ain't showing his sweeter side by being at Akihiko's side, giving Ken an older brother figure in his life, and doting over Koromaru. It's pretty adorable, even if the kid's hero worship does come across like a crush at times. Japanese media be like that...!

Like the last instalment, it does rocket through the game's events on fast-forward. A game has the freedom to split its focus where the player desires, but since the film's trying to follow a relatively streamlined through-line, it tends to gloss over important details. Like, oh! Apathy syndrome's still a thing! It's only the reason we're doing all this hero business, the symptom of evil's rot or whatever!

It's nothing that directly effects the characters during the game, but it was a recurring, unpleasant visual in the background of all the overworld areas. You might be out running errands or catching up with Social Links, and there'll be some poor soul slumped in a corner, still alive but totally dead to the world. It's the sort of thing that could've been expressed had the film used more establishing shots of town or something like that, but it's no big deal, just one of those casualties of having to condense an RPG.

A key theme of the story is not wanting the good times to end, be it using their Persona powers, the thrill of working with their friends, or in Ken's case, realising the man he admired was also the person he vowed revenge against. Minato's apparently meant to be swept up in Persona mania, not wanting to acknowledge the good times will be over once their mission's complete... but it does a lousy job conveying it.

I've already got grievances with the film's portrayal of the player cipher, but the third act paints him as a space case who's sitting back and watching his friends get clobbered. It misses opportunities to make a character of Minato -- the last film had him laughing maniacally as he unleashed his Persona, a scene that seems to exist just because it looks cool, but could've been a great way of showing the grim pleasure he takes out of this. He looks quiet and unassuming, but he's loving this stuff! Instead... no, he's kind of lost in the shuffle, yet still treated as a key player.

I'm still not sure where I stand on these adaptations, but as a film that encapsulates the Shinjiro and Ken storyline within two nicely paced hours, I was very satisfied; it did justice to my favourite arc of the game. I confess I'm not in a rush to see the two sequels; Dok and I can't stand Ryoji, and I doubt the film will do justice to the scenes I'm interested in. We'll see what happens...!

VeggieTales: LarryBoy and the Bad Apple
Game Boy Advance
Aug 23

Bless the Retro Pals for informing me of this game's existence -- and the fact it's just a copycat of Mario vs. Donkey Kong, kind of! It's got the same type of environments, a similar manner of platforming and climbing, with switches and gimmickry to help make your way to the exit.

... there's really very little else to say. You climb ladders, roll through pipes and toggle switches to make your way across the level. Enemies don't kill you, but instead inflict status effects, whether it's reversed controls, slowed speed or being immobilised for a few seconds. You can't directly harm them either, but items and power-ups render you immune to them, whether it's invincibility or a jukebox that forces them to dance, which also hinders enemies that would otherwise reset any switches you toggle.

There's some fun new gimmickry as well, like tiles you can grappling hook onto, but it's all pretty simple. Instead of boss fights you partake in mini-games of Breakout, which aren't great. Bonus stages are bizarre dancing games where you either dance to the tune or play Simon, I forget. They also aren't great. I'm inclined to say "I appreciate the variety", however much that variety stinks and adds nothing of worth.

I ended up beating the game in 50 minutes while on a phone call, so, uh, it's not exactly a hard game, nor a long one. The only difference between the difficulty settings seems to be the time limit, which is the only actual challenge -- since enemies can only afflict you with status affects, running out of time is the only way to die. Hard mode is actually pretty tough, with seriously tight deadlines that leave little margin for error -- a tall order when some jumps are shockingly precise, requiring you to get to the very edge of a platform... hard to tell when nobody has any legs.

The game was still being sold on the official VeggieTales website for $20 until a few months ago, and I'd argue that's a bit much for such a short-lived experience, but it's a neat little curio. The sort of thing that gets the mind thinking of Donkey Kong fangames, and why there should be more of them.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Aug 27 ~ Sep 06

I got chatting with a guy whose art I admired and who apparently also enjoyed my crap, particularly my playthrough of Zelda 1, so I figured, fuck it, let's be pandering and play Zelda 2 as well. Look forward to that sometime! Or not! It'll be a shitshow!

I'd already watched playthroughs of this so it wasn't as blind an experience as the first game, but coming to grips with its strange mechanics and gameplay was a trip in itself. It felt like a much more 'gated' experience than the last game, where you cannot proceed until you have the appropriate items, often found in places you might not expect.

The first game had that in the form of its raft, ladder and so on, but I guess when you were more actively engaging with enemies and environments I didn't notice it quite as much. While I was happy to bumble around for hours at a time, I was also given the okay to use a walkthrough, which I used whenever bullshit reached an all-time high.

It's a fascinating game, though, and a really unique interpretation of how to make a sequel. By virtue of its dichotomy of overworld and platforming stages, it offers a whole new viewpoint to the last game's iconography, seeing everything in a whole new light -- both visually and mechanically.

Combat is extremely brutal right out the gate, with the Shield spell an absolute necessity to make it through some scraps, but there's a great ebb and flow to it. Learning the tricks to beating certain foes feels very satisfying, with a more tactile feel than its top-down predecessor could hope to accomplish. The sort of thing you can see where the 3D games got their inspiration, especially with Ocarina of Time's emphasis on guarding and parrying against shielded foes.

Another game I'm very glad to have experienced, if also one I'm hesitant to recommend. I did try a number of ROM hacks before settling on the original experience, some of which looked quite good -- rebalancing the health and damage, mitigating crueller aspects like losing experience and adding checkpoints, so there's definitely ways to make it a more approachable experience.

Zelda found a better niche as it went on, but this game's design is the sort of thing that would be neat to see explored in a venue with less baggage, as I mentioned in my Croc article. The degree of 'separation' that's introduced by splitting the action between overworld and side-scrolling is interesting, if also interrupting what made the original so compelling: the thrill of immediately engaging and interacting with its worlds. So it goes!

