Sunday, September 30

Review: Pilot Sports [Nintendo Switch eShop]

One of the great things about indie developers is that they’re able to deliver experiences akin to those in series that major publishers have let fall by the wayside. Pilotwings is one of quite a number of titles in Nintendo’s stable that they simply haven’t opted to release a new game for in a few generations. That’s where Pilot Sports comes in, obviously taking cues from that classic franchise and creating an experience that may not necessarily thrill but that has enough charm and generally mellow but challenging gameplay that it can be quite satisfying.

Your challenges will be split across 50 stages and will eventually challenge you to try to master 4 very different disciplines including an airplane, jetpack, hang-glider (technically there are 2 variants of these), and skydiving/parachuting. Each requires a different skillset and has their own challenges. Much like in the original Pilotwings you’ll have those that you enjoy more than others, in my case I probably disliked the hang-gliding the most but I’d imagine everyone will have their own tastes.

Each major set of levels includes 10 total stages and in order to unlock additional ones you’ll need to complete the majority of those you’ve unlocked with gold medal ranks. I really appreciate that this wasn’t made an all or nothing proposition since, as I’d said, mastering each style can be tricky and with you only needing to complete the majority of stages with gold it keeps your target goals to allow you to progress onto another tier more fair. While it all seems pretty simple in the beginning you will be challenged, and in most cases the margin for error in earning your gold medal is pretty narrow since a single missed gate will generally sink you. Even with the pressure of trying to improve and refine my runs the island setting and music, combined with the feeling of flight, really make this a mellow experience that’s quite soothing overall and added to the enjoyment greatly.

If you’ve got some friends around up to 4 people can play split-screen, though for the most part I got the most enjoyment out of taking on the stage challenges and pushing myself to get better times and scores to unlock more content. Though everything is roughly set in the same space you will get to see more and more of the island as you progress so at least the setting doesn’t generally get stale. While there are times when the presentation isn’t visually the best, with the details getting sparse or a bit last-gen when you slow down and pay close attention, at a distance and moving along it does look quite nice.

If you’ve been aching to soar in the skies Pilot Sports has done a commendable job of capturing the essence of the classic Pilotwings series and has brought it to the Switch. Each of the methods of flight you’ll get to enjoy have their own distinct feel and though the controls are relatively simple in principle you’ll still find earning your gold medals to get tricky, especially as you advance to the later stages. While it may be lacking in polish visually and doesn’t do anything groundbreaking it’s still a generally serene and enjoyable experience that can likely be enjoyed by just about anyone.

Score: 8

  • Though the controls are relatively simple there are nuances to them and the stages will push you to master them fully in order to earn your gold medals as you get further along
  • Unlocking additional stages requires a certain number of gold medals but never having all of them, leaving room for you to struggle with certain styles without being penalized too much
  • The setting and the music, mixed with the feeling of flying, generally make for a relaxing experience… though that isn’t to say you won’t get frustrated as well

  • In terms of presentation when you slow down or come to a stop the visuals can be a bit dated in places
  • While the islands you’ll fly around are nice it would have been nice to have more locales to explore
  • It’s inevitable with these varied styles of flying that one or two won’t appeal to everyone

Review: Marble It Up! [Nintendo Switch eShop]

From the original Marble Madness to the likes of Super Monkey Ball I’ve always had a soft spot for games where I can get my roll on. While the mechanics can be tricky, and momentum can be a real bastard, when the controls for these sorts of games are implemented well there’s a certain satisfaction of taking on various inclined surfaces and making to the goal. In a nutshell that’s absolutely the experience that Marble It Up delivers, keeping you occupied with just enough power-ups and craziness along the way to make it memorable.

The baseline key to games of this kind is to get the physics and feel of it right and they’ve absolutely nailed it. The controls are pretty well instantly intuitive and you can very quickly move around at top speed with a fair amount of confidence. Some variety in surfaces that include both ice and gravity effects open the door to some tricky and sometimes pretty insane level layouts and designs. While completing each stage may not be that hard trying to do so quickly to earn gold medals begins to require more and more planning on top of simple execution.

Then, just when you think you’ve gotten it all down and you’re working to refine your mastery completionists will ask: “Hey, what’s that thing up on that platform?” A variety of trophies are also hidden in some levels and getting to them adds a puzzle dimension to the game in many cases, though even once you have an idea of what you’ll need to do executing your plan can be extremely challenging. This added layer definitely helps to compensate for the fact that seeing every level the game has to offer will only take a handful of hours, though getting gold in them all will undoubtedly take some more time and sustained effort as well.

As a whole Marble It Up ends up being very satisfying and scratches a very specific genre itch that’s been lingering for a number of years now. Its mechanics are rock solid, its power-ups keep things interesting, and its stage designs show some real creativity and variety… it’s pretty much everything you could ask for in a game for this genre. Throw in the trophies for people who want to truly test their marble-rolling chops and it should satisfy anyone who is looking for something that’s pretty well unique on the Switch.

Score: 8.5

  • Mechanically pretty well spot-on
  • Some creative and crazy level designs
  • The inclusion of hidden trophies should satisfy even the most hardcore rollers out there

  • If your only goal is seeing everything the game has to offer, not necessarily mastering it, the runtime may feel a bit short
  • While future content is apparently in store, it’s unclear specifically how it will be handled

Review: Rise and Shine [Nintendo Switch eShop]

The Switch has seen its fair share of shooters, so it’s always nice when something with its own style and flair comes along to expand the family a bit. Rise & Shine, with its puzzle-like sequences where you’ll need to carefully guide your bullets, cover mechanics, and plain creative variety ticks a lot of new boxes. That said, its relatively short overall runtime means that the experience is a bit compressed, which leads to some leaps of faith in difficulty as you’ll need to very quickly apply the new skills you’ve learned without much ramp up.

