Return to Castle Dr. Quandary

Edutainment games are a staple of childhood, now turned into interesting relics of early PC software. There exist two camps for edutainment: narrative-driven adventure games that are extensively point-n-clicks for kids, games like Spy Fox and Putt-Putt, and capital E games like Math Blasters, and that one where a rabbit teaches phonics (no, not that one, no, the other one). As an adult, revisiting series like Spy Fox and Putt-Putt (“don’t you forget Pajama Sam” you say with a clenched fist) was great because, like revisiting an episode of The Simpsons you only watched as a kid, I got more of the references. For instance, there is a movie theater that shows fish themed film parodies in Freddie Fish 2, where as an adult I recognized Flash Gordon and Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp. It was an actually rewarding use of my time. But these were games I played over and over again because I personally had them, unlike the phantom nightmare The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary.

My entire experience with this game involved watching someone else play it badly after school, so for years, I could not remember its name. I have a similar failed memory with an arcade fighting game that I played once at a long-since closed CiCi’s Pizza. I want to say it was Fighting Vipers, but I’m not sure. Developed by now-gone developer MECC, known for classroom staple Number Munchers, The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary is a trip.

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I’m just imagining a child skipping the text and ending up playing the game on d. feecult by mistake.

Beyond Fight, Magic, Run: Spotlighting Unique RPGMaker Creators

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Sad times in a proof-of-concept.

In the past decade, there’s been an increase in RPGMaker games focused on story and character interaction, often sidelining the RPG aspects or removing them entirely. One of the best examples of this is Freebird Games’s To The Moon, a sci-fi drama about altering the memory of a dying man. To The Moon is focused on its characters, story, and futuristic setting. However, its gameplay is simplistic, involving navigating the protagonist scientist characters through memory landscapes and solving simple puzzles. The rise of itch.io also helped encourage the rise of non-standard RPGMaker games, since the site allows for easier hosting of indie titles without having to traverse the Steam approval process. Plus, fan translations of Japanese RPGMaker games are surprisingly plentiful, thanks to contributors like vgperson, who also worked on many official paid Steam releases.

Using RPGMaker for narrative-driven adventure games rather than sword-and-sorcery RPGs is nothing new. Indie Japanese horror games made using RPGMaker are practically a genre on their own, popularized by fan translators and Let’s Plays. Fun fact: while Yume Nikki is probably best known for popularizing Japanese RPGMaker horror games amongst an English-speaking audience, many aspects of its stylistic blend of surrealistic horror can be traced back to the 1998 game Palette, which later received a PS1 re-release.

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Pizza Game Review: Not Half Baked…I’m Sorry…I’m Sorry

Humor in video games often feels hit or miss. Like most fiction, humor shows up at least occasionally in all kinds of games. For example, the Uncharted games try and fail at humor by thinking that having each of their characters quip back and forth (or even to themselves) is funny and endearing. Possibly worse is when you have games, like the otherwise enjoyable Guacamelee!, where a lot of its humor was using super dated (even at the time) internet reaction memes. There are parody games, but parody can only go so far. Honestly, outside of Okage: Shadow King and its humor centered on how goofy a lot of JRPGs plots are, the only other true comedy game I can think of is the visual novel Pizza Game.

Developed mostly by writer and programmer Plasterbrain, with help by her brother JelloApocalypse who designed the characters and directed the voice acting, Pizza Game is described by Plasterbrain as “a shit-post game, but a fully sustainable shit-post game”. Basically, what if someone made a full-length nonsensical otome visual novel, with none of the nonsense of games like the hour-long KFC dating sim? Pizza Game prides itself on its intentionally misspelled sentences and its parade of pretty unpleasant smoochable men. From the top, there is passive aggressive coffee shop owner with a dark past named Chris, rude tech billionaire who is almost definitely a serial killer named Mr. Arimnaes, an ironic and twisted skater named Warped Lamp, a bland but otherwise harmless pizza shop owner named Keenarnor, and whatever the hell Sensei is.

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This entire exchange is magical.

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A Pata-preciation Post

When putting together a list of my favorite video games of all time, one of the titles that consistently breaks my top 5 and has yet to leave is Patapon 2. Standing alongside games like the original Bioshock, Nier Gestalt, and Earthbound is a PSP game about using war drums to command a singing army of eyeball creatures. My particular enjoyment with the Patapon games (specifically 1 & 2) is something I’ve hawked for years but have yet to actually articulate, so why not finally do so?

The original Patapon was released in 2007, during a time when PSP developers realized that yes, you can develop games specific to the console that aren’t janky action games (ports like Tomb Raider, Star Wars Battlefront or otherwise) that function better with two analogue sticks. A direct sequel was released two years later, and the final game in the trilogy came out in 2011. The games were iconic enough to warrant a bizarrely specific stage appearance in Playstation All-Stars, wherein the patapon beat the tar out of God of War’s version of Hades. 2017 brought an HD remaster of Patapon 1, with a remaster of 2 following a year after. Oh, and apparently the games were popular enough to warrant a Chinese knock-off iOS/Android game called Patapon-Siege of Wow!.

