Friday, November 25, 2011

Interview: James Daniello and Zach Zebrowski

Last week, I stumbled across a lovely-looking project called Moldering, an exploration platformer that promises a unique mouse-based ability system and a rich, organic atmosphere. The videos and demo have swayed me, and the determination of the developers to complete the game has won me over. This week, I got a chance to talk a little bit about this little gem with James Daniello and Zach Zebrowski, the two guys behind Moldering.

Is Moldering your first games project?
James: Actually, no. I made some small games when I was a teenager using The Games Factory and Multimedia Fusion, but they never really took off. Fair enough, since they weren’t very good. Haha.
Zack: I’ve made a couple growing up with RPG maker and later Game Maker as well, this is the first one that stuck as a long term project. Since we started it, I’ve also taken up a job in the games industry and have one full title under my belt.

How long has Moldering currently been in development?
James: It’s interesting that you would ask that. I think last week I went back and looked at my development log and the earliest entry was March, 2008. So, at least, what, three and a half years?
Zack: That is probably accurate. We have gone in and out of development periods as we were and still are developing in our free time. It used to be school bothering us, now sometimes it is work as well.
James: Yeah, we’ve taken many breaks from development from time to time.
Zack: Unfortunately, life gets in the way sometimes…

The current demo and gameplay videos give off a “Knytt” sort of vibe. Was that one of your inspirations for the project?
Haha, it was. I think it’s most apparent in the size of the character and the way the player moves from screen to screen. I think it’s grown to be a bit more in depth since the original inspiration.  The biggest thing I want to take from Knytt is the immersion and charm.
Zack: It was definitely something that James had always mentioned from the beginning, and that's when I first discovered Knytt as well. We like the overall relaxed feel of it and think it should be a focus in the main gameplay.
Combining a fireball with a rolling boulder will light the path ahead.

A couple areas in which Moldering strays from the typical indie exploration platformer are displayed in the most recent video showcase of the game. The first big difference is the weather system. Are you planning on making dynamic weather a big part of the game, or is it simply there to help boost the atmosphere?
James: That’s an idea I’ve been toying with in my head. One idea I had was to call a blizzard to ice over the world and affect the gameplay mechanics. Or, we might simply just have the weather come and go to add atmosphere. Some of my favorite video game moments were simple exploring in games while the game was going though rain storms and such. Not sure why, but I feel it added to the experience and I’d like to give that to players.
Zack: It’s something we are going to keep in the back of our heads while we are crafting the overall experience for the levels. It is always nice to have a new experience with the game on every play through, and this has potential to add to it. If we can work it into the core mechanics somehow, that would be what would sell us on the idea. Time will tell with that.
James: Good point, Zach, haha.

The second addition seems to be a bit more vital to the core gameplay mechanics. Could you talk a little bit about what role the ability ring will play in the final game?
James: Yeah, we spent a lot of time trying to come up with something that would make Moldering unique, and the more we toyed with the idea of using the mouse to control gameplay, the more we liked it. The “ability ring,” as we like to call it, will let you call up all sorts of abilities that the player can control with the mouse. Each one has its own unique mouse motions. Shaking the mouse will let the player control earthquakes, or pulling back like a slingshot will allow the player to fire off certain other abilities, like fireballs and such. It gives us a lot of opportunity to do all sorts of new and interesting things that conventional controls wouldn’t allow, each with it’s own feel and mechanics.
Zack: The original idea was gestures but that soon proved to be problematic for us and for potential players. It eventually evolved into what James spoke about. Overall, we want to try and bring a sandbox like experience into the game with the abilities we implement and allow players to get through the game in their own way, the way that is fun for them.

Are there any big features that you’ve been planning to put into the game, but haven’t yet?
James: Mold plays a big part in the game. The name is a sort of play on words with the idea that mold will be a central theme. It comes down on meteors and infects the world. What’s interesting about the mold - and we haven’t really shown this yet in the videos or on the blog - is that it will spread over time. So, the player may be easily able to trek across a certain area, but when they come back, depending on how long they’ve taken, the mold will have spread and may prevent travel. Only until later, when the player has a new ability, might they be able to make their way back across. It’ll be interesting to have a dynamic environmental hazard, something I don’t feel I’ve seen too often in many games.
Zack: Well spoken, hahaha! It is yet another thing we can use to have a unique experience, but still be able to tell a story without the player getting too far away.

A boulder rolling on a segment of ground drawn out by the player.
“The mold will spread over time.” Does this mean the game world will have its own sort of clock?
James: Yeah, the way we plan to implement it, we’ll map out the mold across the entire world and set certain “originator” mold. Each area will have it’s own clock and any time spent in that world will determine how much the mold has spread from the in that area, starting with the originator molds. Mold, or course, will be lethal and interactable, so the world will change as the player spends more time in it, giving a feeling that the world is, um, alive.
Zack: Or at least something else is alive on it ;) It is something that we will have to play with as the game develops.
James: Haha.