Pretty heavily steeped in humor and rife with a variety of game references it’s easy to have a good time if you can deal with dying quite a lot along the way. Most of the time this is due to the game’s puzzle-like nature where new enemies and obstacles will require you to do some trial-and-error discovery in order to defeat them. While sometimes you can count on recently-acquired skills being the key to victory as the game progresses you’ll need to be ready to use your entire destructive palette to find success. There are usually cues you can observe to help you figure out what to do, but managing between your main objectives and the distractions that will be thrown at you in parallel can make getting through tough even when you have an idea of what you need to do.

While variety is one of the game’s stronger suits the fact that it will only last a handful of hours also ramps up the difficulty a bit. Where most titles will spend some time to build your understanding of how to effectively use newly-acquired abilities in incremental steps here you’re given the basics and are then expected to work out nuances on your own and under duress. While I like a challenge I could see where this could lead to some frustrations for some as well. Throw in a small number of leaps of faith in applying the game’s mechanics to an extreme and you may end up looking up a solution or two. I like the creative spirit behind it all but when you’re dying because you haven’t figured out what you’re expected to do it can be grating.

If you’re a shooting fan who is up to some crazy battles where you’ll need to use your brains as much as your reflexes Rise & Shine is a pretty good match. It won’t coddle you hardly at all, which will be either a positive or a negative depending on the type of gamer you are. I don’t recall ever having played a shooter that has had puzzle elements to it like this, so that does help it stand out from the crowd. Just keep in mind the caveats that come along for the ride when you decide whether to check it out.

Score: 7.5

  • A smart and challenging mix of shooter and puzzle elements
  • Continues to throw new variations of enemies and situations at you that will demand you show skill and determination to figure out
  • The humor is very self-conscious and there are numerous callbacks to classic gaming titles that can be amusing

  • All said, aside from the frequent dying, it will likely only last you a handful of hours
  • Where some games can be annoying with long “training wheels” portions this title will simply throw you in the deep end, and in some spots this can be a bit overwhelming
  • Some puzzle leaps of faith may not be intuitive to all people, requiring either an element of luck or looking up the solution to get through

Review: Bastion [Nintendo Switch eShop]

It’s a funny thing to return to games that previously made an impression on you after a number of years to see if they’ve withstood the test of time. Whether the visuals have aged poorly, mechanics have advanced pretty significantly since that time, or even simple tastes have shifted there are many elements that once worked but may not hold up well now. In the case of Bastion, one of the earlier indie titles I played on PC that left a major impression on me, I’m incredibly happy to say that it remains as impressive and thoroughly enjoyable as it was when I first played it, except now I can play it wherever I like with the Switch.

As one of the few survivors of the end of the world, called the Calamity, you’re a young warrior who is trying to do what he can to restore some semblance of normalcy and unite other survivors. With an area called the Bastion acting as a hub you’ll slowly begin to rebuild things as you complete levels and collect cores. The buildings you’re able to restore will then act as a means for upgrades, changing out your equipment, and other typical functions. Gameplay is fluid and offers up quite a lot of variety as you acquire new weapons, abilities, and upgrades. You’re able to combine any two weapons with a special attack in any configuration you like, allowing you to play melee-heavy, fully ranged, or with a mix of styles. This helps encourage multiple playthroughs as each combination gives the combat a very different feel and the Game+ mode ramps up the challenge quite a bit.

In terms of what makes the game so memorable the focus is typically on the Narrator, who’ll almost continuously describe the action and lore as you move through the game. While other games since then have played with this feature (when will we get The Stanley Parable on Switch BTW?) in different ways the way it’s implemented in Bastion remains surprisingly clever even today and enhances the game experience quite a bit. Of course the game’s visuals remain just as impressive today as ever with their very artistic qualities and small details that abound.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of playing Bastion you can ignore its age and be assured that it is as relevant and excellent an indie title as it ever was. Where some other indie darlings haven’t managed to age well over the years if anything returning to it now I may be more impressed with it because it is still truly impressive and engaging from start to finish. If you’ve been itching to get your action RPG on there are few titles that deliver an experience that’s better on any platform.

Score: 9

  • A variety of weapons and potential combinations of configurations allow you to cater combat to your own personal style
  • Just the right mix of fun and challenge, with Game+ offered if you want to ramp things up
  • The narrator remains as dynamic and fabulously designed as ever

  • People looking for an immediate challenge will be a bit let down
  • Still the same game that was released a number of years ago, with nothing new if you may have played it before

Saturday, September 29

Review: Epic Loon [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Having reviewed over 500 indie games on the Switch at this point I fooled myself into thinking that nothing could really take my by surprise. Having played quite a bit of the title Epic Loon I can say that sense of pride has been utterly shattered. While I can’t say that it has too much going on mechanically, somehow with its very unusual presentation and theming it managed to do a fair job of hooking me in and I could see it being a riot to play late at night with some friends.

The first rule with the game is really to not try to make much sense of it, just go along for the ride and accept the weirdness with open arms to maximize enjoyment. The full story is explained in the opening video sequence of the game but essentially you’re playing the game as a group of 4 aliens that have inhabited a reclusive weirdo’s VCR that he’s hoping to kill. In an attempt to put you through the wringer he’s loaded up 4 distinct movies, roughly based on Nosferatu, Jurassic Park, Godzilla, and Alien. This all sets the stage for a unique game experience that’s mechanically extremely basic and yet somehow works pretty well as a whole package.

