Clearly taking a page from Holden Link’s book here. I thought it was a really great idea to keep track of games played in a particular year and reflect on them. Most of the games I play are indie or mobile creations rather than blockbusters. This past year I had quite a few classic games pop up as well, some that I’d played before but many that I had not. Many of these games are gleeful acquisitions from the past year’s Humble Bundles.
The idea is to learn more about the games that I am drawn to, establish my personal design values, and to promote excellent work in the industry that I feel strongly about. This will be split into two posts in order to do proper justice to each game… and because it’s pretty exhausting!
As of June I have commented on some more games from my long list and added the rest of it to this post. While I do plan to finish this beast, next year my “What I Played” post will certainly be more focused.
Aquaria has a lot to do with my love for indie games. It blew my mind that such a beautiful, enjoyable experience could be built by just two people working together. I chose it for the subject of a paper in the spring because of its unique mechanics and serene environment. My failure to finish it is only due to the game’s dependence upon an external mouse, which I rarely use. I highly recommended it, just don’t expect an adrenaline rush (…at first) or a high score.
Atom Zombie Smasher
This is a bit of a departure for me. I have not traditionally enjoyed tactical or strategy games for very long. Atom Zombie Smasher’s relatively short play sessions (not more than 5 minutes) and limited but clear item selection (early on, at least) have allowed me to enjoy it and even give it some thought while not in-game. Although I did feel as though the structure of the game (number of zombies vs. people saved) had me fighting my way out of a hole of poor performance early on, I found it both frustrating and motivating.
The Binding of Isaac
Here’s a Humble Bundle purchase that I never expected to actually play. The premise and art are intentionally disturbing. Drew Dixon and his colleagues did well to point out its willingness to handle a dark subject and its excellence in design and execution. I’ve only put a few minutes into it and appreciate it but can’t honestly recommend it across the board.
Bit.trip is a really fun series of games that heavily integrates music into the gameplay experience. Many of them can be described as “Pong meets Guitar Hero;” Bit.trip Runner is more like “Canabalt meets Simon with great music.” It’s fun to play, very difficult to progress through, and generally pretty shallow. That’s not a dig, it suits the genre.
I picked up Boom Blox for the Wii after I began working on the Cognitive Game Project with Rob Solomon and Maribeth Gandy in the fall of 2011. Generally, I found it to be a very shallow and unsatisfying puzzle game. I also wrote a paper about the poorly designed UI and interaction scheme. Maybe I don’t fall within its target audience. The older folk who played it for the study typically found it difficult to enjoy as well.
If you haven’t played this game, please stop reading my crummy commentary and go get started! Created over 5 years by one man, this is arguably the most beloved indie game of all time. The gameplay is sublime, the story is engaging, and the characters are lovable (even the bad ones). I also wrote a paper about the cooperation between Cave Story’s level and weapon design: you get to use and explore the abilities of each of the game’s many objects almost right away. If you enjoy games like Metroid I guarantee this will be time well spent!
I played this classic again via emulator on my phone almost a year ago. I didn’t get very far this time around but I was reminded of the charm of its characters, the vastness of its world, and its engaging mechanics. It is worth (many) hours of play on any platform, including the DS or Wii!
Another award-winning indie hit, Cogs is an extremely clever puzzle game that forces you to think in three dimensions. Like Portal, it is very satisfying to beat a level. I don’t think it’s terribly deep but the designers keep things fresh by introducing new mechanics every few levels. It’s worth picking up in a bundle.
Flee Buster (Chevy Ray)
Chevy is a bit of a flash game idol. For Ludum Dare 21 (theme: escape) he made a triple game that is wonderfully hectic. Every few seconds the player switches between three different scenarios (and mechanics), trying to help all three “characters” escape from different antagonists. It is generally difficult but is surprisingly well-balanced for a 48 hour product. It’s a flash game, play it and love it for five minutes or so.
Game Dev Story
This one went on sale on the Android market in the last couple of months and I picked it up for $0.10. It grabbed me for a few hours on end before dropping me off a cliff. I honestly don’t know why it was so brilliantly (dangerously) compelling for a day and so boring the next. There is a baseline 20-year timeline within which new consoles are announced at intervals and new genres are discovered. It could be that, on subsequent playthroughs, the initial excitement of the unknown is gone. At any rate, it’s a very fun sim if you can get it on sale. Don’t count on it being a game that you come back to repeatedly.