In the current demo and videos, there don’t seem to be any enemy characters. Are you planning on adding any, or is the central focus going to be on puzzle-solving and platforming?
James: Ah, good point. We want to get the core abilities down before we design any enemies. There will be plenty, and each will require a unique use, or combination, of the abilities to defeat. That, and some thought.
Zack: James is spot on. I am doing concept work for enemies though; what they will look like, at least. I’m trying to fit their overall look into the game's style right now, until we get all the abilities worked out. Then, as many know, form follows function (at least on earth) so there will most likely be adjustments in the long run.
James: An example that we may or may not implement would be a spiked wheel that attempts to ram you. By drawing a path with the earth equipped from the ground up (an ability we’ve already implemented), the player will be able to block the wheel, or divert them into a pit, providing safe passage to the next area. We’ll see though. We still have a lot of toying with ideas to do.

The ambition in this project is pretty evident. The game world in the videos and in the demo seems like a small taste of something much larger. How big are you planning to go with the world?
James: We’d like to stick to the classic “8 worlds,” that seemed to be a big theme in the 16-bit era, an era that I consider to be the golden age of video games. There will be a bit of smaller unique ares too that connect or break up the other areas. There’s a joke that goes around in software development: “Software can be three things: cheap, fast, or good. Pick two.” We’re going for cheap and good, so it’s going to take some time. ;)
Zack: Unless we both end up without jobs and have nothing else to focus on hahaha. The planned world is stuff that we are focusing on tieing together at the moment as well. What you see in the videos is just a taste of what we have in our minds, and that doesn’t include any transitions we are going to have to make from world to world.
James: Hahaha, good point. At this moment we have five of the worlds really solidified. I think there’s images of three of these areas floating around on the internet.

Are you planning on releasing this as freeware, or are you going to look for digital distribution options once the game reaches completion?
James: Ahhh, something we really haven’t settled on yet. Originally we intended the game as freeware, but it’s taken a looong time, and we’ve really put a lot of work into it. If the game turns out as well as we plan, we may end up on charging a small fee for the game. And, of course, having sales and maybe a few “free weekends,” where people will be able to pick up a copy for free. We haven’t really determined this yet. Personally, we’ve invested a bit of money on certain assets, so it would be nice to see a return for all of our labor and investments.
Zack: Definitely something we are up in the air about at the moment. Like James has said, we put a lot of our time into this so far and we both love what we are doing. If the indie scene keeps up as it is now, it opens up a lot of potential for us to continue making more games, if sales permit.
James: I guess in answer to your question, we are leaning towards a nominal fee for the game, with plenty of opportunities to pick it up for cheap, or even for free.

What’s been the biggest roadblock in development so far?
James: Hmm, good question. I guess life is the biggest thing that gets in the way. We all have our own lives to attend to and sometimes it just doesn’t permit development on a hobby project. This isn’t a paid gig, and we’re spending a lot of our free time on development, something our girlfriends aren’t always too happy about, haha.
Zack: Yea, sometimes that answer is personal and sometimes its just work (school or job oriented). Other than what James has mentioned, it doesn’t help that I’ve moved to Hungary last year.
James: Yeah, another thing is that we both live in different time zones at the moment. It sorta gets in the way of communication at times.
Zack: Developing 24/7, baby!

What have you learned during development of Moldering that you’ve been able to apply to the current build?
James: Wow, that’s a big question. I’ve learned a lot about programming in general. It’s one of the reasons I started making Moldering, was to beef up my programmings skills. I think what I’ve learned recently is that there’s two ways you can divide tackling a programming problem. Experimentation, or thinking it through first. The latter which always turns out much better results.
Zack: Oi, too many things for the time permitted in this interview. Never underestimate the amount of layers you might need in a 2D project, communication, the general way a game is put together in a team environment as opposed to yourself, team management (when we have volunteers helping us from time to time), level design, overall game design, how to market your game, this could go on for days maybe….
James: Yeah, marketing is a big deal. I think it’s important to keep people who are watching the game properly satiated.

Who is/are your biggest influence(s) in game making?
James: Personally, I like Nintendo as a whole. Their games are always particularly solid and their gameplay is always spot on. Some games they’ve released have taken turns that I haven’t agreed with, but as a whole they’re quality is something I strive to repeat. Remember the “Official Nintendo Seal of Quality?” I’ll never forget that.
Zack: It’s hard for me to pinpoint who are my biggest influences as far as making a game is concerned, as I’ve played so many spanning every genre. But I can say that there are a lot of Indie developers that influence me as a person and keep me going on day to day basis (regarding development that is). Ed McMullen, Andy Schatz, Notch (who knew?), etc. The guys whose stories give you a boost whenever you think about a bad bend in your development stage. I think, these guys came from nothing and kept at it. I should keep going too!
James: Yeah, the current indie game scene definitely boosts my moral as a developer, as well.

You’re stranded on a desert island, and you’re only allowed to take one thing. What do you take?
James: Besides my girlfriend? Haha. Probably my SNES with a small collection of my favorite games. Super Metriod, Link to the Past, Earthbound, and Yoshi’s Island. I’m assuming I don’t need to worry about food, haha.
Zack: Reddit.
James: Hahaha.

