Thursday, April 27

Tips and Tricks: Tumbleseed

While I would in no way imagine that Tumbleseed will require quite the level of effort and detail that was needed for my Has-Been Heroes Tips and Tricks the common rogue-like DNA in the game does create a situation where gamers less familiar with this type of game may have a need for tips and guidance. Generally, by their nature, rogue-likes tend to lay out some basic rules and then expect that through trial, error, and probably a lot of dying, you'll work out the rest. In the name of aiding people in their quest to better understand, appreciate, and enjoy Tumbleseed through the early portion of things I figured I'd put together this rough guide. Keep in mind, as with the Has-Been Heroes guide, this isn't being put together with authority or definitive precision. These are my observations and what I understand about the game from having played quite a bit of it. Still a WIP, will continue to add more as I get the opportunity/capture screens/etc.

Rules to Live (Though More Often Die) By

  • The walls are your friends. Use them, at least most of the time: Always be on the lookout for holes that may appear under a part of the wall and be mindful if their gap is big enough for you to fall into
  • While the game's appearance is pretty flat the objects in your environment very much aren't: There's a certain amount of perspective trickery that happens with objects in the game but, in particular, walls are again the place where things can get interesting. Sometimes you can benefit from the fact that near a turn in the walls there's extra space you can't visibly see to move into. However, by this same principle there can sometimes be nasty "surprises" in those spaces you cannot see, so use some caution
  • Never forget your Flagseeds! It should be really obvious but I'll underline it for you. If you fail to make yourself a checkpoint on a semi-periodic basis you'll very likely end up hating yourself. It isn't just that without them you'll need to cover area you've already been in, its that you'll need to do so without any real help since you'll have likely used all of the spots to plant in, often making things a bit more interesting to get through since you'll have also lost any of your thorns as well
  • Have a plan... : In general you should determine a style that suits you and work consistently in that direction. Are you a "best defense is a good offense" kind of person? Prefer to health up and use your dodging skills? Will you hoard crystals for purchases? Are you some combination of the above? In general you need to settle in to what will work for you as a base
  • ... but be ready to abandon it: Something here about the best laid plans and how, with any rogue-like, that all can to go hell in a hurry. There are going to be games where right out of the gate you're facing a nasty enemy who is hell-bent on killing you. It happens, you've offended the RNG gods and you're going to have to deal. Always be ready to move and adapt... or you'll just die and start over
  • The best defense is most certainly not always a good offense: While I started out getting thorns regularly I've come to almost never use them. The fact that they need to be targeted/directed is a pretty big downside a lot of times and, overall, there are better offensive options in the game for tougher foes. At the end of the day the main thing to know is that to progress you'll need to have your evasion skills at top form anyway, you may as well learn to use them sooner rather than later. Don't sweat the small fry enemies, avoid them, get your crystals and hearts up, and be sure you get something that takes your offensive abilities to the next level when the enemies you kill will be more profitable anyway
  • Remember, you can move down! In general the game is about progress and moving up the field but there are times when the way to get to a specific crystal or plot may be too dangerous because of holes or enemies. Always keep in mind that there are multiple ways to get at things and sometimes that may include going past the object you're looking for and then backtracking if that may be safer
  • Patience can be a virtue: While there will be many times where you'll have enemies or situations demanding that you move very quickly there are also times where you can save some thorns or risk by simply waiting for an enemy to work through its pattern and clear the way
  • Obstacles like stumps can be more than a nuisance: While they can sometimes be a hindrance to get by they can also be used to stop yourself (like a wall) and the same principle with them that slows you down can also work with your enemies like snakes and spiders
  • Remember, rogue-likes are built on risk versus reward: Not all power-ups, plants, auras, etc are created equally. While many can be lethal to your enemies you'll find they're often also a danger to you. I'd go as far as saying that some things you can get are probably net worse to have than to leave behind
  • Some plants (and your checkpoint flag posts) have a surprising rebound/recoil to them: Just a word of warning to be cautious bumping into them when anywhere near a hole, they have a tendency to spring you back a bit more than you may anticipate
  • Learn how much space you need on the edge of hole above you and how much space you can have in a hole below you: Due to the angle you're looking at the playfield from until you get a good gauge for what the lip on the edge of a hole can be without you falling in you'll likely be surprised and disappointed at first. Until you get a feel for this once you lose some health in a game don't ruin the potential opportunity, move along the edges of a hole to be sure you understand how much space you need above and/or below to keep from falling it, it will save your life many times over later as you play
  • Momentum is your friend... As you learn to control the rate of speed you're rolling at you'll find that to make some diagonal moves you'll need to get up to a certain speed and then allow yourself to "coast" upwards on your bar to get you through some sections. Without a little momentum this would be much harder in some cases
  • ... and your enemy: An out-of-control seed or one moving too quickly typically leads to issues. You have to learn how to keep from getting your seed moving too fast and also how to do some emergency moves to get over to a wall or object to stop yourself
  • Always listen: Aside from being in tune with what enemies may be coming for you it is also worth remembering what it sounds like when your enemies die so if it happens off-screen you can be sure to backtrack if you've left a trap behind that something has managed to get killed by

Seeds (not complete)

Possibly my favorite go-to seed. Relatively inexpensive, only lethal to you if you're foolish enough to roll over it yourself, and capable of killing even snakes on the first hit they work well. An issue you can hit is that the Pink Bastard Spiders, in particular, can be very wily in their avoidance of landing in the FlyTrap every once in a while. You can try to sit around the edge and lure them in but sometimes you just need to know when it isn't happening.

While it can be useful in a pinch and is generally inexpensive I also don't find myself using it very often. One issue with it is that it doesn't really propel you all that far up, so you have to get some great placement for it to get you over or past things. As a note, though I can't think of how this would be terribly useful, enemies can also trigger these, perhaps there's a strategy there. I suppose in the right circumstances it would work well enough, just don't get your hopes up of it giving you a scot-free getaway.

