Review #33: Pokemon Sun


The world is a cold unfeeling dark place. Good people die young, people hurt and mistreat one another, and sometimes the bad guys win. It sucks, and sometimes it can be totally overwhelming how much it sucks. And then there’s Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon, two 3DS games released by Nintendo last fall, just when things were really looking bleak. These games contain the Alola region, a Hawaiian style world where optimism and joy are in abundance and the world is generally amazing for everyone and also people catch like five varieties of cute dog Pokemon.

Cute Dog Pokemon

So that’s pretty great

But is it worth escaping reality to catch Pokemon for the (if you only count the main games) 10th time (assuming you only played one game per generation), or should you sit this one out and draw flowers in the margins of your notebook instead?


The world of Pokemon Sun is a distinctly utopian place. Much more so than previous games. Every aspect of the game world has had the sharp edges taken off of it. Where as in previous games you were challenged by biker gangs, ninjas, and thieves in this game your primary trainer opponents are children and well-adjusted tourists.


…who take selfies.

This extends to your rival as well. In pervious games your rival is sometimes a criminal and a thief but at the very least they’re a jerk. Here your “rival” is a nice guy who sometimes misses important stuff because he’s hungry and even does you the courtesy of picking a starting Pokemon that is weak to the one you chose (making this the first ever game where that happens).

Even the game’s main villains are treated as a joke. Team Skull is never a real threat to you. They’re pretty much never taken seriously by anyone else in the game. They’re downright endearing for trying so hard and being so bad at being a villain.


The facial expressions of the two in the back don’t exactly inspire fear.

Compare that to Team Rocket in the first games, taking over an entire town, massive conspiracy plans, and infiltrating and running a Pokemon gym. Compared to them Team Skull is a pushover.

The general optimism of the game isn’t immersion breaking though. You won’t roll your eyes and say “this is stupid” or “this is ridiculous”. That’s one of the greatest strengths of Pokemon Sun, this place really just feels like a happy place. Nothing more or less than that.


This game is more different from any other main series Pokemon game than any other. It’s the biggest departure for the main franchise ever. So much has changed. Some for the better, some without impact, and some for the worse.

One change that I love is the removal of HM-Moves. These were special moves that Pokemon could learn and use outside of battle. Things like “cut” to cut down trees in your path or “surf” to swim on the water or “fly” to quickly travel to major cities. The problem was at their peak there were around 6 HM moves in a game. That meant that if you wanted to travel unhindered you needed at least one-and-a-half Pokemon (usually more because of move types) to know sub-par moves. You could never walk around with a full party of 6 optimized Pokemon. At best you could have four optimized Pokemon. It sucked and it was annoying. But now you get a ride-pager with a select few HM-specific Pokemon built in. So you don’t have “HM Slave” Pokemon in your party all the time. Finally!


A change that I’m neutral on is the shift from gym-battles to island challenges. In previous games you would fight a type-specific gym leader in each major town and collect a badge. In Pokemon Sun you face an island challenge against a totem Pokemon in each area. The challenges themselves are quite varied. Some you have to collect ingredients to lure the totem Pokemon, some you have to do photography challenges, and some you have to clear Pokemon out of an area. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s definitely better than gym leaders, but I do think it’s a good thing for Nintendo to play with. I hope they try new things in subsequent games as well.

And finally one change I don’t like. This game holds your hand in each area much more than previous games. It’s a bit much, the game literally drops a a pin on the map to tell you exactly where to go next. Then the (annoying) talking Pokedex tells you where to go and what to do. I’m reminded of previous games where doors were blocked when you’d get to a new down and you’d have to find secret entrances in the backs of gambling parlors or give guards water to open pathways or play music for sleeping Pokemon. Sadly in this game there’s nothing to intuit on the main path. It feels like a missed opportunity.


I think you should. I think this is a great game. I’ve been playing for weeks whenever I have free time. The game is a wonderful escape from the difficulties of normal life. It’s a beautiful island paradise and you should check it out.

Review #32: Singularity – Modern Lights Out (Or, A General Apple Watch Games Review)


Singularity – Modern Lights Out is a simple puzzle game where you tap panels on a screen to make all the panels one color, but tapping a panel also swaps all adjacent panels. It’s (like the title suggests) a mobile version of the classic Lights Out game originally released by Tiger Entertainment in 1995. The game is fine, if you like minimalist puzzle games, this is one of them.

But the game is notable for releasing an apple watch version. A version that  was high on a lot of the generic “Best Apple Watch Games” lists I looked at prior to playing it. So this review isn’t so much about Singularity – Modern Lights Out as it is about the experience of gaming on the Apple Watch or Smart Watches in general.