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Art from Rolito’s website.

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Loving and Hating Pikmin

Wouldn't the ship being covered in gold make it harder to fly because of how heavy gold is?

OG Pikmin is a weird game. This almost twenty-year-old game series, about tiny freight drivers turned tiny explorers like Captain Olimar, who use whistles to control colorful plant aliens, is a pretty clever premise for a real-time strategy game. On the surface, Pikmin’s focus on traversing through a monster-filled alternate version of Earth while solving puzzles with pikmin offers a distinct playing experience not easily replicated in other games. Yet, I have struggled with Pikmin, particularly OG Pikmin and Pikmin 2. Both games walk right alongside a sandtrap with “greatness” at the bottom, but just never truly fall in.  

I started with Pikmin 2 as a kid, soI’ll also use it as my starting point here . Exploration, especially at the start of each of Pikmin 2’s spring, summer, fall, and winter themed areas, feels great. OG Pikmin kept the world more like a secluded forest compared to Pikmin 2’s random person’s backyard or post-apocalyptic civilization. Similar to the Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards planet Shiver Star, a planet that looks like an Earth destroyed by a new ice age. The areas are filled with large plant pots, hollow logs, and even some tiled showers. The game’s starting area is even a snow-covered street with man-hole covers. These dioramas, often impressively vibrant with clear waters and pretty flowers, are fun  to look at despite being somewhat limited by the GameCube’s texture rendering. The environmental storytelling in Pikmin 2 hints at an unseen but bigger world outside of Olimar and partner Louie’s. 

That's why they call this town Silent Pikmin.

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The Longing Review: Decorating to Distract From Being Deep Underground

THE LONGING Presskit

The Longing, developed by German animation and video game developers Studio Seufz, centers on a rock king’s last-ditch effort to stay in control. The king does so by reserving the last of his energy to create a tiny Shade creature (who will be simply addressed as Shade from now on) to wake him up in 400 days once his power has been restored. Shade is not given much instruction beyond some reminders about how they shouldn’t wonder to far from their underground palace, so Shade must find something to preoccupy the wait. Or better yet, preoccupy the longing.

Looking like a cute combination of a Heartless from Kingdom Hearts and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, but drawn by Edward Gorey, Shade’s average day follows the same few patterns. They can explore an area to look for either an escape from their role as a living alarm clock or locate items to make their living space cozier. These items range from classical literature to read, paper to draw dark but occasionally deeply metaphorical pictures, and  enormous decorative crystals. This early exploration lasts for about an hour or so before Shade comes up against a few key obstacles, like a stalactite that won’t fall for a week or moss that hasn’t grown yet. Shade also walks slowly. Like super slowly. And so, The Longing reveals itself as an idle game.

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Shade is a mood. Example 1

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103 Review: Never Leaving The House

103 is a Kickstarted walking simulator and puzzle game developed by Australian group Dystopia Interactive. First person seems to be Dystopia Interactive’s marmite and toast (hacky Australian joke is hacky), as both 103 and their only other game, Make A Killing, share this predilection for protagonists without faces. Mystery should be 103’s real title, because solving said mystery is half of playing 103. Lily is an overly imaginative individual whose night out with friends ends abruptly and the player must piece together what went on, and potentially what went wrong (I went into 103 narratively blind of this premise and now you know more than I).

Playing 103 involves walking through a cozy house, filled with stylish 1910’s Alphonse Mucha posters and adverts with drinking skeletons, in order to find…something? From the beginning, after quickly turning down the camera’s sensitivity because it was giving me motion sickness, 103 does not inform the player of anything. A blonde mannequin is present, often found finding value in staring at mirrors or enjoying the rain visible through the house’s sole window (which is honestly rather calming), and only she and the game’s patchwork bear mascot are the navigational devices. Those arrows drawn on the carpet? Totally worthless.

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Have they been here long?

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Exploring Abandoned Research Facilities for Skill Points and Relaxation

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System Shock 2 is one of my favorite games. This late 90’s PC game, is a mix of low-key cyberpunk and the alright movie Event Horizon. It further combines survival-based combat with a focus on RPG style skill trees and paths created its own distinct subgenre of video game, often labeled “System Shock 2 like”. Dracula’s castle from Castlevania: Symphonia of the Night was metroidvania’s mother (father…adopted gay mom?), and System Shock 2’s spooky mega-corporation owned space ship, the Von Braun, create an iconic setting within a subgenre it unintentionally created. What sets apart, and realistically limits the amount of games given the moniker “System Shock 2-like” compared to the relatively swamped subgenre of metroidvanias is, a necessary bigger budget. Additionally, these game require an almost constant reliance on utilizing some of the original System Shock 2 staff. As if metroidvanias like Hollow Knight, Dust: An Elysian Tail, and Quacamelee! would have to invite Castlevania’s real life Dracula, creative director Koji Igarashi, to consult on each game as a show of authenticity.