Star Seed
 Considering the trouble and cost of using this seed (it requires being planted 5 times at a cost of 2 crystals per plot) I've never actually activated it, but I'd like to assume it would be quite potent for the trouble. I usually avoid it so I can conserve my crystals for less costly options.

Spread Spore
 Not terribly costly but it can be tricky to use depending on the circumstances and its distance from things like holes. It will create a 2-shot weapon spot you can use to fire at your enemies (aiming from the side opposite where you want it to fire) and buy yourself some breathing room.

Ray Flower
While not the fanciest or most helpful option you have if you have enemies directly above or below you it can be pretty devastating. Always be sure to stay out of its way the few times it fires, if you're directly above or below if you'l have to exercise caution when activating it.

At the end of the day this one is really for pairing with the seed that creates a plant that poisons anything that touches it (including you). Since you'll die if anything hits you when you're poisoned the ability to get rid of that cloud around you will be crucial. Antidote is the key to saving you. Unfortunately its relatively high cost (5 crystals) means you'll have to be careful about your poison planning.

Very cheap to use (only 1 crystal) its results certainly feel very big but while you'll want to head for cover it has spotty results for reliably killing on-screen enemies. Whenever you want to use it be sure you're not stuck exposed in the middle of the screen. The sides underneath cover, or even just against the wall can be guarantees of safety. Powerful but not always very effective.

 As its name implies it has the power to temporarily make you invisible, though still very much prone to taking damage if you're hit by anything. Generally I'd consider the trouble you'll go to to get it and then make use of it well to be a deal breaker but some people may like to get stealthy with things.

Conceptually more valuable than it typically is in practice this has the potential to be very useful since it will fill in holes with water, allowing you to go over them without falling in. The issue it the limitation of its power to proximity to the holes you're looking to fill. Unless the holes are within a relatively small distance of the plot you plant in they won't get filled. Probably more helpful for creating an area you can kill enemies in without falling into holes than helping with traversal.

These can be pretty potent, dropping a mine every few seconds, ultimately dropping maybe 6 of them? One limitation they have is that you'll need enemies to go over them to take damage, which is sometimes challenging. They also aren't a guaranteed kill for more powerful enemies so that's worth keeping in mind. Perhaps their greatest downside is that they'll harm you if you go over them once they've been activated.

Probably one of my favorite and most consistent offensive seeds of choice. Proximity is a danger since the blast from a missile explosion will shoot out shrapnel, but in general it is effective because the missiles will home in on the closest enemy, they tend to be enough to kill most foes in one hit, and that same blast zone that can hurt you can sometimes nail more than one enemy at once. Add in a low crystal cost of just 2 per activation and it is quite reliable.

For a long time I avoided using it because of its unpredictable nature. Nothing will change the fact that you can't rely on it saving you, but it can sure be a lot of fun if you hit a productive streak with it. The main reason it is compelling to use, though, is that it costs you nothing to activate with it no matter what other seed's power gets used. On a crystal budget, if you can survive it activating bombs or other things randomly and can run away, it is a great way to make it rain crystals.

While not very useful initially, and carrying a relatively high cost of use, by Zone 3 this is a seed worth looking out for. It will only reflect one shot per use but when you're in spaces where multiple enemies are firing at you it can help you focus on getting through a tough area rather than trying to manage dodging projectiles as well as holes and enemies. The fact that it typically sends the shot right back to the attacker to kill them is just a nice bonus.

Another high cost protection option the shield is terrific as long as you're mindful of its limitations. It is great at protecting you from taking hits from enemy projectiles, however if a spider decides to pounce on you it isn't going to help you there. If you don't have the reflect as an option a straight-up shield isn't a bad second option. Again, some basic protection as you try to get through a nasty and complicated area can be a life-saver.

While it isn't a seed I typically make use of I could see where, especially earlier in your adventures, it could be useful. It will temporarily slow things down so you'll hopefully be able to get through a more challenging obstacle course of enemies, traps, and hazards. It is also relatively inexpensive, I believe at 3 crystals, so if you're a bit intimidated by what's immediately ahead of you it may not be a bad option.

Notable Enemies (not complete)

Pink Bastard
Oh, Pink Bastard Spiders, how I hate you so. You're capable of showing up right out of the gate on the first zone, your movement pattern seems almost psychic at times, your evasive tactics against my FlyTraps is practically legendary, and once you lock your sights on my seeds you're relentless, cold-hearted, pursuit machines who won't stop until one of us is dead. The RNG gods were right bastards when they conceived you, and I hear them giggling when they spawn more than one near each other.

While I consider them a little less of a nuisance and danger than the Pink Bastard Spider the Snake is absolutely something you need to take serious. They move at a pretty fair speed, will relentlessly track you down, and seem to be harder to just "shake" as well overall. Thankfully unlike the wiley PBS they'll follow you diligently to their death as long as you have a trap between you and them and they can get snarled up in obstacles if you plan well.

While not an enemy that pursues you whatever the hell these things are they can be very nasty to deal with if you don't keep your eyes on them and keep at a safe distance. Once they trigger based on proximity they pop up pretty quickly and will have an area damage effect that you won't want to get caught in. The best bet is to take them from above or below since it is easier to juke them and change course. Trying to shift momentum at the right spot and get away side to side isn't a simple thing to pull off.

Schnoz Shooter
There are absolutely worse things to need to deal with but these can be troublesome if you don't keep an eye out for them. They will shoot at you with fair accuracy once they get sight of you but if you're able to elude them for long enough they'll leave you alone once they pass by. Keep an eye out for the fact that at some point they will turn back around and again be a problem. Not the most lethal enemy in the game but you should be sure you don't lose track of them.

