Thursday, February 18, 2016

DOOM: Facing Our Demons

Lately I've begun following the development of the latest title in the Doom franchise, and I've been excited to see the series returning to its run-and-gun, over-the-top, unleash-Hell roots.  Yet, as I’ve been drooling over the latest, positively dreadful images of hell-spawn and mayhem, I've begun to ask myself, what is it about a game like this that is so appealing?  Is it strictly cathartic?  A desire for a game full of action?  If that is all, why not pick up the latest Call of Duty and duke it out in 50 shades of brown?  Why the draw toward a game that has you literally taking up arms against the forces of Hell, brutally marching through waves of undead, demonic forces that seem designed to induce nightmares?  Is it merely an exercise in catharsis?

Upon reflection I've determined that, yes, part of it is about the action, and part of it is about catharsis, but there is another element to games like Doom that I find striking: For myself and, I’m certain, for many others out there, we don’t merely enter the nightmare world because of a fascination with the macabre, but also because in doing so, we challenge our own fears and learn to face them head-on.

In consideration of this I must think back to the first time I played Doom, back in the mid-nineties, when Doom was still considered the standard of FPS gaming.  I downloaded the first episode of the game (it was originally released as Shareware) on my parent’s PC and played through the entire episode on that same night, as my parents were away for the evening.  The theme, imagery and brutality of the game was unlike anything I had played before.  The theme of the game, of being alone on a Martian outpost where an experiment had literally opened a portal to Hell, was a terrify idea, more so for a kid like myself who was afraid of the dark.  However, I had cut my FPS chops on Wolfenstein 3D, which I had played endlessly on all difficulty levels, so I was up to the challenge.  However, it was not the mechanical challenge of the game that presented me with the greatest difficulty, it was the mental challenge.  A game like Doom, with its demonic antagonists, does not merely assault the player directly with hordes of enemies (although it certainly does that well enough), but it attacks the player’s mind, presenting terrifying imagery and guttural, growling noises that leave you on edge, sometimes before you ever see your foe.

One particular part of the game stands out to me even to this day, because it was at this point that I had to make a decision about who I was, and how I was going to choose to deal with fear.  At one point, your journey through the demon-infested Martian base leads you to a dark room.  Up to this point, the level had been reasonably well-lit, and now, close to the end, I open a door and stare into a room which seems to be swallowing all light.  There is a path forward, but also hallways branching off to the right and to the left, with more branches here and there; it is a small maze of dark halls.  It is not a large room, but the moment you open the door to it, you also begin to hear the bleating of demons.

Now, up until this point, when you hear demons, it generally means that they sense you, and will home in on your position, so my natural reaction was to wait by the door for them to come to me, where I can see them and take them out.  However, the game is not playing by the rules I had come to expect.  I can hear the demons, but they are not showing themselves.  I step into the dark room then immediately run back out, hoping to get their attention and draw them away.  I fire my gun repeatedly just to make sure they hear me and know where I am.  I stand there waiting what seems like an eternity, and nothing except their guttural sounds reach me.  For me, this was the most terrifying part of the game.  I could handle the creatures while they were in the open and I could face them on my own terms, but now the game was asking me to enter into a nightmare scenario: to walk into a room of halls where I can barely see anything, and allow myself to be hunted by creatures I can hear but cannot see, who may choose to ambush me from any side.  As a child I had nightmares of being chased by a monster I could not see and could not escape, and here the game was presenting me with that very scenario.

In the end, with my heart racing, knowing that I had to step in or give up, I dove into the room, running fast through twisting halls in a blind panic, until I saw the exit and dove for it.  Was I brave?  Hardly.  I was terrified, but I made it.

Later on I would replay the game and find myself back at that same room.  I knew it was coming up, yet, despite having already made it through I did not find it any less terrifying.  It was still playing on my primal and subconscious fears.  This time, however, I was determined to face my fear.  When I first encountered this room, I not only made it through, but left with demons I had not found still calling out behind me.  This time, as I stood outside the room, I determined that I was going to march in slowly and deliberately and sweep the entire area.  I would uncover any secrets that may be hiding in those dark halls, and I would myself hunt down and slaughter every demons until the room grew silent.