But before we can get into that we have to acknowledge the elephant in the room because…


…and I neither hate it nor love it. The watch was a gift I received fairly recently. And that’s important to mention because I can honestly say if this watch had not been a gift, but rather something I had spent $400+ of my own money to buy, I would not be indifferent to it. I would probably be pretty upset. That’s not to say this isn’t a cool piece of technology or you’re an idiot if you bought one, it’s just to say that for me, for a number of reasons, this watch would not be worth the price of entry.


Or you could get an analog watch with a disney character…

I don’t want to get too far into a straight up review of the watch, but I think there’s one thing that’s important to share. I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to adjust to using the watch and the biggest struggle I have is that it’s still easier to reach into my pocket to set a timer or check the weather or reply to a text than it is to do it on my watch. I do admit it took over a year of having a smart phone before I started using it to check Facebook, but I’m not sure the watch has the same pull, especially with my phone right there in my pocket.

But is the watch any sort of viable gaming platform?


Singularity – Modern Lights Out and the other simple touch button games I played on the watch worked fine on the device, but in every case it feels like it would be easier and simpler to use your phone. The interface is usually small and incredibly restricted. Often it’s so small that you need especially tiny fingers to consistently get the inputs you want.


Not Actual Size

For me the problem is easily summed up by this: Singularity – Modern Lights Out can be played on your phone with one hand. You hold the phone in your hand and use your exposed thumb to touch the screen. But on the smart watch it requires two hands. You have to raise the wrist of one hand and press the buttons with the other hand. It’s, by default, twice as inconvenient.


Anything can be a viable gaming platform. I put dozens of hours into games on my graphing calculator in high school. People have made games inside of Mincraft. I searched for all of 30 seconds and found a list of six games you can play using only Microsoft Excel. It’s just a matter of finding the right game for the platform. The Apple Watch is no exception.

I don’t think Singularity is that game, but I do think that good games for the system can exist (and maybe they do). The design space exists. You can actively track heart rate and movement. You can use it in conjunction with the iPhone camera. I could go on. There are tons of possibilities. It’s just a matter of finding the right fit.


Or… Fitbit!

Review #31: Mad Max


Coming out the same year as the Oscar winning film Max Max: Fury Road, Mad Max (the video game) has little to do with the aforementioned movie. Aside from sharing a canon the two have no overlap in plot, secondary characters, and may not even revolve around the same Max. But can this game reinvigorate an old film franchise or is it best left in the dust?


In Mad Max you play as Max (woah) and spend your time traveling around an open world wasteland in the Magnum Opus (a car) that you are slowly reconstructing with the help of your trusty blackfinger mechanic (Chumbucket). You’ll infiltrate enemy strongholds, attack shipping convoys, survey the area in hot air balloons, and do missions for various factions, all in the name of building the best ride you can.


We have achieved car-perfection. Thank god we found pink spray paint in the apocalypse.

The gameplay is broken up into three main areas: general exploration, hand to hand combat, and car stuff (combat, races, etc). Each section has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. You’ll be doing a lot of all three and the game breaks everything up fairly evenly, although for my money the car stuff (which is the most fun) isn’t frequent enough.


If I had to choose one of the three parts of the game you do the most, this would (sadly) be it. So, the map has hundreds of locations it marks on the map for you to stop by and loot. The basic exploration gameplay loop is this: go to a place, walk around, find scrap, get a message that says “100% Looted” and move on.


And then do that a thousand more times…

It’s not great, and one of the weakest points in this game for a few reasons: the first is that the rewards for exploration generally suck. Small quantities of scrap are your most frequent reward but other than that you usually get either ammo or parts to assemble little base enhancements that only help you get more scrap.

And scrap is a horrible but necessary reward. Scrap is how you do everything in the game, buy upgrades, improv strongholds… but the quantities you get from exploring are never worth the effort. 10 scrap is good if the upgrade you need costs 100 scrap, but later in the game upgrades can cost 1000 scrap or more and the game still spits out scrap in quantities of 1-10 at a time. It’s like if I said to you “I’ve hidden some money somewhere in this park” and you got excited and then I said to you “It’s a nickle”. You wouldn’t lift a finger to look for that crap.

Now, if the rewards for exploration had been better this wouldn’t be such an issue. And this is going to be a recurring problem in Mad Max. It’s what I’ll call a “Near Miss”. It’s where a game has a good idea and makes one small mistake that screws the whole thing up. In this case it’s the messed up scrap economy impacting the whole exploration experience.


For the record I will always love a game that steals the combat system from the Arkham series. The strike, dodge, counter, repeat formula is evocative of so many action heroes and fits into so many games perfectly. I love that they included it in Mad Max. I also love that you retain the option to occasionally say “eh, I don’t feel like it” and shotgun the last guy in the group.This is probably the most well balanced part of the whole game. It’s fun to play right out of the box.

It’s not perfect though. Any game that uses the Arkham combat system invites itself to be compared to the Arkham combat system, and that’s a hard comparison to come out looking good.Max Max is generally slower and more jarring. Not as fluid as the Dark Knight.

