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Tag Archives: Games

 

 

On The Evolution And Development Of Mech Games.

 

 

RPS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Construct.

 

 

“We are more free than ever before to look around in all directions; nowhere, do we perceive any limits. We have the advantage of feeling an immense space around us – but also an immense void.” – Nietzsche

 

I look up at the orange sky. I stare at the vapor trails of passing planes. I remember Destiny.

Games are barren. They wrap space around emptiness and call it ‘World.’

Mario is desolate: Why is the Kingdom so empty? Where did everyone go? Whose footsteps wrap around the mountains?

Where were they going? And why did they leave?

Games suggest so much more than they are, but the space always cracks and no amount of environmental density can cover the silent, screaming vacuum behind their blind walls.

There are those that celebrate this wasteland: the Souls series, but their understanding never lasts.

Art emerges from the medium and implies texture and flesh. Warmth and dirt. But this is never translatable.

The system loses the context and renders an approximation of an open heart: trash tumbling in the light of a cold wind.

A problem of translation of place.

In Dark Souls, the player enters a painting: The Painted World of Ariamis. The painting hangs in a large cathedral in the middle of the domain of dead Gods.

The painted world was more tangible than the game’s reality. It distilled the lingering misery, focused it.

Warmth made of glass.

I look up at the orange sky. I stare at the vapor trails of passing planes. I wonder about the people. I wonder about their fear.

Games are barren. They wrap space around emptiness and call it ‘World.’

And what of the actual World?

It is also wrapped in an incomprehensible emptiness.

Is all our art and culture just a means to focus our anxieties of the void? To manufacture space and meaning?

To focus our misery?

The world as an engine of art and anxiety.

I played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare one year after being stuck in a war zone.

The ‘attack helicopter’ killstreak gave me nightmares.

Games are somewhere between our subjective real and waking dream.

They have an influence of vision, they manufacture questions of perception and alter the gaze.

I lay down on the grass. I watch the light drip through the shaking silhouette of leaves. I think of Crysis.

The bigger a game tries to pretend to be, the less interesting it is.

The bigger a game tries to be, the more brittle the walls and the vacuum becomes intolerable and loud.

Open-world games try to keep their promise. Worlds where the player can mold their own narrative: An assumed simulation of living.

But this world itself is not open, none of us can go where we want.

We are stuck with our anxieties, our hate, our love, our need.

We are rooted and our imagination is crumbling.

What made FFVII so successful is that it understood the minute scale on which a world operates. It understood the sequence of place and the fragility of people.

And similar to Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, every character was colored by the tragedy of existing in that world.

Square never captured that feeling again. No one has.

In college, I would experiment with noise. I listened to a lot of Merzbow, Bomb 20, and MITB.

Other genres of music, when pushed to their natural ends, often failed to capture the absurd notion of creating meaning in a life of constant fear and a notion of the inevitable end of all things.

Eazy-E almost got it.

He wrangled his own understanding out of the bowels of cosmic indifference and died.

 

Bearing.

 

“Why do you like games so much?”

We were sitting at a Mediterranean cafe downtown. The light was dim. There was a lot of noise.

It was raining outside. We were drinking mint tea.

I looked at her.

I shrug.

I didn’t have a good answer. I still don’t.

And I don’t think anyone does.

I barrel through the darkness. I listen to Chipzel. I feel remorse.

Her music emerges from the ancient dead. It isn’t about reminiscing, it’s about digging through potential.

Games are barren. They wrap their creators’ hands in dust and bone and call it love.

An existential war between iterations of conflict and empty memorial: This is the current state of things.

“Why do you like games so much?”

Maybe because I like the promise of their parts: Games as reverse-Gestalt objects.

The parts are more than the whole.

Engines of art, music, philosophy, narratives, experience. Everything that emerges from that space is more exhilarating than the space itself.

Factories.

I sit on a hill. I stare through the heart of the city. I watch the sunset. I listen.

How many times has the world cracked open to bear itself to the distant, dying stars?

How many times have we accepted the mess we are and the mess we are in?

Are games attractive because they give us a controlled space to act? But the finality is there and the player is actively driving that world to its own end.

No matter where we go, we devour worlds and drink space.

Always running from ourselves and into each other.

I was watching G4. It was a live broadcast of E3. They asked for viewer feedback about a game with ‘choice.’

They aired the response of a stereotype.

An obese, white male discussing how he always makes the ‘moral’ choices. That mattered to him.

He wanted to be the classic hero.

I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry for how much pain he must be in to imagine that his choices and his feedback mattered.

The greatest fraud: That the worlds of games care about what we think or feel.

It’s all fish eyes and limbs. Gasping and clawing. Remembrance and money.

 

Dancing.

 

We made MMOs because we couldn’t handle the end.

We decided we needed persistence. We needed more time in the wasteland between dream and abyss.

A wasteland with no virtual end: A depraved mimicry of our reflections.

I look up at the sun. I remember the canvas, the page, the brick, breathing, waking.

Games are barren. They are made and call themselves ‘World.’

And we run into them with a love and expectation that is always broken.

Why do you like games so much?

I stayed up all night and read ‘I, The Divine‘ once.

A novel written by a man from the perspective of a Lebanese woman trying to write her life story.

A novel of first chapters.

Where do our lives begin?

I walked to the lake at 4 am. I sat by the shore.

It was snowing. I lit a cigar.

I stared into the black.

And I accepted in that moment, there was no one to embrace.

And I accepted, once and for all, that I have no answers.

 

I am become boredom, the cancer of worlds.

 

“…It can only persist…as long as it’s possible to pretend that the destructive forces that humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, and that the world is an infinite garbage can.” – Noam Chomsky

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today.

 

 

Last month, I took my wife to Niagara Falls for the first time.

She had been living in the U.S. since February 2013, but we never had the time to make the trip.

She contacted a friend she had known in Lebanon (now married and living in Toronto) to see if her and her husband would want to meet us there.

They did and we agreed on a Saturday.

In making the 1.5 hour drive from Rochester, NY to Niagara Falls, we stopped off at a small gas station in Buffalo.

The attendant happened to be Lebanese as well and we discussed the old country and continued to the border.

The United States’ side of Niagara Falls is underdeveloped, industrial, and claustrophobic.

It is a place stuck in fading.

The American side of the falls, however, is beautiful.

But I enjoy the Canadian side more.

It doesn’t carry the smell of a stale and silent narrative.

It is dynamic.

On going through the border into Canada, the border guard asked me what I was there for, how long I was staying, where I lived, whose car I was driving.

After answering, he let us through.

We spent the day walking around, taking pictures of the falls, talking about the politics of Toronto.

My wife was happy to see her friend.

Around 3 pm, we all decided to say good-bye and head back home.

I was anxious.

I was anxious at reentering the United States.

I hated the American border guards. I hated their tactics of intimidation, their passive insistence of guilt.

Car parked in line to cross, my gut all wrapped up.

My turn came and I pulled up:

Me: “Hi…”
BG: “Passport and identification please.”

I hand my passport and wife’s green card.