The Leech
These are probably the first "tougher" enemy you'll commonly see in the first zone. They're not terribly hard to deal with, you just need to keep an eye on where they're pivoting to before they strike next. They do take 2 hits to dispatch and with their quick rate of movement when they decide where to go getting in close to them can be risky. Probably easier to avoid most of the time.

Rotating Gate-r
Generally not a big deal to avoid since they spin at a relatively slow rate and stay in place they're also an obstacle you can tend to lose track of when you're trying to move quickly to avoid a nastier enemy. They only take a single hit so if they're being a nuisance you can remove them, but in general I find it is just better to avoid them whenever possible.

Crystal Fly
These little buggers are definitely in the game just to toy with you and to tempt you into trying to take their crystals without getting hit. They're not smart in any way, they generally have a pattern you'll be able to deal with, and any contact with them will kill them (though that doesn't mean they don't hurt you), but they're great at giving you pause or hitting you when you're not paying close enough attention.

Flying Chaser
 Another common early game enemy these creatures don't move very quickly but they are pretty tenacious and can be a challenge to kill if you're only armed with a single thorn. In general their low speed makes me simply decide to outrun them rather than try to kill them but your philosophy on them may differ.

Mini Spider
Not usually that hard to deal with, and they don't chase after you, but their tendency to show up in groups can make them a challenge to deal with at times. Whenever possible I generally just avoid them but as long as you move pretty quickly around them they aren't terribly lethal.

Pop Flyer
 While it is usually pretty easy to avoid them you will learn to respect them when they make their sound and appear, then quickly falling out of the screen. They're less often the direct cause of you dying than they are another distraction that opens the door to other things wearing you down.

Spike Trap
 While it doesn't move there's no doubt that it is one of the most lethal enemies you'll face in the game. Unlike many traps and enemies that just take one heart from you getting hit by the spikes means instant death for you and starting over again.

Auras (not complete)

You won't run into these until you get to the first town. They're free to grab, they have no ongoing cost, but you can only use one at a time, not all of them are necessarily helpful, and when you get hit you'll drop them, making you chase them down if you want to keep their benefits.

Ghost Friend
Will need to double-check the name on this aura but I put it in first as a warning to people... you probably would be better off not picking it up. While they can hurt any enemies they make contact with they will also harm you as well. Unlike the bouncy friend aura that simply ricochets off the walls the ghost will slowly and consistently track you down, which can really make for nasty surprises when you're trying to plot out your next move. Added bonus: They do this even in shops and in the challenges... how lovely!

 A great double-edges sword, it will make any projectiles you're able to fire with one of your seeds track down enemies a bit, hopefully giving you more kills. A major downside to using this, though, is that enemies that fire projectiles at you will also get this benefit, making areas like the third zone a bit more challenging to your dodging skills. Worthwhile but be aware of the effect and be sure you even have a seed that will let you use projectiles in the first place.

Freeloader Aura
This is one of those cases where it could be "too little, too late" but this aura will let you plant in any plot for free if you have only 1 heart. It is absolutely useful if you're that close to death, but obviously that's a very dangerous spot to use the benefit. How you use it could also be an interest risk/reward choice. If you have seeds like shields or bombs you could try using them without a cost to make full use of the lack of cost but that also means you're not using them for hearts. Decisions.

BigShot Aura
This is roughly paired with the Seeker Aura in terms of its risk and reward. It will make any projectiles you're causing to fire bigger but it will do the same with anything fired by your enemies as well. Usually this isn't too big a deal but if you get a space where you have 3 enemies or more all firing on you it can definitely add to your stress and challenge levels in a hurry. Always be sure you're at least going to see a benefit for yourself before equipping this!

This couldn't possibly have a downside, could it? Wouldn't you always want crystals to come to you and make it easier? Most of the time, absolutely yes. The one time this can be a less great thing is when there's one of those Crystal Fly enemies hovering around the crystal that's being pulled to you. Unfortunately those little buggers will continue to chase that crystal as it moves towards you and you'll have to be careful to dodge it. Once you get the crystal it tends to meander away but up until that point it can create a stressful situation.

Wednesday, April 26

Editorial: Support Your (N)indies!

Writing this is a bit odd since I'm convinced that the vast majority of people who will read it will be the already converted. I'd imagine the next most likely people to read it would be those who are determined to dismiss it immediately, reading primarily for the purpose of scoffing at it to then go back to playing their AAA games. The audience I'm really hoping to reach, and share my thoughts with, are the people without a current dog in this fight who are at least curious about the independent game development community. While obviously, just like anywhere else in the market, there are games ranging from incredible to terrible coming from indie developers there are a number of things that make them very appealing to support.

First, and possibly most important of all, is that every indie developer I've interacted with or talked to at some point has been extremely passionate about what they're doing. This in no way is meant to besmirch people working for large publishers, I'm sure many of them are passionate as well. What is different with indies, to me, is that with far smaller teams (many in single digits) and budgets the passion these folks have for their games is very present on the screen and in what you play. This isn't focus-group-driven, design-by-committee gaming, what you're playing is a much more raw connection to the content creators and in many cases you can feel that love coming through in the product. Another way this passion often manifests itself is in the open enthusiasm many indie developers have for the work of others in the industry. They love games, including ones from their "competitors", and will not just praise them but will often openly advocate for them or help push other people towards them. That unbridled enthusiasm is terrific to see and shows a sort of heart I can't help but admire.

