Tag Archives: Indie Games

Fez and the Metroid We Loved

There’s a lot out there about Zelda’s relationship with Fez, but during my first playthrough I was reminded of playing Metroid as a kid. The sounds and organic feel make it like you are participating in the existence of a living thing. Eery at least, loving at best.

 

An orange and yellow figure against a silver backdrop. Simple enemy, architectural example, arm cannon extended in a prepared posture. I was too young to finish Metroid, looking back I probably explored less than a quarter of the map. But when Gunpei Yokoi and co. designed Metroid 1, “completing the game” iterated on the vague definition of exploration, story, and wonder that had yet to be fleshed out in games. When I saw the box on the shelf I had to know what it was.

img_0028Story is a given now, the creative clans that tackle our humble technology with the financial and diversified force of a big budget film offer up whatever research says should be there. If it’s good, good, if it’s bad well, it’s a game, some story telling elements are hard to fit into a game. With cinematic cutscenes, narrative dialogue and a cast of characters pages long, sometimes it’s a wonder that a game is ever released.

Fez isn’t like that, Fez is more akin to Metroid 1 than Zelda 1, and more than both, Fez adds community and life without shoving it down your throat. The world is not averse to you. Ambient chatter, environmentally phased music, weather and idle critters, either are what they are or stand as slim slices of a thick puzzle piece. Every detail matters. There are no enemies, dying is like going out of bounds, check the ball and play on. Fez takes out everything that makes the difficulty frustrating. No super low health cap up front, none of the retro “impossible bosses.” Beating Fez is like dedicating yourself to seeing every exhibit in every museum in DC. Stare long enough and you’ll start to see things you didn’t see before, a blinking star, a pattern in the architecture. Like handling a Rubik’s cube, you turn and stare, turn and stare, until at last a piece of the puzzle is solved. That’s where the difficulty lies, Fez woos you, and only after you have fallen completely do you begin to see that you saw nothing before, and you start drawing strange shapes on scrap paper for your family to find and ask you “why?” Or worse, say nothing at all but add them to the pile they know you keep them in.

 

fez-doodle-1

One of the first puzzles, these little dudes hang on the wall in a picture in an old man’s house. They represent a code, but they also add to the life of the place. He lives there and he has these pictures, family, students.

 

The poster of Zelda 1 hanging in Gomez’s room sets the tone. I realize that if Fez is a tribute to any game its Zelda but the longer I played the more I came to associate the atmosphere with the planet Zebes. Finding the bits and cubes I thought, “it doesn’t matter what’s hidden, everything else is stripped down, Gomez is a simplified Samus Aran.” Gomez is all that Gomez is going to be, the drive isn’t to find an ability laden suit of armor, the drive is to put the world back together for civilization. A home like place that wants you to chill and trust it. And like all of Samus’ powerups, the cubes you find unlock further parts of the world.

In Zelda the art and music come together to create the very earth-like world of Hyrule. The art and music in Fez complete an other-worldly picture. Lonesome but not alone. Close but obtuse. Zelda makes me feel like I’m in the woods where I grew up, Fez makes me feel like I’m  watching moon exploration footage, expecting some horrible something to come out from behind a grey silt hill. No other game captures the eeriness like Metroid. Fez, inadvertantly or not, nails that on the head. Something happened and Home glitched out and now its dangerous and we’re the ones to figure it out.

When I was eight years old and I rented Metroid and somehow found my way to the vertical white corridors and chozo statues, I felt like I was being watched. The place was very much alive to me, the whole thing, the tunnels and architecture, and my presence is either of no concern at all or greatly unwanted. Not quite threatened, not quite safe. That was the whole point, the sounds, the music, all engineered so that player, Samus, and environment phase in and out of each other, belong to each other and exist off each other. Fez conveys the same feeling but with warmth. With a creative flair more like a candy store than a hostile planet, you just want to look at it, and then maybe lick it.

A great game takes you away and holds you captive. It isn’t that World of Warcraft does it, Call of Duty whatever, or Mario, Art does it. And when a game realizes the art plateau its worth your love, its worth a touch of your existence.

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Shovel Knight: 20 Hour Review

Shovel Knight continues to charm after a playthrough on my 3DS, half way through NG+, some Plague Knight, and now replaying for this, to write about it. I was attracted to the game shortly after getting my 3DS, the first games I downloaded were all NES classics and Shovel Knight seemed to have enough of that mold still unbroken that I would be into it. Making a short review shorter, get this game if you like classic platformers, whether you are just getting into the genre or are for whatever reason nostalgic, this game will certainly scratch that itch; at around 12 hours completion time on a first play through it won’t have you questioning the value of your time, or it could, more on that below. Do not buy this game if the trappings of the 80’s aren’t your thing. If Mega Man is too cutesy or pisses you off, and Mario 3’s level design is too tedious for you, Shovel Knight will not be for you either.

