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Completely Nuts Steam Sale Alert - Psychonauts

Tim Schafer (former LucasArts game designer, founder of Double Fine Productions) lost a little bit of gamer love in 2009, I think, by working everyone's anticipation level for Brütal Legend up to a fever pitch, and then releasing a game that didn't really match what everyone thought they had been sold.  The blend of action and real-time strategy just didn't work for a lot of people in the context he presented it in, and no matter how excellent the story writing or how funny the voice acting (and by most accounts both were stellar, a rarity in games to be sure), if the game isn't fun to play, all its other accolades are diminished.

I thought it was a shame, because to me Tim Schafer will always be a great game designer, having made Grim Fandango, one of my favorite games of all time and one that far too few people played.  If I could do nothing as a gaming enthusiast other than get more people to experience Grim Fandango, that would be worth doing.  It was simultaneously one of the best LucasArts adventure games and one of the best-written games of any genre, and walked the line between hilarious and poignant with effortless grace.  It's hard to find it these days, but it's worth the effort.

This post isn't about that game, though.  It's about the game Schafer made between Grim Fandango and Brütal Legend - Psychonauts.  Specifically, the fact that Psychonauts is on sale on Steam right now (and through tomorrow) for the mind-numbingly low price of $2.  Two dollars.  I'm considering snagging it and giving my boxed copy to a friend, just to share.  I don't love Psychonauts quite as much as Grim Fandango, but that's probably just because the 3D action platformer doesn't warm my heart and my childhood memories quite the same way that the adventure genre does.  It's still a brilliant game, and another one that criminally few people played at release.  Maybe by now you've corrected that misstep, but if you haven't, do yourself a favor and go drop some pocket change on it.

Image Courtesy MobyGames

If you don't know anything about it and need to be sold, it's about a psychic youngster attending a summer camp for psychics, who naturally gets wrapped up in a wacky conspiracy plot and ends up needing to become a psychic secret agent in order to save the camp / world.  The game levels generally consist of making your way through the minds of the other characters (rendered as inventive platforming levels where you fight bad dreams, clear away mental cobwebs, and unlock repressed memories contained in "emotional baggage" - literal suitcases in the game, of course).  The whole thing is wrapped in some gleefully twisted character design, well-written & genuinely funny dialogue, and miles of charm.  You should try it.  Even if you somehow don't love it, I promise you've spent $2 on much worse things.


Time Well Spent - VVVVVV

If you've read the "About Me" section of this site (if you haven't, I don't blame you - who reads those without prompting?), you know that the investment of time that I put into a game is at least as important to me as, if not moreso than, the investment of money I put into it.  For my generation of gamer - 30-ish, married, working full time, preparing to support or already supporting a family - it seems that generally speaking, it's more likely that we won't have time to play a new release that we're interested in than that we won't have the money to buy it.  Sure, nobody can buy every $60 release as it hits the shelves (...well, I certainly can't), but things shift to the bargain bin, or there's Steam sales, or there's Gamefly.  Games get pretty affordable pretty quick these days, and I'm lucky enough to generally be able to buy or rent what I want.  But playing them still takes time, and nobody ever seems to have enough of that.

It isn't my intention, as I mentioned in my first post about Torchlight, to review games in the traditional sense on this blog and give them scores.  Plenty of sites do that, and do it well, and I'm really not interested in the metrics of "this game is better than that game but not quite as good as that one."  I do, however, want to call attention to games that reward the player substantially for the time put into them, because few things can endear a game to me more than the feeling that I've gotten a good return on that investment, and few things can sour me on a game faster than making me feel like I've wasted my time.  "Time Well Spent" seems like a good label to award the games that excel in this regard (maybe somebody can whip me up a nice trophy graphic? Hint?), and my first such award goes without hesitation to Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV.

Chances are, if you read enough about games to be interested in VVVVVV, you've already heard about it somewhere else, but in case you haven't, a brief introduction is in order.  VVVVVV is a platform game based around a simple concept: rather than jumping, your character reverses gravity.  It's essentially a one-button game - well, one button and the directional keys - where the action button "flips" the effect of gravity, from floor to ceiling or ceiling to floor.  The change can't happen in midair (at least, not by your doing), so you must find safe purchase either above or below before making your next flip.  That's it.  The game has one mechanic.