System Shock 2-likes” feel as if they have at least one big hand print of System Shock 2, like a Urah-kai’s mark of Saruman, over the design document. The legacy of System Shock 2 is so impactful, that even a later game like Void Bastards is marketed front and center with the tag line “from the development director of System Shock 2 and Bioshock”. This shared creative staff creates an odd familiarity for these games set, sometimes only partially, in isolated abandoned research facilities, including Bioshock 1 and 2, Prey (2017), and the distant cousin Soma.

Active exploration is big in “System Shock 2-likes”, where certain key areas are returned to over and over. Prey protagonist Morgan Yu’s office being refitted into a home base comes to mind, similar to the frequent backtracking in metroidvanias. That compulsive need to open every drawer, filing cabinet, or bathroom stall, common in story-focused walking simulators like Gone Home, is encouraged. It’s rather amusing that a subgenre of games so fixated on creative methods for dispatching grotesque monsters or armor-plated robots feels best when every enemy is simply ignored because you are only returning to Engineering because you just remembered there was a hidden unopened safe. Screw progressing the overarching plot to find answers as to why the research facility is abandon and why everyone is dead. You have audio logs detailing how much Margret in Hydroponics dislikes Brendon from Neuromod Division because his last White Elephant gift was something shitty, like an expensive bag of whiskey stones. Soma’s safe mode even removes all direct combat with its instant death undersea monstrosities, letting the player scatter papers and coffee cups in relative peace.

The solo journey of the “System Shock 2-like” is great for providing a creepy atmosphere, where often the only non-monster met are recently-deceased crewmate set pieces. Explore a lab in System Shock 2, find a hanged researcher. Explore a train corridor in Soma, find a technician being barely kept alive by a respirator AI. Go literally anywhere in Prey, find a staff member dried of their energy by the Typhon so they now look like a tar-covered mummy. It invokes this great feeling, like in the original Alien, that while you are scurrying to  survive, creatures bigger and scarier than you are also keeping busy.

Prey found body

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Muse Dash review: Start Dash!

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Muse Dash was originally released in 2018 by Peropero Games, an independent game development group from Guangzhou, China. According to an in-game loading screen tip, the game has seven devs. The game is available for mobile phones, the Nintendo Switch, and the PC through Steam.

Muse Dash is a rhythm game that borrows a few cues from action and platforming titles. One of the game’s playable girls – punkish Rin, mischievous Buro, and elegant Marija – runs through a stage while punting enemies and dodging obstacles that fly down the two on-screen lanes. The objective is simple: punt enemies, collect notes and hearts and try not to die from spikes, all to the beat of a song. If this sounds an awful lot like Game Freak’s 2013 3DS game Harmoknight, well, it is, but with more electronic music, faster gameplay and the ability to play as an anime girl in a maid outfit.

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Somehow I didn’t break my combo while taking this screencap.

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Why Town Simulators in Non-Town Simulator Games Are Better, Actually

Township

Harvest Moon, or the modern equivalents My Time At Portia and Gleaner Heights, ask a lot of my time. The average Harvest Moon like is close to forty-to-sixty hours long, and because video games have that pacing problem where things start to plateau after the first ten hours with nothing drastic or new happening till the very end, I have a particular itch I can’t scratch. There exists distinct merit in the limited village-building aspects of all these games that I value over the farming simulation and villager-gifting player-loop. The Rune Factory games and the mining parts of Stardew Valley are a middle ground, but that’s not enough. The key is for the village aspect to be almost separate to the core of the game, like how it’s probably worth it to do the real estate campaign in Yakuza 0, but it’s not necessary. Wait, Breath of Fire II has a town sim?

The last Breath of Fire on the SNES, Breath of Fire II, centers on rebuilding an old dilapidated cottage into the player’s home base, called Township. After being accused of stealing from a wealthy man in the town of Hometown (a lot of BF2’s translations are goofy like this), sad dog Bow goes with protagonist Ryu into hiding. While Ryu goes off in search of the real thief to prove Bow’s innocence, Bow is joined by other characters to rebuild Township. This becomes a cool subplot for Ryu, where party members, like the tough but bored armadillo man Rand, will recommend leaving them behind to help expand Township. Ryu eventually goes to the town of Capitan, the carpenter center of their world, and can  hand pick a preferred village design. Opinions include boring 12th century high fantasy brick house, treetop cabins like Fortree City from Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, and the actually cool Mughal style.

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Is the party scared or embarrassed, cause they are all looking away from me? Exhibit 1.

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