There are also these obnoxious fights where you need to shoot a an enemy beating a drum above the fight with your shotgun or else everyone else gets a huge power boost. The problem is the auto aim will literally never prioritize the person hanging above the fight, you have to struggle to slowly aim at the giant target in the sky and start all over again if you get hit. It’s obnoxious and frustrating. Oh, and as the game goes on these drummers get more frequent and become more necessary to take out quickly. That, like what happens with most shotgun shots aimed at these guys, is another near miss.


I’m gonna enjoy this.


Pitch: It’s a car combat open world game where you turn your junker into a custom built open world death machine that lights other cars on fire and rips them apart with harpoons and torpedoes. You’ll be agile and powerful, able to do anything behind the wheel, turning the car into an extension of yourself.


Reality: The default control scheme doesn’t have a handbrake. You don’t upgrade into one or anything. It’s just not there. I did find out (after putting 12 hours into the game) there’s a handbrake if you use an alternative control scheme. But that doesn’t change the fact that in a game that is literally about building a car the developers meant for you to finish this game without using a handbrake. That’s not even a near miss. That’s accidentally shooting yourself at a gun range. That’s a miss so bad you can’t imagine how it happened.


This guy could do it.

Setting aside that massive oversight the car building never really feels good. You have to earn all this stupid scrap doing stuff to buy a single upgrade and it does almost nothing. The upgrades increase the cars stats by minuscule percents. I bought two upgrades for my tires (spending almost 800 scrap) and noticed no difference at all. Maybe I would have seen a difference if there had been a damn handbrake!


Mad Max has tons of good ideas. It’s not a bad game. It’s almost a great game. The story is halfway decent, and the voice acting (especially Chumbucket) is sometimes downright amazing. When everything works, it works well. But then you walk for two minutes to find 3 scrap to put towards an upgrade that costs 800 scrap and will make your car 10% less susceptible to sun damage or something. And those near misses really start to add up.

Near misses aren’t inherently game-ruining. If a game is an hour long and has a major gameplay design flaw, but does have good ideas, that’s fine. But if a game is repetitive and wants you to spend 40 hours in it (like say, an open world game) then those little annoyances get really big really quick.

It’s like sand, a few grains of sand in your living room is so small you never even notice it, but before long, you’re dying of exposure in the Plains of Silence.


Hope you like collecting scrap.

Review #30: Papo and Yo


Biography is one of the storytelling genres I have the least experience with. I’m generally not a big fan of non fiction. I like to use books and movies to escape the real world, not dive deeper into it. That’s not helped by the fact that there are almost no “biography” games. Generally games want to be much more abstract and fantastic than a strict retelling would allow. But, there are a few games that flirt with the idea of Biography and do so in very interesting ways. One such game is Papo & Yo, telling the story of a Brazilian boy named Quico trying to live with his abusive alcoholic father.


At its heart Papo & Yo is a very simple puzzle platformer. You control Quico in the fantastical dream world of the game. It’s a abstracted and magical version of a Brazilian slum (or Favela). Everything is simultaneously very realistic (the details of the houses in the world) and very abstracted (the way pieces of the ground can be ripped up or houses can be moved by picking up cardboard boxes) at the same time.


These cardboard boxes, when moved, cause real houses in the background to move as well.

In addition to basic traversal and movement puzzles one large aspect of the gameplay revolves around solving puzzles with the help of Monster. The quiet and stoic gigantic stand-in for Quico’s alcoholic father. You can use fruit to get him onto certain witches and sometimes bounce on his stomach to get where you want, but occasionally Monster will go into a rage and attack you. When this happens you have to stay out of his way and use certain fruit to calm him down.


You’ll spend much of the game wondering how Monster feels about Quico.

I will say here that if you’re playing this game, it’s not for the tight controls or complicated puzzles. This game is meant to be experienced, not mastered. You won’t find yourself scratching your head much (if at all) and your fingers won’t be dripping sweat during even the most difficult platforming sections. No, you’re here for the biography of the young life of Vander Caballero.


The first clue that this game is more than just an abstract idea brought to life via metaphor is in the visual design. The details and characters are all too specific for this to be just about the “idea” of abuse. This is a real story. We know because so much of what we see in this story doesn’t serve to enhance the a core concept.

I’ll explain what I mean: if I said “we are going to make a game about a father with an alcohol addiction, where should it be set?” you wouldn’t say “a Favela in Brazil!” No, you would try to think of a setting that specifically evoked themes of alcohol, fatherhood, and fear.But if I said to you, “we are going to tell this real person’s story of dealing with a father with an addiction, where should it be set?” you would be smart and ask me “well… where did it happen?”


It happened here.

It’s clues like these that help tell us right away that this is a biographical game. We are dealing with a person’s story, not an abstraction of an idea.