BG: “How long were you in Canada?”
Me: “Just for the day.”
BG: “What were you doing?”
Me: “Just visiting the falls.”
BG: “What is your relation to her?”

She points to my wife.

Me: “She is my wife.”
BG: “Where were you born?” (addressing wife)
Wife: “Cote d’Ivoire.”
BG: “Where do you live?”
Me: “Rochester, New York.”
BG: “Whose car is this? Why does it have Wisconsin plates?”
Me: “My brother’s, he lives in Wisconsin.”
BG: “Where’s your brother?”
Me: “Lebanon.”
BG: “Why are you driving his car?”
Me: “He’s letting me borrow it.”
BG: “Why is he in Lebanon?”
Me: “Visiting family.”
BG: “With all the stuff that’s going on?!”
Me: “It’s actually not that dangerous there.”
BG: “Let me see the registration for the vehicle.”

Here I shrug, I don’t know where the registration is. I check the glove box and hand her the first paper I find.

BG: “Uh, this is the insurance, but it does have your name on it.”

I look again. I hand her the next paper. She looks it over.

BG: “Turn off the car and open the trunk.”

She steps out of her booth and walks to the back of the car, opens the trunk, checks, comes back around.

BG: “So what were you doing in Canada?”
Me: “Just visiting the falls.”
BG: “You mean to tell me that you drove all this way just to visit the falls for one day and come back?”
Me: “It’s not that far, just a little over an hour.”
BG: “You couldn’t find anything to do locally?”

At this point I’m stunned at the absurd level this is reaching.

I shrug and look at my wife. The border guard has a sarcastic smile.

Me: “I mean, she has never seen the falls before, I was just taking her to see the falls.”
BG:  “But why today? Why today of all days?”

I sigh and shrug again.

Me: “My wife had off of work and we just decided to come out.”
BG: “OK.”

She hands me back our papers and lets us pass.

I was frustrated and angry.

My wife and I talked about what happened. She said that she wanted to mention her friends, but thought better of it.

I’m sure if we had mentioned them, they would have pulled us over and held us for hours.

I was depressed for weeks after.

I was born in California. I had never been arrested. I work for a federal contractor.

I could not digest what had happened. I still can’t.

But one thing stuck with me:

Why today?

Why today?

 

Flag.

 

America has a fear problem.

Conservatives fear the decay of religious morality and fervor.

Liberals fear a surveillance state being built without anyone’s consent.

The rich fear and deride the poor, no matter what political affiliation.

The poor fear the rich passively and actively killing them.

The middle class fears everyone.

The police fear civilians.

Civilians fear the police.

The world fears ISIS.

The U.S., for the first time in a century, has no idea what it’s doing.

Fear is infectious and polluting.

It drips all the way to the bottom, always seeking the lowest point, and festers there in the dark.

In an environment of fear, everything becomes a battle. Everything becomes difficult.

Everything becomes covered in fog.

And now that fog has settled on the games world.

This past week saw the loss of some very clear, relevant voices in games.

Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice have quit due to an overwhelming level of harassment.

Their removal and silencing is the product of the ‘GamerGate’ controversy.

The ideas GG presents are nothing new.

There have always been concerns, legitimate and imagined, regarding the proximity between gaming media and developers/publishers.

So why now?

Why today?

Because the gaming community has hit a critical mass of fear.

Self-identified ‘gamers’ are afraid their hobby and their core identities are under attack.

Without taking the time to understand, the gaming community was driven into a blind fury over Leigh Alexander’s piece on Gamasutra suggesting that ‘Gamers’ are over.

Fury burning fear as fuel.

It’s tempting to demonize en masse those active in GamerGate, considering the vile, toxic things they have done and said.

Supposing it all comes from fear, supposing at the core sits a hive anxiety about a lack of transparency in something they have emotionally invested in, then what is the right approach?

For myself, this is a difficult consideration.

I cannot approach them even-handedly after the damage they have caused.

After the misogyny, threats, targeting of women in games, elimination of diverse voices in games, too many lines have been crossed.

Their actions have made the gaming community smaller, staler, and more irrelevant to the larger world.

I cannot forgive that.

For anyone who can stomach it, the only way to fight fear is with engagement.

Cameron Kunzelman tried to engage with an actor in the GG hashtag on Twitter and managed to get to the center of that individual’s anxiety and misunderstanding of what’s going on.

It seems like the hashtag has become a repository for any and all anxieties and frustrations for many in the gaming community.

And not every fear and anxiety can be addressed.

At what point does an individual become responsible for his own fear and hostility?

At what point is it no longer the responsibility of others to have to reassure or explain themselves to the individual?

I believe that point is reached when it begins to ruin innocent people’s lives, which is exactly what GamerGate has done and will continue to do.

GG has become like that overzealous American border guard.

They only let pass with ease those who pose no threat to their imagined world and anyone else who might propose something different is interrogated, asked to prove themselves, and, while perhaps not being denied entry, are left feeling intimidated, afraid, ashamed, and guilty of something unknowable.

They pass their fear on.

It drips to the bottom.

And leaves everyone miserable and wondering:

Why now?

 

Why today?

 

 

 

 

Artillery.

 

 

When I started playing fighting games seriously, there were things people would tell me.

There were things I didn’t understand.

I didn’t understand the difference between a link system and a chain combo system.

I didn’t understand what DP meant.

I didn’t understand what spacing was.

Someone would always insist that spacing in a fighting game, especially Street Fighter, was important.

It was an ethereal concept to me: What does that mean? What do I do with it?

Because I was usually the most inexperienced person in whatever FGC (Fighting Game Community) I was a part of, I focused on more obvious points.

I practiced combos in training modes. I worked on my blocking technique. I tried to pry open different fighting games’ design philosophies.

I couldn’t understand spacing, so I avoided it. I convinced myself I would get to it later.

It wasn’t obvious.

Capcom keeps their systems hidden. This is part of what led to Capcom’s ascension in the United States over SNK.

Capcom leaves guidance and discovery up to the community. They depend on the FGC to figure things out.

Because of it’s difficulty, Street Fighter mastery is considered one of the pinnacles of success in the FG genre.

SNK, though, enforces the subtle. SNK transforms the subtle into a lesson.

I believe this is why SNK has found success everywhere else in the world.

SNK fighters are lessons.

Every SNK fighting game has a shakiness to it.

From Fatal Fury to The Last Blade to King of Fighters, SNK games tend to either be mechanically broken or make viable only a handful of characters.

But SNK does something that Capcom does not: Force the player to pay attention.

Starting with Fatal Fury 2, SNK implemented an at-will two-plane system, the first of its kind in the genre. This allowed players to jump between the foreground/background of a stage.

With a two-plane system, the player had to be aware of which plane their opponent was on, the best way to move to that plane, and to avoid level hazards.

The Last Blade series had a deflect button. If the player pressed the deflect button just as an opponent attacked, the attack would be parried, leaving them open for a counterattack.

This forces the player to watch their opponent carefully, to read frames carefully. The Last Blade drills players’ focus faster than any other fighter I’ve seen.