Within this seemingly limited structure, Cavanagh manages to craft some of the most difficult platforming challenges I've ever encountered.  There's a set of rooms in VVVVVV labeled "Doing Things the Hard Way - Veni, Vidi, Vici!" that is just phenomenally brutal - check out the video below, if you don't mind having a tiny section of the game "spoiled" for you.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't have the patience for that sort of thing.  The player recorded above might not be exaggerating when he says in the video's description that it took him 500 attempts to successfully complete that challenge; I know I logged well over a hundred deaths on it myself.  That's a lot more failure than I'm usually willing to endure.  A number of careful design choices on the part of Mr. Cavanagh, however, kept me playing through this and every other challenge VVVVVV could throw at me:

  1. With very few exceptions, the hardest parts of the game are optional, and can be tackled in any order and at any time you like.  The twenty "shiny trinkets" hidden in rooms like "Doing Things the Hard Way" are bonus objectives, and you can pursue them or pass them up at your leisure.
  2. To encourage you to try to get them all, though, their locations are all marked on the map after you've beaten the main game, and most of them are within short distance of a teleporter that goes to and from the game's main hub area.
  3. No area of the game is ever "locked off" from the player; from the very beginning, you can access any part of the map you have the skill to find and work your way through.  There are a few empty "filler" rooms scattered around, but generally speaking the whole map is very gameplay dense.  You're always finding something new to try, and if it's too hard, you can go do something else and come back later.
  4. This is maybe the most important point: with only one exception I can think of, you're never asked to do anything that takes more than 30-60 seconds without hitting a checkpoint, and - as you see in the above video - death results in respawning instantly at the most recent one, without further penalty.  (Aside from the "death counter" on your stats screen, but I learned early to just pretty much ignore that.)  Try, try, try, try, try again.

More than any other game that comes readily to mind, VVVVVV goes out of its way to make you feel like every moment you spend with it is productive.  You'll never run out of lives and need to start over.  You'll never need to re-do 10 difficult things in order to practice the one that keeps fouling you up; there are enough checkpoints that you'll spend time learning to get better at new rooms rather than replaying the ones you can already beat.  And you'll never need to trudge through old areas to get back to the one you want to focus on; teleporters are everywhere.  I recently heard someone at my office - talking about something else entirely - say "Only the hard things should be hard."  I can tell that phrase is going stick with me, and it's very much the design philosophy here.

Cavanagh wants to present you with a variety of genuinely difficult platforming puzzles, and let you get good enough to beat them.  That should be hard, and it is.  But all the stuff around that - moving around the map, re-trying really tough rooms until you get them right, finding the next area when it's time to move on - is so easy, so streamlined, that it just fades into the background so you can concentrate on the important parts.  The game respects your time, and wants you to spend it exploring, learning, perfecting.  Kieron Gillen over at RockPaperShotgun, when he wrote about the game, put it well: "Frustration isn’t difficulty. Frustration is difficulty cut with boredom."  For as hard as VVVVVV was at points, I was never frustrated with it.  With myself, maybe.  But the game was never unfair.  Getting good enough to beat it - which I'm proud to say I did, with all 20 shiny trinkets - was still up to me, but it never hindered my doing so.  It enabled me.

I should say that I do have some qualms about the game's price, but also that I feel somewhat bad about having them.  In a world where Bioshock can sell for $5 on Steam in a holiday sale, or a few dollars can get you a 20- or 30-hour RPG on the iPhone, $15 for a game that intentionally looks like a Commodore 64 title might seem a bit much.  It's closest logical contemporary - Braid - sells for $5 less, and is both much prettier and, I think, somewhat lengthier.  (VVVVVV took me somewhere in the 4 to 5 hour vicinity to complete, leaving only the time trials and "beat the game in under <x> lives" challenges undone.)  But honestly, can I complain too much about experiencing one of the hardest and yet most satisfying platformers I've played in years for less than the cost of a dinner out?  I can't.  There's some truly excellent - and devious - level design in VVVVVV, stuff I can't remember seeing in any other game before, and wrapping my head and fingers around it was a delight.  I got more out of those 5 hours here than I've gotten out of 10 hours or more in longer games, and I couldn't put it down.  It was worth every penny, and minute, I spent.

Go play the free demo (download, or playable in Flash).  If you like it, buy it.  I think you'll be happy you did.


The Best NES Game You Never Played?

I think it's probably the best one I never played, at any rate.  "Gimmick" - or "Mr. Gimmick", as it was going to be known in the U.S. release that didn't happen - was made by Sunsoft, and came out in Japan in 1992 (Sunsoft also did the NES Batman and Blaster Master games, for some context).  I had never even heard of the game until this week, but luckily, Frank Cifaldi over on the 1Up Retronauts Blog saw fit to change that with a very well annotated video walkthrough of the game.

It's remarkably impressive.  In terms of visuals and audio, Gimmick stands comfortably above almost all of its contemporaries, partly thanks to special hardware manufactured into the cartridge.  Its gameplay is 100% classic platformer, with a lot of extra touches [enemies with personality, remarkably consistent physics, brain teasing secret areas] that we usually only associate with first-party titles on Nintendo systems, and sometimes not even then.  Had it been released stateside with some marketing support, I can't help but think it would've been a hit.