At this point you might be asking the question “so, how does a biographical game work? Can that even work?” That’s a good question to have, because I’ve been dying to answer it since we started this review. See, the problem with creating a biography in game form is that games relish player agency. The player needs to act on their own. But, if you give a player agency your losing the integrity of the real person’s story you are trying to tell. So how does Papo & Yo get around this? By being a biography of an experience.

Papo & Yo is a biography of the young life of Vander Caballero dealing with having an abusive, alcoholic for a father, but it is not a direct telling of the moments and events that comprised his young life (at least not explicitly). Instead Papo & Yo seeks to give you a representation of the same experience that Vander Caballero had. You’re not going through the same events he went through, you’re just dealing with the same feelings and challenges he had to, and making the same discoveries.


Things are never simple in real life, and this game acknowledges that.

If it’s not already clear I think this is a brilliant way to create a compelling game and do justice to a true story at the same time. This game is short, sweet, and very compelling. I had to resist going into depth and spoiling the whole story. But you should absolutely give it a chance.

Full Disclosure: Much of what I learned about the history of this game and it’s creator, Vander Caballero, came from an article at Polygon called Therapy, Alcohol, and Chickens: The Story Behind PSN’s Papo & Yo. Go check it out if you want to learn more about this game and it’s history. They do this game more justice than I ever could.

Review #29: Zoombinis Remastered


I take you back now to a computer lab filled with mac computers in Denver, Colorado. A young elementary school boy with bright blond hair, a terrible sense of humor, and very few friends sits in front of one playing a computer game during the free-play part of class since he finished his typing assignment. He’s playing a game…


For date/time reference, this is the mac we’re talking about…

and that game is called Logical Journey of the Zoombinis.

This week’s game is one of the first computer games I ever played. Or, to be more specific, the game that this week’s game is a remastering of is one of the first computer games I ever played. But I’m so excited they remastered this game. I’ve been looking for this game for a long time, but I never had a computer I felt I could dumb down enough to play it. On top of that I mostly wanted it in college and I was a poor college student (apparently ten dollars was too much for me?)

But, long after I had given up, in October of 2015, this game was rebuilt from the ground up and it’s out on Steam! So, let’s play!*



I remember this game being harder. Like, it’s not that hard. It’s a tiny bit hard but… most of the game’s variables are meant to distract you from the simple yes/no logic puzzles at play, especially when the puzzle revolves around the Zoombinis’ traits.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. First let’s discuss…


Zoombinis is a game of logic puzzles. Almost all puzzles in the game have a straightforward formula:

  1. The puzzle has hidden rules that you must uncover.
  2. You do this by trial and error using the Zoombinis. You place one randomly into the puzzle and see how the hidden rules react.
  3. Form a theory about the rules.
  4. Test the theory by seeing if the game reacts the way you want it to another test.
  5. If it works, move to the next puzzle, if it doesn’t develop a new theory.

Most challenges use the various Zoombini designs in some way but even the ones that don’t frequently ask you to work in this way such as the infamous pizza challenge.


“MAKE ME A PIZZA!” “SOMETHING ON THAT I DON’T LIKE!” “MORE TOPPINGS!” … This was big for 8 year old me.

There are a few other puzzles that don’t use these mechanics, but these are often the weakest puzzles in the game and the ones that are the least fun to complete.


The game’s style, presentation, and music held up really well. The xylophone music when you finish a stage is still iconic and mysterious, the announcer’s voice, and all the original vocal clips are excellent. The quirky design is still strong and different, but serviceable and clearly communicates everything you need for each puzzle.


Also that sunbeam is a nice touch.

As far as puzzles are concerned, some have really held up, including that pizza puzzle (there’s a reason everyone remembers that one from the original). But some haven’t held up so well.


Sigh… I think some of the puzzles didn’t survive the test of time. This could totally be a mistake on my part, because I’m not the intended audience for this game at all, I’m like 16 years too old. But still, it seems like some of the puzzles are just too basic and repetitive.

For every pizza or mud wall puzzle there’s one where you have to match the Zoombinis to their reflections one at a time.



You have to do this for all 16 zoombinis you have in your group, and you have to do it every time you move more through the game. What I’m saying is some of these puzzles really didn’t stand the test of time and because you have to play them multiple times they really stand out.


No. No, there’s more good than bad here. I am certain of that. Not to mention that logic is the basis of scientific reasoning, not to mention all of computer programming. The skills you study on this wacky adventure are the building blocks of an intellectual mind. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I played this game obsessively and now 20 years later I love discussing Programming Logic Algorithms.

If you never played this game and have a hankering for an educational classic or if you want to take a stroll down nostalgia lane, you could do a lot worse than Zoombinis.