It was terrifying, but I swallowed my fear, stepped in, and made good on my promise.  I completed that level with a sense of pride, not because I had merely beaten a level in a video game, but because I had come face-to-face with the demons of my own mind and refused to back down.  To quote Frank Herbert’s Dune, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”  As I stood on the other side of that room, only I remained, because my foes lay lifeless in the dark halls where they haunted me.  I faced my fear, and from that point forward I knew that whatever this or any game tossed at me, I could stand up and face it.  I would not turn away, would not give up; I would press on.  I would not merely survive, I would conquer; and if I can do it in the game, I can do it in real life.

So yes, I look forward to revisiting the shores of Hell when Doom is released later this year.  I look forward to revisiting my old demons; not just the ones in the game, but the ones inside of me as well.  I look forward to staring them down and making them blink.  I will do it as others have done before me, as I have done before myself, and as my children will do after me.  My dad has a simple phrase that I have heard him use often: “Never be scared or nervous.”  It’s not an empty platitude, it’s a commitment and a reminder that when you feel fear in any situation, you have the power to push it away and march on.  So as id Software puts the finishing touches on their bloody and dreadful product, my answer to them is “bring it!”

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Jack n' Jill (iOS)

Every now and then you come across a title that, at first glance, looks like an over-simplistic throwaway, but in execution it brings you back to your earliest gaming days in a mix of nostalgia and old-school gaming challenge.  I recently experienced that playing through Jack n' Jill, a humble little iOS title that proves much more exciting that it appears at first glance.

Released to the App Store in 2013, Jack n' Jill, the work of one Rohan Narang, immediately brings up memories of playing original Game Boy.  This is owing to its monochromatic, slightly pixelated visuals and even the flat, slightly faded background images.  The only thing missing is the greenish tint of the Game Boy's tiny LCD screen, but there's no sense in going overboard, is there?

You play as an adorable little white blob named Jack and are trying to reunite with an even more adorable bow-wearing blob named Jill.  Right off the bat the game had me thinking of Kirby, although Kirby has such an intentionally generic design (the character was originally created as a place-holder until the design team decided to keep him) that it could just as easily bring up memories of The Adventures of Lolo or Nuts and Milk (anyone?).  Although the game has a couple of enemies you may encounter, there is no villain.  The game doesn't seem to need one, as Jill apparently has a habit of getting herself stuck in the most precarious situations imaginable.  Jack must really love this girl, because she is awfully high-maintenance.

The love-life of the game's protagonists aside, the next standout aspect is the control.  Jack n' Jill has a one-button control scheme.  What I mean by that is, you tap the screen (this being an iOS game), and it doesn't matter where you tap, the function is always the same: Jack will jump.  You can tap quickly for a short jump or hold for a long jump, but that's it, with the sole exception a power-up that allows you to fly by tapping repeatedly.  In a way this is one of the things that drew me to the game after a screenshot caught my attention with its old-school visuals; how can a game only have a single button?  This wasn't a mindless "non-game" like Cookie Clicker, so I had to check it out to learn what this meant.  What I discovered was pleasantly surprising, and leads right into the gameplay:

The gameplay in Jack n' Jill is a cross between a platformer and a puzzle game.  In terms of level design and overall experience, it is a platformer, but the control scheme borrows from the arcade-puzzle genre.  At the start of each level, Jack sits quietly, staring you down through your screen.  Tap the screen, and off he goes, running devil-may-care through the level.  If there is a pit, a spike, or any other obstacle, he will run headlong to his doom like a fat little lemming.  You need to react quickly to what is ahead and time your jumps to clear the obstacles.  Now, if this is all there was to the game, it would just be another endless runner, but despite the simplistic control, the gameplay runs deeper than that.  Jack can change direction, but only if he hits a wall.  So running Jack into walls will become necessary to move from one side of the level to the other.  Jack can also wall-jump to scale new heights, collect power-ups that increase his running speed, allowing him to clear longer obstacles, or that will temporarily allow him to fly.  At the start the levels are slow and simple, easing you in as it begins introducing new obstacles and moves.  Half-way through each of the game's 7 worlds, a new power-up, move or obstacle will be introduced.  This results in a difficulty level that increases very gradually.  The first world is cute but slow-paced and fairly easy, but by the time you hit world 7 you'll be pulling your hair out as the game refuses to give you a break and a single slip-up spells doom.  Still, by the time you reach this frantic point, the game has trained you so well that you know you can beat it, even if it takes you a hundred deaths to do it (it will).