Croc 2
Sep 07 ~ 08 (unfinished)

I streamed Croc 2 on Discord across two nights to refresh myself while working on my article (and gave up after world 3 kicked my ass). My notes from the year before were plenty to work with, but I wanted reacquainted with it to make sure I was getting the right impression. I was worried I was being too hard on the game, but I'm not sure if refreshing my memory helped -- now I felt like I wasn't being harsh enough!

Writing about the first Croc was a pleasure, both because I love the game to bits, but also finally finding the words to express how it works, and especially where it fits into the evolution of 3D platformers, was incredibly satisfying. It was a relief to get Croc 2 off my chest, but not quite as cathartic -- mostly because holding my argument together without just being a negative nelly was a tough balancing act. I'm still not convinced I pulled it off, but the game's not on my mind so I'll take that victory. If anyone wants a rebuttal then they're welcome to make their own essay. I wanna see it!

Honestly, streaming the game just reminded me of all my petty little grievances. The fact crystals scatter so far from crates. How easy it is to get turned around by falling down a pit. The cute cutscenes to introduce bosses that you barely even get close to. The first Croc felt so confident in its basic fundamentals and experimental designs, while the sequel feels like hopeful ambitions that occasionally masquerade as a game. That or "a soundtrack that comes with a game," as someone in chat so aptly put it.

I watched a few Twitch streams of the game to see what folks' opinions were, but I got little insight beyond folks remembering it as a child and getting bamboozled by the hub system. RealSovietBear's four-part playthrough had sparingly few kind words to say about it, and as a game dev offered commentary on the assumed lack of time to test and QA, as well as suffering dearly for trying to 100% stages on the first try.

I've yet to watch his playthrough of the first game, but the sequel only seemed to put its merits in perspective. Comments like "I feel like the ten-year-old inside of me is sad now," or this telling exchange: "This is 1999. Other better games had come out." "Yeah, like Croc 1."

In fairness, I was streaming the PlayStation version with its dodgy D-Pad controls; it is remarkable how much smoother playing on PC is by comparison. Still, it can't fix what a step-back it feels in terms of world-building to the first game. Legend of the Gobbos had so many types of enemies and Dantinis, every biome with their own staple of inhabitants -- caves with their worms and rats, the ice plains with penguins and dogs... all the sequel has is Dantinis in costume until you reach the caveman world, and the variety doesn't really grow much from there.

Like I tried to emphasise in the article, Croc 2 isn't a total crock, but for anyone who wanted a sequel that built upon the first game, it doesn't really deliver. I'm glad folks enjoy the game, and I do earnestly wanna hear from folks who appreciate it and can defend it, but it just ain't for me...

Deltarune Chapter 2
Sep 18 (first run)
Oct 02 ~ 05 (2nd run)

This came out at the perfect time, as I sorely needed something to lift me out of a funk, and it delivered in spaces. I hadn't smiled and laughed so much all year. Thank you, Toby Fox. Extra special thanks for the obtuse Homestar Runner reference.

I can't remember if I outright addressed it when I played the first chapter back in 2018, but I'd kind of no idea what to expect from Deltarune going forward. The enemy motif suggested we'd encounter other card-themed foes in future, but would we only be exploring the realms beyond Ralsei's castle...?

This very quickly establishes a much broader scope right off the bat, with a visually spectacular new world to check out, full of fun and charming denizens. Queen obviously steals the show, but Noelle and Berdly joining the fun adds some great new dimensions, with the gang from the last chapter still offering bang-up material. I like this angle of baddies with the same general goal but very different ways of expressing it, and Ralsei talking everyone out of their ambitions at the end was a terrific moment.

Ralsei, Susie and Noelle all gain the ability to ACT, greatly opening up the variety during 'combat' -- they're not left playing support roles to Kris as main ACT-ivist. As always there's fun interactions to be had, but learning the quickest and most efficient way of pacifying foes is a lot of fun, giving the combat a much more tactile feel.

It's great seeing Toby's design evolve across these games -- I revisited the Super Best Friends' playthrough of Undertale later in the year, and it's interesting seeing Matt and Liam struggle with its mechanics on their first go-around (partly because they're dummies, but i still love 'em). I suppose we're all acquainted with it now, but Deltarune conveys its menus and systems a lot smoother by comparison.

I confess I first played this in one marathon session, stopping only for dinner, because I'd already put the game off for a couple of days -- if I waited any longer I'd miss out on all the juicy discussion! Unfortunately, by doing so I not only wore myself a bit ragged, but I missed a whole heap of content. Everything my friends were talking about was something I somehow overlooked...!

Ralsei makes some remark early on about "sometimes severing connections may make you stronger," to which my takeaway was "which of these assholes is cruisin' for a bruisin'." I beat the shit out of Spamton the first time, thinking the ACTs would give him money the way Muffet's fight worked in Undertale, so I was clueless why folks were so smitten with this guy. I then clobbered Berdly both times but reloaded because Noelle made me feel bad about it.

I did come back for a second playthrough to fight Spamton NEO and generally savour my time a bit more. The first time I was eager to see what the new world and characters were like, blazing through Castle Town because I'd already gotten my fill of these guys from last time -- I saw enough of you on Tumblr circa 2018, Seam! I was rightfully called out on this bad attitude, and taking my time really does make a difference. Savour the moment, baby.

If you follow these games you've heard everything you need to hear, probably, and if you don't you've also probably heard everything you need to hear. It's kind of hard to get away from! My heart goes out to anyone who can't stand it. I remain super charmed by Deltarune and look forward to coming back to it again; I wish I could better convey all my thoughts and opinions on its various minutiae, but it's hard to divorce them from rambling Discord conversations where I pinball between topics at a moment's notice.

Oct 09

Pal herrDoktorat's electronics were on the fritz right when Metroid Dread came out, so I thought I'd tide us both over by streaming some old Metroid games, particular ones he wasn't acquainted with. No, it wasn't also an excuse to get resources for my extremely shameless Kraid article. How dare you make that accusation.