*By the way, this game, in it’s current state, wasn’t played by me prior to this year. I know a remaster is kind of a grey area, but the fact that it’s a remaster combined with the fact that I haven’t touched it since I was like eight years old makes me think this falls within the rules. Also I get to make the rules so… ha!

Review #28: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate


I don’t like long games anymore.

I used to like really long games. Games that took hours and days of your life to complete. This was back when I was really young and could only afford to get a game a month if I was lucky. I’d beat the game, then beat it all over again. Back then I would have loved just strolling around the city of London like you do in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.

I remember when I played open world games just to screw around in the open world. I’d play it just to play it. I even did this in the first Assassin’s Creed game when it came out. I would pick random guards and stock them from the rooftops before executing a perfect assassination and engaging in a giant fight with multiple guards. I played the game through at least three times beating every mission and collection everything I could.


Dear Ubisoft, Please direct me to missions that will be rewarding and interesting and not random crap. -Everyone

But now… I don’t like doing that as much. I’ve replayed games and I’ve played games after the story finished but… I don’t love playing around in open world games anymore just to play.

I think all this comes from my developed understanding of how games work and how they are designed. Looking back now I know many of Assassin’s Creed’s missions were very repetitive and sloppy. I know the game was wasting my time getting me to collect flags in each city and complete extra missions. And now, when I see those same tactics in Syndicate, I see them for what they are and they make me feel insulted as a player. I feel like the game is assigning me chores to waste my time.

That’s not to say Syndicate is all bad. When it’s good, it’s really really good. The main assassination missions are incredibly fun and deep. You’re encouraged to discover unique assassination opportunities and find clever paths to the assassination. It feels great (even if it’s blatantly ripped off from the Hitman games). The problem is the game has a half dozen of these in total. I’ve played for 17 hours and I’ve done two of them. TWO! That’s one every 8.5 hours. I could have played the Superhot campaign like seven times in that timespan, and Superhot is just as fun, if not more so! And that’s just one example!


I feel like each of these are one mission surrounded by an ocean of bullshit.

What I’m saying is a game doesn’t need to be 20 hours to be fun. In fact, a game is only as fun as it’s length. A boring game that is 50 hours long is way worse than a fun game that’s only 5 hours long. Heck, if you play a five hour game and love it you might even play if for 50 hours!

So, that’s all I’m going to say about Assassin’s Creed for the time being. I have many other feelings on the game, it’s design and evolution over time, but since the game took away so many hours of my life on random map bullshit and I’m behind on my deadlines I’m not going to do it the kindness of further discussion…


Oh right… the TRUTH… I forgot to talk about that.

…okay maybe later. We’ll see.

Review #27: Super Mario Run


There are three kinds of people in this world:

  1. People who really wanted Nintendo to make mobile games.
  2. People who really didn’t want Nintendo making mobile games.
  3. People who didn’t care.

I currently (I haven’t always felt this way, but that’s a story for another time) fall into the “make some mobile games already!” category for Nintendo. With the Nintendo Switch occupying the same space as the WiiU and 3DS a simple pick up and play game experience (which if we’re being honest the 3DS didn’t even offer much of) has been missing from Nintendo’s collection of toys.

So, is Super Mario Run the first step into a bold new future or is it the first misstep into a horrible micro-transaction covered hellscape of death and pain? Let’s find out!


Nintendo, for all their faults, at least firmly understands how to design software that plays to the strengths of the hardware they are designing for. To that end they didn’t bother with those stupid virtual d-pads and buttons some games use. Instead about 1/3 of the Super Mario Run game screen is taken up by a single button which is the only button you need in the whole game.


That bottom part of the screen is all jump button real estate.

“But wait,” I hear you asking, “isn’t the whole premise of the main-series Mario games and the key to their success the notion of ‘Jump Control’ which is the game design idea that by using the d-pad you have a large amount of control over Mario’s jump once you are in the air?”

Yes, that’s true.

“And,” you continue, “doesn’t a single button control scheme make that virtually impossible?”

Yes, that’s also true.

…sigh… okay

It’s very frustrating. Mario can do all these crazy hops (like his famous triple jump) as well as weird lunges over enemies and regular jumps, but it is very imprecise to control how high and far he jumps using only a single button. You can’t reliably  land on a single block platform without Jump Control, but it seems like Nintendo still wants you to make some very tough jumps.


Mario stops on certain blocks. But that doesn’t change the fact that without the ability to control what you do after you start to jump these moments are frustrating and often end in failure.

Once you let go of the jump button you’re in gods hands. Get ready to overshoot jumps into lava or hop off a goomba’s head and into a ceiling. In a normal Mario game jumping on three Goomba’s in a row is a cake walk. In this game it’s an insane feat.


Good luck…

But that’s not too bad. If Nintendo designs around these limitations the game could really shine on it’s own. The problem is Nintendo seems to have ignored everything other runner games have used to make their single button games work.