You can download the game and play the whole thing with a banner ad if you choose.  The ad squashes the playfield, but if you're feeling cheap or just want to test the game first the option is open to you.  $0.99 removes the ad, and it is money well spent.  Once the game hooks you, you will want to play through all 140 levels and doing so with an ad on the screen is just no way to live.  It's a very modest price for such a solid, addictive and challenging game.  Apart from the fact that the start of the game is almost too easy, the only downside for me is the music.  While the visuals bring up images of the Game Boy, the soundtrack is just too beepy, more like it was written for an old internal PC speaker.  Personally I just turned the sound off, seeing as the game has a handy mute function in the corner of the screen.  I recommend Jack n' Jill to anyone with an iOS device and a fondness for the gaming days of yore.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Toca Nature

This is the second time I’ve played a Toca Boca title, (the first being last Halloween’s release of Toca Boo), and I continue to be impressed.  As noted in my review of Toca Boo, Toca Boca’s titles are digital toys for iOS and Android.  As such, Toca Nature is not a game with rules and objects; rather, a sandbox for building and exploring and just having fun.

The premise is simple: you start out with a small, unspectacular block of land and a series of buttons that allow you to make mountains,  dig streams and plant trees.  Anyone who has played a game of Sim City should be familiar with the basic idea: select the mountains, and draw your finger across the landscape.  Wherever your finger touches, the land will be built up just a bit.  Keep scribbling in the same spot and it will continue to grow into a snowy peak.  Likewise, take the river tool and your finger will instead carve out valleys which will fill with water once you dig deep enough.

There are animals associated with the different terrains and with the different trees that you can plant.  Wolves will spring to life when mountains are created, beavers will shuffle about the shores of your streams, and depending on the types of trees you plant, you can have bears, birds and bunnies (oh my!) in addition to other critters.

Various sources of food will pop up in your landscape: fish in the streams, berries and mushrooms and acorns on the land.  You can watch the animals forage for their favorite treats, or collect them yourself and offer them to the creatures to watch their reactions.  The rabbits seem interested in anything that grows, but the game surprised me when I tossed a fish at one.  I was expecting it would ignore it, but the rabbit hopped up to the fish, sniffed it curiously, then shook its head and hopped away.  It’s touches like this that make a game special.

You can continue to alter the land to your liking in real-time, and have the ability to zoom  and explore your creation up close.  The sound effects are immersive and the game cycles through day and night.  There is also a camera mode that allows you to snap photos as you explore.

The title is delightful; it has character, creativity and charm.  As an adult I found it to be adorable and relaxing, but no doubt it will have more interest to the younger crowd for whom it is intended.  I would recommend it for anyone with small children, or if you just want a more adorable way to unwind than the typical “relaxation” apps you’ll find scattered about.


H.E.R.O. belongs to that pool of classic games that didn't get its start in an arcade and doesn't get a lot of fanfare, but nevertheless since the time of its original release (back in 1984) it has never disappeared, but has been ported and emulated to numerous platforms.

Designed by Activision for the Atari 2600, the game sets itself apart right from the beginning as a multiple screen adventure with distinct levels.  This was uncommon on the 2600 as most games tended to be arcade ports or simple, single-screen affairs where level progression meant harder, faster enemies.  H.E.R.O. has structure: each level is different, grows larger, and sets the game apart.  It also sported clean, detailed graphics (detailed for the 2600, anyway) and smooth character animation.