Alright guys, thanks a lot for taking the time out of your day to do this interview! It’s been great!
James: Thanks for having us. You really asked some good questions. I look forward to bookmarking and following your blog more closely. Thanks again.
Zack: Yeah, thanks a bunch for talking to us as well. We love talking about what we are doing and we hope to keep in touch throughout our development process.

You can find more about Moldering on James and Zack's blog, or on the project's devlog page on The Independent Gaming Source.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Microreview: Psychosomnium

Cactus is not an orthodox developer in any sense of the word.  His games are weird, surreal, and oftentimes contain not even the slightest bit of logic.  In 2008, he released a little-known game called Psychosomnium, a title about the strange, strange world of dreams.  This year, developer-producer MiroSurabu released a flash port, revamping some of the graphical aspects and slapping a big ol' Newgrounds logo in the bottom left-hand corner.

You start out as Jimmy, an odd looking block-headed character.  You use the arrow keys to run and jump and make your way across a strange, brickcovered dreamscape until you find your blockheaded comerade Jimmy on the other end of a spiked wall.  It's hard to describe the main gameplay element without spoiling a little bit of story, but it involves a lot of switching between characters.  The dialogue is oftentimes surreal, but it has an inescapable charm to it that I've only seen in prior titles from Cactus.  I have to say, though, this game is extremely short.  You'll likely finish in about 6-7 minutes at the most, but it's a game worth experiencing.  

VERDICT: There isn't really much more I can say, as I've pretty much covered all the bases, but Psychosomnium is a strange, almost entrancing experience that will leave you baffled, dazed, and longing for more.  It's not perfect; it won't win any awards or garner that much critical praise, but it's an enjoyable little game nonetheless.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: 0Space

I don't think it's even remotely possible for developer Beau Blyth to make a bad game.  Now, you might not have heard about him if you aren't following the indie gaming scene, but with such excellent titles as Action Fist! and Shoot First under his belt, I expected nothing less than sheer wonder from 0Space, his inventive new hotseat multiplayer shooter.  And it's sheer wonder that I recieved.  Sheer gut-coated, zero-gravity wonder.

Though it might not be apparent at first, the "0" in 0Space refers to the fact that the entire concept of gravity is absent.  Gone.  Thrown out the window.  And that's exactly the way I like it.  You can still stick onto/walk on walls, but most of the game is, quite simply, a sort of space-ballet.  At any given time, you can charge up a jump and push yourself into the zero-gravity emptiness of space.  While in zero-gravity, you have just about no control over your character.  In closed-off stages, this sort of thing doesn't prove to be a problem, but in open areas, it pays to think out your jumps before you make them, lest you drift off and become space toast.  Your gun is your most valuable asset in these frightening scenarios.  Shooting it while drifting between surfaces gives you a small boost in the opposite direction.  In some cases, this tactic can save you the match by propelling you back into the play area before you meet your doom.

The game is split into a series of single-kill rounds (the number of which you can determine in the options menu), allowing you at the beginning to select which stage you want to play on for each.  Pretty much standard fare for those familiar with just about any competitive multiplayer game.  The pure creativity put into designing the stages is great.  Never once does it seem like a stage recycles content from another one.  My friend replayed a bunch of stages, and were shocked by how many different ways there were to experience them.  The one thing that was a little bit of a letdown was the small number of stages.  I feel like 0Space would greatly benefit from support for user-created maps, or at least some regularly released map-packs, but for a free game, the selection as it stands is substantial.

If there's anything that stands out in particular about 0Space, it's the extremely sexy style it has going for it.  Blyth makes everything work in tandem to create an action game to trump all others.  While the graphics are pixelated, something I've been getting tired of in indie games, they exhibit a new-age art style that really sets them apart from most "retro" freeware titles I've played.  The sense of impact is another thing I really admire.  The gory explosions, recoil, sword slashes, sound effects and particle effects all go hand in hand to make you feel like you really are an intergalactic badass.  The rounds may only be one kill long, but there's an enormous bit of accomplishment you receive when you shoot or slice your opponent into a million little bloody bits.

For all 0Space has going for it, it isn't without its flaws.  One big gripe I've had is the inability to set parameters for each round.  Limiting the players to one-kill rounds doesn't seem like the smartest design choice.  Giving some sort of option to determine the number of kills beforehand is something I feel 0Space desperately needs.  The replays tend to be a little shaky, too.  Sometimes, you'll play a replay for one level, and it shows you the video but plays the audio from another replay.  Sometimes vice-versa.  Blyth says that it's a known bug, so hopefully it'll get fixed soon.

VERDICT: 0Space is more than worth your time if you have a couple of friends and some time to kill.  It's not the hotseat multiplayer game to end all hotseat multiplayer games, but it's certainly the most fun one I've come across this year.  Eat your heart out, Call of Duty.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Review: AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!