This is a screenshot of Super Mario Run


… and this is a screenshot of one of the most famous single-button runner games of all time: Canabalt.


Notice any difference? The most obvious thing is that for Canabalt the phone is turned sideways. Might seem like a small difference but look how much room Canabalt gives you to prepare for what is next? And giving the player extra room lets the game be much faster and horizontally oriented.

In Super Mario Run by the time you get a good look at what is next it’s probably almost too late. All because the phone is laid out vertically, for no good reason. Canabalt uses it’s whole screen as a button  an doesn’t need to waste valuable screen space on it.


This is from Super Mario Wii U. Now, imagine you have only one third of the screen real estate and literally can’t stop running. That sound like fun?

On top of that, because of the vertical orientationin Super Mario Run the levels often use vertical space a lot to insure the world isn’t empty, especially for bonus areas and secrets. The problem is in a game where you can largely only jump and move left and can’t see what’s coming next… trying to go up is very, very hard. And again, going up usually means precision platforming which this game is not good at.

I know the levels are designed to be played repeatedly (there’s a whole mode designed around playing against others in a level to see who can get the best score) but that doesn’t change the fact that this game is frustrating and annoying to play. Why would I want to play a frustrating game over and over?


Fuck You.


I know I’m harping on controls here and haven’t talked about too much else, but what’s the point of talking about anything else? Smooth controls have been the key to Mario’s success since 1-1. Good controls makes Mario worth playing. It’s as true today as it was back then. Controls. Game feel. Player Input Agency. Not the story, not the characters, not choices or the stats, but the perfect controls. So, to be blunt, if this game doesn’t have that… why play it?

Review #26: Guild of Dungeoneering

If a game is only as good as it’s music then the Guild of Dungeoneering is Portal levels of good. The theme that greets you when you boot up the game is so catchy that I’m including it in my review

I wanted to get that out of the way before I say anything else, because the music in this game really does rock. They include short bard-esque songs with each new character class as well as for victory and defeats. The defeat ones will likely get repetitive after a while but overall the music in this game is worth the price of entry. I love the sense of fun and it’s the perfect way to start off this game.


Guild of Dungeoneering is a rogue-like strategy dungeon crawler game from developer Gambrinous and looks to be the first major release from this small independent team. The core concet of the game is that of a classic dungeon crawler except instead of controlling the hero you control the dungeon layout. This includes floorplan, enemies, and treasure. It’s your job to build a layout that will help the Dungeoneer level up, and get through the maze and complete the one-off quest in each level.

I’ll start off by saying I picked this game up for my iPad as one of about 10 games to play on a 5 hour flight. I played Guild of Dungeoneering the entire time and didn’t even pick up another game the whole plane ride. I loved this game, and any critiques I have of the design shouldn’t lead you to think I don’t wholly endorse getting this game, because I do.

Now, let’s dig into the Guild of Dungeoneering!


At it’s core Guild of Dungeoneering is a card game. Everything is based around placing cards. Enemy cards, monster cards, and floor plan cards. At the start of each turn you’re given a hard of cards and you need to play up to three of them.


There are three types of cards: room cards, monster cards, and treasure cards. Dragging those cards from the bottom adds them to the dungeon

After you do your dungeoneer will move in the dungeon, if they encounter loot they will take it. If they encounter a monster they will fight it. This leads to the other major part of the game, the combat.

Combat is a war-esque versus card game. You and the monster play cards with various moves (physical attacks, magic attacks, blocks, etc) from your hand and keep going till somebody dies. You get to see the monster’s card choice before you make yoru selection so you can play against their choices. For example, if they are doing a physical attack and you have a card that both blocks a physical attack and does magic damage, you want to use that card to not only prevent damage but also strike back.


The combat gets complicated, but it never gets confusing. It’s very easy to learn how to read and understand the cards.

After each fight you gain loot, usually int he form of gear which grants your hero more cards to use in battle. Each dungeon starts with a level 1 hero and usually ends with one at level 4 or 5 taking on a much more powerful foe than you could handle at the start.


Generally everything works well. The biggest issues come around because of the nature of randomly assigning cards. Near the end game of certain dungeons I ran into a few situations where I needed a specific type of floor to progress and I just couldn’t seem to draw it. This is especially frustrating if the level has a time (turn) limit. You can do everything perfectly and have an awesome character that can kill anything reliably and then suddenly be stuck waiting for the necessary floor piece for three turns before you’re insta-killed by the system. Even when you aren’t on the clock it’s still boring to fight the same few enemies or just flush your whole hand repeatedly waiting for the right piece.


And now there’s no way to get to that giant demon in time… I’m sure the Dungeoneer is thrilled.

The other issue I have is some of the details regarding equipment bonuses can be confusing. The game does show you what cards you gain and lose by adding any piece of equipment, but certain cards stack to produce new cards and there’s no easy way to track that progression when you get new loot.