As I said in that same article, I've tried this before a few times but never stuck around long enough for it to click with me. A search-action game kind of relies on familiar areas and landmarks to help you navigate, and right off the starting line Metroid throws you in some extremely samey, drawn-out environments. Does this tunnel have an end or does it just go up forever? Only one way to find out!

It's quite daunting in that regard -- there's a lot of ground to retread if you go the wrong way, or even if you die, which kicks you back to the start of the area, maybe even the start of the game! Much like The Legend of Zelda it also doesn't restart you at full health, so having to backtrack further to stock up on resources is an additional kick in the teeth.

At Dok's request I played using the Metroid mOTHER hack, which replaces some of the graphics and adds a couple of quality-of-life features. I also played using a crapload of save states, in addition to cheats for infinite health and missiles, because my intention was solely to find Kraid -- and then when I accomplished that in record time, figured I might as well go for the ending too. It was a sightseeing tour of Metroid more than it was a legitimate playthrough. You should've seen how many times I fell into lava. That would've invalidated it even without all the cheating.

But it was a fun little experience! Aggravating at times, with extremely tenacious enemies and a very squirrelly, fragile Samus, but to see more than just the opening area was a treat. It really was an ambitious design for such an old game, arguably ahead of its time, yet using what little flourishes it had to paint a picture -- the differently coloured tunnels to give Brinstar some distinction, the variety of enemy graphics, and so on. Other developers really pushed the graphical fidelity of the NES, but to see them try and paint a picture with such limitations just felt nifty, is all.

It's a tough game to recommend, mind. Every facet is way tougher than its modern equivalents, from exploring to fighting to recovering health or missiles, and its use of regenerating blocks in long vertical chambers was nearly enough to make me throw in the towel. But to play it is to truly appreciate the advances the later games made, however belated my discovery may be!

It puts into context how much Super Metroid is flexing, from its enhanced speed and scope, to throwbacks and swerves on player expectations. It's shocking to see a game that 'early' so intentionally make callbacks and references to itself, even something as minor as the tileset used in Fake Kraid's chamber!

A game I'm glad I got to finally experience, however much I totally cheated to do it. I... don't know how much incentive I have to play without those measures, though! It's nifty, but it got iterated upon for a reason. I grumble about Kid Icarus not getting another 2D instalment, but it still holds up better in my book.

Blood Brothers
Oct 12

I found myself on an extremely short-lived gallery shooter kicker (lasting the span of 12 hours it seemed); this and Cabal are seen as the granddaddies of the genre, and we wouldn't have Wild Guns if it weren't for them, so I oughta pay 'em some respect!

It's what you expect, innit. You run along the bottom and shoot things with your cursor, with the intention of blasting until there's literally nothing standing in your way, razing adversaries and entire buildings or landmasses alike. The game's soundscape is nothing but deafening gunfire and wailing screams, and the end of every level has your character doing a jaunty jig across the scene of carnage. The game has a vibe, and it is something else.

Mechanics are simple but solid, I guess! Shooting pigs and unfortunate depictions of tribal chiefs will drop weapons and power-ups, which are basically bigger, nastier guns. Shooting incoming grenades will turn them into collectible grenades, which you can throw for big damage, with no cap on how many you can throw at a time. Launch 20 grenades in a single second! But grenades are valuable and only restock upon game over so maybe don't do that.

You can dodge-roll and are invincible during its animation, though it doesn't carry you too far, and finding the precise timing to stop between bullets is key to later fights. You can shorten your dodge if you crouch first, a benign quirk that would be a top strat if I knew what I were doing.

I confess Wild Guns remains my favourite and the metric I judge all others by, which is an unfair thing to do. Little quirks like having to physically walk into power-ups, you can't just shoot them to collect them, is a wrinkle that forces you to be on the move more often. The speed between player and cursor is different; you don't quite cover the same range in the same time as Wild Guns, though there's a lot less enemies shooting at your current position, it seems.

The theme is fun, with lots of fun setpieces and full-screen environments to destroy. Wild west stuff always makes a fun setting, though I can see why Wild Guns opted for the techno fusion, as Blood Brothers runs a little dry towards the end. One boss is a trio of giant fire-spitting birds, and the next one is an outrageous giant snake, easily the toughest boss in the game. If you die to a boss, its health refills! This is a very tough boss and the fact it's a wee bit inexplicable is a strike against it.

Of course, being a wild west game it's got to deal with the iffy depictions of Native Americans. It does make an attempt at evening things out, with both white settlers and natives on the same factions; player 1 is a white cowboy, player 2 is native, and the enemies appear to be used somewhat interchangeably. I'd be hard-pressed to call it sensitive, mind, as American prejudices filtered through pop culture filtered Japanese prejudices ain't a great combination, but I appreciate the attempt?

This is one of the first games I played in MAME when I first discovered it decades ago (alongside Mr. Do's Castle), but I never played much farther than the second screen, so it was neat to see it in full. It's got merit! ... but again, Wild Guns is in a league of its own. That game's hard to top!

I did also try a couple credits of Cabal, the real genre-starter by the same developer... and it really is the same game, huh. It's a lot less whimsical without the wild west theme, though. I've become a softie in my old age and all this gunning down of people hits different, especially when you're encouraged to shoot medics because they drop grenades.

It's possible the emulation wasn't accurate, but you heard a lot more screaming than anything else, with some screams practically four-in-one, lasting far longer than the enemy's corpse remained on-screen. Weird vibes, man. I got about four levels in and let it game over. Another time, maybe, but I got what I needed out of it.

Spyro the Dragon
Oct ~ 17

I swear I've beaten this game twice, maybe three times in the past, and yet every single time, even when I went in with the intent of forming an opinion on it, I come away from it my mind a blank. What's up with this game?

Well, it is very chill. Something about its swimmingly smooth controls, pastel environments and lackadaisical gameplay structure just kind of combine to make it a pleasingly no-thoughts experience. A game that's very enjoyable and easy to sink into, its mechanics feeling so natural there's little need for cognitive thought. There's no real overt puzzles of any kind, nor truly daring challenges... it's just running, jumping, and either burning or bashing whatever stands in your way.