In the year of our Lord 1982, Polystructures fell from space. Massive yet light, they touched the atmosphere, and stuck.
Scientists made new materials. Builders made new cities. Families made their homes thousands of feet above ground level.
Art made the floating super-sculptures, and culture made the floating caviar socials to regard them.
In the year of our Lord 2011, you cannot look up from beneath a city and see the stars.
But you can look down from above it.
And you can jump.
The jumps you make are not about art. They are about a reckless disregard for safety.
The jumps you make are not about culture. They are about a reckless disregard for regulation.
The jumps you make are not about science.
They are about a reckless disregard for gravity.
BASE jumping. Most people think it's just stupid and risky, but there are those people who still want to feel the thrill and want to go for a BASE number.

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity (that's the full name along with correct capitalization!) plays in a fictional world where cities are built floating above the ground. You play as BASE jumper Alex Bruce and do the thing you do best - jump. Dodge buildings. Keep bones inside your body.

The skills you'll be using most are "kissing" and "hugging" the building around you. Fly close to a building to kiss it, and fly even closer to hug it. The longer you stay there, the more points you get.

With every good rating, you will gain teeth, which serve as the game's form of currency. Using them, you can unlock new level cubes and new skills, such as the grafitti can or the ability to flip people off who don't like what you are doing and give a thumbs up to your fans.  Before, of course you land with a splat on the platform they're standing on.

Apart from the regular levels, you can unlock pinball levels (which are extremly fun because you get to bump into everything at high speeds) and videos which... uh... let's say they're normal for Dejobaan, but not everyone expects a video on how to debristle pigs in a BASE jumping game.

Also good for a laugh: the various adverisements you see while falling. Spoofing gene manipulation, "sex sells" and various other topics in real life, these ads will surely distract you long enough to slam you into the next building. But hey, your insurance pays for the accident, so you can try again right afterwards.
You see, this game hardly makes sense - especially that last statement.
And I love that. They are joking about themselves and the whole city looks so surreal it's just awesome.

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! is a game for those of you who like interesting ideas and a nice visual style, along with good music. The only problem with it is that it quickly gets repetitive as you have to go back into older levels to earn teeth for newer ones, so it might get boring for some people after that time. But I don't care - this game is definely one of those games which will test your reflexes and twitching skills. And for 9€/10$, it's a steal.


Okay, let's see what's next on my alphabetical list ...
... oh god no. No way I'm reviewing this.
But it seems I have to... well, let's make a deal.
Next time, prepare for a review of Amnesia - Justine. I'll never play the main game because I nearly crapped my pants trying to go for the potato in Justine. So I will just review the DLC and then go away from that game again. It's scary ;_;

Also I hope to get to mabelma again soon... I still can't login into MSN again. Password reset, support contacted, no answer. Go Microsoft.

Friday, April 22, 2011


There is an area
the path of fate can move around on.
But if emotion takes over
the path is set in stone.
Anger controls our actions.
Fate is decided.
This is the hardest part of our BIT.TRIP.

First off guys, sorry for no screenies in this review. Somehow my USB grabber is raging - it displays a BSOD as soon I plug it in. I hate technology. As soon it starts working again, I'll deliver some, but until then ask Google or try the demo on the Wii Shop.
But what I don't hate is BIT.TRIP, obviously. Here are the final two games of the series - BIT.TRIP FATE and BIT.TRIP FLUX. Both are currently available on WiiWare for 800 points each.

FATE picks up right where RUNNER left off - CommanderVideo's Five Man Band chasing Mingrawn Timbletot, who's fleeing into space. This game is a rail shooter - literally. CV is moving on a line called the vibe, and you can only tell him to move forward or backwards, but as the screen autoscrolls forward you are forced to go forward. (note to myself: write a story analysis on BIT.TRIP - there are so many hidden meanings which could be explained and stuff)

All the while, blocky enemies are launched at you, which you have to dispose of before they hit you. Especially later in the game, when the concept of "beat aiming" is introduced, FATE becomes pure bullet hell.
On a rail. Have fun dodging.
The game's tempo is a lot slower than in the other games, and that slower tempo shows in the music music. The soundtrack is chiefly influenced by the genre of dubstep, creating a slow, bass-heavy selection of chiptunes. The music is awesome, but the slower tempo of the game might not please everyone. Personally, I didn't really like it.

This time the game has 6 levels instead of three. Each one is named after a feeling the Commander has at this stage. Starting from DETERMINATION, it goes to FRUSTRATION and so on. Slowly his anger takes over, as he comes closer and closer to his arch enemy in his final battle.

And then IT happens.

A warning here, FLUX will spoil the plot twist at the end of FATE. It's basically impossible to review this game without telling it. So you better play through FATE first, then read below if you want to buy FLUX. Hint: yes, you want to.

After the battle against his arch rival, CV does a suicide attack on Mingrawn Timbletot to defeat him for good. Sadly, he fails and dies. BIT.TRIP FLUX tells the story of the end of CommanderVideo's journey - his death, afterlife and reincarnation.