Overall these are small complains. This game certainly excels above many mobile games in design and enjoyment. But we haven’t really talked in detail about the biggest part of the game, the card-based combat.


I want to focus on the card based combat because it’s really the heart of the whole game. Everything else works pretty well together, but even so, if the card combat doesn’t work this game is in big trouble.

I won’t explain all the nuances of the combat but the simple explanation is that you have a hand of cards based on your equipment and your class. Cards block and attack as well as draw more cards and give you back health in all sorts of clever combinations. You play one card each turn in response to the enemy card and try to block their attack or get around their defenses.


Reading all these cards… Dodge: Blocks two physical damage. Lunge: Deals two physical damage. Parry: Blocks three physical damage. Charge: Deals two physical damage and blocks one magic damage.

The game does a great job of differentiating each character class. They all have different strengths and weaknesses and whenever I would keep dying in a dungeon usually switching to a new class made a huge difference. Dying to magic attacks? switch to a class with a lot of magic block cards. Fights taking too long? Switch to a very aggressive class. You can then compensate for your character’s weaknesses or enhance their strengths with loot choices in the dungeon. It got to the point where I could fairly consistently build a unique badass by the time I got to the end of each level.


Unique badasses often wear pots on their head while fighting zombies.

I will offer one big piece of advice: card draw is really really really good in Guild of Dungeoneering. Because you only spend one card each turn and you draw every turn getting an extra card or two is really really powerful. So if you want to playGuild of Dungeoneering one easy mode invest in the perk that increases starting hand size and never ever look back. Trust me.


I said it at the beginning, I’ve spent two full plane rides playing this game and they flew by (heh). The game is a dungeon crawler rogue-like with a collectible card game card game built into it. If any of that appeals to you give this game a shot. You will not be disappointed.

Review #25: Grow Cannon (All the Grow Games)


For those who have been playing popular flash games for years, you’ve probably already played at least one game in the popular “Grow” series of games. For everyone else there’s a chance you may have stumbled across one or you may never have heard of the flash game franchise at all. I’ve played a number of them in the past and I’ve just rediscovered the series with Grow Cannon. For those of you who haven’t played the game you can give it a shot at this website (where all the other grow games are as well). In fact, let’s assume that if you’re reading this you’ve played one of the Grow games already.


Whenever two pieces fit together and level up in a grow game it feels great. And that feeling is compounded whenever you complete a grow game challenge and max out the levels on every object in the game. That’s pretty much the whole game, watching things connect in a novel way that your mind couldn’t conceive of and eventually seeing all those things coalesce into something unexpected.


The final stage of Grow Cube, another in the grow game series.


The essential problem in having these really obtuse connections between objects in each game is that figuring out how the objects fit together is also often really obtuse. And each time you mess up you have start over from scratch, but you also often aren’t sure if you messed up in many cases.


Is the cave man supposed to break the sun-moon switch or is that bad?

The games are complete trial and error. Rarely you get a glimpse at how a object changes and say “oh! now I need to do this!” but those moments are few and far between. More often you make your best guess at what makes sense and fail horribly.


That’s a surprisingly tough question. I think they’re not especially good games, but they are still generally good. They’re more good art projects. The good in them comes from the inventive interactions and generally upbeat and fun nature of each Grow game. If you’re playing them looking for a puzzle game you will likely find them falling short, but if you’re looking for a fun visual gag I suggest play it once blind then look up the solution and play it through again. You’ll have a great time.

Review #24: A Link Between Worlds (Legend of Zelda)


Traveling back home to my family for Thanksgiving didn’t leave me a lot of time to play big scary graphically intensive PC games, but it did give me a chance to break out my 3DS and play some of the games I’ve been ignoring for a year in favor of anything I could play on my phone or giant metal semi-sentient death super computer. One of those games was The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, the most recent main series Zelda game (read: not co-op or a re-release) Nintendo has produced.


Most of the Zelda games are instant classics. Zelda is beyond iconic. It’s gaming’s version of The Beatles in rock music or Star Wars in film or The Odyssey in classic literature. Every Zelda game is special just by virtue of being a Zelda game. I don’t think that’s nostalgia talking (my first Zelda game was Windwaker on the gamecube) so much as a general admiration for key cultural iconography. That being said…

…not all Zelda games are good. They’re all important, yes. But they’re by no means all good. In fact they’ve been generally getting quite bad recently. They’re getting so bad that Nintendo’s decided they’re better off if their next Zelda game isn’t even really a Zelda game.

But this isn’t even the first Zelda game to deeply deviate from the formula established in previous Zelda titles, because A Link Between Worlds walks a delicate line between paying homage to one of Zelda’s all time classics and striking out in a bold new direction for the franchise.


