Month: December 2013

Jackson’s Games Of This, The Year Of Luigi

Hey everyone, it’s a week after Matt’s GOTYOTY, so it’s time for my GOTTYOL. Ten games, with companion paragraphs, explaining why these games are the cool ones. And trust me, they are.

Preface time: It’s been an odd year for video games, with me. It’s been an odd year full stop, but that ain’t germane to this here list. I haven’t played as many as I’d have liked to, but that’s pretty much the case with all people, at all times, and some I’ve really liked but only played small amounts of (hence the exclusion of Cart Life, and Papers, Please). That said, out of the games I did play, here are ten of them.

The ten which I would consider my favourite. HERE WE GO. (more…)

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Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask

Hey, Matt here. Just briefly, my goal in 2014 (and starting before it I guess) is to write about any and all games I play. These aren’t going to be formalized reviews, per se, but more just what impressions I’m left with. 

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask

The fifth Layton game moves the series into 3DS and really almost totally ruins it in the process. It’s actually a fine game writing and puzzle wise, even if I think the puzzles are too easy and the twists and turns shockingly predictable compared to prior entries (nothing will ever top the 2nd Layton game where the answer was EVERYONE WAS TRIPPING ON SHROOMS THE ENTIRE TIME). But the very nature of the 3DS versus the DS changes the fundamental mechanics of how you interact with the game, with unfortunate results. 

In the first through fourth Layton games, the narrative thrust of the game is that you explore a world by going through static screens and tapping on people and locations to discover puzzles, hint coins, and talk to the various people in the world. It’s very classic point and click stuff, part adventure game and photo hunt, but because of how everything is tidily laid out on the bottom screen you interface quickly and easily with the world. 

The 3DS version, meanwhile, moves the environments up to the top screen. This makes sense on paper. The top screen is where the 3D is, but also the screen itself is wider and thus weighted to be the ‘main screen’ so that the most visually important stuff often gets put there. Which is fine for most games, but the problem is that the top screen is not a touch screen, and Professor Layton is at its heart a touch-centric series of games. 

The clumsy solution is to allow you to create a virtual touch pad on the bottom screen over the top of your menu and map by pressing a magnifying glass icon. Not only is this an extra step that isn’t necessary, it changes the game from a one-to-one touch game to a mouse-style game where your movement is mirrored on a different display. This seems like a small thing, but it creates just enough distance and abstraction that it totally disrupts the flow of play. Every time you get into a new area and have to bring down the exploration interface and then every time you have to close it to move to the next area and do it again, it feels like two steps too many and one degree removed from the intimacy of the prior games. 

It’s not a deal breaker, but this kind of design fundamentally changes what kind of game Layton is, making it less approachable and dispelling a lot of the immediate and tiny charm of the prior games. The consideration is made for form, to get the visuals onto the bigger and shinier screen, but the gameplay flow suffers incredibly as a result, and the whole thing ends up feeling more like work and less like exploration than any prior Layton game. It’s not surprising, given how perfectly Layton seemed to fit on the DS, that moving to new hardware is a bumpy ride. But it’s still a shame to see it stumble after four really solid prior entries.

Then there’s this:

Late in the game there’s an entire chapter that takes place as a teenaged Layton and his friend explore a mysterious dungeon. The game abandons its prior structure and becomes a 3D top down grid based dungeon crawl, complete with sokoban-style pushing puzzles (pictured here) and weird stealth sections where you’re dodging mechanical mummies that roam the halls.

Now, I am okay (if unenthused) about the move to 3D character models for the 3DS installments of DS franchises. I get that producing those is likely easier and cheaper than high quality 2D art. That said, this entire sequence reeks of ‘doing it because we can’. There’s nothing gained by including this sequence, other than creating an entirely different one-off game play mechanic you can advertise but that totally goes against most of the spirit of the rest of the games. This whole chapter is dire, removing all of the wrapping that makes Layton a delightfully low-key series and instead turning it into a third rate puzzle rogue-like. This is not progress.