FLUX takes the basic gameplay of BEAT - the biggest difference being that the paddle is now on the right and the beats come from the left - but mixes in various elements from the other games, like beats you have to avoid from VOID.
The difficulty went down a lot thanks to 7 checkpoints per stage which you can use unlimited times. Makes sense, since when you are dead, you can't die again. That makes it much more accessible for those alienated by the sparse checkpoints in the previous games

And that's what the developers wanted. Gaijin wanted everyone to be able to enjoy the visual and musical experience mixed with familiar gameplay. The soundtrack is truly awesome - the anonymous composer at Petrified Productions made calm, relaxing chiptunes, mixing in various themes from the other BIT.TRIP games. The bosses are throwbacks to the older games too.

VERDICT:  Basically, FLUX is a celebration of the conclusion of the BIT.TRIP saga while still managing to feel fresh thanks to various new kinds of beats. The ending is truly a great ending to the series - especially when you know it's secret, you will have a sudden epiphany about the entire saga as a whole.
Also, it's fucking perfect.
I hate giving out a full score, but this game deserves it so much. You won't find a better game on WiiWare.

Memories are purged.
Knowledge is replace by instinct again.
Our game is over,
but we are still there.
Life begins anew,
born of the old.
Our journey is complete.
We all are on our BIT.TRIP.

Aaaand here's a note on what's coming.
You may have noticed my post about The Potato Sack. I will review every game in it (except BIT.TRIP BEAT, obviously), and while most are awesome, there are some that aren't that great. The series starts next time with AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A reckless Disregard for Gravity. I might put in a preview of 1... 2... 3... KICK IT! -- Drop that Beat like an ugly Baby too, since it's by the same developer, but it's still in alpha. Just stating what's awesome and what suggestions I have. I'll also try to get back into MSN soon so I can poke Mabelma until he makes images better then mine :D So, stay tuned!

Oh, and even though I already wrote this twice on Facebook, twice on YouTube, on three forums and on Twitter, here's another shoutout for Valve: YOU ARE AWESOME FOR GIVING THE COMPLETE VALVE PACK AND PORTAL 2 FOR FREE TO EVERYONE WHO COLLECTED ALL THE POTATOES IN YOUR PORTAL 2 ARG. Thank you for reading.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review: Don't Take it Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story

The field of electronic entertainment didn't use to have nearly as many of the lush, well-developed stories that it does today.  You couldn't really tell much of a story when the highest graphic capabilities of your machines were little more than blocky lines on a screen.  In the late 1980s, Western developers like Sierra and Telltale began to discover ways to actually put the player into a story that made them an active part of it.  Monkey Island, Out of This World and others pioneered the "baby boom" of PC adventure games in the '80s and '90s.  Meanwhile, in Japan, some smaller developers were coming up with ideas on how to further develop the realm of interactive storytelling.  And, in the late '90s, the visual novel was born.  Visual novels gave sort of a middle ground between adventure games and books.  For the most part, the player is merely a spectator, but the story might occasionally provide you with a branch of choices that can ultimately have a large impact on the way it plays out.  In 2010, an independent developer named Christine Love took elements from both Eastern and Western adventure games when she made Digital: A Love Story, a tale of romance told through a 1980s bulletin board system.  About a month ago, she released don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story, taking the themes of sexuality and technology's role in our lives and giving them a whole new spin.

Rook on being a gentleman.
don't take it personally (Or DTIP, as I've now decided to call it) puts you in the role of John Rook, a twice-divorced, down-on-his-luck English teacher who happens to land a job at a prestigious Canadian private school in 2027.   School in the 2020's isn't quite the same as it is today.  Each student in your class is given a tablet for their schoolwork.  They all come with standard textbooks and e-paper for assignments, but they're also all connected to a program called "AmieConnect," a Facebook-like social networking system that the students can use to connect with each other.  But there's still one thing that hasn't changed 16 years into the future: annoying students.  Your class is small.  Very small.  In fact, you really only have 7 students you interact with throughout the course of the story.  Each has his/her own agenda, none of which John seems to be even remotely aware of.  However, on the first day of school, he unintentionally walks into an enormous, complex web of love and drama that he could never have imagined.

That's a lie.
The kids you meet in DTIP are almost as eccentric as their tangled love lives.  From Akira - the shy, gay kid from Japan - to Kendall - an annoying but caring student who spurts memes more often than she breathes - the personalities of the students are refreshingly varied, surprisingly human.  The story is set up in such a way where each character has their own chapter, something that I've always loved to see in literary works.  I do feel that John himself could have used a little more development, though.  There are little bits and scraps talking about his past, but I never felt like he evolved much over the course of the story.  I feel like he needed far more bits in the main plot than he was given to make up for the fact that he didn't have any sort of interaction in the AmieConnect side story to further develop his character.