In each stage the 4 aliens (you can play with up to 4 people with the rest filled in, including simply loading up only the bots if you’d like and you’re weird) will need to attempt to get through all sorts of unusual themed obstacles to a sort of rift somewhere else on the screen. Getting there is almost always a challenge, first because your options for movement are very limited, and second because all manner of obstacles and methods for dying abound. Basically you can stay in your normal form, only able to hop a little bit from side to side, or you can squish yourself down which will make you stick to surfaces and then move your eye back and forth to help aim while you try to jump to different spots. In terms of gameplay that’s really all there is, though to imply it’s “simple” would be a mistake. Getting from the starting point to the rift can be aggravatingly tough since there are no checkpoints and mistakes will put you right back at the beginning.

What makes Epic Loon stand out, and work at all, is that the various screens you end up in that are tied to each movie are so utterly odd and creative. There’s a real method to the madness in this game and for me the element of the unexpected and the legitimate challenges in making effective use of such limited controls pays off. It’s absolutely not a game that will work for everyone, and if you’re only going to play solo it may not be a great match, but if you’ve got a bunch of geeky friends who love iconic movies and weirdness Epic Loon may just provide for some really unexpected entertainment while you’re all trying to prove who’s the best.

Score: 7

  • Even as simple as the controls may be the ways you’re expected to use them to get to your objective can be quite challenging
  • Utterly unpredictable as each stage can bring unexpected complications and laughs to the table
  • If you’ve got a rowdy bunch of friends with a weakness for movie classics it works on an entirely different level
  • So much WTF!

  • Not nearly as fun as a solo experience
  • While the diversity in stages can make for fun, some of them can be particularly challenging to clear
  • If you removed the theming the core gameplay would quickly get stale, though if you’re not a big movie nerd it could still wear on your after a while
  • Scaling would make it pretty well unplayable in handheld mode

Review: Dungeon Rushers [Nintendo Switch eShop]

The sheer number of RPGs on the Switch has already been impressive and appears to just continue to grow. The challenge, then, is for RPG fans from casual to hardcore to size up the offerings out there and decide which ones are the best match for them. Dungeon Rushers is likely one that would fall onto the more casual end of the spectrum, and titles like it have their place for the right audience. If you’re looking for some relatively light fun, with a bit of grinding and then bits of humor blended here and there it’s at least a decent match.

Starting out solo as the adventurer Elian you’ll begin tackling dungeons and as you do so you’ll slowly begin building up a motley party of misfits to help you out. Each of them have a specific class with 3 associated skills that you’ll then be able to enhance and take in slightly different directions as you acquire skill points and begin assigning them to optional traits. For the most part combat is traditional turn-based fare where you’ll need to arrange your characters between the front and back rows with your more powerful characters up front dealing melee damage generally and your support towards the rear. Enemy characters will tend to be set up similarly and as you progress you may need to rearrange your placements from time to time to help get at their supports in the back row as quickly as possible.

While its presentation works well enough, and its in-between story elements and dialogue are mildly entertaining for the most part as a whole it does suffer from being a bit bland. Nothing is terribly inspired or creative, but I could see where the comfort of the familiar could also be a selling point to some people. Navigating the dungeons tends to be a bit slow and methodical, and in general you have a fair motivation to work to meet the 3 challenge objectives for each dungeon as that will unlock a tougher version you can complete for some added opportunities to level up and improve your party. Not everything to do with the interface is well-explained or intuitive so there can be a bit of a learning curve in places, but for the most part things work well enough to at least not be an obstacle.

As exciting the title itself may sound, Dungeon Rushers lacks a fast pace or even a great deal of excitement. It’s a pretty safe experience with a fair art style, a decent sense of humor, and satisfying though generic combat. Probably best for playing lazily while doing something else it may have an audience but there are simply better options on the platform than this.

Score: 6

  • Light turn-based combat that is familiar and decent
  • A bit of a sense of humor that at least makes the characters a bit more fun and interesting
  • The skill trees and a fair number of characters to work with do allow you quite a lot of options for how to compose your party

  • For the most part a very vanilla and safe overall experience
  • Not everything is well-explained and the interface can be cumbersome
  • Lacking a creative spark to make it stand out in the crowded eShop

Review: Chicken Assassin - Reloaded [Nintendo Switch eShop]

For the uninitiated, the “clicker” genre had quite a run a little while back in the PC space, and though they’ll still show up periodically it’s also one that is past its peak. Popular mainly for how simple they are, and somewhat relaxing in an odd way, the idea is generally just to repeatedly click on monsters, or whatever you’re facing, until you defeat them. The more you click, the more you advance, the better gear or perks you get, and that opens the door to more clicking… just maybe on newer and cooler things. While Chicken Assassin: Reloaded may, on the surface, look like a shooter or an action game it represents the first title on the Switch I’ve played that has tried to make this formula work.

Given that there’s pretty well no major instruction or background provided within the game I actually struggled for a bit at first trying to understand what I was even doing. In general, with the gameplay here, for what it is, if you’re struggling you’re thinking too hard though. All there is to it is to move your reticle around to point at enemies and then you simply mash away at your A button until you either knock your enemies out or you end up losing. That will return you to the main menu where you can work on upgrading your stats and abilities, changing his appearance as you unlock outfit elements, and change up your gear. Then you’ll be right back in the action, mashing your button into oblivion yet again.