It's such a smartly designed game, though. There's the obvious stuff, like the transitions between levels and the hub where Spyro flies through the air -- it's such a delightful visual you don't acknowledge it's a loading screen. Same with the level designs, which are broken into big chambers with little exits or narrow passages, hiding the terrain so it can dynamically load the next area.

The simple controls, the variety of collectibles (gems, dragons, eggs) to spice up exploration, using the dragonfly as your health metre... there's a whole lotta things that I'm sure took serious design, but feel so streamlined to feel natural. It's confident in its platforming that it doesn't add many wrinkles into the mix, beyond enemy gimmickry and the rare free-flying stage. Even flying feels startlingly natural, despite having no precedent for full three-dimensional movement!

Much like the first Croc to me, it's the perfect chillout game, but with just enough engagement in its dialogue and sheer bizarre variety of enemies to get you thinking, what kind of world am I engaging with? Its magical presentation really is beautiful, and the irreverent edge mixed with its cartoon take on traditional fantasy sights is well and truly charming.

It's just... actually describing the game is tough. What am I doing moment to moment, and what do I think of it? I don't know, man, my brain's just kind of on auto-pilot. It's a welcome change from the far more intense platforming challenges of Crash and Croc, or the "pay attention and do the objectives" stuff in Banjo... just way more chill and laidback.

As a game to play while suffering from a debilitating flu and in no fit state to form cohesive thoughts, it was perfect. As a game to engage with and expect challenge from? Hm. Maybe for 100%ers, given the ludicrous amount of crap to collect, but the main game is pretty breezy all things considered.

I like it. Spyro's a hard game to dislike, wishy-washy as it may be. I've had 3D platformers on the mind after my Croc articles, so I can't help but use those two as a baseline. And man, Spyro's design on all fronts is just so smart. Having simple textures and environments but a long draw distance really makes a world of difference. The fade-in malarkey in Croc 2 is just beyond the pale.

Spyro 2: Ripto's Rage
Oct 18 ~ 26

I beat Spyro 1 in just a few nights and needed more like it to tide me over during my illness, so hey, good thing I apparently got the sequels on my PS3 years ago! Let's finally see what these are like!

As should perhaps be expected, it takes a leaf out of the competition and takes more overt steps towards collect-a-thon malarkey. Your primary goal at first is simply to collect the talisman in each level (necessary to unlock the next world), by simply progressing to the exit however is most feasible.

But there are also two to four missions in every stage that award orbs, which are the real meat and potatoes necessary to unlocking the final challenges. These manifest as helping folks in need, usually just bashing or collecting things, with a smidge of puzzle-solving involved.

The first game was a very lackadaisical affair, just running around and gathering collectibles, so to see it given more grounding like this is interesting, and every collectible has a more distinct purpose. Crystals help pay off Moneybags to either open new areas or unlock new abilities (which in turn let you access new areas or missions in past stages), while talismans and orbs open up new worlds and hubs.

Even killing enemies takes on a new use, necessary to unlock a 'power-up' gate in a level that grants Spyro a temporary ability, be it unlimited flight, turbo speed, or fireball breath. Levels are rarely done in one trip, both because of the aforementioned abilities you purchase throughout the game, but also because there's more to see and do, to do it in one go is exhausting. Finding those missions can be tough at times!

There's a lot more characters to talk to, meaning a lot more dialogue and cutscenes, with each level having a comedic intro and outro to set up and resolve the conflict with its denizens. It's cute, if uniformly slapstick fluff. The voice acting's neat, and the lines are sometimes funny, aided by the fact they're not all just gameplay tips this time.

It alls does a good job fleshing out the scope of Spyro's universe, with all manner of weird and wonderful critters and landscapes out there. I kind of took for granted what the sequels would entail, but I guess I never realised, oh, leave the dragon kingdom, that'd open up things real fast.

The game's neat, but I'm not sure I like the new mission angle. I think I must just like old platformers where you feel alone in these big empty worlds and left just to collect stuff out in the open. Trying to gather the 40 orbs to open the final boss felt a trial, partly because the hubs are so big I had trouble remembering which level was where, but trying to find the orbs or the missions they're related to can be a real endeavour.

It's still fun and functional, but very easy to get lost in, without the charm of such small, compact levels like in Spyro 1. Again, that's the bias talking. I've played that one three times and no other Spyro game, so now after twenty-plus years I've come face to face with -- gasp -- innovation! Steps forward! Choices I may or may not agree with!

It's a solid sequel though. All the stuff you want is there, and the new stuff is good -- the supporting cast are fun, and make it a richer world to engage with, however ugly and obnoxious Hunter may be. The speedway stages are great, if a dickens to complete. The fact you've more reason to comb every inch of a level for missions, crystals, and whatever else is a boon, especially in the age when longevity or replay value was the basis for a well-reviewed product. It's a game that builds off its foundations in ways that feel appropriate and smart, if perhaps muddying the original's simplicity just a smidge. Better than Croc 2, is what I'm saying.

The game has proper boss fights, and they're a neat change of pace, if somewhat brutal. The game's difficulty as a whole really steps up towards the end, with enemies that'll catch you by surprise and lots of tricky jumps. The bosses have no checkpoints as far as I could tell, and although they drop health when you're low it can still be tricky to avoid taking damage at times.

Fighting the camera when you have to keep track of inbound items like orbs or explosives can be a pain, steering yourself the right way while also keeping inbound projectiles in sight. It's a step-up from the first game, though, which treated boss stages more like chase sequences, barely any different than an ordinary stage besides the lack of dragons to rescue.

As a turn-off-your-brain game I can see the joys in getting lost in its worlds, just romping through them again or trying to figure out where all the things are. That said, I did feel myself waning on it a lot once my flu began to lift; it's just a little too free-reign for me to engage with otherwise, I guess. I might not have quite gotten my answer on how to review the game, but I do know it's what to play when I haven't all my faculties in order. Not quite the compliment I intended it to be, but darn it, take it anyway.