As a teacher at the private school, John has access to a special version of AmieConnect that allows him to monitor every students actions on the system, from their public statuses to their private messages between each other.  If you want, you can let your notifications build up while advancing through the main story, but much like their tempting Facebook counterparts, they're pretty hard to ignore.  In a sense, DTIP has two separate storylines: An apparent one and a not-so-apparent one.  It's through the AmieConnect system that most of the bitter drama occurs.  It's John's job to act as a sort of neutral party, giving advice to others, but never taking sides (publicly, at least; some of his inner monologues tend to be far less sugar-coated than his external personality might suggest).  The idea of using this sort of social networking aspect as a way of developing the story - and character's personalities - is an interesting one, to be sure, but occasionally it feels more like it's preventing the flow of the story than anything.  I would like to be able to get through at least a full section of text without a surge of "dings" and notifications.

Something I felt a strange absence of in DTIP was the lack of choice.  I mean, sure, there were certainly instances where you could choose between a couple different ways to go about shaping a certain part of the story, but none of my choices really felt like they carried much bearing on the overall plot (save one regarding a relationship).  The other ones were mainly just small things, like changing a bit of dialogue here or there, but nothing truly significant.  Of course, according to Christine Love, this game was her first attempt at using choice as an element in the story.  I have to say, I did expect a little more out of the choice element, but I do hope Love decides to continue using it in her future endeavors.

All in all, I really enjoyed DTIP.  It's a powerful, intriguing, sometimes poignant story of teenage drama that manages to steer itself clear of many of the awful cliches associated with the subgenre.  There are certain elements that it could've certainly done without, such as some particularly...  over descriptive... portions (which Love herself has claimed were "painful to write" on her blog), the required "12chan" checking at the end of each day, and an ending that felt rushed and forced, but I can most certainly look past those, as Love has done an incredible job at exploring the controversial topics of sexuality and privacy in a way that will leave many players questioning DTIP's themes long after they've finished reading.

VERDICT: While I wouldn't say don't take it personally, babe is quite as innovative or interesting as Digital: A Love Story, it's still a well-written, powerful teen drama that deserves to be read through at least once.  There are some parts that are a bit awkwardly written, but overall, it's more than worth your time to download.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Retrofitting (a.k.a. Reviewing Games That Aren't Completely Ancient)

In case you haven't been reading this blog lately, allow me to give you a brief rundown of all the games we've reviewed and their scores:

Runman: Race Around the World - 5/5
Super Mario Bros. X - 4.5/5
Knytt Stories - 5/5
Yume Nikki - 4/5
Super Mario 63 (Guest Review) - 4/5
Iji - 5/5
Super Meat Boy - 4.9/5
Etc, etc, etc...

Yeah.  Nothing below a 4/5 up there.  I've figured out that the reason for all of these ludicrously high scores is because Suyo and I have just been picking out of a list of the best of the best, instead of reviewing some more current, relevant titles.  So, expect some reviews of some newer games up soon.  Here's just a taste of what games you can expect in the coming weeks:

If you've never heard of any of these titles, great!  All the more reason for you to come check out the reviews of them when they go up.  See you all tomorrow for the first of 'em!

If there are any games you'd like to see reviewed, or anything you think we could do better on, please leave us a tip in the comments section!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Attention: The Potato Sack

You are here because of indie games, right?
Well, here's something for you.

On April 1st, Valve released the Potato Sack, a pack of 13 awesome indie games, including AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, BIT.TRIP BEAT, The Ball, Super Meat Boy and many more.

But... it seems something is not quite right...

Go grab the Potato Sack now and help us solve the mystery.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Review: Hero Core

The need to innovate is something that is something that has been a persistent theme among developers now more than ever.  Big name studios like Valve, Rockstar, and Bioware are constantly working on ways to mix up the way their games are played, and driving the industry forward as a result of it.  Likewise, the independent scene is an oasis for innovation, with Jason Rohrer's Inside a Star-filled Sky and Frictional Games' Amnesia: The Dark Descent paving the way for an interesting new breed of electronic entertainment.  Now, while I do love all of these brilliant new ideas flowing out into the market (I absolutely adore Amnesia), there's always a part of me that yearns for a simpler kind of game.  In the early 90s, a period of time that many still call the "Golden Age of Gaming," innovation took a back seat to another important factor: fun.  Earthworm Jim, Sonic the Hedgehog, Toejam and Earl, Banjo Kazooie, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Perfect Dark; all of these titles weren't terribly innovative, but damn did they ever do a good job of entertaining.  It's this sort of "fun" factor that so personified the games of yesteryear that seems absent from most of today's games.  Iji creator Daniel Remar was not content with this, and with Hero Core, he set out on a mission to kick boredom's ass all over the place.  And succeeded.

"On a distant asteroid, I last fought the machine warlord, Cruiser Tetron, who threatened to invade the Earth with his mechanical minions...  Can I now defeat him once more - and can I find a way to forever stop his return?"  From the moment you read this opening monologue, Hero Core already oozes retro.  In fact, everything - from the 2-color palette to the pixelated aesthetic to the chiptune soundtrack to the Metroid-y atmosphere - is a wonderful homage to previous eras in gaming history.  The pure amount of charm in the general aesthetic is lovely, and the simplicity of the style never once detracts from the overall experience.  Hero Core is by no means a graphical powerhouse, but it's quite easy on the eyes, and the level of detail and readability in the environment - especially given the start black and white color scheme - is astonishing.  But downloading Hero Core for its art is like buying a hot dog for its bun; it's merely a cover for the real substance: the gameplay.