The game's plot involves a one-man rescue operation as you race underground in search of trapped miners.  Each level has a single miner to save, trapped at the bottom of a mine shaft.  As the hero, you are equipped with a helicopter pack which enables you to fly, a limited supply of dynamite and a helmet-mounted laser.  You must fly over pits and underground pools of water, shoot deadly spiders, bats and snakes and blast away walls blocking your path.  Your suit has a limited amount of power, which acts as a timer, so you have to reach the bottom of the shaft as quickly as possible to extract the miner.

It feels less like a 2600 game and more like something you'd play on one of the home computers of the time.  In fact, it was ported to several different home computer and console systems.  My first exposure to the title was not the 2600 version, but the Commodore 64 port.  Across the different versions, gameplay and level design remain the same, but graphics we improved on.  In my opinion the Commodore 64 is the superior version as it adds greater detail; the levels look more like old, dark caverns.

The physics of the game add greatly to both the challenge and the fun.  The helicopter pack operates in a realistic manner (or as realistic a manner as one can imagine a helicopter pack operating): Once activated, the propeller begins spinning, but takes a second to actually generate lift, and then slowly increases in speed as you take off.  Likewise, if you drop off a ledge and then switch the pack on, the first effect will be that as the propeller begins to spin your descent will slow, then gradually begin to pull you upward.  The physics involve allow you to maneuver extremely well, even while they make you sweat, such as when dropping underneath a low-hanging rock, your feet just barely skimming the surface of a pool of water.

This is not an action game per-say.  There are things to shoot, but mostly because they are blocking your way.  The ultimate goal is to find your way down the shaft to the trapped miner, and as shafts grow longer and more difficult, caution must be melded with speed as you work your way downward.  It is a rewarding game, one that stresses you out one second as you fight against the clock and narrowly thread your way past deadly obstacles, but then makes you feel so dang good once you finally make it and reach the miner with moments to spare.  It's a true "just one more level" kind of game.

As for longevity, the game (in its Atari 2600 form at least) has been included on numerous complications.  It can be played on iOS as part of the Activision Anthology and XBox 360 as part of the Microsoft Game Room.  It's a real underdog title that doesn't get a lot of attention, and yet seems to be in no danger of disappearing from the gaming world any time soon.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

My wife and I enjoy gaming together, especially co-op.  It was my wife who introduced me to the Tomb Raider series, despite the fact that it is sometimes seen as a sexist title owing to the physic and presentation of the title character (although if you've read this post then you already know what I think about that).  We spent a lot of time playing through Tomb Raider: Legend and Tomb Raider: Underworld together.  Then we discovered Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, and let me tell you, it is magic.

Released in 2010 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows (and later ported to iOS and Android), Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light was treated by developers as a new property in the ongoing adventures of Miss Croft, hence dropping the Tomb Raider title and focusing on a more blatant “Indiana Jones” style naming convention.  Lara Croft is definitely still Lara Croft, curvaceous pistol-packing treasure hunter, but the style of the game is a big change from the Tomb Raider series, being presented in a fixed-camera, scaled back isometric environment with a more arcade-style focus on action and puzzle-solving.  It also introduced a new mechanic in the form of Totec, an ancient Mayan warrior who has risen to do battle with the demon, Xolotl, a beast brought forth by some South American crime bosses’ desecrating a temple and manhandling an ancient artifact.  Par for the course with Lara, but in this adventure Totec fights side-by-side with her, bringing in a co-op aspect of gameplay that the franchise had not yet seen.

…and that co-op aspect is amazing.  Although a single-player campaign exists which reorganizes the gameplay so that a second player is unnecessary, the game was designed to be a two-player experience, whether local or via the net, and it is there that the game really shines, with one player controlling Lara and the other Totec.  Lara is just as lithe and athletic as ever, able to maneuver with a sort of super-human grace regardless of the obstacles and possessing two pistols with infinite ammunition (as well as being able to pick up a variety of other weapons).  Totec is heavier, but armed with a throwing spear he can regenerate and a shield.  With a slower, projectile based attach, Totec is not quite the spit-fire Lara is, but backs up his shortcomings with his strength.