An Indiecade-finalist Facebook game! Hero generations is a casual strategy/rpg/adventure game that establishes continuity in a surprisingly novel way. Each character has a certain number of years to live. This goes down slowly as the player moves around but can go down faster if battles are lost. Near the end of the character’s life they must find the best mate possible in one of the area’s towns and… well… make a new hero! There is a level of progression that can be achieved so that higher scores can be made with later generations of heros. It’s well designed and presented casual fun.
I’m no SHMUP junkie but I’ve fostered a fascination in the genre for a while. Frantic gameplay in an epic setting is a compelling combination. Jamestown is an indie creation that breaks no conventions but fulfills them well. There are a variety of ships and weapons to use in fighting back the… antagonistic horde and moving through the genuinely interesting story. I wouldn’t call it a “bullet-hell” game but it sure does get tough to keep projectiles, enemies, and objectives straight on the higher difficulties. Actually, you must beat early levels on high difficulties to unlock later levels. Although some might find this annoying and repetitive, I did not. They’re fun!
We’ve seen an absurd explosion of tower defense games over the last few years. Kingdom Rush manages to set itself apart all the same. The presentation is very appealing and the design doesn’t disappoint. The tech trees behind the towers are extremely fun and the upgrades available between quests provide an overarching sense of progression. Furthermore, there is a lot for the player to do while the action is happening. Short cooldowns on player abilities combined with live tower building and upgrading make this an enduringly fun game. One of these days I’ll pick it up on iOS, it is perfectly suited for a touch interface.
For the record, I don’t consider this to be a game. LambdaMOO is a MUD, a text-based precursor of virtual worlds like Second Life. There are games that have been built inside of LambdaMOO via scripting but, in and of itself, it is little more than a chat room. I wrote an essay about it in the spring of 2011 and spent a few days exploring its “rooms” and debunking the focused media claims that have been made about it. There are users logged in to LambdaMOO every day who have been there and known each other for twenty years. It is cool and interesting but it is not a game.
The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap
Yet another pseudo-classic that I was able to play via emulator. This game had a lot of “wow” factor for me because I played it shortly after taking CS2261 at Georgia Tech. Playing a AAA Gameboy Advance game after having built one myself was really incredible. Seemingly simple things like floating around on a giant lily pad put a giant smile on my face. I wasn’t able to finish it but I enjoyed every minute.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
I had the great joy of introducing my wife Lori to some of the games that captured my imagination as a kid. Chief among these, of course, is Ocarina of Time. I loved playing through it again and she loved watching it, so much so that she would pull me away from other entertainment to have another play session.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
After we finished Ocarina of Time and my family retrieved their Nintendo 64 from us Lori and I bought a Wii. In the same swoop we picked up Twilight Princess and continued our adventure of wonder. As is true of most games in this series, Twilight Princess is very different from yet much the same as Ocarina of Time. Actually playing the game was less compelling to me than exploring and enjoying the world with Lori. In particular I did not enjoy playing as a wolf for a good portion of the game, likely because of my affinity for real-time combat with a sword and bow.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
I almost didn’t buy Skyward Sword but, instead, it became the first game that I preordered since Halo 2. As with Twilight Princess it is very different and yet much the same. Lori and I enjoyed the art and the characters greatly and flying with the Wiimote was surprisingly satisfying. My chief complaints are rooted in the disconnected world and reuse of three distinctive areas. It’s a great game with loads of nostalgia and charm but it is not a terribly compelling experience. The advertised 1:1 sword controls are fun, I promise. They are also very frustrating.
Mario Kart Wii
Bam! We got a game bundled with our Wii! We actually spent a lot of time playing this one and have recently been saying that we need to load it up again. Lori got pretty good at it and it’s always fun for some friendly competition. The rubber-banding we’ve come to expect from Mario Kart is there but it’s one small part of what is really excellent design. Worth having for any Wii owner.
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
Shadow of the Colossus
Super Mario: Galaxy
Super Meat Boy
World of Goo