At first, the controls might take a little bit of getting used to.  Moving is pretty standard, but shooting is done with two keys; "Z" for left firing, "X" for right.  After a while, though, it just becomes second nature.  As with any Remar game, however, Hero Core takes these simple mechanics and tests your skills considerably during the playthrough.  Reflex is the name of the game here, as hardly ever are you given a moment to breathe in the midst of dancing around a flurry of enemy fire.  It's no bullet hell shooter, per say, but you'll certainly have to have some fast fingers to avoid them, especially during some of the many challenging boss encounters.  Remar most certainly compensates for this frantic demand of the player through filling the levels with a large variety of incredibly clever enemies.  The cast of goons you face is wonderfully mixed with things that will test every bit of your skill.  From the harmless, wandering drones to the "oh crap gotta get away from those" laser cannons, each individual enemy has a different distinct pattern that, with practice, can be figured out and thought around.  In comparison to the gargantuan boss fights, however, the other bad guys are little more than an appetizer to a marvelous main course.

You know, even if Hero Core were nothing more than its series of bosses, I'd still have a goddamn blast.  Every single boss in the game just oozes with creativity, and their patterns are both well thought out and challenging to overcome.  During one encounter (pictured above), I spent the entire fight inside of its mechanical shell, firing away at its weak points while dodging both its deadly interior lining and the spiral of bullets it was sending in to destroy me.  At first, it was damn near impossible.  I must've spent a good 10 or so attempts figuring out its pattern.  It was challenging, sure, but the feeling after defeating it was intensely gratifying.  There's this incredible feeling of grandeur that I experience every time I come upon a new boss in Hero Core, which is spectacular, as I never would have suspected that such a primitive-looking game could have ever given that to me.  What I really loved best is the fact that every single boss in the game was equally as satisfying to defeat as the one I described.   

Hero Core plays on its reward system beautifully, awarding you for exploring, but never punishing you for failure, something I feel that more and more indie games are forgetting to do these days.  Every boss fight awards you with an upgrade or a new item, which in turn allows you to explore more of the map and find more bosses to defeat.   Death has almost no real punishment other than sending you back to one of the generously placed save zones (which, conveniently, also serve as teleporters to other save zones).  The lack of punishment for failure and insatiable urge to explore egged me on to finish the whole thing in one sitting, which I have found few things in my life (including movies and books) to be capable of doing.

Daniel Remar is one of those rare developers that come around every now and again and consistently churn out titles that put most others in their category to shame.  In 2008, he did just that with indie legend Iji, and by god, he's done it again with Hero Core.  This game is the pinnacle of polish in freeware titles, and it's really breathed life into the previously worn genre of 2D exploration games.  How it manages to bring out my childlike passion for discovery and retain a memorable atmosphere (made possible by a gorgeous, gritty chiptune soundtrack by Brother Android) at the same time has made it a true downloadable gem that will more than likely live on in my memory for years to come.  If you don't go out and get it right now, I may very well lose whatever faith I had left in humanity.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: Minecraft

What time is it, when I show you my house out of sand and dirt, this guy over there punches trees with a feather, my friend is crying because he ran out of minecart rails and someone just found 7 diamonds?
That's right, it's time to talk about the indie smash-hit of 2010: Minecraft!

Minecraft can't really be described using words. You have to experience it. Thus, I will start a new game, and show you what it means to play Minecraft.

You wake up on a lonely island. There are no other people around.
First thing you notice is the landscape. Everything consists out of blocks. The hills are blocks, the water is blocks, and even your arm is a block. I took some time to explore my map, and found various interesting places. Even though Minecraft just uses blocks, the map generator can make some really nice places. The world is never ending, you can travel in any direction and the generator produces new islands, mountains and caves in your map.

If you played Minecraft before, you know what to do. But I'll just pretend I'm new, and I leave you with these pictures from the night.

Seems like you're not THAT alone. Now that you've learned that there are indeed dangers, it's time to get to work. Your base material is wood. You can gather materials by simply punching them, which - in this author's honest opinion - is pretty badass. So, we grab few logs and craft ourselves something. This is where the Minecraft Cycle starts - you craft a tool, use it to get better materials, and make a tool out of these, until you finally have a pickaxe out of pure diamond in your hands and mine the fuck out of the entire continent. This is how Minecraft works.

This is my cozy little shack as of night #2.
But if I had a lot of time on my hands, it could look more like this.
Anything is possible when you play Minecraft.

Minecraft gives you the world; you do whatever the hell you want to in it. There is no set goal. You can set your own. Want to survive 10 days? What about building a castle? Or visiting an alternate dimension?
Just let your creativity flow into this game and see what you can do. There are some really awesome projects on the internet, like a 1 to 1 replica of the Starship Enterprise, or the city of Rapture from Bioshock. The possibilites are endless. This game definely deserves IGF's Grand Prize.


