The Animal Farm

September 28th, 2010

XBLIG Review: Old School Adventure

In Old School Adventure by Chris Hughes Games, players assume the role of Chris Unarmed. Chris is aptly named for having no arms, but he also has no neck or legs - he is a head attached to shoes. He runs and he jumps, and that’s all his anatomy will allow him to do. The game tasks you with defeating Mango, who is apparently en-route to destroying the world. First, though, we have to get to Mango, and that’s where things get challenging.

OSA can best be described as a puzzle platformer. Players run and jump and wall-jump, but each room presents a challenge beyond motor reflexes: you genuinely have to think to get from Point A to Point B. In virtually every screen, there will exist an intricate setup of spikes and enemies and traps that will push you past the standard sidescrolling habit of running and jumping. Instead, you will be planning out your actions, attempting failed experiments to see how things play out, sometimes questioning if getting to the room’s exit is even possible before having an “Aha” moment where the pieces click into place. Even then the solution is not complete, because you must now use those motor reflexes to execute your plan or face a quick end.

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I died an awful lot. I died within five seconds of playing. I died ten seconds after that. I then got into a groove, finished the first room, and promptly died again.

That’s OK, though. There is virtually no penalty for dying. You reappear at the entrance to the room and start again. It’s less about staying alive in the long-term and more about solving an immediate puzzle. If you are a fan of Abe’s Odyssey, this style of play - this puzzling and experimentation and brutal death - will feel right at home.

The level design has another marvelous thing working for it: rooms tie together splendidly, and many things within a room are repurposed depending on Chris’s current power. Something like a moving spiked block that seriously impeded your path at one point in the game might become an essential stepping stone once Chris gains the ability to walk on spikes. Inaccessible rooms you see in the beginning of the game gradually open up, and it’s a great feeling realizing how a new ability you just earned will enable you to do something you wondered about earlier. These designs have some of the early Metroid spirit about them, and quite bluntly, it’s some of the best level craftsmanship I’ve seen in XBLIG.

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… And now this review stops looking like a love letter, and I hammer on some of the bad…

A good portion of the platforming is hampered by loose controls, and this is where the biggest frustration of OSA resides. A platforming game needs a tight control scheme to be manageable, and OSA does not have this. I found myself drifting inadvertently into spikes more than once, not because I didn’t know exactly what to do, but because I expected Chris to stop and he just kept going. Wall jumping, especially off certain (for lack of a better word) escalators behaved erratically. In a not-insignificant number of instances, I would run to the edge of a platform and try to jump only to plummet to my death - and then I’d do the same thing a couple more times in a row before finding the ’sweet spot’ I needed to make the jump actually get me where I needed. These experiences were enough to make me angrily curse at the game more than once (yes, much like a seventh grader or a Halo player), spoiling an otherwise great time.

The graphics, music, and story are nothing to write home about. The game never looks bad, but it doesn’t look particularly good either. Minimalist styles can often work, but this game has a roughness to it. The music falls into the background; there are only a couple tracks, and if you played them for me I probably wouldn’t recognize them. The story goes all over the place, forming a halfway interesting narrative and then throwing it away for something simpler and more tongue-in-cheek near the end. This makes the last few sections of the game somewhat cute but also somewhat unfulfilling.

Finally, there was one show-stopping glitch: I managed to get stuck and couldn’t progress because I got a powerup at the wrong time. It’s a testament to the game’s quality that I came back and replayed the beginning to pass that point, but it’s obviously a black mark on the experience. Chris has told me he intends to fix that.

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I had a lot of fun with Old School Adventure. There were a few times controls left me frustrated and cursing, and the aesthetics aren’t really there, but I don’t regret playing through the whole game (twice). Not even a little.

September 28th, 2010

Help Out See the Light

I’m issuing an open call for help to the people who played See the Light for the Android and enjoyed it: Please leave a a comment.