Nov 02 ~ 08

Of all the Rayman games, this is the one that's always stuck out to me the most, perhaps because of its extremely cutesy aesthetic that they then immediately tried to subvert through darkness or wackiness or whatever. Cloyingly, unironically twee platformers were definitely not a minority at the time, but I dunno, I guess seeing one in the PlayStation era felt like it was playing against type. Attitude wears itself thin, y'know?

It's probably better known for being outrageously tough, though. Perhaps outrageously so! The game starts off very simple, but its long levels and sharp difficulty spikes, combined with some ludicrous expectations, make it plenty punishing in a short amount of time. You do have hit points, but you're more likely to be killed by pits, water or spikes than by actually running out of health; getting hit in the wrong spot is enough to bonk you over a ledge half the time.

If my extremely wanky essays this year haven't been a clue, I like to know what a game is going for; what's its angle, y'know? In an era when 2D platformers were trying to push some manner of gimmickry or sense of scale, Rayman comes across as pretty simple, lush graphics aside. You start with nothing but walking and jumping, and are drip-fed abilities throughout stages -- it's possible to miss an essential one if you just progress to the next world, so be sure to finish the off-shoot levels too!

Rayman's movements feel extremely basic for the time, without even any in-built momentum to his default moveset. It's strange for his controls and physics to be so 'binary', but the design seems to lie in the physics of other objects, particular sloped terrain. The first world has plums that bounce off slopes, with Rayman's punches giving them an extra push, used to help reach high platforms or as motorised stepping stones in water. Likewise, the second world's slippery slopes are all about speeding him up, used to launch him over great gaps and the like.

It's strange that this kind of control is mostly out of the player's hands (at least until you learn how to run), but I suppose you could say the same for Sonic. He himself ain't that fast in the first game, it's slopes that make it what it is... only in this case it's more the interact environments that are key, bringing platforms to life or the things that effect Rayman and whatnot. It's interesting design, just a bit hands-off, y'know?

I'm still partial to the game, mostly for its beautiful aesthetic, but I wonder if I'm too old and cranky for it now. The difficulty really is something else, mostly because of how long stages tend to be. In the first world you can rely on levels lasting maybe 3 or 4 screens, but the second world doesn't just increase the challenge by a shocking amount, the length of each level and even individual screen really rockets up. Just end already!!!

I think my beef is that... levels don't always have a theme? Maybe it's old-fashioned by 1996, but the levels in Super Mario Bros. 3 were succinct enough to have a clear challenge they were built around. There's definitely some of that here, but then some levels are like, okay, you've done three screens of intense sliding challenges... here's some extra screens of unrelated fluff tacked onto the end. I can't help but feel if the screens were split up between more levels it'd fare better, but I might just be salty at resetting multiple times just so I don't burn through three continues on a single screen.

The game's got a daunting lives economy. You get 5 continues, which will put you back at the checkpoint with 3 lives... but lives are hard to replenish. You can find 1ups out in the wild or earn them from bonus games, but they never regenerate! You can collect 100 Tings to earn a life and a full health refill, but your stock is emptied whenever you lose a life, so you better mean it when you shoot for it!

Checkpoints aren't in great supply either. Some stages are rife with drawn-out jumping challenges where a single fuck-up spells your doom, and you're forced to replay what feels like five minutes of gameplay just to make back your progress. Every new screen is its own checkpoint, so you're never set back too far, but still...!

I tried to play for a couple hours each evening, but my aversion to wasting continues meant I was lucky to even make any progress in that time. It's so easy for one tricky jump to eat through your irreplaceable supply -- a swinging hook next to a spike, having to spring through a tight passage, a boss with a needlessly elaborate pattern... sometimes you just gotta burn through them to learn the trick, and then try again after you reload, but having to do that on PS1 is so unbearably slow.

The only way to manually exit a level is by touching the entrance sign post -- proceeding past the first screen means you gotta complete the whole rest of the level. Otherwise if you want to exit and reload, you gotta reset or game over, both of which take an eternity...! Between unskippable logos on boot or the multiple loading screens after a game over, it'll take at least a minute or two to make your way back to the file select. All this because I wanted to preserve my continues -- and only at the end did I learn there's a cheat code to replenish them, apparently the only means of doing so. So lives are truly pointless then. Augh!

Oh, let's bitch about the camera too. I dropped the PC version because its resolution was surprisingly narrow, cutting off the tops and bottoms of the screen. The PS1 version offers a slightly better field of view, but the camera locks vertically while you're jumping, only scrolling up when you land on solid ground again... meaning anytime you jump up a vertical passage of collapsing platforms, you might as well be flying blind.

The game really leans into its foibles come world 2; it constantly rockets you forward at full speed, but also expects you to know where to slow down or maintain your speed, when going the wrong velocity will assuredly kill you. The saxophone boss has a chase scene where it actively eats up over half the screen and moves at the exact same speed as Rayman, giving you less time to react. If the game had a camera that could dynamically zoom out when required, that woulda been handy. Oh well!

I admit once I got past Band Lands, the rest of the game is a bit of a blur. The second world is such a visceral change in dynamic that stuff like the swinging hooks and moving platforms feel rote by comparison. The hooks are compelling, if extremely persnickety to come to terms with -- it really wasn't until the penultimate level I learnt the best way to get height from them. Learning to run does open the game up, even if you now have to contend with Rayman's slippery skidding.

Does the game get better...? It's honestly hard to say. There's new challenges, but the game design feels like it aggressively prides itself on not letting you know what's coming. The mountain world focuses heavily on moving platforms or auto-scrolling screens, with one particularly perilous level pinning you between a descending ceiling and the water below, and you have to use Rayman's hair to cut the weights pulling it down -- and then on the next screen, outrun the rising water level. They're tense stages, but figuring out what to do on the fly, with hazards immediately inbound and one mistake enough to cost you a life... it's hella trial and error.