Second is the fact that independent game studios are absolutely helping, if not transforming, the market. They're making compelling content that is generally focused on new ideas and more daring expressions of creativity... and typically at a much lower price as well. They're not churning out the same product year-over-year with a few new features for the same well-established premium "going price", they're mixing and matching different genres, sharing new ideas that you've never seen before, and doing it for what is often less than even half the price of the larger companies. The fact is for the price of one AAA game you could likely buy at least 3 or (in some cases many) more indie games. Independently-developed games as a whole represent choice and innovation, and they're beginning to really come into their own with some well-established indies, who already have a strong track record, insisting on staying small to remain true to their spirit.

Third is a more of a thought of mine than something I've confirmed, but I see the independent game community as being full of people who didn't simply bemoan the lack of innovation or creativity in the more traditional games market, they've decided to actually do something about it. As in all business ventures success can be incredibly elusive and many of these people are putting it all on the line in the hopes of making a splash, and sadly the likelihood is that for any number of factors many will continue to struggle or fail regardless of the quality of their product. The indie devs are fighting for attention against the likes of Nintendo and other massive publishers who have their legacy, IPs, the ear of the game press, and massive budgets for marketing. Without being able to buy attention social media has become the point of attack of choice for many, but with so many established channels out there even this has its challenges just to get your eyes on their product in the first place, let alone compelling you to buy it. There was a time when development studios you hadn't heard of more rightly demanded a degree of skepticism but we're right in the middle of an indie renaissance right now, and new names typically are bringing very worthwhile content to the table.

Fourth is that is important for everyone to dip a toe in ponds outside of their comfort zone once in a while, it may help you discover there's an entire world of games out there you've been missing out on. One specific game type I'll touch on here (and will likely write an editorial about later as well) is the "rogue-like". Somewhat oddly I wouldn't describe rogue-likes as a genre, type is probably the best descriptor I have for them. They hinge on some degree of randomness in their DNA and I've seen 3 incredibly distinct rogue-likes already on the Nintendo Switch, all of which I've enjoyed greatly (for reference they're The Binding Of Isaac: Afterbirth + [a shooter of sorts with all of its glorious weirdness], Has-Been Heroes [a lane-based strategy game that too many people dismissed because of its challenge, difficulty is the wrong word], and Tumbleseed [I'm not sure there's really a genre for it, it's just unique and awesome... true Indie spirit!]). Up until about 2 years ago I'd never heard of rogue-likes or at least not really taken them seriously and then I stumbled onto both Isaac and Rogue Legacy on the PC and I was hooked. I know some other people who were also hesitant about trying rogue-likes and, for the most part, the ones who have decided to give them a try are now fans. Obviously there are far more types of games independent developers work in, I just think the diversity and challenge of the rogue-likes, as a specific type of game, probably wouldn't have happened the same way with more traditional publishers.

Fifth, and I've held off on this one since I first wanted to establish the value of unknown developers out there, is that many of these indie studios are either being lead by or empowered by people who were vital to the success of big games you already love. These, again, are generally people who decided that the major studios aren't doing it right, or aren't willing to take the chances they would like to see, or are simply grinding them into the ground so they decided to go to a smaller scale for success. It's no coincidence that there are new retro games popping up that seem to have roots in common with established standbys or even game franchises people had given up on as dead. In many cases people with strong ties to those same games have struck out into the indie space in order to find their new successes. There are certainly more high-profile people who have started their own studious to much fanfare but you also have designers, programmers, and other specialists who can bring along some of that spirit with them as well.

Sixth, and this is where I finally can't help but get out my Nintendo fanboy hat, I think that the current and future success of the Nintendo Switch can and should be as much driven by the Nindies releasing terrific games week after week as by the major tentpole first-party games Nintendo is deservedly well-known for. To date the Switch has had an absolute embarrassment of great gaming riches, and I have yet to be disappointed by anything I've bought for the system (Super Bomberman R, by price, I'm not thrilled with but will give them credit for patching it to improve). During the slower/darker life of the Wii U, because of the practical limitations of the tablet, I developed my strong love for indie gaming back on my PC. The fact that I now own a platform that enables me to play those games on my TV, at my desk, or on the go is a revelation, and I hope the great strengths of the platform brings success both to Nintendo and the Nindies that release games for it. Due to their scope and style most indie games work wonderfully when I'm on the go, and with the Switch all I can think of or hope when a new title is announced is that it will make its way there so I can enjoy it at any time and in any place I may choose. It is liberating!

As I close this out I'll openly acknowledge that I'm still probably not even covering all of the things that make support for the independent development community important to gaming as a whole. If you'd like to leave comments (whether as a fan or a developer) please feel free to do so and perhaps we'll have a sequel or follow-up of sorts if it is warranted. For myself, in the spirit of people deciding to do something when they don't see enough being done, I not only decided to write this editorial but am also working to become a more direct advocate by starting up @NindieSpotlight on Twitter and YouTube where I'll try to do whatever I can to help advance the Nindie cause specifically. The Switch is off to a tremendous start, and I personally view the Nindies as being a key piece of that success. If people will learn that it is OK to sometimes let go of the need for physical releases and to pop in what is usually the cost of a movie or going out to eat, to take a chance on something new, I see a future where everyone can win and we'll continue to grow a much more diverse and vibrant gaming community.

Monday, April 17

Editorial: Why Do You Write Reviews?

While I took a pretty substantial break in the middle of things, and stopped doing it for over a decade and change, I started writing reviews of various kinds probably almost 25 years ago. Back then I didn’t have enough money to just buy a ton of games so I was really into downloading game demos for my PC. Now, the things to know are that at this time in the world the internet was still in its infancy and that things like cable modems and broadband speeds didn’t yet exist. Since the demos tended to be pretty large, for the speed you could get them at, downloading them could take many, many hours. So I’d generally leave them overnight as a result. Even though the demos were free that didn’t mean that it wasn’t aggravating when you’d spend 6 hours downloading something that was an utter waste. It was my irritation with this that prompted me to start my new webpage, Demo Man’s Domain, and a reviewer was born!