I don’t hate Layton 5, but it seems to be trying to change things mostly for the sake of changing them, and I’m pretty sure all of it is to the greater harm of the product. Those games work because the formula was elegant and mostly unchanged, a warm hug from an old friend you could dive into every year or 18 months or so and enjoy just like you enjoyed the rest of them. There’s a place in the world for games like that, and seeing it try to stretch to be something it’s not is frustrating. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the upcoming 6th title is supposedly the last of them. Layton had its run, and is great, but maybe its time has come?

Abnormal Mapping 3: Chasing The Fenix

Abnormal Mapping finishes off the year with our episode talking about 2013, 2014, and the future of video games. No, actually, we just talk about The Shivah and Vanquish and The Hobbit. But that kind of counts!

Download the episode HERE.

Next month’s game:
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Things mentioned in the podcast:
A Buddhist’s Guide to Asura’s Wrath
a thematic review of The Binding of Isaac
the infamous philfishglass.jpg
that hot Christmas blockbuster, The Hobbit

Matt’s Goty of the year 2013

Hey there folks, it’s the end of the year so Abnormal Mapping is finishing up the first calendar year of our existence. That means a lot of games, a lot of goals for the new year, but most importantly, it’s the time in which we create our lists of the games of the year, known as gotys, and give them to you to read and enjoy and argue about and whatever. 

Bellow is my list, which I’d love if you took the time to check out. On Friday we have Episode 3 of the podcast, and a week from today Jackson is going to post his own goty list, which will undoubtedly steal all of my best ideas. 

And now for the list! These are ten games that I think are the best in 2013, though there are plenty of other games I played and loved a lot. This list is alphabetical, because ranking is hard and I won’t do it! All right, that’s all. Let’s get to the show.

Matt’s Goty of the Year 2013image

ATTACK OF THE FRIDAY MONSTERS: A TOKYO TALE!
by Millennium Kitchen

Attack of the Friday Monsters is a game about the intimate spaces that make up the parts of our lives we barely remember. Framed around a single summer afternoon, you take on the role of a kid who explores his new rural Japanese town, meeting and befriending the other children and learning the rules of their private games and the myths that children create and tell each other. The story, such as it is, remains as quiet and free of conflict as possible, giving you a variety of tasks to accomplish or not accomplish as you want. Your avatar is as distractable as a player in a quest-heavy game, and his childlike mind mimicks the player’s tendancy to go after not what’s prescribed, but instead the flashes of potential that exist down the roads you aren’t supposed to go down and the people and places you aren’t supposed to visit. It is a game that is all heart, exposing the core of feeling in the mundane day to day interactions that we have as people, all focused through the eyes of a child to bring the potentials of the human into sharpest relief.

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DEVICE 6
by Simogo

There is a moment near the very end of Device 6 where, after solving nearly every puzzle the game throws at you, you (both the player and Anna, the protagonist) encounter an animatronic man with a guitar who begins to sing a song dedicated to Anna’s efforts in getting this far down the rabbit hole. This puzzling moment stops you in your tracks, and for a second it’s just you and Anna and the music, before you turn a corner and rotate your phone to go down a different path and the music fades to a gauzy blur the further away you get, curiosity pulling you even deeper into the strangeness of Device 6’s mystery. Part novel, part adventure game, all beautifully bespoke enigma—Device 6 is a game that stands at the multi-pronged intersection of graphic design, iOS game design, and puzzle creation. It’s a strange thing, a 60s style riff that bends your mind around the possibility space of a phone and your connection to a device that you touch and tilt to interface with. Device 6 is a game of experiences, of moments of discovery, and of the coolest moods induced by tone and artifice. It’s point is brief, but its elegance is unparralled.

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ETRIAN ODYSSEY IV: LEGENDS OF THE TITAN
by Atlus

Great JRPGs were actually not in short supply in 2013, so long as you have a Vita and a 3DS, but Etrian Odyssey is something really special: a purely mechanics-driven game that offers challenges without ever going out of its way to punish players. The explore-and-map features of prior Etrian Odyssey games are as compelling as ever, but the inclusion of less punitive fail states and a general increase in accessibility and variety in the types of actions means that the game reaches a level of balance that feels endlessly explorable without being outright overwhelming. Every job is useful and no job seems that wildly overpowered, and as you explore the vast labyrinths (each one beautifully organic instead of the usual stock dungeons of most RPGs), you can feel your progression as you feel more assured taking on challenges and your characters become capable of carrying out that confidence. There’s something uniquely empowering about a tough, fair, well-made RPG, and EO4 accomplishes that better than any other JRPG this year.