The game especially loves having elements pop in as you reach invisible waypoints. You have to reach a dead end before it spawns the essential platforms you need, and often some enemies or hazards to make getting back to them a hassle.

Jumps over chasms where the next platform only spawns once you land on the last one -- a platform that'll crumble once you touch it -- become pretty common, or at least feel like they do. Once you cotton on to the game's bullshit you generally know what to expect, but it'll still find a way to screw you over, like putting spikes in your path or an incoming projectile with little to no warning.

Bosses really are this game's low point. They're impressive demonstrations of large, expressive, articulated sprites, but their patterns are drawn-out and overwrought, and often leave you with little to no room to manoeuvre. Figuring out when, where and why they're vulnerable can be tricky in the late game. The first scrap with the pirate queen almost makes sense -- when she holds her weapon up, you can assume she's meant to be guarding her face, but on the second go-around it's just, oh, she's only vulnerable in this part of her animation, despite it making less sense.

They are impressive, but kind of home in on the worst of the game's memorisation/trial and error bullshit, where it feels less like building off cues you've learnt and just reading the mind of the developers. The second queen fight has no cues when she hides behind the washing machine, it takes so long for it to start reacting to your hits.

Skops was an enormous road block because he's not vulnerable in the first half, it's an endurance where you have to react precisely to this preset script, and deviating slightly will fuck you over. You gotta hang from that ledge so he can't rush you! And then jump up to avoid the slam and repeat two more times before he moves on to the next bit!

The true fight had me stumped because outrunning and luring his homing shots was so risky, their speed and rate of tracking were so completely and utterly random... until a guide told me it follows your fist instead, suddenly it's a total breeze. If my fist had done nothing before, why assume differently now...?

It is impressive, arguably an attempt at 'cinematic' boss fights that are changing and reacting as the battle goes on, throwing new attacks at you and trying to counter their weaknesses... but it's totally at odds with the rest of the combat, per se, and especially with Rayman's sluggish movements. Once you know the trick it's easy to understand, but between the abstract designs and just how vulnerable Rayman is -- one hit by a big baddie is enough to eat two more if you can't retreat fast enough -- it's hard to work under pressure.

Betilla the fairy is kidnapped by Mr. Dark towards the end, and you have to rescue all the Electoons before the final stage is accessible. I really, truly and sincerely, did not want to do this. Most of my memories playing this years ago were replaying stages again and again to find all the cages, getting far too acquainted with the levels but still not finding them, either because I was missing abilities, or just because they're so stinkin' obtuse.

A lot of the design feels unsuited for one another. If the game were strictly linear, the lives and continues system would be appropriate, very much the style at the time -- you have this many resources, and we expect you to get good enough to beat the game within those limits. By forcing the player to replay stages on account of not having the abilities to fully explore them the first time around... is when it just begins to crack at the seams.

The levels are built like linear setpieces, with just enough nooks and crannies to facilitate this stuff. To revisit them and go exploring really is just rubbing against walls hoping for things to spawn arbitrarily.

Some levels seem to populate the first screen with cages, so all you really need to do is explore it thoroughly, hit them all, then exit using the signpost. Others aren't so fortunate, demanding you replay the whole level, which feel very much like gauntlets.

If you weren't punished so badly for dying, or given more chances to stockpile lives, it might not be so bad, but a lot of the design factors really come together in a very aggressive way. Between that and the Eurojank level design, it ain't much inviting!

It's hard to find exhaustive info on the differences between console versions -- apparently later releases like on GBA or mobile made attempts to ease the difficulty, either by upping Rayman's speed, tweaking level designs, or awarding more lives in the bonus game, but I wanna know the real semantics. Changing some of these factors would make a game that's a little less aggressive!

So that's why I just used passwords to skip to the final level. Even it doesn't stop on the gimmicks, with you riding a frying pan like a snowboard across slippery slopes, then being pursued by an evil Rayman who replays all your inputs, and a platforming challenge with reversed controls. The frying pan stinks, and it's possible to completely lose your speed and get stuck -- I think punching will nudge you forward, but it's a bit shit. It felt like a soft-lock at first...! The other two are decent enough, but not exactly the reward you want for replaying the entire game up to this point ad infinitum.

Mr. Dark is one of the iconic visuals of the first Rayman -- this mysterious cloaked figure who appeared in this game and nowhere else. Between him and the various other characters and critters, like Moskito, the magician, and a number of helpful Rayman-likes who give you power-ups -- Tarayzan, Joe, the Musician -- it paints a very different picture of the world than later games would run with. Whether it's better or not is up to you, but as a standalone cutesy platform it's at least nifty!

So it kind of sucks that you don't actually fight Mr. Dark...! The first chunk of the fight is just a platforming challenge as he pins you between walls of fire and throws projectiles, with Rayman's fist out of reach, preventing you from attacking.

Once you do get it he just peaces out and you fight fusions of the previous bosses, who are admittedly jarring because the last bit was so long you don't wanna fuck up now... but are perhaps the easiest bosses in the game, if just because their patterns are so short and simple. You get a nondescript cutscene of peace presumably returning to the overworld, and the credits roll.

Did I even fight Mr. Dark?? The wiki says the fusions are meant to be his transformations, but it's not made terribly clear, at least not in this version. Apparently the original Jaguar release has a few flourishes to make the ending more, well, ending-like -- more imagery that makes it feel conclusive, not just group shots of random characters. I mean, not unexpected, but just a drag to not even get a proper send-off to what the intro sets up with such wordage and whimsy.

I've still reason to play the game since I only got 51% before I used a password, but this'll do in a pinch; enough to put the game behind me. Rayman's a weird one to go back to, as for years it's literally just "that game with the placid jungle levels and the music world that'll kick your face off." It presents you with such roadblocks it's hard to even acknowledge there's a game beyond that, because I was kind of numb by the time I got there...!