Now, the thing about the internet at that time was that search engines and the like really didn’t exist, for the most part what would bring people to you was being listed on other peoples’ own homepages. I doubt my reach was very substantial but the fact that I knew people were not only reading my opinions on things but then thanking me, or getting into discussions with me about what I’d written, and then putting my link on their homepage was a pretty great feeling. It instilled in me a sort of sense of social responsibility, to help people make wise investments in what they got based on information I had that they didn’t. Even though what we were ultimately talking about was free just the time it took people to download a demo, combined with the prospects of them wasting their time playing something that wasn’t very good, compelled me to write reviews for everything I downloaded. I was turning into a sort of reviewer on the cheap!

Since that very early/humble start I’ve written reviews and contributed to (well, or ran) much higher-profile sites, with even an odd freelance opportunity or two in print along the way, but my focus has never changed. My inspiration, as a reviewer, is to try to inform people and to help them make good decisions with their commitments of money and, sometimes more importantly, their time. With that as my goal I don’t take the responsibility lightly, and having interacted with a variety of people from the industry of various kinds I’ll also say that I don’t take my responsibility to them lightly either.

On the one hand you have consumers, many of which I’ll assume don’t have a great deal of disposable income and are looking at their purchase as an investment, not just throwing some money away without there being a consequence in the overall quality. On the other you have developers who have probably made substantial commitments and sacrifices of various kinds to deliver that game experience. Unfortunately for the developers, while I can try to see their point or their vision, I’m not obliged to lie, or at least to diminish what I see as the truth, on their behalf either. It just would also do no good or honest service to deliberately bring scores down arbitrarily or without sound rationale that could be explained. A reviewer’s responsibility is to balance these things and to at least be fair to all parties.

The next key piece of being a reviewer is you should really love what you’re reviewing as a whole, though you undoubtedly won’t always be rewarded with things that are easy to enjoy. A strange sort of by-product of needing to be particularly thorough: The more you want to heap criticism on a game you may dislike, the more time you’re likely to end up spending playing it. I can’t begin playing a game I’m reviewing, stop, and just proclaim “This sucks! 3/10” I need to back up that claim with evidence (Looking at you 80% or more of app-store-style reviews)!
What’s missing or lacking? Is it just me or is there something that anyone could agree is a problem? Am I qualified enough to evaluate it against other comparable games in the genre? Where does this fit into the current marketplace as a whole? Truthfully, justifying why a game is bad is far more difficult (and generally painful) than substantiating why a game is great. If nothing else, “doing the research” on a terrific game is at least far more enjoyable!

Another aspect of being a decent reviewer that tends to make it a bit expensive at times, and doesn’t normally lend itself to you lingering for as long as you may like on your favorite titles, is that you need to be well-versed in the medium. That means playing games you may not normally play, and sometimes longer than you’d like, to better understand them (even when you’re not reviewing them). It means reading through the opinions and criticisms of other reviewers to try to get grounding for where other people may land on different games to better inform or broaden your own opinion. I was heartened to see a great concept come up in discussion about a previous editorial, that meaningful and quality reviews can’t and shouldn’t be written in a vacuum. To avoid that, and the disservice to the reader it represents, you don’t just need to look at the game you’re reviewing, you really need to have a grasp of both the current and historic games everywhere that are comparable to it, the more you can consider the more informed your opinion will be.

What I’m getting at, for people who don’t try to do this, is that if you want to be even half-way decent at reviewing games it can be a lot of work. On top of the factors already mentioned consider the fact that you need to build relatively decent writing skills, you need to be willing to read and re-read just about everything you write to be sure it is conveying the right message and that you’ve expressed yourself in a way that can be clear, and you’ve always got to be ready for taking criticism whether it is justified or solicited. That’s before even covering the modern issues that tend to creep in with things like social networking, possibly trying your hand at live-streaming, building some sort of a brand… it can get a little nutty. If you’re thinking you’d want to do it just because you love playing games or that you may get “free stuff” please bear in mind that nothing is free. You’ll need to work to get to the point you could even hope to recoup your investments, and for anything you do receive there’s an expectation of what you’ll then do (often on a pretty tight deadline, which can make enjoyment of a game challenging, even good ones) in return.

So why do I write reviews? Maybe, more crucially, if I’m saying all of this is quite a bit of work... why did I come back to it after so much time? Speaking only for myself it’s because I’ve regained my passion for playing Nintendo games specifically. After 2 generations of being either burned out or “Meh” (life wasn’t helping either, to be honest) the Switch has started that fire up once more. Just as before my being a massive Nintendo advocate doesn’t, however, mean that I hesitate to be critical of them (I won’t mention the game for once, I promise, but you know who you are!!!!). In the end, for me, doing reviews is an extension of my desire to help people and since I love and play a ton of games I feel like this is an area I have a great deal to contribute in.

From person to person who is out there writing reviews I’d expect the answer from them would be similar for the most part. For a reviewer, no matter how much you love games, you need to be able to step away from the controller and write things on a pretty regular basis. The blank page and a deadline stare at you, waiting for you to put your thoughts together in your own signature style. As with all things sometimes the work comes easily, with all of the elements coming together, and other times it can be a painful and burdensome chore. So why do people write reviews? Because they’re driven, passionate, and are willing to make a variety of personal sacrifices for the benefit of the people who read what they write. The rewards can be nice but they’re almost always secondary, you have to love to do this to keep it up for any period of time. For me, I think it’s all worth it and I care about this industry, and want everything and everyone to be their best.

Wednesday, April 12

Review: Mr. Shifty [ Nintendo Switch eShop ]

For my initial summarized thoughts on the game be sure to check out my Impressions. I have, however, added these additional thoughts on the game to summarize my concerns/issues with it that kept me from scoring it higher.