Capcom tried to do something similar in Street Fighter III with the introduction of the parry mechanic: The player taps forward when an opponent’s attack connects and the attack is neutralized with no damage taken.

The parry mechanic along with a flood of other innovations led to SFIII becoming one of the most highly regarded fighting games ever made.

But because SFIII was tailored with immense precision, it garnered vast critical approval, but nowhere near the financial success of its predecessor.

When SFIII: Third Strike came around, the game was dead in the United States.

Even the ‘Daigo Parry‘ couldn’t save it.

Capcom tried to out-SNK SNK.

By building a solid, tactical, mechanically coherent fighting game with polish and little brokenness, Capcom suffered.

People didn’t expect that from them. They just wanted another SFII.

It would take Capcom 10 years before they would release another game in the Street Fighter franchise and Street Fighter IV was an exercise in back-tracking.

(Here is the best review of SFIII: Third Strike you will read).

 

Clack.

 

At the same time Capcom released their most complex and technical iteration of Street Fighter, SNK put out its last iteration of the Fatal Fury series: Garou: Mark of the Wolves.

Garou and 3S are often considered companion games.

Both are beautiful. Both innovate on their established franchises. Both are technical.

Garou pushed the limits of what was capable on SNK’s Neo Geo system.

Even though Neo Geo was incapable of semi-transparency and 3D effects, SNK was able to simulate them using complex 2D techniques.

Like SFIII, Garou was a reset.

SNK even altered the signature look of Terry Bogard, the series mascot.

They also eliminated the two-plane system Fatal Fury had introduced and become known for.

With Garou, SNK pruned away all the excess a decade of half-finished ideas left them with.

Fighting games are usually loud. They scream. They affirm their place in the arcades.

In the mid-90’s, you couldn’t walk into an arcade anywhere in the world without being pummeled with SFII audio.

Garou is a quiet game.

Garou is serene.

The introduction shows nothing but Geese Howard‘s death and a small montage of Terry Bogard raising Geese’s son, Rock Howard.

Garou’s music is comprised of low-key, modern jazz and dance tracks. The music keeps the atmosphere light and reinforces the game’s growth.

No loud guitar music. No pop music with nonsense lyrics.

Keeping with this minimal style, SNK also paired back the roster of playable characters from the previous iteration by almost half.

Garou only has 14 characters.

There is a sense of intimacy in Garou’s world. There is a sense that the characters and places are all familiar to each other.

Because of the limited roster, each character has personality. Each character feels important.

The game does a profound job relating both characters and players to places in the world.

Garou’s greatest innovation is the stage introductions.

Before each fight, the stages are presented in short, animated clips.

There is no music. There is only ambient sound from the stage itself.

They are so well-done, so elegant, so subtle: They could be meditation objects.

Garou is a cohesive game.

All the aesthetic innovations are matched by the mechanical.

It introduces the ‘Tactical Offensive Position’ (T.O.P.). TOP is a customizable comeback mechanic.

After selecting a character, the game asks the player to choose a portion of the character’s lifebar (roughly one-third).

The player can choose the beginning, middle, or end.

During the fight, if that portion of the character’s lifebar is reached, they will begin flashing, indicating that TOP has engaged.

TOP grants the player access to a move that isn’t normally available, some health regeneration, and increased damage output.

TOP is a proto-X-Factor over a decade before Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

SNK also introduced a ‘Just Defend’ mechanic similar to the SFIII parry. If the player blocks just before an attack connects, they recover more quickly from block.

All of Garou’s mechanical developments lead to an encouragement of offense.

Many of SNK’s fighting franchises are defensive and tactical.

Garou is a massive divergence from SNK’s traditional formula.

Lifebars disintegrate as fast as they did in SFII and the game’s offense functions on how well a player can use their normal attacks.

With its speed and small levels, Garou reinforces the importance of spacing.

It is a perfect exercise in learning what spacing is.

There is nowhere to run and attacking without thinking is easily punished here.

Garou wants the player to be offensive, but not stupid.

It wants the player to not only think about what attack to use, but about the potential space of that attack.

With Street Fighter III, Capcom sought to slow the game down. They wanted players to take their time and think. They wanted each hit to count.

Defensive players flourished in SFIII’s space.

Garou taught players how to attack. It was the antibody to a generation of SFII button-mashing.

It is by no means a perfect game, but an important one.

It is a game I would encourage anybody to play.

Garou is important as a whole work.

It reinforces FG basics in a soft, clear, beautiful way.

Brandon Sheffield once referred to Garou as being ‘holistic’.

And it is.

This is a game designed with clarity.

This is a game that balances light and seriousness with grace and perspective.

The gaming world has never been as toxic or as melodramatic as it is today.

 

And Garou’s softness, humor, and expectation are both reaffirming and cleansing, 15 years on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orpheus.

 

 

1) Nintendo Wii U Gamepad

 

The gamepad is bloated plastic.

It is expansive.

Even with all its technology (touchscreen, console streaming) it feels empty. It feels like a pastry puff.

The face buttons have a deep, low click when pressed and a higher-pitched, muted release.

There is stiffness to them that both speaks to the solid build of the device and of over-engineering.

Everything on the device presses like a face button except the analog sticks.

The D-pad is enormous, making it difficult to use, and clicks hard on presses, tiring the thumb.

It is nice to have triggers that snap rather than melt against your finger, but the ability to gauge force is gone.

The gamepad is not a subtle device.

It is gaudy, heavy, and tight.

It is empty, but with the right amount of friction.

A friction born from Nintendo’s first-party games.

It lacks subtlety, it lacks the hidden finesse Nintendo games demand from the players.

It’s almost as if the gamepad is a reaction to the Wii controller’s light weight.

But there wasn’t any subtlety there either since the Wii depended on inaccurate motion-control.

Nintendo gave up the sword to build the tank.

 

2) SNK Neo-Geo X

 

The Neo-Geo X is a gorgeous machine to look at.

It is a contender for the most beautiful handheld ever made.

Everything about it is understated: A black and gold color scheme and a layering of texture.

The face buttons are tighter than the Wii U gamepad, but not as audible. The buttons make the same noise being pressed as they do being released.

This lack of noise from the face buttons is offset by one of the few innovations the Neo-Geo X possesses: The joystick.

Catering to arcade/action games, Tommo built the Neo-Geo X with a microswitch joystick.

Any tap in any direction creates a loud, audible click.

The NGX has great density, but lacks the puffiness of the Wii U gamepad.

It doesn’t sit comfortably in hand.

One of the best features of the system is the split shoulder buttons.

Rather than have two long shoulder buttons at the top of the console, Tommo cut each shoulder button into two, making the NGX the only portable console with four shoulder buttons.

The PS Vita could have benefited from this feature with PS4 remote play.

The downside to Tommo/SNK’s approach to the shoulders is the difficulty in curling fingers to tap L1/R1 since they are stunted to make room for L2/R2.

The NGX has a soft rubber back that feels sticky and decadent.

This is a texture more hardware manufacturers ought to use.