Levels are strewn with traps and secrets, and cooperation is necessary to complete them.  Not only do Lara and Totec fight side-by-side, but each possess abilities that the other needs in order to advance and complete puzzles.  For instance, Totec can lift his shield above his head for Lara to use as a platform, or embed his spears into walls which she can jump on (Totec himself is too heavy and will break his spears if he tries this).  Lara has her grappling hook from the Tomb Raider games, which Totec can strut across like a tight-rope.  Sometimes the puzzles are a simple matter of figuring out how to get across a chasm using each character’s unique abilities, sometimes it is a deeper matter of figuring out how to work together to solve larger environmental puzzles and avoid booby-traps.  Oh yeah, and there’s always combat too, with human, animal and super-natural foes dogging your heels as you journey through the game world toward your showdown with Xolotl.

Graphically, the game is beautiful.  It was designed using the same engine developed for Tomb Raider: Underwold, and the physics and lightening effects are wonderful and lend a solid atmosphere.  There are secrets, extra tombs to be explored, and items to collect that will unlock additional content.  Although the game is short, it has plenty of value for at least a couple of replays, and the co-op element is so masterfully executed that it is one of the best two-player titles available for the Xbox 360 (the console my wife and I played it on).  If you haven’t checked it out, it is definitely worth your time.

Backed by excellent reviews and strong sales, a sequel entitled Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris was released in December 2014 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Windows.  I’d been holding out against getting an Xbox One myself, but a new Lara Croft title is a strong argument in its favor.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Puzzle BeBop (iOS)

Every now and then you come across a title that seems like the perfect blend of gameplay and retro visuals and feels, a game that will take you back to your earliest experiences with titles like Tetris, Columns or Dr. Mario, something that will remain loaded on your iOS device for months to come, continually begging you for “just one more game”.  Unfortunately, Puzzle BeBop, developed by Binary Square and released in 2012, is not that game, which is a shame because it so easily could have been.

From the very start, Puzzle BeBop impresses with its bright colors and retro-style graphics, which to me more closely resemble the graphical styling’s of the Commodore 64 than an early Nintendo game, despite the obvious nod to Mario in some of its embellishments.  A bright title track, also harkening back to days of yore, accompanies the fun visuals.  The effect of loading it up on your iOS device is like stepping into a time machine to discover a long-lost arcade puzzle gem.

The effect on your senses remains as the game starts.  Surprisingly there is no music in the game itself, but the sound effects are well done.  This also drives home the comparison to a Commodore 64 title, for although the Commodore was capable of playing music and sound effects at the same time, it was not uncommon to find games for the system that only had a title track.

The rules of the game are simple yet highly effective.  Brightly colored faces drop from the center of the screen in groups of two.  You rotate these groups to create matches of four in the playfield.  Occasionally crates will drop instead of faces, and these contain color-coded power-ups, such as lightning bolts that will take out an entire column, or stars that will remove all of a given color, but you never know what color the power-up is until after you have placed it, and then must match like-colored faces to it in order to activate it.  Cement blocks will also drop which can only be removed by power-ups.  The objective is much the same as Tetris or Columns: survive as long as possible and run the score up.  As the game goes on, it becomes faster and new colors will be added to the mix, further complicating your task.

At its core, the game is solid and the graphics are beautiful.  The game’s damning factor, the one thing that keeps this from being a true gem worthy of recommendation to all arcade puzzle fans, is the controls.  The best of concepts can be destroyed by inadequate control, and this is where Puzzle BeBop falls flat.  As the game was designed for touch devices, the developers designed the control around finger movement.  To an extent, this works alright.  Swipe to the right, and your pieces move one space to the right.  Swipe down and they drop.  To spin your piece, you draw a circle on the screen, clockwise or counter-clockwise as you desire.  It sounds reasonable, it feels reasonable, and on paper is a great idea.  Unfortunately, in execution it proves to be entirely too slow.  Pieces drop quickly, and if you need to rotate and move a piece to the far side of the board, that would require drawing at least one circle, then a couple of separate swipes to the side.  Even in the early stages of normal difficulty, once you have a few pieces on the board it is very difficult to execute multiples swipes before the pieces hit something, at which point they immediately lock themselves into place.  It the controls had involved, say, tapping the left and right sides of the screen to move, or tapping a certain section to rotate, then gameplay would have been much smoother.  If this were even offered as a separate control mode, then this review would be very different, but unfortunately there is only one control method, that method is entirely made up of swipes and drawing circles, and that method simply cannot keep up with the pace of the game itself.