Sadly, of course, that didn't happen, but I'm glad at least that thanks to the internet this little gem hasn't been entirely lost.  I've embedded Part 1 of the video walkthrough below, and the other 3 parts can be watched on YouTube by clicking the links that appear at the end of each segment.  Spending a half hour watching somebody else play a 20-year old game might not sound very thrilling, but if you're at all interested in the history of game design, give it a shot.  I suspect you'll be impressed.


Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 29

I can't pick just one for this week, folks.  I can't.  There's too much.  Last week I mentioned that we might have to do another round-up style installment of Free and Worth Every Penny soon, and this week things hit critical mass.  There are so many high quality free titles showing up out there right now, I can barely play them all!  Which means I need your help.  Let's get to work.

Paolo Pedercini's "Every Day the Same Dream" has been written up everywhere from RockPaperShotgun to GamersWithJobs to Kotaku, and with good reason.  Visually and musically distinctive, quick to play, and uniquely contemplative, it feels like a mixture of Jason Rohrer's Passage and Groundhog Day.

I realize that this means some of you will hate it.

But I really enjoyed my time with Every Day.  The game presents you with a situation where your desire to break away from the world's constraints are shared by the character you control, and you have to figure out how to do that - or whether it's even possible - together.   It's not a feel-good game, but it made me feel good about gaming.

Take a top down dual-stick (or in this case WASD+mouse) shooter.  Now make it an 8-bit style RPG.  Now make it a cooperative MMO.  Now embed it in a webpage.  Presto: you've got Realm of the Mad God.

Another product of TIGSource's competitive nature (in this case, their Assemblee Competition), Realm of the Mad God boasts a huge world to explore, hundreds of enemies to fight, items to collect, persistent character leveling, and a chat system (as if to further prove that even in a Flash-based game made for a forum competition, in an MMO, hell is other people).  This one is brought to us by Rob & Alex of "Wild Shadow Studios", and you can read more about the game here.

Having been in development for at least a couple years now (I can find blog posts about it going back to 2007), and finally seeing a finished release late last month, GENETOS is the story of the shmup genre, told by Tatsuya Koyama in a shmup of his own.  Start out in a distinctly Space Invaders-themed opening level, and make your way through the history of shmups all the way to the bullet hell pictured above, evolving your capabilities as you go.

I'm not a huge fan of shmup games, largely because I'm not terribly good at them, but I recently got addicted to Space Invaders: Infinity Gene on the iPhone, which uses almost exactly the same mechanic.  I thought it was terribly clever, and was surprised to learn that Mr. Koyama had the same idea years ago, and executed on it admirably - and for free.

Unlike the last two, which were webgames, GENETOS is a Windows download of about 27MB.

Last one for this week - not because I don't have more, I do, but this is getting long.  Besides, I don't want to overwhelm you.  I want to let the zombies do that.

A "de-make" of the best zombie apocalypse simulator around, Pixel Force Left 4 Dead takes Bill, Louis, Francis and Zoey and tosses them back to the mid-80's to star in an NES-style version of the game we all know and love.  All four of the campaigns are included, playable solo or in 2-player co-op.  You'll also find the weapons you're used to, and the special infected you loathe, all modified to fit an 8-bit frame.

Some changes to the formula were obviously necessary - swarms of hundreds of zombies have been removed here in favor of slower, more deliberate gameplay, partly since you can only shoot in four directions, I'm sure (though holding down the fire button switches your movement to strafing, which is nice).  But don't let yourself think that fewer zombies means it's going to be easy.  None of the zombies go down in one hit anymore, and if they do swarm you, a speedy trip back to the last safe house is in store.  Watch your back.

Pixel Force Left 4 Dead is also a Windows download, of about 20MB.

Before I go: Terry Cavanagh, author of Don't Look Back from the very first Free and Worth Every Penny installment, has released his first commercial title, VVVVVV.  You can play the 2-level demo online at Kongregate, or download it and purchase it if you like at the official site.  It's pretty goddamn brilliant.

That's it for this week, kids.  Get gaming.  See you next time.

"Free And Worth Every Penny" is a column I collaborate on with Mike Bellmore at Immortal Machines. This piece also appears there.


Bountiful Indeed.

If you're a fan of the Heroes of Might & Magic series, you may know that its inspiration was a 1990 game by New World Computing called King's Bounty.  You may also know that King's Bounty got a 2008 remake called King's Bounty: The Legend, and that it was very well received (because it's very, very good).  You may also know that this year, King's Bounty: Armored Princess was released, a standalone expansion / sequel that reviewed similarly well.

If you have not yet played either or both of these, they are on sale right now in a pack from Steam for eleven dollars.  That is completely insane.  They can also be had for $5 and $10 respectively, if you already have one of the other.

These are widely regarded (rightly, from what I've played of The Legend) as some of the best fantasy strategy games of recent years, and they aren't going to get any cheaper or convenient than this.  You're also getting a ton of game, for the price.  Bill Harris really loved it, I recommend you go read why if you're not sure whether or not you're interested.  He says most of the stuff I would say about it, and probably better.