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Ben Hornsby

Ben Hornsby

Wednesday, 05 September 2012 15:37

Dust': an Elysian tail

(Because the main character has a tail, see?)

'Dust' is a fluid little action game with a bunch of RPG nonsense hanging off of it and an aesthetic that is mostly almost-embarrassing. The characters are cartoonified anthropomorphic animals of a vague fanart-quality that I'm not really qualified to judge - though I can't imagine anyone is going to see the villain's stupid talking head portrait and not mash A to get it to go away - and every time one of them starts babbling you'll be glad that you're all alone. At least the characters are characters, I guess. And once you get past them the game doesn't look too offensive, as long as it keeps moving.

Moving! Yes. You can walk around and jump and slice stuff. Slicing is kind of nice. You can keep attacking in the air, and every time you do you kind of hang there for a second. You know what I mean. Pressing the Y button makes Dust freak out and start spinning his sword like his arm is a machine that spins things very well, and if you do it in the air you start cycloning forward. This is the 'Ocarina of Time' roll of 'Dust' - it's more fun than walking and after a few hours you've convinced yourself that it might not be slower. It's probably more fun that running, too, though I can't be sure since you can't run in this game.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012 16:11

Papo & Yo'

The fifth-best game of all time that features getting inside cardboard boxes

'Papo & Yo,' the latest in the Mainstream Art Game canon, stars a boy who works his way through a surreal city along with a monster. There are puzzles, but they only serve to maintain a certain rhythm in the flow of the graphics. Challenges are limited to some simple switch-hitting and some simpler platform-jumping, and are simple enough that the inclusion of hint boxes in every other room borders on insulting.

And yes, the monster. He's only mechanically interesting at first glance. He follows along, led by the odors of coconuts and the sounds of frogs, both of which he constantly wants to eat. Never mind any ideas you might already have: All you ever have to do is get him to sit on a switch or fall asleep on some cardboard so you can bounce off him. He's the key to most of the game's locks - you just have to hop around and rearrange the rooms to get him to the door.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012 22:35

Quantum Conundrum'

This game's aesthetic is annoying. I mean, alright, it's cute enough at first - you play a kid going to visit his mad scientist uncle, who has managed to trap himself in some kind of pocket dimension in his eccentric mansion and is unable to remember how. At least it's the narrator that has amnesia this time, you might think cleverly. It becomes less cute when it degenerates into puzzle room, hallway with jokey dialogue, puzzle room (around hour two). Then the jokes start grating. Listen to the uncle make a crack about these kids and their crazy texting ('is English truly that difficult?'); wonder who the hell is laughing.

The puzzles are littered with sloppy decisions. I have a bunch written down, though they're in the Million Dollar Google Doc, and that's the kind of thing I only quote from in job interviews. Safe for work version: After the initial novelty of the dimension shifting wears off (45 minutes if you've never played a videogame before; 10 minutes if you've ever played 'Portal'), each puzzle is just a room full of locks and keys that you've stuck into each other before.

'La-Mulana' was originally released for free in Japanese in 2005, and the remastered commercial version was released in Japanese and English earlier this month. There's a translation patch for the (fantastic-looking) original if you poke around. You can buy the new one at playism-games.com and, right now, nowhere else. I don't like writing paragraphs like this, but hey, this isn't gonna show up in a commercial or on Steam's frontpage.

So. 'La-Mulana.' It's pretty much the best. The guys that made it knew exactly what they were doing all the time, which is remarkable because frankly that's just not it usually goes. It is pushing as hard as it can in every direction and it is almost totally successful.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012 14:25

Spelunky'

'Spelunky' is a 2D jump-and-punch with randomly generated stages. You jump high enough that you can land one block higher than you started or grab onto an edge that's two blocks up. Your whip attack spans the length of a single block in front of you, and it doesn't hit above or below. Bombs and ropes, which must be stumbled upon and collected, allow you to twist the stage's layout to let you get where you want to go. The game is inspired by 1985's nail-hard 'Spelunker,' though the characters here move with a momentum much more like Mario's. Sprinting around with a rock and hucking it at an enemy is a kind of mechanic homage to shell-throwing in 'Super Mario World.'

That 'randomly generated stages' part is The Thing About 'Spelunky,' though. The game is about the precision with which each of its obstacles is designed, and the smooth way all of these obstacles click together in each stage. Every screen is a new puzzle, and the complexity that you can comfortably handle goes up as you learn the ways that the enemies and items all interact together.

