Tag Archives: Indie Games

Celeste

Towerfall is a beautiful game that I never got around to playing. During research like I do though, on the people behind it, I came to follow Matt Thorson (@MattThorson) on Twitter. When I started seeing art for Celeste and Matt was tweeting about the number of levels he was building for Celeste, I knew it was going to be something I would like. A day from Launch, I’m sure it will be and since it was announced for Switch, I was going to buy it.

The soundtrack is great. There are systems in place to skip out on parts of the game that a player finds undesirable. Unlike Fez, where the game is designed with no enemies, no death, no consequences, Celeste allows you to turn those things off. Don’t like the stamina system, turn on unlimited. Don’t like the spikes, turn on invincibility. Don’t like the pace, turn on slow-mo. Don’t like the story, click through it. Instead of designing those things out, the game allows you to filter those aspects yourself and tells you that even though that’s not how the game was designed to play, you can play through that way.

I will absolutely be writing more about Celeste, reaching out to those that made it for insight, and to the top players in the speedrunning community that is sure to build up around this game. I see Celeste being a thing for a long time, the spirit of which may be even closer to Super Meat Boy than SMB Forever will be.

 

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Celeste, release 1/25/18

 

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Why Indie

There’s a lot of definitions of “what is an Indie game,” or “Indie developer,” for me the characteristic that sets Indie apart is that if you were to ask them what the structure of their workgroup is they would tell you who is doing what. They give you names not departments and everybody really does everything. Art, code, sound, in the case of Fez, sometimes various assistants in the case of Hyper Light Drifter, but the vibe is the same, she does this, he does that, we all do this one thing because it sucks and nobody wants to do it. I’m drawn to Indie because if I was going to make a game I would want to do it as part of a small team of less than 10 or so people, and I think I would need to have constraints.

 

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Hyper Light Drifter, New Game + still on my list.

 

“Constraints” sounds like a bad word, but really it forces an artist to focus, they are obstacles to be worked with not fought with. Derek Yu talks about this in his book “Spelunky” a lot. He pitched competitive multiplayer to Microsoft as an XBLA exclusive feature as part of a hook to get them on board, only to cut the feature because it was just going to take to much time. The result was a more focused game, they had time to flesh out other aspects of the game more fully. And then there is the opposite example of Fez, where the constraint of time gave us a map that Phil Fish even saw as the weak point of the game, but people were asking for it.

The product of this struggle is an experience closely tied to the personality of the developer. I am sure that an interview with anyone that works on Assassin’s Creed would explain the personal touches that made it into any of the AC games, but you cannot play any popular Indie game and not feel like a little of the respect they demand has to do with how tied up the creators are. Even The Witness has me picturing Jonathan Blow all zen like alone and meditating,  he wants me to attempt Tai Chi with my thinkers like he does, he wants me to put it down from time to time to stay calm because he does. Ed and Tommy want us to feel a little eratic playing SMB because they are a little erratic. Isaac is a little manic, Hyper Light is elusive, Fez is solid intelligence, hell even Doom 1 exudes the darkness conveyed through any interview its creators have given, they’re a little scary.

 

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Super Meat Boy, Glitch Girl screen from SMB on Switch.

 

When the art is the vision of a small group, a pair, a single artist, its clarity keeps me coming back. Playing a AAA game makes me feel like I’m sitting in the back of an English 101 class at University, the prof doesn’t have enough time for me and there isn’t enough room to be comfortable, I will not be able to make this information my own because that isn’t how the course is designed.

 

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Super Meat Boy on Switch

Team Meat (@SuperMeatBoy) on Twitter says that day one Switch sales were close to day one Xbox live sales in 2010 when the game first launched. Super Meat Boy is aging but no one should be surprised that it still holds up. It would make sense if day one sales on Switch weren’t what they were but the system is perfect for the game. The thumb sticks are short and maybe a little too responsive, the game boots quickly and the scale feels right. Most important, Meat Boy handles the same. People on Twitter are talking timing and rhythm engrained in their brains. Super Meat Boy is one of the best games ever made, the Nintendo Switch is a perfect match, and while it was released on the Vita, being able to hold it in your lap, play it laying in bed, pop in some earbuds and tune out, make it one of the best games on the system right now.

First on the list of things I was happy to see was the return of Cotton Alley. I wondered if the unlockable end levels would be Switch specific but I hadn’t heard anything about it so I wasn’t expecting it. Two days after downloading I completed Cotton Alley and moved on to the Dark World, second on my list of things I was happy to see return. I expected them to be there but halfway through the Light World of each level I realized I never completed all the Dark World levels on Xbox or PC, instead getting caught up trying for the no death achievements. Even that goal I cut short, saying I only wanted the achievements for levels up to the Light World version of The End. Since there are no achievements in the Switch version, completing the Dark World levels will have to suffice for challenge, which that will do just fine, Dark World is no joke, and completing the game 100% gains you entry into an exclusive alcove within Steams SMB forums.