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GONE HOME
by The Fullbright Company

Gone Home is, I hope, the game of the future. It’s a game that offers the most bare premise: can exploring a space in itself be both entertaining and a narrative? Exploration is something games have been doing since their infancy, but it’s the rare game that hangs its entire being upon it. Even a game as abstract as Myst is riddled with puzzles that gameify your romp through a carefully crafted world. Gone Home has little of that, only a few locked doors (which you can turn off) and your own measured examination of the lives of the people who inhabit its house. It is a game with no NPCs but a handful of peerless examples of fully fleshed charactarizations in games, told entirely through level design, text, and sparing voice over. And it is, above all else, a game that is peerless in how it uses the elements of a game to create empathy. There are other great games that do this, especially in 2013 (Papers Please and Cart Life are both great examples), but Gone Home is so effortlessly unrestricted by the burden of what ‘gameplay’ has to be that it becomes a simple dialogue between the intent of the authors and the reactions of the player. Gone Home is the purest example of what a video game is, and my sincerest wish is that more games follow in its confident footsteps.

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HATE PLUS
by Christine Love

Where Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story was a game about digital archeology, the sequel Hate Plus is a game about the tragedy of historical research. There’s not actually a mystery because you know the end result of the characters you’re reading about, but instead you’re thrust into the the role of someone who has to try to decide who to empathize with when given every viewpoint and knowing the terrible results that the characters you encounter could not see coming. The game outright asks you who can be seen as good or evil, when the world itself is so full of shades of grey, and then the game even has the audacity to demand you stop playing it to go think about that answer as you’re forced to play the game over the course of three days. This hostility towards progress in favor of contemplation is a small but significant advance in narrative storytelling, revealing the fundamental truth that narration is as much (if not more) about how we engage with it than it is the bare fundamentals of plot and character.

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THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS
by Nintendo

A Link Between Worlds’ origin as a remake of Link to the Past is obvious from every nook and cranny of its lovingly crafted world. But while a remake would have been fun, when the plan deviated to a sequel what Nintendo did instead was use the framework of two great overworlds and 10 dungeons and shook out everything else that had accrued on Zelda in the intervening 22 years. Gone are the fetch quests, the elaborate tutorials, the lengthy cinematic story beats. Instead you’re tossed out of bed and told to go do a thing, and rapidly given a wealth of equipment with which to do said thing. By removing the idea that Zelda is about gated progress through a series of Item Chests that unlock the same set of static abilities, within an hour Link is fully ready to do nearly everything. This moves the goal not into acquiring more keys to environmental locks, but in exploring fully every piece of the worlds you encounter. There’s a confidence that the player is able to tackle the puzzles, so the game has no hesitation about throwing you into ingenious dungeons that force flexibility and encourage experimentation.

It’s an exhilarating experience to play a game that has all the convenience of 2013, but none of the hand-holding that bogged down many of the modern Zeldas. There’s a trust implicit in that design that reminds me why this series was, for a long time, Nintendo’s greatest accomplishment. The freedom to exercise your will upon the world in order to tease out its rewards is unique among Nintendo properties in the modern era, and its interest in more moment-to-moment challenges and not linear progression seems more in keeping with modern indie roguelikes and games like Dark Souls than the stodgy Zelda we’ve come to expect. A Link Between Worlds stands as one of the greatest entires in the Zelda series to date, not because of its use of prior glories, but because of how it embraces player-led pacing to unfold as fast as you are capable of tackling its many obstacles.