In spite of its problems, this is one of the best handheld gaming devices ever made.

Even better than the Neo-Geo Pocket Color.

 

3) Xbox 360 Controller

 

The Xbox 360 controller is pretty. Its lines are both direct and subtle.

It has a better silhouette than the Sixaxis.

Between the travesty of the original Xbox controller and the success of the 360, Microsoft learned quick.

Borrowing design elements from the Sega Dreamcast, the 360 controller has one of the most unique faces of any modern console.

One analog stick positioned high on the left, bottom left sits a rolling D-pad, and further to the right the second analog stick.

The setup does seem obtuse at first, but the obviousness of its design begins to show when moving around three-dimensional spaces.

The controller itself has a nice heft and sticks in the hands.

By far the 360 controller is the most stable to hold.

It just fits.

Though the buttons are not exceptional.

Even the NGX has better face and shoulder buttons than the 360.

Its face buttons require quite a bit more force than the PS3 or the Wii U and stick out much higher than they need to.

The face buttons are too stiff.

This is strange to me when combined with the presence of a well-made rolling D-pad.

The rolling D-pad is part of what made the Sega Genesis controllers so wonderful, perfect for fast-paced action games.

Why combine a tool used for quick, fluid movement with slow, stiff buttons designed for something like inventory management?

The shoulder buttons are also difficult to press.

They are both small and require exceptional force at strange angles.

They feel almost as stunted and difficult as the NGX, but where SNK/Tommo made their decision based on space conservation and utility, Microsoft has no excuse.

The trigger buttons are actual triggers and have a strange arc to them that doesn’t work on a controller.

They are uncomfortable.

The 360 controller is an elegant, confused piece of hardware that is trying too hard to be too many things.

 

4) Sony PlayStation Vita

 

While the NGX is a product of subtle, layered design, the Vita is a powerhouse of interaction.

It has an enticing weight.

It is a very dense machine and that density is justified by the overwhelming amount of technology within.

An OLED touchscreen on the front, a touchpad on the back, two analog sticks, and front/rear cameras.

The D-pad is near perfect. It feels like a flat, rolling D-pad. Each directional press has a very subdued click that is felt more than heard.

The analog sticks are short, but responsive. They have a balanced tension that sits somewhere between the 360’s tightness and the Sixaxis’ give.

I enjoy the NGX because of its combination of textures.

Its joystick is a matte, rough plastic. Its face buttons are a clear, smooth plastic. Its case is all gloss on the front. Its back is a sticky-smooth rubber.

The Vita would have benefited from more experimentation with texture.

It would have been better without any of the gloss, like the 3DS XL.

Sony already used matte plastic around the D-pad and beneath the face buttons, they should have extended it to the whole system.

It is slippery.

It is too thin to hold comfortably and manipulate all input options.

It puts enormous strain on the wrists and hands.

While making the system larger would have been questionable, it would work better with some grips built into the back of the system rather than the two large dimples it does have.

The Vita’s highlight is its face buttons.

They are tight and responsive. They don’t feel cheap.

They have two clicks each when pressed and released, felt deep in the bones.

Pressing buttons on the Vita is a joy.

The face buttons alone are enough to make someone find reasons to play with it.

It draws you in with its innate experience.

 

5) Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP

 

The Game Boy Advance SP is one of my favorite handheld consoles of all time.

A console that drips with intimacy.

When closed, the SP is appealing and understated.

It feels good to hold and to look at: A slight rectangle with rounded corners.

It has an appealing thickness as well. It doesn’t suffer from the hyper-driven thinness of most handhelds today.

On opening the console, the proportions are less appealing.

When open, the SP looks worse than the Game Boy Pocket.

It does maintain the intimacy: The screen is small and bright and the controls are simple and obvious.

On its face the SP has only two buttons, D-pad, backlight adjustment, and Start/Select.

The whole console is matte plastic, which gives it the right amount of friction.

Nintendo positioned the Start/Select buttons near the bottom, making pausing awkward.

The SP D-pad feels similar to the Vita D-pad.

There is more space between the directions on the SP, but it has a great rolling effect. Otherwise, the SP D-pad has the same tight click as the Vita’s, without feeling difficult like the Wii U gamepad.

What’s amazing about this is that the SP predates the Vita by almost a decade.

Not only is the D-pad ascendant, but the A/B face buttons are also as good as the Vita: Dense, heavy clicks that reverberate in the thumb.

The GBA SP does have two shoulder buttons as well and while they are tight and loud, they are just as awkward to press as the NGX and the 360.

This doesn’t affect the SP as much as the other two since the shoulder buttons are not utilized in critical situations.

It’s inspiring to see what Nintendo is capable of when they get things right.

The SP came out on the back of one of the worst-designed handheld systems in history: The Game Boy Advance.

Much like with the PSV, the SP is so satisfying to interact with, it makes you find reasons to play it.

In 2014 it still doesn’t feel dated.

This is a portable device that continues to hold its own, almost 10 years later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At.

 

 

I joined Twitter in 2010.

I had been unemployed for almost a year since graduation and was eating through the endless time on my hands by looking for work, writing, and reading.

The year before, I developed a larger appreciation for Japanese culture.

For Japanese history, art, literature: Expanding beyond the world of games and anime.

In 2009, Jake Adelstein released his memoir: Tokyo Vice.

It told the story of Jake’s life in Japan as an investigative journalist and the only American to be admitted to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club.

Having turned down the opportunity to work in Japan, I was able to experience Tokyo through his work.

After finishing Tokyo Vice, I spent days finding a way to get in touch with Jake.

Due to the sensitive nature of his work, he had made himself difficult to find.

Scouring the internet was fruitless, so I settled on the only public face he had: Twitter.

I explicitly joined Twitter to tell him how much I enjoyed his book.

I was absorbed by it.

After a few exchanges with Jake, I had no idea what to do with this network.

When I moved to Rochester, I stopped writing.

When I started working, social networks didn’t mean much to me.

Through SRK, I found the Rochester FGC and because of that, after a three year absence, I was pulled back into maintaining an internet presence.

I reopened Twitter in 2013 and saw how much it had changed.

The sheer amount of content Twitter was producing, the amount of access it was allowing.

I understood it better now.

I had been listening to the Insert Credit Podcast since its inception, having been a follower of the original site.

I always felt Tim Rogers understood games and language on an intrinsic level.

I always felt he understood what was necessary to express and understand.

After hearing him plug his Twitter account on numerous podcast episodes, I went on to find him.

I thanked him for his excellent writing. He thanked me back.

I was still buying games from Gamestop and stopped by one day to purchase Muramasa Rebirth.

A child was digging through the used game bin and found a knockoff, CoD-style, console FPS.

As I handed the money to the cashier, I overhear the child pleading with his father:

“I want to get this game because I want to be in the army when I grow up!”

I laughed. I remember dropping lines like that to convince my parents of whatever games caught my eye.

At home, I related the story to Tim.

He wrote back: I could have just downloaded Kokuga for the 3DS and I would never have had to leave my house.

I looked up Kokuga.