Super Meat Boy on the Switch will pave the way perfectly for Super Meat Boy Forever, due to launch soon to similar acclaim. In a brief Q and A with Nintendo Dads, Tommy Refenes (@TommyRefenes) states that SMB Forever will not be a reskin of SMB with 600 new levels, wanting instead to do something different but within the SMB world. He referenced the early Mega Man games stating that Mega Man 2 is one of his favorites, and 3 and 4 were good games but he doesn’t remember 5,6,7,8, and 9 because they were so similar. Until SMB Forever launches, I’ll be fighting Dark Worlds and finding bandages in the original.

 

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Super Meat Boy on Nintendo Switch

 

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GoNNer, Befriending Death

GoNNer has taken up as much of my time as I thought it would when I first saw the preview trailer on Steam, a lot, I knew as soon as I saw the art and movement. I hadn’t heard anything about it before it was released, hadn’t followed the development at all, but when I saw the black background and simple colors I was drawn to it like a forgotten NES game. Like it was something I had missed from my childhood and when I started to dig into it, it felt like that too, I own the game on Steam and on the Switch and I still haven’t beat it. How much play time you ask, oooohh 40 hours.

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GoNNer level = beautiful chaos

After a few hours I became impulsive about stringing together combos. Doing so gives you currency for options later in the level, allowing you to change up your strategy by purchasing different heads, guns, and back packs from death, your friend. The game is as strange as that entire last sentence, made more so by the fact that supposedly the goal is to rescue your dear friend Sally the whale. I mentioned I love this game right?

The different parts allow you to do different things in the game. Get hit and you fall apart, revealing a blobby mass of a body that if you get hit once more before collecting all your fallen pieces from the first hit, you die. If you have enough of the aforementioned currency you can buy a continue, but they get more expensive each time. My go-to gun is the “laser,” in quotations because nothing is really explained to you, that’s my description. There is something that sounds like a nerf blaster, a “shotgun,” and others that I have a hard time describing even, the “gun” that shoots like a creeping electric current comes to mind. But the “laser” shoots a solid beam quickly across the screen and through enemies, which when stringing combos seemed to come in more handy for me and my playstyle. Heads are the same way, there’s a teddy bear head, a blocky looking head, and my favorite, the alien head, among others. The alien head lets you float if you hold down the jump button, I find it easier to keep the combo going being able to float. You can always double jump but with the alien head you can save it longer to time it exactly where you need it.

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There they are on the left, the “laser” gun, shark backpack, and teddy bear head. That blob on the right? a boss I beat that beat me at the same time. I hate the phrase “tough as nails” but it is appropriate here.

Backpacks are the same, one gives you an extra double jump, one explodes all around you, but the one I’m drawn to is the shark fin which unloads whatever gun you are using without using ammo.

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“One explodes all around you.”

The ability regens over time. To kick off a combo or get extra height on a jump, or just to take out everything in front of you, the shark fin is fun. Something I tend to do a lot with the laser, the alien head and shark fin backpack is use the floating and timed double jump to focus fire. The shark fin has a recoil to it that pushes you back, or if you jump will push you into the air more, while floating it will push you back but not up, so using the double jump at the right time allows you to send the deadly beam straight down a platform full of enemies, or in the case of the first boss fight, steadily into a baddies face.

The most unique gameplay element in GoNNer is the way you fall apart when you get hit. Each head gives you a different amount of hearts and each time you fall apart a heart disappears. You have to gather all of your pieces before you get hit again or you die and you can only fall apart as many times as hearts you have. Ditto (the developer) said in an interview that the falling apart came from early programming. It happened by accident once and he ran with it thinking he could turn it into something and it worked as a unique take on “life” in a game. All of the abilities play on the platforming genre in ways I’ve never seen before. You discover new parts as you play through the randomly generated levels but the trip to finding the parts isn’t like a metroidvania. I never got the sense that I was making my character more powerful, it always seemed like I was giving myself options, new ways to think about how to tackle a level or certain enemies so in that respect GoNNer becomes like a fast-paced real-time puzzle. This is a game that allows you to zone out and play, and once you’ve got the hang of the controls and how the enemies work it becomes addictive fun stringing combos together and progressing through the levels. I tell myself every run that I’m going to slow down and make it to the end but by the end of the first screen the music and shaky screen that come with a combo string have me taking risks so I never get there. But I’m sure I will, especially now that I can take it with me on the Switch.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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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