 

Shovel Knight Logo

Shovel Knight, one of the best.

 

Yacht Club is doing several things right, chief among them, difficulty. Shovel Knight is a mechanics heavy, player vs. level game. The boss fights are interesting but probably won’t be standout experiences. They fit the level well in that most of the time the difficulty spike isn’t too great in comparison to the level, mini bosses included, that you will face on your way to the boss. Enemies are introduced in Super Mario fashion, but the levels are more complex. There is an early way to increase the difficulty , rewarding you with more gems than you would normally collect to use on upgrades. Integrated save points in the form of clear orbs encased in the end of a stake can be passed by to save your progress or shattered for a reward that increases with each check-point you break. After the 6th check-point the reward is well worth it if you can manage to stay alive through the whole level. Even if you do die though, and die repeatedly, yes it will hinder you, but only just; you can recover what you lose when you die. It works out so that you have to die several times for it to really set you back. It will happen though, as you progress, the Plague Knight’s level had me frustrated after a few attempts.

This game really is one that you should play, if not only for a glimpse into the creative minds of people who are preserving nostalgia right. Shovel Knight is deep, once you complete the game, starting the NG+ will give you what you need if you want an increased challenge. All of this with no mention of Yacht Club vowing the release of several expansions this year featuring playable bosses from the original game. Shovel Knight is solid, and the developer is committed; after purchasing for 3DS and Steam, and the Plague Knight expansion, the Shovel Knight franchise has been worth the money.

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The Color and Feel of Fez

33 hours into Fez and only a few items left to collect; the color and feel of Fez gets engrossing with progression.  Everything comes together to give us a place to be.

The 33 hours I’ve spent pouring over Phil Fish’s Fez has been in small doses. These games are the most for me, for some reason puzzlers are bigger than I can manage for extended periods of time. But every time the game makes its way back into my mind in a way that playing is unavoidable, I’m met with precise comfort. Even the opening chiptune chord that accompanies the title screen instructing us to press A seems to catch you, like falling into the game, or rising up to it, depending on how you view the rotating letters FEZ.

One of the things that stick out to me most, as Phil Fish explained in various interviews, is that all of the artwork for Fez was created in Photoshop and then imported into the Trixel engine to create the 3-d world. I don’t know how to make a game but I do understand Photoshop, and work ethic, and craft. It all comes together to create the original Zelda feeling of I-am-lost-and-I-haven’t-even-started. A game is often described as ‘Metroidvania’ because you run around collecting items that power up an otherwise weak player character.  Fez is like Metroid because you feel the character of the place, you understand that there is life but it isn’t overt and when you do meet it face to face its something you have to translate, explore to figure out and puzzle over. Its eerie and inviting and joyful and the further you get in the game the more you will recognize the precision of each cube, even more so when you see it in first person perspective.  The cubes are not flat with lines drawn to represent cracks and moss, they are textured, the cracks are indented, moss hugs the ground and butterflies land on it.

Fez Color 1

I found this room later in the game. I love all of the trees, but the color contrast sticks with me. One of my favorite spaces in Fez

The eerie-inviting-joyful was driven home in the room above.  The white skull (and let’s be honest the skulls and owls are carrying the creepy throughout the game) floating in what looks like blood was enough, by this point in the game these rooms feel close, like a thought that you live with and hear in your head often, maybe without you realizing it. It’s personal. This room’s secret stood out to me as strange and unique, they are all unique but this was unexpected and only added to the texture of it all.   I wanted out shortly after finding it.

I loved that the owls were scattered throughout, and I loved that you could talk to them.  What they had to say came off as just weird, as I found one early, and then another.  Having seen the two out in the wild and then traveling to their little corner of Fez-land where its spooky greenish blueish ghost home plays background to stormy weather and the lightening reveals hidden steps; that’s where the owls live, with the ghosts, I didn’t want to stay there either.

Fez Color 2

I love owls. We live in the country and we’ll get one from time to time take up residence near our property. When I saw that they all gathered here it was spooky, but at this point in the game a lot was starting to make sense to me. Fez will catch you and pull you in.

When I played Metroid for the first time I was way to young to grasp it beyond shooting the things that were killing me.  Somehow, my 7 year old best was to make it to a vertical tunnel with tiny white blocky steps, I don’t remember the name of the exact location on the map. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I played it again after that first experience and I had carried that feeling with me all that time.  I literally felt like I was trapped at the bottom of a deep tunnel and wasn’t able to negotiate the handholds to get myself out. Wondering around in the woods as a kid I’d been in that situation before. You know there are people around but they aren’t around you and you are going to have to reach that next whatever to get yourself out. When I got to that point in the game again I stopped to take it in and it had the same effect. There are so many moments in Fez that have that effect on me as I play through (I’m still not finished with it). Fez is for sure something I will come back to every few years as a place to visit.

To be continued…

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