First, if you watch the video I captured the stutter isn’t that infrequent and it can both be odd and annoying. At first I thought it was a deliberate delay when you knocked people out to slow down the action, and sometimes I think it is on purpose for that reason. When it happened when there was no action at first I thought perhaps it was because someone was dying out of my immediate view since that does happen for a variety of reasons. Then I began noticing it for random and seemingly unexplainable reasons just when moving around or doing something. My hope is that this is a known issue and can at least get a patch to reduce it.

Second, for a game that I’d held out hope for some strong replay value with, arcade brawler-style, it really doesn’t deliver that at all. Once you complete the 18 levels your only extended play option is to revisit the levels in full, trying to improve your time and lower your death count. As Neal noted, the connective tissue between the very engaging and entertaining fights is a bit hit or miss and especially if my goal were to complete the level with 0 deaths that could be a tall order probably somewhat out of my control aside from pure grinding through it over and over. Since there’s no support for leaderboards or anything else I can see even this would seem to be without much of a point. With this really solid fight engine I’m sad to see there isn’t some sort of endurance mode that could have used a pretty stock arena set-up, pushing me to survive wave after wave of enemies for time and score. Throw a few scenarios like this and a leaderboard at me and I’d have gladly spent quite a few more hours taking in more of what is actually a pretty great fighting engine overall.

Third, there are absolutely a few spots in the game where I simply had no idea what to do and it was frustrating for seemingly no good reason. When you get to the point in the game you’ll likely know it, just know that when all else fails you just keep punching like the wall has the face of Crash Bandi-Poochy on it. You punch because it feels right, and eventually you should be OK. Puzzles are good, sequences where you can’t reasonably assume what you should do aren’t always so good.

Lastly, I won’t fully detail the sequence of events but I will say that after SO much build-up and challenge to get to the very end of the game the final fight wasn’t even remotely fair or interesting. While it would seemingly be invigorating to completely own the final boss I must say that as the credits rolled all I could think was “WTF just happened!” Just ending it all on a sad note knocked me down from the thrills that had gotten me there.

For what it sets out to be, and the price point, if you’re looking for an engaging brawler that will test both your reflexes and your wits Mr. Shifty delivers some pretty solid goods. While it has issues that keep it from being easy to recommend to anybody if the game looks like it has elements that appeal to you it should reasonably deliver the goods, even if it feels like it doesn’t quite live up to its potential.

Score: 7

  • When it gets into its fighting groove Mr. Shifty is an absolute blast and can provide a nice challenge
  • Some of the more puzzle-like sequences do a great job of testing your wits while pushing you to apply some of the game mechanics to their fullest
  • For the price of admission the total experience is of a reasonable length

  • For all of the great attributes of the fighting engine that has been created there just doesn’t feel like there’s enough of it being leveraged, the lack of a fighting-specific challenge or endurance mode is a shame
  • The prospect of replaying the levels isn’t generally appealing without more concentrated focus and an incentive like online leaderboards
  • In a few spots the lack of any direction on what you need to do can be frustrating

Monday, April 10

Impressions: Mr. Shifty

If you've seen the videos and screen shots of Mr. Shifty to this point you probably have a reasonably good idea of what to expect, and that's both a good and a bad thing. It is, for the most part, a top-down one-shot-kill brawler with you controlling the title character, Mr. Shifty. He is a man of few words but also of, often, intense fighting skills mixed with a handy teleportation ability.

It is the action-packed brawling sequences where Mr. Shifty can flex these powers of rapid engagement that can be both aggravating and exiting, having to plot out a rough plan to then execute to get yourself out of whatever jam you're in. As the game goes on you'll need to show even better tactics, often requiring to do far less work if you're making proper use of weapons, for example.

To slow and calm down the action elements of the game there are variety of puzzles you'll need to solve as well, often involving the manipulation of certain elements in the environment around you. While many of the puzzles have straight-forward solutions it is here where you learn the eclectic set of tactics and properties of things that you may get the opportunity to abuse later when you're in a tough fight.

It is at the point that the puzzle properties of the game mix with the brawling where Mr. Shifty's mechanics really come alive. I've had a few situations of "Hrrm... I wonder what would happen if..." and in general the fact that I've been rewarded when trying something out is quite satisfying. I look forward to the game continuing this pattern, asking me to exhibit even more creativity in seeing the potentials in the grand plan.

As I continue deeper into the building I find myself wondering what the extended game plan is for the title. Does it have long-term plans or is continuous revisiting of previous levels going to be the only method available, with people just trying to reduce both their number of deaths and their overall clear times? I think this is one of the major questions that will drive home either the value of the purchase or one of its greatest weaknesses. I'll let you know once I find out which it is.


Sunday, April 9

Review: Graceful Explosion Machine [ Nintendo Switch eShop ]

With some games you start out with a set of rules and expectations that you then ride through to the end to success. This is often true with arcade-style games, which I’d thought Graceful Explosion Machine (GEM from here on out) simply was. I’d seen screen shots and some video of gameplay and, probably like everyone else, I was drawn to the distinctive art style and the concept of having 4 different weapons at my disposal. It wasn’t until I stopped playing it casually, and begin playing it for scores, that it dawned on me that the game was far more intense and challenging than I (and I’d say even some reviews I’d seen) had given it credit for. Beneath the beautiful exterior, within GEM, there very much beats the heart of something far more beastly.

Before getting into what sets it apart, though, we’ll cover what’s at the core. Graphically the game is absolutely unique among the games of its’ type, looking far more artsy and pretty than any other shooter I can think of. To go with the distinctive look of GEM the soundtrack is also quite a bit of a surprise. Where most games would pair the action on-screen with some intense sounds, techno pulsing, or upbeat tempos the music for GEM is positively placid overall. While there are certainly many explosions of enemies in the game even the sounds for these are “graceful” in nature, registering a distinctive sound but still in that very subtle way so as not to significantly take you off your cloud.