By all means an impressive game -- the art design is beautiful, the graphical quality a definite showcase for 32-bit hardware, and the unique style of animation really is eyecatching. Between this, Lomax and Symphony of the Night, it shows that to make a 2D platformer in this area really demanded you step up your presentation game, however unappreciated it was at the time. Likewise, it has fun with physics for stuff like bouncing obstacles, swinging hazards and the momentum of slopes and slippery surfaces...

The game's good, but rarely fun, is the best I can possibly say? There's a lot of stuff that's just an enormous drag, as exciting as it should be. Between the lives problem, the crummy camera, the brutal levels and the occasional wonkiness that disrupts things... it's a hard game to recommend. Which is perhaps why you hear little earnest discussion about it.

Myself and some other folks seem to still be taken with its take on the aesthetic, where Rayman wasn't the only floaty-limbed bozo, and the world was a lot more twee and whimsical than the darker tone it took in its sequel. Rayman couldn't encapsulate the "cute 2D platforming mascot" visual any more succinctly, and still with oodles of charm. For 1996 it's still one of the best looking games of the console generation.

But actually playing it? Man. It kind of hampered by said console -- resolutions too low to make the camera more acceptable, loading times too crummy to make restoring progress more accessible, and too early in the era for the devs to realise, oh, hey, some of this stuff's a bit old-fashioned, innit. Both the lives system, and also those pirates in Picture City who remind me a little too much of that one guy from Asterix. You know the one.

Evidently the game has been pretty much supplanted by fan remake Rayman Redemption, which looks to rectify a lot of my complaints -- increasing the resolution, making the abilities more central, tightening the controls, and also adding a buttload of new content. Even the HUD tells you things now! I do kind of regret not playing this version, but at least the original is out of my system. Maybe another time, who knows! I am cleansed of Rayman and still at a loss for what my true thoughts are, because I still hold too much residual (perhaps unwarranted) respect for it. I didn't have a good time, and yet...!

Kirby's Dream Course
Super Nintendo
Nov 12 ~ 14 (normal)
Nov 24 ~ unfinished (extra courses)

Kirby golf! Putt Kirby into all the enemies to spawn the hole, using abilities, bounces and trick shots to do it in as few shots as possible. It's a game I've tried multiple times before, having seeing plenty of 2-player footage that made it look a blast, but it just never fully clicked with me in the past. I'm still not sure if I'm truly gelling with it, but I have finished the campaign and made progress on the extra levels, so that's gotta count for something.

The formula is simple but oozing with depth, and it's thanks to the outstanding engine -- this is among the best implementations of isometric perspective and physics of the era! Between curved shots or being able to add top or backspin to jump shots, Kirby's got a surprising amount of manoeuvrability, and learning to use the abilities is extremely satisfying. The Tornado is a treat, but every ability gets its chance to shine, however situational they may seem.

The single-player game is all about score, and thus extremely perfectionist. Kirby 'dies' once his energy runs out (energy is refilled by hitting enemies or sinking holes), and you have a limited stock of lives before you have to retry the course again from the first hole. Losing all your progress to one squirrelly hole is why I fell off the game before, and ostensibly a part of the endurance nature of golf... but I found more pleasure in just abusing savestates to get the best shot, aiming for a hole-in-one whenever I could. By no means the intended way to play, but I ain't gonna have fun otherwise!

The game really comes to life in 2-player mode, where it's more than just competitive golf -- this is war! Finding ways to screw each other by stealing their points, blocking their road, or finding new use for the toggle switches, immediately adds so much more life to the game.

Playing this online is a blast, and it's legitimately depressing how this mode is exclusive to 2-player -- having a CPU opponent would be a dickens to code and rife with all kinds of dickhead manoeuvres, but having someone to compete against really turns the game around, y'know? Fighting for score and worrying about lives just becomes a bit of a drag, and I can only tolerate a couple of holes at a time.

It's got an amazing formula, one I'm surprised hasn't been copied by anything else -- it's the sort of thing that'd work a lot easier in 3D, thanks to premade physics engines and being able to change the camera angle. Totally worth a spin and worthy of respect, but it really doesn't show its true colours 'til you try it in 2-player. A pro and a con!

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Nov ~ Dec

So, uh, I finally bought a Switch. My brother had been egging me on to get one all year, and then an online pal was talking about its netplay options and that's what made me take the plunge. Sorry, bro!

Surprise, it's more Smash Bros.! The good stuff: it's handheld! Now with better load times! And there's like 70 freakin' characters! Everyone gets a bit of love, seemingly doing its damnedest to make all the clones stand out from one another, now that there's three Links and Marios to work with. All the stages are unlocked by default, and the game throws new characters at you seemingly after every 10 minutes of gameplay, so there's a constant rush of new content and challenges to explore.

World of Light is the new adventure mode, basically a fusion of gimmickry from the past two games -- Brawl's stickers and 4's customisation fused into Spirits, which boost your stats and perks in similar ways. They represent characters and objects from a whole heap of games and franchises, manifesting as clones of the player fighters, and are fought in gimmicky matches thematic to whatever they represent, making them fill the role of the Event Match mode as well.

A lot of Spirit battles are pretty plain, while some are either huge hurdles or charmingly inventive. The Leon Kennedy(!) one is a stand-out, a great attempt at simulating the Ganados from RE4 with slow-moving grab-happy Villagers, and a whole realm of Street Fighter stand-ins, with a terrific fight against Ganondorf emulating M.Bison's moveset.

You progress by rescuing fighters (since you only start with Kirby) and acquiring special Spirits who can engage with the overworld -- Bomberman to blow up debris, ROB64 to fix the Great Fox, etc. -- until you reach the end, I guess. There is fanservice and charm in seeing who or what you fight against and how they're interpreted within the ruleset of Smash Bros., with the occasional special fight against 'boss' characters like Dracula... but it's just a lot of one-on-one fights, without the spectacle of Subspace Emissary, or engaging with unique enemies and platforming environments in Smash Run.