To some degree there’s an almost tranquil quality to these sorts of games as they require next to no thinking or even skill. While I can’t imagine banging in the same spot on your touchscreen would have been a great idea the lack of support for using touch controls, combined with the pretty small buttons on the joycon, make playing in handheld mode a bit impractical. Even with a Pro Controller after a while I started to have some small concerns about wearing out the button from playing this excessively. The unfortunate thing is that the rewards are so slow in coming when you mix that with the general lack of skill or structure here it really falls apart as a compelling experience. While there aren’t technical flaws per se with Chicken Assassin: Reloaded I can’t say it makes a lot of sense on this platform and the general novelty of the genre it represents I think has passed its prime as well.

Score: 4.5

  • Pretty easy to “play” distractedly while doing other things
  • The lack of skill required could possibly make it feel rewarding as you unlock new looks and skills
  • In terms of presentation it manages to try to make it all more exciting than it is

  • Short of playing on a Pro Controller, with its larger buttons, I don’t think long-term play will be comfortable
  • At some point I have a wear and tear concern given the sheer quantity of button pressing you’ll be doing on only the one button
  • While clicking with your mouse button is pretty simple and mindless on PC I don’t think the style translates well to console

Review: This is the Police II [Nintendo Switch eShop]

The original This is the Police provided a pretty unique experience, mixing various elements of management with a pretty interesting story involving you, as the chief of police, stuck in a bad situation and trying desperately just to keep afloat on several levels. In the sequel you start out in hiding in a much more remote town, but one that has many of the same overall problems. With a newly-minted female sheriff in town desperate to gain some respect and short on resources she turns to you to help her manage things and so the cycle of both fighting against and sometimes embracing corruption begin anew.

As before there’s plenty of day-to-day decision-making, sending your various officers out to cover incoming calls, and dealing with personnel issues like people coming in drunk or generally being little bitches about any number of things. In order to add some depth and strategy to things your officers now carry specific attributes that you can choose to upgrade as they advance that will make them more adept in specific situations. Since you can’t always predict what sort of mess they’ll encounter this isn’t an exact science, though for some calls you may be able to count on specific skill sets coming in handy. Where this becomes even more critical, though, is when you take on the other major addition to the game: turn-based strategy sequences that resemble the play of titles like X-Com.

The problem with these missions is both that they’re not used often enough, so it’s harder to develop a real feel for how to best be effective, and that when they are things tend to go downhill for your people in a hurry. I’m not sure whether more tutorials or in-game help to give you better pointers for success would help, or if simply the systems need some refinement or toning down, but even when replaying these sequences it tends to be a struggle not to end up hurting. Of course, then with a depleted force your problems in the management space struggle and it tends to snowball on you. With regards to the story I see it as a love/hate prospect as well, either you’ll get sucked in by the small town intrigue and personal struggles or you’ll find it tedious. I rather liked the story as a whole, though I’ll readily admit that there can be pretty long stretches where you’re not doing much playing… so I can understand when people get frustrated with it.

On the whole This is the Police II puts obvious effort into being a better and more interesting game than its predecessor. While the development team obviously set their sights pretty high the results are likely heavily open to interpretation. People who thoroughly enjoy the challenge of managing their resources and struggling to keep it all together may thoroughly enjoy the experience, aggravations and all. However, if you’re just looking for something to start up and begin enjoying this sequel is a bit of a step back from even the original, becoming more cumbersome with the weight of its ambitions that don’t all work out.

Score: 6

  • An interesting unfolding story if you have the patience for it
  • Even more elements than the original can be toyed with to add strategic flair
  • The addition of turn-based strategy segments gives the game added challenge, but it can tend to veer too far into being frustrating

  • As before some outcomes from your various decisions can feel arbitrary and unfair
  • A very bad fit if you’re just looking for something to load up and begin having fun with, the story and flow of the game can be downright plodding at times
  • Once your downhill slide begins it can be very difficult to course correct

Review: Claws of Furry [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Brawlers are certainly a staple genre and one that is actually pretty well-represented on the Switch at this point. That means that in order to really stand out now the bar has been raised a fair amount and what may have been more exciting a mere year ago may not fare as well right now. I think that’s an effect that has put a hard dent in Claws of Furry, a new release that absolutely looks the part of having something good going on but whose mechanics and variety are heavily outpaces by its presentation.

Starting with the positive I love the look of the game’s art, whether in the form of the pretty elaborate backgrounds or the enemies that have a ton of character. There’s an almost comic book art feel to everything, and the efforts in the visuals are appreciated. In terms of the base controls they may be a bit on the loose and basic side but they can also be fun for a while. In particular, the bullet punch technique encourages you to juggle enemies with an uppercut and then jump up to punch them again in the air, doing far more damage in the process. Pulling this off is rewarding and helps knock out the bad guys faster but unfortunately there’s not so much beyond that to get excited about.

Though there are four environments to work through, each with their own signature enemies, up against some of the other titles in the genre already on the system the actual gameplay feels much more shallow. Since it is only a side-scrolling affair you lose the nuances and potential variety of additionally moving towards the foreground and background and that ultimately makes combat a bit more straightforward. The fact that the enemy AI isn’t too bright and you’ll find that many enemies will go down to pretty simple attack mashing and those that take a bit more investment can often be defeated with pretty cheesy and simple patterns as long as you have some patience. The occasional boss battle does up the ante a bit with some tougher sustained challenge, but most of the rest of the game you feel like you can sort of go through the motions to get through.