The controls, overall, do take a little getting used to but they absolutely make sense and they do work. While I’ve seen some people thrown off by the very old-school decision to make the turning of the ship tied the left shoulder button, instead of which direction you’re moving in, I found many cases where it was perfect. Just because I change the direction of my movement doesn’t mean that I want to stop shooting in a different direction. The runaway shot is invaluable and prevents situations where, to shoot in different directions, you would need to move towards danger when you’d be capable of making the same shot while moving away from it. About the only issue I’d have, on occasion, would be that I’d lose track of which weapon was tied to which button but that’s more on me than anything (there’s a legend on the lower-right of the screen), it’s just a note.

Now, with the formalities out of the way, let’s get down to the business of what sets this game apart from the competition. Up to this point in the review the game is a pretty good one, providing engaging gameplay in a gorgeous package, and all for a very reasonable price. If you are a somewhat casual shooting game fan, and the aesthetics catch your eye, GEM is a pretty easy impulse buy you’ll probably enjoy playing off and on between other things (it is great for playing on the go, with rounds that generally clock in under 4 minutes). If that’s you, I’d probably give the game a solid 8 overall.

If, however, you’re like me and want to drive up your score I’m here to tell you that this game is something very special. As a general note, while I’ve never really been into pattern-based shooter hell games from the classic arcade and beyond, I am a huge fan of many classic arcade shooters and their modern counterparts. Typically twin-stick shooters like Geometry Wars are what I really dig into, but GEM has made a very strong case to be in that same top tier for me despite it very much not having the twin-stick style. What makes it stand out from the rest is the very delicate, and generally perfect, balancing of risk/reward and that it outright forces to you be very aggressive to get the highest scores.
Each weapon has a very specific use and a very specific cost. Anything other than your main gun costs you on your power meter, and once you drop low enough you won’t be able to use any of your more powerful weapons until either you slowly get power back or collect crystals from enemies you’ve destroyed. Your main gun actually works very effectively as well, and doesn’t deplete your power, but if you use it too much too quickly it will overheat and begin firing at an enormously slow rate. It is thriving while honoring this balancing act, darting in and out of enemy formations to replenish your power and then rushing to the next group of enemies to also maintain your bonus multiplier, that makes this game both unique and special to me.

To me that’s what fascinates and has surprised me about GEM, it has somehow has created a serene experience for more casual players while providing the means for maximum intensity for the people who’ll chase scores. Aside from people who dislike shooters entirely I don’t see where the game has any downside. Graceful Explosion Machine has both style and challenge to spare, and at its low cost of entry it is very easy to recommend to casual and intense gamers alike.

Score: 8 (Casual Gamers) / 9 (Hard-core Gamers)

  • Brings something to the table for both casual and more hardcore gamers
  • In terms of game mechanics GEM is a Master’s class in creating balance and forcing players pursuing high scores to continue to be aggressive
  • As the game progresses the variety in enemy types, and their challenges, continues to evolve


  • Some will likely be turned off by the look of the game, always a risk for looking different
  • Depending on how you like to consume an arcade-style game like this it could take a relatively short amount of time for some people to “beat it”, though that shouldn’t be the point

Friday, April 7

Impressions: Graceful Explosion Machine

The newest title from the Nintendo eShop is a mere $12.99 and the perfect thing to scratch the itch of anyone looking for a game that's great for pick-up-and-play usage when you only have a few minutes to kill. While it can be soothing don't let it fool you, if you want to get the highest scores you'll need to push to keep killing enemies to keep your multiplier up. Good fun!

Wednesday, April 5

Editorial: The Emerging Essential Relevance of Value in Game Review

Back in the stone age when I was in college, and the internet was in its infancy, writing game reviews was quite a different animal. Aside from the obvious differences in the online review landscape another massive difference was that this was long before smartphones (and concepts like the mobile marketplace or digital downloads) so it was a gaming world dominated by large publishers. Without the big publishers and both their finances and infrastructure the prospects of putting a game on a shelf would be horrible for a small-time developer. With that same model in mind publishers had an expectation of scale for games tied to the effort and cost it took to put that same game on the shelf. This generally meant that there were only "big" games of various levels of quality and that typically would only ever differ, perhaps, by $10 in their price tag. Games for system X simply cost Y and that was what everyone knew and accepted.

With that in mind game reviews usually didn't take the cost of the game into account very much. Games could certainly be considered a "rip-off" but since the concept of a radically different pricing for different games on the same system didn't exist the mentality in discussing it was just different. Reviews would tend to focus only on the somewhat normal, and appropriate, elements like the graphics, sound, controls, and gameplay and then there would be a score that would usually be a sort of rough average or so of those pieces and you'd be done.

With the explosion of availability in smartphones and the rapid growth of a light-weight and all-digital mobile marketplace, complete even with the various ways you could get and play games "for free", everything blew up! What we thought we knew about what constituted a released game, what price should be paid for it, and unfortunately also the level of quality to expect were changed forever. It was mind-blowing that you could get a relatively simple but engrossing game to play on your phone for as little as $.99 or less! Though, granted, most of these games weren't terribly deep, and may have only been great for quick bursts of play, but it was impossible for the impression that made to be ignored. For a little while, in the Zynga/Farmville heyday, there were even some very boisterous and laughably misguided claims that the traditional video game industry was going to be put under by all of this (file this next to the cyclical "the PC gaming scene will die because console X is so powerful" argument). Of course, not long after, Zynga and its friend-annoying 15 minutes in the spotlight faded and the world moved on. That doesn't mean that it didn't do so unchanged, though.