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THE STANLEY PARABLE
by Galactic Cafe

To speak concretely about The Stanley Parable is easy, but misses the actual impact of discovering its many twists and turns. A labyrinth of side stories and endings, The Stanley Parable masquerades as a Portal-esque also-ran but is instead a lengthy meditation on what exactly it means to have ‘choice’ in a video game, and how much player agency can truly exist in a system that has to be authored by another human being. The Stanley Parable is funny and charming first and foremost, but it’s incredibly smart with how far it takes many of its premises, from simple concepts like the absurdity of narrative art telling stories about freedom of choice, to questions about the actual use of player agency in a scripted experience, to bigger questions about the very nature of free will within both games and in live in general. It’s dizzying how far it goes to offer what on the face seems like an effortless romp through some tropes, but which quickly reveals itself to be something far more contemplative, full of questions and graciously careful about answers and always, always looking to find the truth in the variety of possible outcomes of what is often prescribed as one of the biggest aspects of modern video games.

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3D SUPER HANG-ON
by Sega and M2

Why is an arcade game from 1987 on this list? Because I’m speaking specifically about the 3DS emulation of Super Hang-On that was released on the 3DS eshop in 2013. And because this is my list and prescriptivism is stupid. 3D Super Hang-On is an emulated version of an 80s arcade game, but it’s more than that. The various versions of the game are all represented, the game is converted to 3D and given myriad difficulty and display options, and it utilized the 3D and the gyroscope of the 3DS to create the experience of sitting on the tilting arcade cabinet, allowing you to lean through turns and have the screen skew left and right against your motion. All that is ridiculous and worthy of praise for its inclusion, but more importantly the game just SCREAMS along at 60 fps, with bikes that careen through brightly colored skies and 3D scrolling international locales, evoking the kind of pure arcade racing experience that’s in short supply these days. 3D Super Hang-On scratches the same kind of itch as OutRun 2 does, and I know of no higher praise than that. I could race down its winding, ridiculously endless roads all day, feeling uplifted and exhilarated by the simple joy of the challenge of the race. Who needs hundreds of cars and dozens of real world tracks carefully embalmed for your digital consumption when you have a pixel sun in the sky and chiptunes blowing around you as you careen around the next big corner into the beautiful simplicity of the fastest, purest racing around.

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SUPER HEXAGON
by Terry Cavanaugh

Super Hexagon is the mechanical soul of video games distilled down to its very core. There’s no plot and nothing to say, in fact there’s zero time for thought at all. There’s only the reticule of the player, weaving back and forth along its central point of circular motion as it tries to avoid the inevitable death of collapsing shapes. There is a rarified air of mechanics-driven games where a good player can slip outside of their conscious mind entirely and achieve something colloquially referred to as being ‘in the zone’ but which is ultimately not indistinguishable from a meditative state. Super Hexagon starts at that point, and descends further down from there, all to the flashing lights and pulsing electronica that move like the beat of a steady, focused heart. Super Hexagon is a game that demands the utmost attention of the player, to find that place from the first second and remain there for the brief, draining sessions lasting often seconds at a time. There are two reactions to its impossible task: rage and tranquil acceptance. Those extremes make sense, as the game basically asks that for a player to avoid mechanical obliteration, they find it within them to obliterate the self.

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TEARAWAY
by Media Molecule

Tearaway is a game that came out of a different time, a time when 3D platformers were unrolling the boundaries of what kind of worlds a game could be and exploration and traversal were key. That late 90s idea of video games is mostly dead, relegated to the odd release of Mario or Ratchet & Clank, but every once in a while someone has the gumption to try a new 3D platformer. A fool’s errand, but one I happily show up for each and every time. And this time, Media Molecule have created something special. By mostly neglecting the build-anything concept that made LittleBigPlanet an enduring idea, they’ve instead created a game where the care instead has gone into a set world, a papercraft paradise for you to explore through the myriad mechanics of the feature-heavy Playstation Vita handheld. You’ll touch (back and front), tilt, take pictures (back and front again), pinch, poke, swipe, and otherwise doodle your way through a variety of situations that continue to unroll the delights of discovery. And through it, the game constantly offers you feedback, chances to take pictures and earn models of the game’s characters for you to bring into the real world, even as you draw or take photos of yourself in order to bring them into the game world. It’s an incredible bit of synergy, oozing charm and surrounded by a solidly delightful little platformer the likes of which we rarely see in today’s world. Tearaway shouldn’t exist, and I’m happy it does, because it is modestly remarkable simply by the nature of what it is and how cheerfully it all works together.