The classic progression of design: time, masks, boat, wolf, flying, tinyness, and finally painting.

So, what about A Link Between Worlds is classic Zelda? What isn’t? And how much success does Nintendo find in changing their classic cocktail?


Classically a Zelda game follows a pretty basic hero’s journey formula. They mix it up a little with a twist now and again (and that twist is frequently that somebody who wasn’t Princess Zelda is in fact Princess Zelda) but there’s very little actual character development in these games. Generally the bad guys are bad and the hero is good and the supporting characters are sad that they got you involved at all but are glad you helped them etc etc.


“Thank you for defeating [generic evil] with the power of [generic abstract positive concept]!”

This game really is no different. The hero’s journey is as well told as ever and there’s one or two more twists in this game than in previous ones (including one I saw coming a mile away and one that totally blew my mind). All in all if you’re hoping Link Between Worlds will offer you anything new in the story department… you will be wrong. It’s the same as it’s ever been, for better or for worse.


Pull out your checklists for 2D Zelda, not 3D Zelda for this one. Let’s try to tally the boxes: sword and shield combat? Check. Solve puzzles using various items? Check. Item Screen? Check. Bottles? Check. Collectibles? Check. It’s all there in Link Between Worlds.


Oh Boy!

The gameplay shines brightest when you’re solving puzzles. There’s a very straightforward relationship between objects and the tools you need to interact with them. There’s sand? Bring the sand rod. But while you can usually very quickly see what tools you need to solve a puzzle you might not be able to figure out exactly how to use them right away. This lets the puzzles strike a nice balance between so easy you can’t be bothered to do them, and so hard you quit.


A wall the same color as a switch? I smell a puzzle.

The combat doesn’t fair so well. 2D Zelda often boils down to “get next to the thing you’re attacking and press the attack button a lot” with almost every non-boss enemy. This game doesn’t do much to change that. Half the enemies move towards you and die in 2/3 hits from your sword and the rest die in 10+ hits which is pretty obnoxious if you’re just trying to walk around the game’s overworld. Even using your shield to block and attack while your enemy recovers is almost impossible.


This is the part where all the Zelda games are different. Every game has a unique twist on the basic premise. Time travel, shrinking, sailing, flying, turning into a wolf, and so forth. This game has two very unique elements that are both excellent additions to the Zelda formula and really set this game apart.

The first is the box-blurb mechanic: turning into a 2D painting and walking along the walls. Like any Zelda game that has a mechanic like this, it’s just a fun addition to the game, a toy you get to use to solve puzzles that’s more versatile than an item but serves a similar purpose. It’s easy, it’s good, you can use it to dodge attacks in combat sometimes. Well done.


Simple, but clever.

The other big mechanical change has to do with how you procure items. In past games you had to find items in dungeons. In this game you rent the items from a central shop for a nominal fee. If you die you have to rent them again. It’s a fairly small change, but it’s the change I’ve been waiting for 866 words to talk about because…

It’s an awesome change. It’s so well implemented. The game gives you much more money to make sure you can afford the rental prices, and just when rending becomes a chore you get the option to buy the items for a higher price, which is the perfect long term money sink.


Shut up and take my money!

This also means you can tackle any dungeons out of order since you don’t need itms from past dungeons to progress. At one point you have seven different dungeons you can tackle in any order. Seven! That’s awesome. At a certain point I was having trouble with a boss so I grabbed every item I could carry and started wandering the over world looking for heart containers.

Oh also, the threat of losing all the items on death can provide some tension in harder fights. It’s a very “Dark Souls-esque” feeling to have (and it’s about time Zelda stole something from that franchise since Dark Souls is basically Legend of Zelda for grown ups).

This mechanic changes the entire way you play the game in some interesting and meaningful ways without turning Zelda into a different game. It still feels like Zelda but from a different point of view. It’s worth playing just for that experience if you’re a big Zelda fan already.


Visual presentation in Link Between Worlds is average at best. I’m not a big fan Nintendo’s choice to abandon sprite based graphics for their handheld Zelda games. At least this is a huge improvement from the terrible graphics of Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass, but there’s a level of detail that is lost in the switch to a generic polygon look.


Pictured: Nothing Special

That being said I can totally understand why a console that focuses wholly on the idea of a 3D display would lose something in the inclusion of a purely 2D game. And the multi-level dungeon layouts look great in 3D. But as far as visual design as art, there’s very little that stands out in Link Between Worlds.


Even when Nintendo fails to divert from their classic formula in a meaningful way Zelda games are rarely bad. Fortunately Link Between Worlds is one of the better Zelda games, certainly among the best handheld offerings they have ever made. Its design is robust and having the freedom to tackle dungeons in any order gives you just the right flexibility for a good mobile game. If you’re looking for a great Zelda game to take with you, this might be the best option of all (at least until they make a Zelda for mobile phones).