In general, the other piece of this puzzle for discussion is the explosion of the independent game developer space. Between the mobile markets, the traditional consoles, and the vital success of indies on the PC with Steam Greenlight, opportunities were created that simply hadn't existed in the years before. You no longer were obligated to hitch your wagon to a massive publisher that would stomp on your creativity and run your team's life in the name of meeting their deadlines and expectations. While there will always be an element of commitment and risk these indie devs were able to publish themselves, team with other indies for support, or at least work with smaller-scale publishers to get their work out there. All of this, together, created a sort of gaming renaissance where creative ideas and quite a bit of good luck could score small teams some substantial rewards. A crucial piece of this success, though, wasn't just tied to the quality of the games or people supporting the indie spirit. It was that as the games scaled down in scope and the size of the development teams required to create games were reduced, often the prices being asked for these games also dropped as a result.

That brings us to the Switch launch, comprised of top-shelf AAA titles, games published by the traditional "big boys" that may not be as hot, and a smattering of indie games as well. With the days of the fixed price point now far in the distance I think Value should rightly become a very powerful gauge in game scoring, though probably only to bring scores down and not up. In case the thought that a game’s value shouldn’t bring a score up seems odd consider a free game for a moment. Does the game costing nothing excuse it being poorly made? If you’re saying “Yes” go sit in the corner, please. Much like other factors in reviews ultimately the measure of a game is roughly equivalent to its weakest element. Phenomenal sound doesn’t trump ho-hum gameplay, face-melting graphics don’t redeem slipshod controls. Value shouldn’t be any less important a factor, and in many regards it hasn’t been forgotten, I just don’t think it has been given the reverence and up-front honesty that it deserves either.

We’ll start on the easy and positive side of things for the Switch. Even if you may not think it is one of the best games of all time I think anyone at all would be hard-pressed to argue that somehow $60 seems like too high a price for what Breath of the Wild brings to the table. If there was a way for a game to be up-scored on Value it would be a poster child for where that’s appropriate. Another pretty strong example, in part by virtue of its $20 price tag (which I’d argue is roughly at the high end of the sweet spot for an “impulse buy” for most people), is Fast RMX. It has a pretty substantial number of tracks, plays very well, and while it may not be perfect I wouldn’t see where in scoring the game Value should play a role.

Now, to make people more uncomfortable, we should have an honest talk about the other end of the spectrum. We’ll start with a game I bought for a series I like, Super Bomberman R. Without thoroughly getting to its faults with the control being a janky at launch, problems with the online mode, decent but not amazing single-player mode, and the annoying unlock system that then doesn’t award coins for local multi-player (the reason they know most people are buying the game in the first place!) I’d probably say the game should have ended up around a 7 or even 7.5. But then we get to Value and that’s where, for this title, it gets ugly. Even considering the 7 or so I’d rate the game at $50 as still simply way too much to ask by at least $20, if not more. It’s because of that factor that I’d bring the game down to between a 5.5 and a 6, depending on how far off I’d consider the price to be at that moment. The game rightly got some low-ish scores, and there were often generalized notes about how $50 seemed like a lot or made it hard to recommend, but I didn’t always see a very clear line stating the value problem, discussing how far off the price seems to be, and how that issue then specifically affected the final score.

Moving on to one of the games I’ve had a serious axe to grind with since the start we then move on to 1-2-Switch. Whatever you may think of the game, and I’m being very clear I’m not a fan on several levels, at the end of the day what galls me about the game most is that price tag. I’d probably consider it to be a worse offender than even Bomberman in this specific area. I can look past a game for not appealing to me, different strokes for different folks and all, but when there are so few games on the shelf, it is a Nintendo-made title, and it is obviously there to be picked up by families looking for something for everyone I can’t and won’t shut up about 1-2-Switch’s price being outright wrong. It is that high mostly because of the vacuum and because they can, not because it is worth that price. As a $20 game I don’t have any issue at all with it, I can appreciate it being there to demonstrate the capabilities of the system and something that probably has a bit or piece in it for everyone. As a $50 game it’s embarrassing though, and I worry about the people who could buy that as their ONLY game on the Switch and am wondering what that’s telling them about the system as a whole. Disheartening.

While it isn’t as bad as an example, and it didn’t stop me from buying it, I think that even The Binding of Isaac skated hard on the edge of being scored down on this one for value, and its type of gameplay greatly complicates how you’d choose to score it. Rogue-likes, with their more old-school arcade “put your quarter in and play until you die, then start over again” mentality, have enormous replay value for people who enjoy them (very much me) but they’re not for everyone either. In this specific case I guess the process would start with determining the score for the game in general and then figuring out how the pricing could potentially further bring the game down. I’d say Value would specifically be among the factors that would prevent Isaac from being capable of getting a 10 (I’m planning another editorial on what a perfect score needs to mean), or maybe even a 9, but beyond that space you could use discretion to factor it in less harshly.

My goal in writing this was just to note the issue and to try to reach out to the review community to go beyond traditional gauges like whether you would recommend the game or not, treating the value proposition as a matter more of taste. While that can play into things we need to be willing to clearly acknowledge that there are examples to be had in this new pricing world where the price of the game is clearly too high and to then outright call people out on it. Just as you’d say the Graphics or Control brought an otherwise good game down don’t let a lowered score that factored in price get the message lost in the shuffle. No, it wasn’t the Sound, or the Control, or the Graphics (even though those things may have also had issues), the biggest problem was that you sold it for more than it is worth, and there’s an entire marketplace out there full of great games for all prices to help establish that fact. To that end this is also a message for developers/publishers, to stop trying to use the old mentality where we just pay some set price. You should look at each game individually and then sell it for what it is truly worth!