I guess that's the beef so far. As a single-player smasher, Classic Mode and World of Light are kind of your lot. There's home run contest and multi-man melee, the latter of which can now be played on any stage, but that's basically it. The game has multiple proper boss fights, but as far as I can tell there's no actual way of replaying them outside of Classic Mode?

Smash Run was so good, man. Gimme more of that. Lemme beat up enemies and do more platforming. Classic Mode has a 'bonus stage' that's exactly the same every time with zero variation, which is kind of depressing. Even the five difficulties of Break The Targets in Brawl was better...!

That's just petty baby whining though -- every Smash has oodles of content and fans still find ways to piss and moan about it. It really does offer so many quality-of-life fixes; everything feels that bit more streamlined and tactile, and even characters I previously ignored feel that bit tighter.

I still haven't gotten acquainted with everyone, nor gotten any of the DLC -- K.Rool is fun and simple, and Ridley's got merit, but I still find myself almost exclusively playing Wii Fit Trainer and Peach. I'm actually shocked that despite the inundation of anime sword boys, Ike is still the only one I like playing. I think the joke's on me for just wanting Cloud to be Ike but with magic. Can't blame a guy for asking, right?

The game had me hooked for weeks and I've still the second realm in World of Light to explore, plus a gazillion other activities -- I haven't even tried netplay yet! It's gratifying to finally see what I've been missing out on, if perhaps a lesson in diminishing returns. Despite all this content, I still ain't gonna play as 80% of the roster...! I'm grateful the DLC's all done and the fanbase can shut up for a while, but god help the poor souls who have to work on the next instalment.

Dr. Mario 64
Nintendo 64
Nov 19 ~ 23 (easy)
Nov 26 (normal)
Nov 30 (Hard)
Dec 01 (S-Hard)

Look, if it's part of the Nintendo Switch Online service, I'll play it no matter what, apparently. Besides the netplay, what I'm really paying for is the ability to play N64 games portably, without being tethered to one room like on Wii U. That's worth the price of admission, right?

I've never really gelled with Dr. Mario. Fever is a bop, but its connect-four gameplay just felt sterile to me. Tetris is so straight-forward, Puyo Puyo's got the intensity of chain comboes, and Wario's Woods is just my kind of esoteric. Dr. Mario really does feel like busywork half the time.

I'll be frank, the main reason I played this was because I've always been intrigued by the presentation. True pixel art on 64-bit hardware! Total nobodies from Wario Land 3 animated in loving detail!

The story mode is pure fluff, but to see the bizarre juxtaposition of Dr. Mario next to Wario, Mad Scienstein and all these one-and-done baddies is a heck of a sight. Who made this decision? While seeing frickin' Hammer-Bot get hi-res sprites is neat, I can't help but be a little disappointed we didn't see characters we actually give a shit about in this art style. Wario Land fans gotta eat sometime, though.

Something about the Vs. CPU formula felt seriously punishing for the longest time. Having to make straight lines with connected pills means you really need to be conscientious about clutter; focusing only on the viruses means a lot of crap builds up, and getting rid of it takes up valuable time and space. It's not like Puyo Puyo, where gravity and free-form connections between shapes makes combos a snap. Half my turnarounds I didn't see coming!

That said, only after beating story mode three times (with a lot of save states) did I kind of get into the swing of things. It is satisfying to pull off combos, and however difficult it is to take my eyes off the screen, seeing the enemy's field pile high with garbage is a treat.

It really depends on the initial setup, though; some screens are just have the viruses too spread out or inconveniently placed to get a headstart. It's truly a game where winning or losing often felt like a crapshoot. I'm on my way to clearing all the viruses, and then the opponent ends the game by clogging their playing field to the ceiling! What a swiz!

The regular single-player mode is fine, the kind of busywork that's pleasant enough to occupy yourself with, but doesn't feel particularly rewarding to master. Erasing multiple viruses in one swoop hasn't the same explosive rush of forming a Tetris or wiping a line in Wario's Woods.

I don't know, man. Puzzle games often feel like a bad habit to me, this one especially on account of how I was rarely actually having fun with it; I know I'm in a bad place when all I can think about is night is sick combo drops. Glad it exists as a funky little curio, but Dr. Mario ain't for me.

Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors
Nov 21 (normal)
Nov 22 (hard)

One of the reasons I wanted a Switch -- because they didn't port this to Steam for some reason! I've yet to play the SNES original, and the arcade one feels more like a novelty than a game I'm much compelled by, but Tengu Project are a studio worth supporting, and this absolutely looked the biz.

It's a single-plane brawler, a sub-genre that's not seen often and one I've rarely gelled with; how do you make crowd control compelling when everyone's in the same lane? This game really shows its credentials, though. Like Wild Guns Reloaded, every character has a radically different moveset, with totally different properties and ways of approaching combat.

Kunoichi is very much about speed and manoeuvrability, able to cross the screen in a flash, do dashing knockdowns on foes, and use shuriken to strike from afar, while the Ninja is just a heavy, lumbering bruiser big on multi-hit combos. I've yet to get acquainted with every character (Kamaitachi in particular a total enigma to me), but their toolsets are so radically different that you have to completely reevaluate your approach to combat, or even the basic controls, that playing the game with all of them is bound to be an extremely fresh experience.

It's a very tough game, with only two difficulty options to choose from, both of which kicked my ass in equal measure; I lost track of how many game overs I got. It's designed to be played in one sitting, although you do get infinite continues; the same courtesy isn't extended to time attack mode, where you can select any stage but one death kicks you to the title screen. I'd argue its length isn't quite as snappy as Wild Guns; that game had a very good pacing to each screen and level, but comparing a gallery shooter to a brawler's a bit like apples and oranges, innit.

It's very much an acquired taste, not quite as pick-up-and-play as a traditional brawler like Final Fight or what-have-you, but it's a unique game with a really compelling challenge. To try the 2-player mode sometime would be nice, but I imagine that'd take some doing -- it's a lot to ask for a partner to pick up the movelist in short order!