To help raise the stakes and challenge a bit the game does include a Rogue mode, which will challenge you to beat the game without dying. Especially in single-player that comes off as a bit too extreme, just the alternative is the Pussycat mode, which moves things as far away as possible in the opposite direction, essentially giving you unlimited revives at periodic checkpoints. Playing with some friends certainly helps things feel a bit more balanced and can take on a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kind of multiplayer feel to a degree, but going it solo makes the gap between your two options pretty massive, feeling like with both you lose something. Rounding it all out there’s also an Arena mode where you’ll take on waves of enemies, but the mechanics and ultimate lack of variety are consistently what holds the game back. There’s some fun to be had here, especially if you’re a genre fan who has some friends to play with, but it simply doesn’t compare very well to multiple titles already on the Switch.

Score: 6

  • Looks fantastic all around
  • Playing with friends helps keep it more fun
  • The bullet attack technique is a good one and rewards your timing and accuracy

  • Only 2 somewhat extreme choices with no “just right” challenge level in between them
  • Enemy AI tends to fall prey to cheesy or brute force tactics
  • Compared to other options already on Switch the gameplay simply isn’t as exciting or compelling as a whole

Review: Oh My Godheads - Party Edition [Nintendo Switch eShop]

There’s certainly been a recent rush of party games on Switch, possibly as everyone tries to get their hat in the ring before Super Mario Party hits and likely dominates the space for a while. In a bit of a change, having gotten so accustomed to some sort of shooting action, we have Oh My Godheads, which has a mix of more brawl-y action as well as some varied objectives. While it has plenty of style, with quite a wide variety of arenas that each have their own flair, whether it delivers what you may be looking for in a party game with legs may not be so certain.

Starting with the basics the control fundamentals are pretty sound. You’re able to jump, dodge, tackle (which feels more like a dash, but whatever), throw, and slash and all of the mechanically feel pretty tight. That said, once you start to throw down with your enemies I’m not sure it makes for very high-minded play so much as frustrated button-mashing for the most part. The single-player-ish (you can play with a friend if you’d like) Trials are where you’ll cut your teeth, learning some fundamentals of play and getting a look at various environments. I wouldn’t consider it too much more than an extended tutorial as most of it isn’t particularly exciting, but it helps you understand some technique, and there are a couple worth being aware of. Possibly most critical is that you’ll be introduced to each of the godheads, which have a variety of effects on the action, whether reversing your directions, slowing things down, speeding things up, and a few more. Of course if you’re the only one to go through all of this and your friends haven’t it also puts them at quite a disadvantage.

Moving on to the multiplayer there are 4 modes: Capture the Head, King of the Head, Headhunters, and Last Man Standing. You’re able to play these with your friends, or if you’re short you can fill in the blanks with bots. These modes vary between being team focused or every person (or animal) for themselves, but while the moveset is well implemented it also isn’t very interesting, making the star the various stages, their traps, and then the odd effects of the heads themselves for the modes they’re included in. I’d imagine everyone will have heads they both love and hate to play with, though, so there can be some ups and downs of combinations that play out well and are interesting and those that are a bit aggravating or fall flat.

While Oh My Godheads is generally well-implemented, and the presentation is reasonably good, I also can’t say it made a very deep impression on myself or my family as we played through the modes and put it through its paces. While it had no glaring faults it also failed to generate much excitement or enthusiasm, though like any game it has its moments particularly early on when there were still some things we hadn’t seen yet. Once repetition set in it began to dull a bit. Just a very lukewarm takeaway in the end, it isn’t bad but it also didn’t thrill.

Score: 6

  • While you’re discovering the surprises it has in store with stages and the various heads
  • The mechanics of the controls and the presentation are quite good

  • The AI for the bots isn’t terribly good and is no replacement for other people
  • No compelling single-player content, everything is geared towards learning to play the game
  • Once repetition sets in the gameplay gets stale pretty quickly

Thursday, September 27

Interview with Zachary Johnson and Robert Frost of Space Mace Games on Joggernauts

We’ve certainly entered into what seems to be a co-op renaissance and the Switch is a major player looking to capitalize on that energy. It’s not just that we’re seeing a return of traditional genres that work well with others, with games like Joggernauts (from Space Mace Games) new takes on the formula are cropping up as well. Imagine an endless runner of sorts, and the challenges that they can pose. Now imagine that you and up to 3 friends are trying to complete courses you’d find in those titles, but trying desperately to coordinate your efforts. Having played it at PAX I can tell you that it stepped up in challenge quickly, but no doubt all of the noise was hardly helping either.

With the release of this title just around the corner on Switch (October 11th, mark your calendars), I was able to get some time from the co-founders of Space Mace Games, Zachary Johnson and Robert Frost. Succeeding in not embarrassing myself with any questions phrased to include mention of roads less traveled I picked their brains on the game, being indie developers, and more.

We'll start with the classic question that always gets things rolling, what would be your "elevator pitch" for Joggernauts?

SMG: “Joggernauts is four people on an elevator ride, and we’re all going to die if we don’t work together. But without the elevator. And with jogging instead. And aliens. And switching positions to match colors.”

There's no doubt that the approach, even among other co-op games, in Joggernauts is pretty different. What was the initial idea that started you on this journey?

SMG: This is a great story! I was playing the first Bit.Trip Runner with my best friend Jesse Mullan. We were passing the controller back and forth taking turns at single player. One of us would play and the other would be yelling like “jump! kick! slide!”