I guess there's a certain novelty here if you're already the kind of guy who knows that a Charmander evolves at level 16 or that flying-type pokemon are invulnerable to ground-type attacks. Here are all the perfectly simple mechanics we fell in love with (?) in 1998, only now you have to move your Pikachu around on a grid and line him up to thundershock the Squirtle in question.

I guess most important is The Gimmick, which is that 'Pokemon Conquest' is a crossover between Pokemon and a mostly-Japanese series called 'Nobunaga's Ambition,' which is about a bunch of samurai trying to take over Japan. So, yes, 'Pokemon Conquest' takes place in an alternate feudal Japan where the samurai use Pokemon to do battle instead of swords.

'Monster World IV' is a beautiful little 2D platformer. At the beginning of the game you leave the village that you grew up in. A bunch of townspeople stand around wishing you well. You walk from left to right, headed towards a magical forest.

When you enter the forest you move through about a dozen screens of beautiful, achingly simple level design. Sections of the ground are raised up; you have to jump up over them. Soon little slime guys show up. You hit them with your sword, they make a couple nice sounds, and coins pop out.

I'd talk through these screens jump for jump, if I had the space. They're perfect. After fighting single slimes and then pairs of slimes you reach a fire slime; it takes two hits. That moment when you hit the first fire slime and it doesn't die - man, that's game design. The first fire slime is the heart on 'Monster World IV's' sleeve.

A Review of the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo

There's a reason it's called a power chord. I'm not going to put it into words - that wouldn't be fun. If anyone ever tries to explain to you why they're called power chords, they're a jerk. (That's not what I'm doing. I'm talking about videogames.) You can figure it out yourself, if you don't already know, and you don't even have to read any words; you just have to spend enough time completely alone with a guitar. In fact, reading words can only hurt you. This is crucial information, here! (If you're a game designer!)

The TV in front of me just played a commercial for Pizza Hut P'Zolos. They're like Pizza Hut Hot Pockets, or something. I guess. The name stems from the word P'Zone. A P'Zone is like a calzone, but with that special Pizza Hut touch. It is also evidently a product of such success that its very name is spawning new products. Did you know that there were once Doritos that were coated in a mystery flavor, and that that flavor was literally Mountain Dew?

That's one way to use the word literally. I heard another one on Spike TV last week. A girl said 'We literally won't be taking a breath for the next three days.' I only watch Spike TV once a year. Yes: It was The Holidays.

There are giant words all over the screen during every cutscene. In the first hour some rich guy makes a joke about trickle down economics; the screen gets split in half, one piece gets slid over, frozen and black-and-whited, and 'TRICKLE DOWN ECONOMICS' pops up in it while the action continues in the other half. Guy Ritchie is adapting a book all over my screen, and I don't really get it. I guess the punchline is that it's kind of refreshing to see giant words after playing so many games that are obsessed with putting giant numbers all over my TV!

I can think of one other game where giant words all over the screen was a selling point, and it's whatever Splinter Cell game that was. I played that Splinter Cell game splitscreen, sitting on my friend's futon in his cheap apartment and getting sweaty. Not because of the game; it was summer and all he had was one of those great plastic window fans. Well, whatever. My hands never sweat when I'm playing videogames, anyway. Ever. That's a real genetic advantage, right there. I guess that Splinter Cell game was pretty fun. The big words were stupid.

Anyway: I like my big-budget action-movie videogames to be mechanically straightforward and aesthetically confident. Ideally, their stories are dirty and hopeless. 'Max Payne 3' is all the things that I like, so I guess I will go ahead and like it.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012 15:33

'Minecraft:' A gay old time

Is there any reason for me to write this? I don't know what the hell I'm going to say about 'Minecraft' today, four years (if not more!) after its original release, that a hundred people haven't already said.

Why did they call it a beta for so long? It was never a beta. I know, I wasn't there. But I saw screenshots, and they were white-hot. The whole thing was white-hot from day one. I was seeing them on my parents' computer, though, which wasn't the kind of thing I wanted to try to play 'Minecraft' on. Now, I am rich; now, I am typing on a computer of my very own; now, I am playing the 'Minecraft' beta on my Xbox 360.

It's great. It really is. What a great game. If you're any given person, there's a pretty good chance that I hate literally every single thing that you like, but man, 'Minecraft' is a hell of a thing. How many thousands of words are there that say this? Probably thousands of thousands of them! It makes sense; there's nothing else to say. Let's say something ridiculous, then:

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