I couldn’t believe I had never heard of this game.

 

Seal.

 

Kokuga had been released for a year by the time I downloaded it.

As I have often stated: I have a deep, profound love of STGs and have always prided myself on knowing of the ones that mattered.

I couldn’t believe how I had lapsed here.

Kokuga was not only made by G.rev, one of the world’s last remaining and most storied STG houses responsible for the likes of Under Defeat, Ikaruga, and Border Down, but was also directed by Hiroshi Iuchi: Director of Radiant Silvergun, Gradius V, and Ikaruga.

What makes G.Rev’s STGs different from Cave‘s is that they all rely on a combination of fringe mechanics that push the conceptual identity of the genre.

Cave is a company driven by pure arcade action, overflowing with style.

G.rev is a laboratory.

Ikaruga has color-switching. Radiant Silvergun has seven weapons. Border Down’s levels change depending on where you are shot down.

And Kokuga isn’t any different.

Kokuga is not afraid of experimentation and may be the purest form of G.rev’s vision to date.

The game takes place in an era of war between two nations and the player is tasked with piloting country A’s most advanced weapon: Kokuga, a tank of the future.

This is a game made at the cross-section of freedom and gambling.

The player is left to choose where to begin the game.

Levels are all labeled alphabetically and the general trend is that as levels progress upwards, the more difficult they are.

Unlike many of its famous ancestors, Kokuga is a multi-directional, non-scrolling shooter.

It maintains the verticality of other shooters, but allows the player more maneuverability.

The levels are very tightly designed. Nearly claustrophobic.

Levels are littered with obstacles and embedded/mobile enemy types.

To succeed in Kokuga, the player must be aware of the spaces around them, more so than in nearly any other shooter I’ve seen.

Kokuga isn’t just about dodging bullets, it’s about tactical positioning and resource management.

It’s a roguelike disguised as an action game.

The game takes place on the top screen, while the bottom screen is utilized for selecting powerups.

There are four powerups, assigned at random, sitting on the bottom screen.

Any one of them may be selected at any time to bolster either the tank’s defensive or offensive ability.

Each powerup is limited in both duration and frequency. Once you use a powerup, another one is assigned to the slot at random until they run out.

Burn through powerups too quickly and the boss fights become overwhelming. Burn through them too slow and the player is bogged down by the enemy.

This is a game that actually holds the player accountable for the decisions they make.

This is a game that does a fantastic job at giving the player a simulation of the responsibility that comes with power.

The player is free to decide where they would like to enter the world and after making the choice, they are thrown into closed, tight spaces and forced to fight through swarms with very limited resources.

This transition is seamless.

In a traditional STG, the player is only ever allowed to make micro-tactical decisions that mainly involve movement.

The urgency in classic STGs is filtered through the forced scrolling levels.

Even in newer STGs, urgency is manufactured through inverted mechanics: Sine Mora uses time/time-manipulation. Luftrausers uses a simulation of gravity.

While there is tactical urgency in Kokuga, the focus is more on the broader, more strategic plane.

It is a type of urgency which burns slowly at first and accelerates as the level becomes increasingly difficult.

This is further reinforced by the smooth, calm movement of the tank itself. Nothing feels rushed.

Kokuga’s greatest strength is that it does not rely on only one mechanic.

Even though by releasing it on the 3DS eShop, one may get the impression that this isn’t an important game, it is by far the purest manifestation of G.rev.

One of G.rev’s weaknesses has always been their over-reliance on one main mechanic around which others revolve.

One of the problems with Ikaruga was that after awhile it’s color-switching became so overused that it quickly lost its novelty.

With Kokuga, G.rev have been able to multithread their innovative style, creating a game full of interesting mechanics that fit together in a near-perfect way.

Kokuga’s systems not only maximize the game’s obvious strengths, but give the player a more dynamic experience by broadening their access to choice while throwing in a randomness element (powerups) within already tight margins.

Kokuga is a deep meditation on elegant, immersive, mobile game design.

It’s frightening this game almost passed by me unnoticed.

It’s frightening that it has flown under the radar of so many others.

Kokuga is everything G.rev have worked toward: A pure distillation of their innovative style.

With it’s somber tone, wonderful styling, and mechanical coherency: It is the true evolution of Ikaruga.

A true evolution of G.rev’s experimental precision.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scrape.

 

 

In the arcade dark, desperation blazed.

Late 90’s: Everyone knew the trade was dead, that arcades were unsustainable.

That didn’t stop new ones from opening.

Like the euphoric hallucinations of a dying hermit, the hardware was twisting.

It became about size, flash, otherness, heat.

Some cabs grew large, some lit up like Vegas, some flowed with murals.

Arcades became desolate cities, the hardware became the graff and the alleys.

Before this, my passion had settled in the rapid flows of STGs.

As the death knell grew louder, STG cabs stood unchanged.

Smooth and fluid, they understood themselves better than other games.

They were simple to understand, beautiful to look at, exciting to engage with.

Their fundamental design was perfect and exhilarating.

For almost a decade, STGs colored the base of my arcade experience.

As the late 90’s began, as stranger and  more surreal cabs manifested, I celebrated the end by expanding.

I understood what the other genres were. I waded in their ideas enough.

Light gun games, fighting games, racing games, puzzle games.

Arcades gave us multi-game literacy.

Shuffling through the exposed subconscious of the era, I came across a new kind of fighting game.

I messed around with Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat II. I was terrible.

But in this time and place, I had lost the self-consciousness that had driven me away from the fighting genre.

Marvel vs. Capcom was strange, brash, and flashy.

It did not care what you thought about it or yourself.

It had something to say and it celebrated the end like a lone tank crew charging down an enemy battalion.

 

Share.

 

Marvel vs. Capcom was not the first crossover title to combine the two universes.

Capcom released two games prior: X-Men vs Street Fighter (1996) and Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter (1997).

None of the arcades I went to had either, making MvC the first crossover fighting game I was exposed to.

MvC1 released in two variations: a large screen format and the standard cab format.

The local arcade had the large cab which lit up like white phosphorous in the dark.

The first thing you notice about MvC is how much it flashes.

How bright it burns.

The colors are simple and bold, searing.

The levels are dynamic and had more verticality than I was used to in a fighting game.

It was a fireworks show lighting up the heart of a dying industry.

When I got a chance to engage with it, I had no understanding of tiers.

With fighting games I had always assumed that the developers gave all the characters asymmetric, but equivalent tools.

I chose my team based on looks.

Strider/Jin.

The assists were chosen at random (sort of).

MvC is a physical game.

The characters have real weight and density, they have honest friction.

The physicality of the game reminded me of SFII.

Its speed and difficulty of Strikers 1945.

While I found some success in the single-player campaign, I failed competitively.

Looking back, I just didn’t know enough about fighting games.

I enjoyed my time in that world.

I enjoyed the end of that time.

 

Deus.

 

Marvel vs. Capcom 2 was released two years later.

One of the most anticipated releases in the arcade world.

The large cab was enormous, with a screen that swallowed everyone’s field of vision.