The question came up of, “Could this be multiplayer?” We wanted to keep that feel of working together rather than against each other. We realized that in an auto-runner game the lead person would have all the fun and all the jobs to do, and the rear person would be bored. That is when the invention of the switch-to-front mechanic happened!

Basically I stole Jesse’s idea, and it was the greatest video game idea heist of all time.

What games did you pull inspirations from, whether in terms of the gameplay, theming, or even just overall "feel"?

Zach: From a game design standpoint, the initial ideas were heavily leaning on Bit.Trip Runner and 1-2 button arcade style games like One Button Bob or Colecovision’s Cabbage Patch Kids.

There's also a heavy helping of 2D Mario in there. Nintendo has done so much with those games, they’ve already solved a lot of design problems that we could do our own spin on.

Rob: Some of the more happy music in the game were inspired by Mario Galaxy, Donkey Kong Country, Toejam and Earl, and Mario Kart 8. Since I also have a background in contemporary pop music, a lot of other influences included, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Michael Jackson, Radiohead, Gorillaz, and Coldplay.

Sound design was highly inspired by the 90s cartoon “Doug” for it’s wacky use of voices as SFX, Spongebob Squarepants and his squishy toy shoe sounds, and Led Zeppelin’s song “Heartbreaker” (more specificity Robert Plant's last line, “Heart!”). I tried to make the game sound as derpy as possible.

What would you say has been the biggest change that you've made over the course of development from what you had in mind at the beginning?

SMG: We made two big changes. First, Joggernauts used to be one hit team death, with no checkpoints, even with four players. When Tommy joined the team, luckily he insisted we fix that. (But you can still play in ZACHMODE if you want.)

The second big change was inspired by feedback about tension between cooperative and competitive features. We used to have a competitive meta-game about who could collect the most coins. Marty, one of the people who helped us on Joggernauts, would play the game very competitively around the coins and sacrifice the whole team to get his coin count up. We got a final push to change this from Evan Greenwood of Free Lives when he played Joggernauts with us at GDC. We ended up weeding out every competitive element from the game and made everything about shared goals.

What's the most crucial objective you've had directing your design that you've refused to compromise on?

SMG: To make an actually cooperative multiplayer game that would even be fun for an experienced player to play with a brand new or casual player.

We wanted the game to look and feel approachable to anyone, and we wanted the gameplay to always require each player to participate in order for the whole team to succeed. You literally cannot beat levels in Joggernauts unless everybody does their job, and no player can ever be left behind.

We also want people to play in person. Joggernauts online play with friends could maybe be fun, but with strangers we don’t think it would work. There’s a game that’s happening out in meatspace on the sofa between the people playing Joggernauts, even if they have just met each other. But if your teammates are anonymous, and you can’t hear them, and you can’t yell “BLUE!” at them, the failure in Joggernauts would become more frustrating than fun.

The game is listed as for 1 - 4 players. In what ways does the gameplay change as you add or remove players, and what was the piece of the experience you'd say you focused on the most to ensure would remain no matter how many players you have?

SMG: When you play with friends on a team of 2-4 people, each person has their own color-coded job to do. It was important that everybody stayed engaged in the teamwork regardless of the number of players.

When any one person dies, they respawn again as long as at least one teammate is currently alive and the team has some of their shared hearts left. So, in two player games there’s a much higher risk that both players might die at the same time, and they both have more tasks to do. Four player games are significantly more chaotic and disorienting, but there’s generally at least one person that survives the team’s mistakes who can carry everyone forward.

Single player Joggernauts has one human player controlling two colors of characters. You can switch their positions, and you jump for both characters separately. You use your left hand to jump the rear/left character and your right hand to jump the front/right character. It leads to some quick patterns and fun rhythms that feel good in your hands… “Left right! Left right! Left left right right!”

We weren’t sold on single player at first since we want people to play with their friends. We ended up spending some time on finding a comfortable single player control scheme, and we were really surprised how much it clicked. It ended up being a really cool new take on the single player auto-runner genre.

It says that a crucial part of your process has been frequent public playtesting. First, I'm sure some element of that has to be a bit nerve-wracking, but what would you say is the most crucial feedback you've tended to get from this and how do you filter the feedback to inform your design without necessarily compromising your own internal objectives?

SMG: It honestly wasn’t that nerve wracking! If you know what your game is, you can really easily filter feedback that would create a totally different game. We focused on feedback that would make *this* game more fun and more fair.

Perhaps the most crucial feedback came from quietly observing where and how players struggled, and adjusting levels accordingly. It is really hard to design four player levels without watching four people play.

As outright tricky as some of the levels can get, though at least they're not procedurally generated so you can "learn" them, who would you say your target audience is? Or with the relatively easy-to-understand core mechanics do you see it more as a matter of careful coordination?

SMG: We say that Joggernauts is communication and concentration hard… not “video game” hard. Joggernauts is perhaps more directly relatable to games like Bop-It or Simon than a platformer. You know how to win, it doesn’t seem very complicated, and you kind of delight in tripping over yourself trying to do something so simple.

Joggernauts is targeting both families or casual gamers AND the fans of tough platformers and rhythm games. It was a conscious design goal to make a game that a hardcore gamer could have fun playing with their friends or family who “don’t play games” and vice-versa.

People who love challenging platformers or the auto-runner genre will have a lot of fun in 1-2 player mode, particularly trying to perfectly complete levels and beat the bonuses.

At the same time, being that it is a two button platformer, anybody can learn the basics. It is a lot of fun to fail at Joggernauts with friends and family.

What would you say your journey as an indie developer has been like to this point?

SMG: Hard. Work.