You might also want to check out PC Gamers Minecraft Diary. It's a really good read and shows you what Minecraft is about - building, exploring, mining and adventure in general.

Friday, February 25, 2011


Your goal.
Nothing can stop you.
Believe in yourself
and you can do anything.
Take up the challenge
and continue your BIT.TRIP.

It's time for more BIT.TRIP madness! As a part of our review series, this time we will play BIT.TRIP VOID and BIT.TRIP RUNNER. You can grab both on the Wii Shop Channel for 600/800 Wii Points. And it seems RUNNER for your computer at home is not far away.

Hey guys. What's up.
So, we've been following CommanderVideo for quite some time now, and now it's about time he gets social. Meeting others, finding friends, etc. Sadly, the Commander is doing it completely wrong at first.
The story is being told mainly in the cutscenes this time, and the occassional text appearing shortly in a stage. The background doesn't become less awesome, though.

Popping the void is a good idea
in this situation.
VOID doesn't limit you to the Wiimote this time. You can choose beetween using your Nunchuck or a Classic Controller, both of which work equally well. You can move your void around using the stick, and pop your void using a button.
The game goes after the classic R/R system. In case you are not familar with this, here's a quick explantation. R/R means risk/reward - there is a special goal you can only reach by taking a risk. Let's take Super Mario as example. There's a 1UP hanging right above a pit. The risk is losing your life, the reward getting a life.
The blog of Super Meat Boy has a quite nice analysis, go check it out.

How much will you risk to get
a good score here?
Now how is R/R implemented in BIT.TRIP VOID? Easy - you move around with your void, collecting black beats. For chaining black beats the value for each best increases, the multiplier grows and you get more points stored in your void. The catch is: with every beat your void grows, which makes it slower and thus it's harder to avoid white beats, which reset the beat value. Thus you have to pop your void after some time, and that's when the points in your void are added to your real score.

The R/R system brings a whole new dimension to the game, as you now can't get a highest possible score anymore. That keeps the competition up - sadly, due to the lack of online leaderboards it's hard to compare all scores.
note to myself: make an online portal to post your scores to. Would be awesome, I guess
The new checkpoints sure make the game easier than BEAT and CORE (that may be a good or bad point depending on your skill). The soundtrack is one of the best in the series, and the new backgrounds are awesome. While not being the best game, it comes pretty damn close to it. A great start for new BIT.TRIPpers who are not too sure if they have enough skills.

Now that the Commander has gotten some social skills and new-found friends, it's time to go on. He is living life to it's fullest. Nothing can stop him now. It's time for the TRIP in BIT.TRIP. It's time for BIT.TRIP RUNNER.

RUNNER features 3 zones with 11 levels,
11 retro challenges and a boss.
First thing you notice, the game title has 6 letters as opposed to the 4 letters of any other game. Why? I don't know, but it's worth noting.
Second thing you notice, the gameplay can be compared to the free flash game Canabalt. Holding the Wiimore horizontally, press 2 to jump over pits, rocks and other stuff. But as opposed to the flash game, you can do various other moves you learn while running through the 3 zones, which include sliding, using springs, kicking and getting your paddle from BIT.TRIP BEAT to block beats aiming for your head.

If you reach the highest mode, you
leave a rainbow trail. Double
Rainbow all the way!
As you jump, slide and kick your way through 69 (!) 2-minute-long levels, you must not fail. The NETHER meter from the older games is absent. One hit, and you're out. Back to the start, score set to 0 and mode reset to HYPER. RUNNER takes an idea from Super Meat Boy here - CommanderVideo will start running again just 3 seconds after your death.
But even though you just take one hit, RUNNER is by far the easiest of the pack right now.

And this is just the first part
of the level.

Why, you ask? Well, let's take a look at BEAT and CORE, where a death in one of the three levels would result in a restart of the entire level. In VOID there were 3 checkpoints per level, but you had to have a credit left, thus keeping the difficulty up.
Now let's imagine RUNNER's three zones were levels. You would have 11 checkpoints per level, free to use, and 11 challenges in front of each checkpoint as the only thing you can truly fail at. Also the bit-sized levels make it way easier to get a PERFECT.

That doesn't mean it's bad, though. In fact, this is - right now - the best BIT.TRIP game. Due to the short levels you can play this game for a short time while you wait for another game to finish loading, and it feels way more likely to get a perfect score, thus motivatnig many players to try what they haven't in the other BIT.TRIP games. And since it's the easiest game right now, other players with less skill can also quickly success. This is a must-buy, if you have a Wii.


You may ask why I didn't give a full 5 of 5. Well, it's because there's still room for improvement, since the final game is coming tomorrow. BIT.TRIP FLUX, the 6th part, will was released in Europe today and the USA get it on Monday! Get your Wii Points ready to complete the final chapter of your BIT.TRIP.
But before we review the final duo BIT.TRIP FATE and FLUX, we will take a look at what is most likely one of the most successful indie games of all time, being still in beta and has sold one million copies, though. If you still don't know what we're talking about, here's a final hint:
It's about working in mines and crafting.