The graphics were improved and the character roster had expanded to levels never before seen in the genre.

With the breadth of character choice, Capcom also expanded from a tag-team fighting system to a full trio.

MvC2 was more explosive, faster, more chaotic than its predecessor.

It suffered for this.

I still had no idea about fighting games so I ended up sticking with my MvC1 team: Strider/Jin.

I put Jill Valentine in the third slot. I loved Resident Evil.

Something was off for me the second my first match started.

Something was lost.

While the art and levels honed the original’s bold, bright aesthetic, it lost its physicality.

The characters felt lighter, faster, less fricative.

This made MvC2 a better game to watch than 1, but not as necessary to play.

It was a social game before the era of mobile internet.

It was a prophecy.

It was a game you stood around and discussed in awe of what you were seeing.

The initial shock value of the game was high. With 56 characters to choose, it seemed like a game of true expression.

Over time, it became evident that along with Capcom not honing the movement, they hadn’t really taken the time to balance it.

In going for a faster game, a more chaotic game, Capcom had only made a handful of teams viable at high-level play.

MvC1 had been broken as well, but proportionally the player had more, real options with less than half the selection of 2 (22 characters).

MvC2 was bright and empty, like the place it was born into.

 

Era.

 

Marvel vs. Capcom 3 wouldn’t come out for another 11 years.

Capcom lost the Marvel license after MvC2.

By the time MvC3 released, the arcades were gone.

Many of the last remaining, best known arcades in the U.S. had either closed or were on the verge of closing.

MvC3 had no understanding of the time that had spawned its predecessors.

MvC3 was more ‘floaty’ than either of the first two games.

There was even less friction, less density than MvC2.

It also lost a lot of the brightness, a lot of the flash.

The art style was altered, creating a dark, murky, muted world.

This was Marvel vs. Capcom for the home generation.

In spite of its poor physics and boring style, Capcom did mange to improve in a few areas.

MvC3 produced more viable teams.

The game doesn’t just boil down to variations on the same team at high-level play.

Almost every year since its release, the meta-game has changed.

This made it even more watchable than MvC2.

Capcom understood the social draw of MvC2 and honed it further.

MvC3 is a fighting game that generates an enormous amount of discussion and collaboration.

It is often touted as being ‘fun to watch’ by the fighting game community even for those who don’t play it.

While the first two games in the MvC series were about chaos and explosiveness, MvC3 was about experimentation.

In the arcades, a person didn’t have the time or money to poke around inside a game.

Either someone was going to challenge you or someone was waiting for you to finish.

There was always a sense of urgency: You had to be able to develop and pick up technique in repeated bursts of play and in carefully watching the competition.

By turning away from the urgency of its arcade roots (there is no Marvel vs. Capcom 3 arcade cabinet for instance), by increasing the viable options available to the player, Capcom transitioned a series which grew out of the brash, colorful dreams of a dying market to a darker, colder era more geared towards experimentation, technicality, and discussion.

I miss the flash and physicality of MvC1.

I miss the chaos and breadth of MvC2.

But in making MvC3 more social and more open to experimentation, Capcom pivoted the game for a new market.

While the changes may have left MvC3 with a less satisfying aesthetic experience overall, the series has adapted and will survive in a new era instead of going down with the place and the time that birthed it.

 

Italy.

 

Watching STGs struggle outside of arcades has been painful.

With all their elegant design and beauty, to see them collapse cuts deep.

Fighting games tend to be slow to adapt: 11 years between MvC2 and 3. 12 years between Street Fighter III and IV.

But they are able to change and yet carry on the seeds of arcade tradition into new futures and technologies.

The collaborative and competitive nature of fighting games is what made the communities around them strong enough to survive the collapse.

Strong enough to celebrate the beginning and the end without weeping at the ruins.

Something has been lost.

That can’t be denied.

The death of the arcade was tragic and infuriating.

It was a slow decline, like watching someone you love whither away from some terminal illness.

But rather than mourn the loss, MvC embraced it.

The series celebrated what was and what was to come.

The FGC did the same:

Not always with grace, but with an endurance that can only come from profound loss and the enigmatic, joyous love of competition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deform.

 

 

When I first picked up Advance Wars in 2001, I had no idea what I was doing.

I enjoyed strategic war games, but I never played them with any tactical focus.

Always brute forcing through missions.

In Command & Conquer: Red Alert, I would spend hours amassing huge tank swarms, sending them into the enemy base at once.

In Age of Empires II, I would scour the map for every last remaining enemy before the mission ended.

I always thought of myself as a strategic person, but I needed a narrative draw to act strategically.

In RPGs, I did well at managing my parties and character abilities.

But whenever the narrative layer was removed, I had no drive, no patience, for strategy.

When I first picked up Advance Wars, I had no idea what I was doing.

The game frustrated me because unlike Red Alert and AoE, I didn’t have total control.

Each mission was tight. The parameters were clear.

There was no free rein to sit back and amass units.

There was no brute forcing the enemy.

Because of the tight margins, Advance Wars taught the player how to be tactical, but only if the player had the right kind of eyes.

Advance Wars required the right kind of mind.

I struggled with the game because I had neither. I resented its limitation.

I hated the game for keeping me focused.

I stopped playing.

 

Contort.

 

Advance Wars lingered in the back of my mind the following years.

Whenever I came across a war game that gave me the space to breathe and slow the game down, I felt like a fraud.

I’d recall my time feeling stressed and pushed to act in AW’s world.

That urgency felt more authentic in a strategy war game.

No one else seemed to get it right.

Advance Wars became the lens through which I would assess myself in other war games:

“Would this strategy have worked in an Advance Wars level?”

The answer was always no.

My tactics, my strategy, lacked all focus and urgency.

I was using war games to fulfill my inherent desire for spectacle and completion.

I was using strategic war games as engines of ego.

I needed to return to a place of focus.

I went back to Advance Wars, 13 years later.

What shocked me was how the game had lingered in my mind.

The controls were so elegant and logical that they were impossible to forget.

The rest of the game struck me as lean and clear.

Now that I had the right kind of eyes, now that I approached the game with a softer mind:

I understood what the missions were.

I understood what the game was.

 

Arms.

 

Advance Wars is a strategy puzzle game hiding within a turn-based war game.

AW is more about solving than attacking. Much like Ikaruga, it is about adapting.

The ‘puzzle’ elements of Ikaruga (switching the ship’s colors to absorb bullets) slow the game down and it becomes a sequence of novel set-pieces.

By not giving the player free rein to hold back or charge forward, digging out the ideal strategy for the mission is much more engaging in Advance Wars.

Unlike other war games, the UI in AW is simple and concise.

The player can do everything  inside of two small menu screens.

It avoids the clutter and bloat of larger games.

It rewards a player’s attention. The proper strategies are not immediately obvious, but also are not buried under layers of difficulty.

They are there if the player chooses to focus.

In spite of all that it does stunningly well, Advance Wars does have its design problems.

Rather than acutely increasing the difficulty each mission, the game increases the options available to the player.