We spent two years very part-time on Joggernauts with busy day jobs, while also taking the game on the road to lots of events. We then spent about a year on the business, publishing, and platforms side of things so that we could try to make the game we truly envisioned. We barely did any work on the game itself that year. Luckily it worked out, and we were able to partner with a publisher and bring Joggernauts to great platforms.

Is there a budding or active indie scene in or around Minneapolis or that just happens to be where you set up shop?

SMG: Minneapolis has had an amazing indie scene for years! There’s an IGDA chapter here that meets monthly and regularly has 50+ attendees. We’ve also got a non-profit GLITCH ( supporting games here. There’s even a group of us that works together every Friday at Glam Doll Donuts.

We’ve seen an increasing number of Steam releases from indie teams in town, and after Joggernauts comes out on Nintendo Switch and Steam we’ve got local teams releasing Newt One on XBox and Treasure Stack on Switch and more later this year.

With the emphasis in the game being so clearly on cooperation this seems like a natural match for the Switch. How did the pitch to Nintendo go, or was it a matter of them seeing it at a show and expressing interest from their side?

SMG: We brought an early demo of Joggernauts to IndieXChange at IndieCade in LA about four years ago. The organizers of IndieXChange do this awesome thing where they get you meetings to pitch your game. We got to play Joggernauts with Nintendo, which was terrifying and amazing, but this was before the Switch was announced or the public knew anything about it. It wasn’t the right time for Joggernauts or for Nintendo, but we’d made a key introduction.

Fast forward to 2017 when the Switch was announced, and we just about DIED during the announcement realizing we’d made a cooperative game where people literally scream the verb “switch” at each other. We reconnected with Nintendo ahead of GDC, and we spent many, many very long nights working on a pitch deck. At GDC we happened to bump into somebody from Nintendo who had played with us back at that IndieCade. I guess our pitch deck and meeting went well!

Do you have any insider scoops on Joggernauts pro-level tricks or techniques for people to get a jump on things?

SMG: So the first pro level thing you need to understand about Joggernauts is that when you switch to the front, you are pulling the front player back to where you were! You can move that front person to a variety of different spots! Sometimes your color has nothing to do with solving the puzzle, and instead it is about your position in line.

The second super duper secret trick I can tell you about, is the double jump. You can chain jumps in Joggernauts. You’ve only got two buttons… … ... I’ve said too much.

Once Joggernauts is out in the world do you have any tentative ideas for where you'll go next? More co-op or perhaps veering off into a different space?

SMG: We have some co-op ideas we definitely want to explore. If cooperation is what resonates most with our fans, I can see that being what we stick to.

Many thank to the co-founders of Space Mace games, Zachary Johnson and Robert Frost, for taking the time to field my questions and answer them so thoroughly, as well as Elizabeth George for helping to make the arrangements. The very different co-op platforming experience of Joggernauts is just around the corner, and will be debuting on the Nintendo Switch (as well as Steam) on October 11th!

Tuesday, September 25

Review: A Gummy's Life [Nintendo Switch eShop]

There are times when I get the chance to play games that are innovative, surprising, and thoroughly different. Titles that exude creativity, terrific execution, and polish. Then there are titles where it feels somewhere along the line things just didn’t quite work out, and the result is just a bit of a sloppy mess. Unfortunately, though it has some decent elements and variety A Gummy’s Life struggles in the most fundamental area in a multiplayer brawler like this, where it comes to the controls.

Starting with the positive you do have a small assortment of modes to choose from, and specifically there are quite a lot of stages to play on. Each of these can have an innocent enough appearance but they also typically have unique elements that can make them varied and tricky, much better than just a cosmetic change. Though I can’t say there’s a great deal of creativity in the selectable characters necessarily, they’re varied enough and do seem to at least have some minor variations in how they play. You can brawl it out locally or even online (assuming there will be players who choose to try it out and then stick with it) with up to 8 players total, and solo you can also train or play matches against 3 AI opponents to try to hone your skills.

Where it falls down, unfortunately, is really at the foundation. The controls are simply too muddled and messy. The developers have said that it’s supposed to have a sort of physics-game feel, I suppose to try to emphasize the fun somehow, but if this is an intentional implementation it’s a horrible mistake. The result is aggravating, inconsistent, and not terribly satisfying as the gap between trying to play with some finesse versus simply button-mashing feels negligible. If nothing else the consistent lag between when you press the button to execute a move and the time it actually triggers is maddening.

In the end if you don’t mind the wonky controls and get into the different stages, and the variety they offer, A Gummy’s Life may not be a bad fit. Unfortunately, I’d say there are simply better-implemented games of this kind out there, even if they may lack the variety in stages or even the number of simultaneous players. The flaws here feel very core and fundamental and I’m not positive they can even be patched away, my family and I just didn’t find much joy or excitement in the experience.

Score: 4.5

  • Support for up to 8 players in a brawl, locally or online
  • Aside from the 4 modes there’s a fair degree of variety in the numerous stages
  • The overall controls aren’t just lacking in ambition, they’re very sloppy and don’t emphasize skill
  • Controller lag specifically is a horrendous problem, even when playing locally
  • Works better the more people you can get involved, but ongoing online availability would be fair to question

Monday, September 24

Review: Retimed [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Local multiplayer only titles, especially ones that lack an ability to play against bots as a single player, have a somewhat tough road to hoe. That said, if there’s something unique that the gameplay offers that gets people yelling and screaming when you get together to play, there can be cases where it’s all worth it. Just managing to find that balance, where the experience with others justifies the overall lack of versatility, is Retimed, a shooter with just enough well-implemented gimmicks to make it worthwhile.