I really wanted to like this game.  Everything was in place for it to be a real classic, but due to the fast speed of the gameplay and the slow speed of the controls, the only game mode that I found reasonably playable was “easy”, yet although this mode slows the gameplay down considerably, it was also extremely generous with power-ups and made the game so easy that it became boring instead of fun.  Puzzle BeBop is a game that should be good, but due to a control scheme that only works on paper, it just isn’t any fun.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Why I Love Castlevania

Castlevania captured my imagination long before I ever played a Castlevania game.  As a kid reading Nintendo Power, Castlevania stood out to me because it combined two of the things that I loved the most: horror and video games.  The graphics looked amazing and atmospheric and the concept of hunting Dracula within his haunted castle was enough to send chills up the spine of a prepubescent boy.

I’ve always been fascinated by horror stories, and Dracula has been one of my favorites from the beginning, and I’ve never grown out of that.  Although I enjoy other tales of vampires here and there, I’ve never been a huge fan of vampires just for the sake of vampires, but Dracula himself has always been the ultimate villain.  Compelling, sometimes just a little sympathetic, but at his core he is Satan himself.  As a boy on to the present I would devour any film I could get my hands on which dealt with this aristocratic monster, and the first part of Bram Stoker’s novel, detailing Jonathan Harker’s journey into Transylvania and his encounter and subsequent imprisonment by the Count, genuinely frightened me as a child and is one of my favorite portions of any literary work.

Given that, you can see how Simon Belmont’s quest to slay the Count, who in Castlevania lore commands an army of demonic creatures, set my imagination free.  I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to step out into the wilderness surrounding Dracula’s castle, journeying up to the ancient castle gates and, with no idea what to expect and knowing that your presence has not gone unnoticed, stepping inside.  The idea of challenging Dracula head-on with nothing but a whip (enchanted or not) was terrifying and exciting.

As a child I never took games at face-value; what was behind the game was always present in my mind.  For Simon to die at the hands of a zombie in-game meant crumpling to the ground while a few dark musical notes played, but I knew that death by zombie meant incredible suffering as your flesh was ripped from your bones.  To me, Simon was a total stud, a man filled to the brim with courage, striding out with confidence against incredible odds and the potential for excruciating pain.

When I finally obtained a copy of Castlevania for my NES, I was thrilled.  It was one of the hardest games I had ever played, and I ate it up.  I knew from the beginning that Simon was up against impossible odds, and I think that had the game been easy I would have been let down.  But it wasn’t just one game, and the lore of the world continued to open up for me.  Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest told how Dracula placed a curse on Simon before he was defeated, a curse that was slowly killing him and caused him constant pain while Dracula’s evil slowly poisoned the countryside.  This was a dark story where Simon’s only hope for salvation lay in collecting the Count’s body parts and personal effects, which had been stolen away and hidden by his minions, and burning them on an alter in the heart of Dracula’s ruined Castle.  The game was quite a departure from the arcade action of the first, but the music and mood were fantastic and I spent hours roaming the countryside looking for those grim relics.

Then Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse revealed that Simon Belmont was not the first, but that the battle between Dracula and the Belmont’s had been going on for some time, with Dracula resurrecting some years after each defeat.  Finally, Super Castlevania IV brought the game to the Super Nintendo, and I was completely blown away.  Castlevania always looked and sounded good on the NES, with dark exciting music to match the visuals, but Castlevania IV was worlds ahead, with much more detail and deeper orchestrations.  It was exciting and frightening and everything that an SNES title could aspire to be.

From there the series has gone on and endured, telling an epic story across multiple consoles, even re-writing itself through stand-alone titles (Circle of the Moon) and reboots (Lords of Shadow) that have continued the tradition of the originals even as the core canon continues to be explored.  Of all the long-standing video game franchises, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and the like, Castlevania appeals to that darker part of us that enjoys Halloween, horror movies and sleepless nights, and it will always be one of my favorite series.