The player might gain a new Commanding Officer (CO’s determine the special passive stats and active abilities that a player has access to) or the ability to build and manage units, or adding new units.

Intelligent Systems did an excellent job in gradually ramping up the player’s options.

But by focusing so much on access to options, the difficulty is uneven.

There is no gradual development of difficulty, only plateaus.

The ratio seems to be 3:1 or 4:1. For every three or four missions, there is one which spikes.

Advance Wars is a game about patience, but it doesn’t take the time to teach the player how to be patient. It operates as if it expects the player to stick through it.

These vertical difficulty spikes were one of my problems with Dark Souls II.

One of the stranger things about Advance Wars is the art style.

It is a war game that does not take itself too seriously. The colors are bright, the unit icons are bubbly, and the dialogue can be childish.

This creates a fair bit of dissonance considering that soldiers are supposed to be dying.

This clash of style and substance has left me with quite a bit of  cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, I’m happy to play a war game with a different aesthetic: One that isn’t entirely drab and brown.

On the other hand, this is trivializing the worst parts of us.

The way the COs carry on talking as if no one is dying adds to the sense that of avoidance. It’s happening everywhere, but no one talks about it.

Intelligent Systems has worked very closely with Nintendo since the very early NES days.

Seeing as how Nintendo likes to keep their games from tackling cultural issues like homosexuality in their latest Tomodachi Life release, I could see them not having a problem white-washing the brutality of war.

Although, IS is also the developer behind the Fire Emblem series and does not seem to have an issue tackling questions of sovereignty, nationalism, death, and sacrifice in that series.

In spite of these issues, Advance Wars is a substantial game, especially for an aging portable system.

It is a thorough study of excellent design.

With clean controls, a unique aesthetic, and tight levels: It is a strategy game that out-maneuvers nearly every other war game in the genre.

13 years after its release and the game still shines…

long after many have forgotten it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flower.

 

 

In 2007, I came back to video games.

It has always been a dynamic relationship.

After the release of the SNES in 1991, I stopped following or caring about games until a friend of mine showed me the PlayStation in 1996.

My brother convinced my parents to get us a PS1 for his birthday. We stuck with Sony consoles through the PlayStation 2.

My interest in games waned again just before the generational switch (PS2 – PS3).

Having witnessed the July War in 2006, I was full of anger, resentment, rage.

I wrote a lot in that period. I read a lot. I listened to music and drove around the Midwestern back country alone.

I had no place for games then.

But I got tired. I burnt myself out.

I collapsed in and found nothing.

A friend of mine had managed to purchase a PlayStation 3 near launch in fall 2006.

I would go over to his place some nights and we would play Call of Duty 4 together.

It was strange to me even then that I could find some comfort in playing a war game considering I had just lived it.

But I was tired and it was fun.

I bought a PlayStation 3 in 2007.

The PS3 was more than just a console to me, it was a companion.

A friend to pull me back into myself.

I still had my PS2 and used it to play fighting games and old JRPGs, but the PS3 was about potential, it was about looking forward.

I chose PlayStation over Xbox because Microsoft was taking themselves too seriously at that time. It felt as though MS was trying to turn the 360 into a war simulator (Gears of War, Halo 3) and I couldn’t deal with it.

Assassin’s Creed was the first game I bought.

I bought it because it looked like Thief.

I bought it because the hero was an Arab. I needed that. I needed to see that.

After I completed AC, I bought CoD4. I loved the crispness of its action and the quick pacing.

It was a grand piano of a game.

I was back into games now. I was having a great time.

And in Christmas 2008 I discovered something I thought had died in the medium:

Joy.

 

River.

 

I still don’t understand what compelled me to consider buying Prince of Persia.

It was getting a lot of attention. The sentiments were mixed.

I had tried to enjoy the franchise before, somewhere in the Sands of Time trilogy on PS2.

I didn’t like it.

Coming off of God of War, PoP lacked the visceral, flashy combat I had become used to.

Prince of Persia was all about the fluidity of motion and in the mid-2000s, that wasn’t something I was looking for.

When the new PoP released in December of 2008, I had already begun to think about games differently.

I had begun to see them less as virtual gauntlets and more as products of interlocking systems. I made the switch from playing games to analyzing them.

As I looked through the screenshots of the new Prince of Persia, I fell in with the art.

The colors were vivid, bright. The lines were bold. It reminded me of Okami, but more fluid.

I bought the game based on art alone.

I went home for Christmas.

Sitting in my old bedroom in the middle of a heavy winter: I spent a lot of time in Prince of Persia’s world.

The movement was bubbly, the levels had charisma. It was a beautiful game.

Much of the talk around this new interpretation of the PoP series involved not being able to die.

Many in the gaming community felt that not being punished for failing a jump made the game too easy, too simplistic, and less rewarding.

They got this one wrong though.

The punishment in Prince of Persia is that you lose the fluidity of movement.

You lose the ability of fluid expression, of pure motion.

This subtlety was lost on many.

The amount of negative feedback has stalled the series.

 

Soil.

 

Prior to the 3DS, the last Nintendo console I owned was the Game Boy Advance SP.

I never bought a DS.

When Nintendo announced the DS, they said it wasn’t meant to replace the Game Boy.

I held onto my SP waiting for a new Game Boy announcement. I loved and still love everything about the SP.

But that announcement never came.

I bought the 3DS out of frustration, out of having been tricked by Nintendo into waiting, into missing an entire portable generation of content.

I bought the 3DS when the media and the community at large was saying it was going to fail.

I always have a tendency to get involved at the ends of things and I believed them.

At one point, I hadn’t touched my 3DS for months. I thought it really was over.

Then I read Tim Rogers’ review about Super Mario 3D Land.

I bought the game immediately.

I loved it.

SM3DL was the first Mario Game I played since Super Mario World.

It had the same core, emotive design as PoP in 2008: A platforming game designed around joy, around really inhabiting and exploring a world of bright colors, excellent movement, and charismatic levels.

Super Mario 3D Land made me smile.

While critically acclaimed, again the game was considered too easy by many.

The point was missed again.

The player can still die in 3D Land. However, death isn’t the punishment for bad play.

The actual punishment is being kicked out of that world for a brief moment.

The punishment is the extraction from a joyous place.

Death is only the conveyor.

 

Rustle.

 

3D Land has stuck with me.

I go back and think about it.

Super Mario 3D World is also a good game, but it has more problems.

3D World lacks some of the joy, the lightness of 3D Land.

It takes itself a little more seriously.

3D World is a little more messy.

This probably has to do with it being a console game and therefore having to be full of content.

It’s no surprise then that the next joyous platformer would appear on the 3DS.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe is the first Kirby game I have played since Kirby’s Dream Land in 1992.

Triple Deluxe is wonderful.

The game is always playing with and manipulating player expectations through clever level design.

It is bursting with joy.

It is the true companion to 3D Land.

The most impressive element in Triple Deluxe is the use of 3D.

Levels are two planes: Front and Rear.

The Front plane is where the player operates most of the time.

The player can still see what’s happening in the Rear.