Unlike most multiplayer shooters of this kind the key revolves around the bullets, how they interact with each other, and how you’re able to interact with them when they get close to you. In Retimed the bullets almost act like their own characters, being big enough and moving just slowly enough to clearly see them. Once they get close to someone, a sort of time bubble appears and things slow down just enough that the potential victim is able to try to evade or possibly even counter the attack. Since bullets can also ricochet off each other (and sometimes off of other surfaces) even more crazy things can happen so you’ll need to be ready for just about anything. Throw in the fact that you can only reload at a limited number of designated spots and there are many opportunities you can have for taking people out.

Layering on to this well-implemented and creative base mechanic are a few other smart design elements. Each of the six included stages has something tricky to offer, whether in the form of portals, lethal icicles you can trigger to fall on someone unsuspecting below, or reflective surfaces that encourage creative ricochet shots. In general each of the 4 selectable characters and all of the stages have a cute and distinctive look, though some more variety in your choices would have been nice. The inclusion of only team and free-for-all modes is also a bit disappointing as even if everyone is having fun more variety helps greatly in keeping the gameplay feeling fresh longer.

As a whole Retimed does a good job of hitting the targets it was aiming for and providing a pretty unique experience, unfortunately it’s impossible to not also note that the whole package is a bit thin. Most critical is that without online or bot support the opportunities to enjoy the game can be a bit limited, relying on the availability of family or friends to play it at all. While I really like the art direction it’s also a bit disappointing that there just aren’t that many stages or even character options to work with. If you regularly have some people available who are down for some multiplayer fun, and you can overlook the somewhat skimpy overall content it provides, Retimed can be an absolute blast and shows off some clever ideas. It’s just hard not to note that it has some real limitations all the same.

Score: 6.5

  • The bullet time mechanic is clever and well-implemented
  • Each of the 6 stages in the game have a distinct look but, more importantly, also change up the experience
  • Considering the somewhat limited content it includes, Retimed does a smart job of making the most of it

  • Local multiplayer only with no bot support so there are no single-player options at all
  • Though the stages are pretty diverse with there only being 6 you’ll get into repeat territory pretty quickly
  • Only 2 mode options also ultimately limit the variety of ways the game can be played

Sunday, September 23

Review: Debris Infinity [Nintendo Switch eShop]

In the arcade shooting genre you really stick your neck out when you take on a visual style that’s anywhere in the vicinity of Geometry Wars (BTW, where the heck is it anyway?!?). Anyone who is a fan of that series undoubtedly did a double-take when seeing the screenshots of Debris Infinity for the first time. While it is by no means identical the bright and colorful vector-based graphics are eye-catching and share some elements of that same flair. While Debris Infinity isn’t on the same level where it comes to diversity and insanity it does manage to do a respectable job of setting itself apart as something distinct and is perfect for arcade shooting fans looking to kill some time while trying to place on its global leaderboards.

Probably the most interesting thing to note is that Debris Infinity may have a little more in common with a much earlier arcade shooting classic: Asteroids. Indeed, your main nemesis as long as you’re able to stay alive are asteroids that will randomly float around and bounce off the edges of the screen. As you shoot them they’ll then break down into smaller pieces which you’ll continue to reduce until they’re destroyed. This generally means that there will be a ton of debris floating around the screen at all times and from all angles, so you’ll need to stay sharp. Of course there’ll be other objects to deal with periodically that have their own behaviors as well, and part of the learning curve is in understanding how best to react when some of the more formidable enemies make an appearance.

What gives the game its challenge, whether you’re playing in Normal, Time Attack, or Power Wave mode is that merely staying alive isn’t really enough, if you want to compete you’re going to need to be aggressive, smart, and take some risks. That’s because your score, or in the case of Power Wave mode even your survival, relies on your ability to work through enemies as efficiently as possible. While in Power Wave mode that’s for the purpose of keeping your time from running out in all modes your true focus is on your combo and level multipliers, which are boosting your score. Avoiding taking hits will keep your level multiplier increasing steadily while destroying consecutive enemies without much more than a break of a few seconds drives your combo multiplier. This makes for a real conflict of interests as you try to keep your mind on upping your score but not to the point that you sacrifice the game in the process.

Probably my biggest complaint about the game is the HUD gauges encircle the ship. For me it’s too big, too bright, and doesn’t give me enough information to justify how distracting it is. While I’m not always a fan of the HD rumble kicking in for things of little consequence you can at least disable that in the Options menu. An option to control the HUD transparency or even just to turn it off would be appreciated as at times it interferes with my eyes ability to tell when things are close to me as I try to scan quickly for where to route my ship next to avoid traffic.

For its budget price Debris Infinity is an incredible deal of an arcade-style space shooter, mixing some classic elements of Asteroids with modern sensibilities and polished presentation. Much more than the Geometry Wars clone people could suspect at a quick glance, it stands apart with its own rules, flow, and challenging play. See you on the global leaderboards!

Score: 8

  • A great mix of classic arcade play ala Asteroids with a degree of challenge and flair you’d expect in modern games
  • Forces you to find a balance of aggressiveness for driving your score up while trying to stay alive
  • The three available modes do a good job of shifting around your priorities to offer up distinct feels and challenges for each

  • The HUD surrounding your ship is distracting, can’t be turned off, and ultimately doesn’t offer enough critical information to justify itself
  • The various multipliers and nuances get little explanation and can be hard to get tuned into