The player is also transported in and out of the Rear plane throughout the levels.

With the player operating in one plane, while being able to see what’s happening in the other, Kirby: Triple Deluxe wastes nothing.

It is a tight game driven by Chekhov’s Gun and joy.

Triple Deluxe is stunningly beautiful.

Bright, thick, and layered: Triple Deluxe is a rainbow ice cream cake of art.

Dying in K:TD is difficult.

It sits somewhere between PoP and 3D Land, between not dying and dying as a conveyance.

This again has led many to suggest it is too simple.

And again, the subtlety is lost.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe doesn’t really want to punish the player. It encourages the player to inhabit the world as much as they want.

Where in PoP the player loses movement and momentum and in Mario the player’s time in the world is dictated, Kirby wants the player to lounge around in its world.

It wants the player to hang out and poke around.

This is very rare for a 2D platformer.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe is a game that should be sipped at, like Dark Souls.

The gaming media and community need to stop judging games simply by the merits of their difficulty.

Not every game is designed within the spectrum of ‘simple-difficult’.

The metrics of analysis must be greatly expanded.

The medium needs more games designed around joy, designed around the idea of wanting to inhabit a place.

Since 2008, I’ve played a lot of games and the only ones that have managed to stick with me are the ones that make me feel welcome:

 

The games with warmth in their bones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dissolve.

 

 

The Christmas my mother bought me a Game Boy was the most exciting Christmas of my life.

I ran away to the living room, and unboxed the portable in a state of fury.

I plugged away at Tetris for hours.

It was new and phenomenal.

The original GB was fat, used four AA batteries, and had a small display that wasn’t true black and white.

This led to a significant re-design in 1996.

Nintendo expanded the display, slimmed down the hardware, and lowered the power requirements to two AAA batteries: The Game Boy Pocket.

When I got a GBP, I gave my original hardware to my cousins in Lebanon.

Gaming hardware in the Middle East is hard to come by. Either it isn’t available, available in extremely limited quantities, or priced so high that it is out of the reach of median income families.

That’s why the Middle East is full of knock-off systems and pirated software: It is an under-served market with no ‘local’ chains, the only reasonable access available through alternative channels.

One summer my mother bought two games to give to my cousins as gifts. I had to choose which game to give to who.

The two games were Mega Man IV and Tetris Attack.

To a cousin on my mother’s side, I gave Mega Man. To my cousins on my father’s side (the ones I had given the Game Boy to) I gave them Tetris Attack.

At first, it felt like a raw deal. I spent a lot more time with my paternal cousins during the summer, so along with them, I was stuck with Tetris Attack.

While I had spent hours playing Tetris that Christmas years before in Southern California, at this point I had  acquired a stronger sense of games.

Much like all the children around me, I was looking for the fastest, coolest, most action-driven games around.

Tetris Attack, in the face of Mega Man, seemed like the worse game.

We were sad about it.

We cried for awhile.

But TA snuck up on us. It was a slow burn.

At first, we played it for 10-15 minutes at a time, sometimes going weeks without touching it.

Then the sessions started getting longer and the intervals shorter.

Then discussions around the game started happening and it became a summer staple until the Game Boy broke.

When that happened, I brought Tetris Attack back home with me.

 

Pucks.

 

As portable hardware has developed so has the puzzle game.

Much like how Call of Duty borrowed RPG elements beginning with CoD 4, puzzles have become mashed into other genres.

In 2007, Infinite Interactive released Puzzle Quest for the Nintendo DS.

Puzzle Quest was a quest-based RPG in which battles were fought in a match-3, Bejeweled-style system. It was wildly successful and was subsequently ported to every system possible.

In 2008, Braid was released and was recognized for its ingenious combination of platforming and time-manipulation as a tool for puzzle solving.

2009 saw the release of Knights in the Nightmare on the DS. A mystery bag of puzzle, RPG, and STG mechanics.

Since the mid-late 2000’s, puzzle games have continued to evolve and much like how puzzle elements have appeared in other genres, puzzle games are beginning to expand by incorporating outside elements as well.

Hence, Gunhouse.

 

Kevlar.

 

Necrosoft Games released Gunhouse in early 2014 on Playstation Mobile.

It is a game defined by mechanical complexity.

In Gunhouse, the player is tasked with defending a home of orphan children against different enemy types.

The house itself is the puzzle. The player is tasked with matching and combining different icons to create more powerful ‘blocks’.

The strategy element in the Gunhouse puzzle is threefold:

-While combining blocks, the player has to decide whether to try and create powerful blocks in the back of the house to be used as bombs or in the front of the house where they are used to create guns.

-At the top of the screen, there are bonus icons which indicate what weapon types receive bonus damage.

-The puzzle phase is timed.

Part of the genius in the puzzle design lies in that the player’s main control option is to choose how far to swipe a single row.

Each row is three blocks wide. The player has to decide how far to the right or left a row should be moved in order to drop blocks into specific places in order to combine.

Once the timer runs out on the puzzle phase, the gate on the house begins to come down.

This offers the player a last-chance opportunity to finish their combinations and set up their weapons for the attack phase.

In the attack phase, enemies swarm the house. The player has control over when the guns begin to fire and when to use bombs.

The objective is to stop the enemies from getting too close to the house and kidnapping the children.

Like the puzzle phase, the attack phase is timed.

Once the attack phase is finished, the game loops back to the next puzzle phase.

Visually, Gunhouse is an echo of the bright colors and animation of older arcade puzzle games.

The visual design is reminiscent of games like Mr. Driller and Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo.

Gunhouse is a beautiful game.

The art is clean and bold.

Because of its visual stylings and mechanical intricacy, it’s comparable to Knights in the Nightmare.

While KitN is a fun game, it is extremely complex.

Each system in that game influences other systems in ways that may not necessarily be obvious to the player.

It also lacks fluidity in the way its systems engage with each other.

The beauty in the mechanical design of Gunhouse is that all the systems engage with each other in obvious ways.

The player understands the consequences of not creating blocks in the front of the house or not utilizing the bonus weapon type.

The interaction between the two main phases of the game (puzzle/attack) influence the player’s strategy in either phase.

For instance, during an attack phase an enemy swarm might be loaded with flying-types. This then influences the player’s strategy in the puzzle phase by focusing on building more powerful guns near the top of the house (the house has three gun points: top, middle, bottom).

The game is constantly moving and shifting.

The strategic depth of Gunhouse is a product of reading feedback. This makes it a truly dynamic experience.

Puzzle games generally grow stale quickly due to their inability to challenge or engage the player after awhile.

Arcade puzzle games suffer from this less, but can also feel extremely unfair due to vertical difficulty spikes.

Gunhouse strikes the perfect balance of both strategic depth and aesthetic flair.

Gunhouse is an important game.

It is important because it brings together so many dynamic elements and plays them off of each other without any waste.

It borrows different systems from arcade STGs all the way to console RPGs, and it works wonderfully.

Gunhouse is an arcade puzzle game that knows what it is and what its doing.

There is no trying in Gunhouse.

 

It is effortless.