I’m not asking you to be dishonest or over-hype the game. Comment how you feel. Quite honestly, I just want to drown out some of the noise against the game.

Here’s my reasoning:
The last comment for See the Light was “Worst game in market.” I don’t think that’s accurate, but whatever.
Another one: “Is level 2 even solvable??” Why yes it is. Trivially, actually.
This one’s cute too: “This game sucks! The buttons and tools to change directions are not useful at all…”

Essentially, the negative comments are rapidly overcoming the positive comments even though the positive ratings are well beyond the negative. These negative comments are currently the first in the list, which is no doubt impacting how many people try the game.

I have no illusions that the game is perfect, and if people don’t like it, well, that’s OK. It’d be super if they were less daft about how they expressed that dislike, but that’s out of my hands. I’d just like the first thing people see before trying my game to be a bit more representative.

Here’s a handful of some of the positive comments:
“One of the best games out there. Cannot believe there are not more downloads.”
“Awesome puzzle games that can be very challenging, very fun!”
“Stuck on level 19..for now…luv this game !!”

My goal is 50 sales before the year’s end.

September 26th, 2010

Target Audience

In his last post, Ricky said, “‘I’m unsure of the this blog’s target audience.” This topic was addressed in the early days of the blog, but that has somewhat morphed and changed as the years have ticked on. So I’d like to discuss our target audience now.

The target audience is pretty simple, actually: it’s people who are interested in the things we do.

I never once - and still don’t - imagine this site as a purely technical blog, nor was it started solely to push my games onto the public. It’s always been a place to jot down what I do or think or want to share.

It takes on a distinct technical slant, that is true. I’m a game developer who, after spending his workday developing games, comes home and frequently goes straight to work on my own games. I spend a lot of time writing and thinking about algorithms as well as analyzing games and gameplay. If I’m going to give you a truly accurate representation of my personality, it’s going to contain an awful lot of that.

But this isn’t a company blog, it’s not a review station, and it’s not a tutorial repository. If I want to write about a movie or show or book, this is where it goes. If I want to publicly critique some silly aspect of society, I don’t hesitate to put it here.

I encourage you, Ricky, to feel the same way. I brought you on not because I wanted to increase the amount of technical knowledge contained here - though that’s certainly fine - I just wanted another personality to share the space. Maintaining the site with Zach was more fun than running a solo site, I believe for both me and the audience, and without a second writer it just feels like me talking at the air.

Really, though, I don’t just run this site for the ladies.

September 26th, 2010

Mad Men and Software Development

I’m unsure of the this blog’s target audience. I was brought in by Brian to add content to the site; we can all see how that’s paid off. So, for the sake of my own sanity, and laziness, I’m going to assume you’re a technically oriented crowd. Knowing that Zach and Brian are both software developers and that half of these posts are game-dev related, that’s a safe assumption.

I’ve been watching Mad Men quite a bit recently. I started watching around season two or three and wasn’t entirely enchanted with it. The show was extremely busy: too many characters and too many storylines. Every episode would faithfully follow each character, devoting each a bit of screen time. While each episode is an hour long, the net result is that the story (or stories) move along painfully slow. I was hooked, however, by the style and period of the show. Mad Men is a period piece, plain and simple. The attention to detail, artistic cinematography, and beautiful style of the show (it is about an ad agency in New York, after all) would not relent it’s hold on me.

The show’s a bit different now. In the current season (four), the writers have done a good job focusing on the main characters; Don Draper and Peggy Olson. Previous characters that the show spent a lot of time following, Pete, Roger and Joan, have essentially evaporated with the exception of tangential exploration through Peggy or Don. However, as deceptively titled as this post is, I’m not really here to talk about the quality of Mad Men. As I mentioned before, Mad Men is a period piece set in the early-to-mid 1960’s. The plot of the show is intimately tied to the social issues of the day: racism, sexism, the emergence of feminism, and the widely accepted use of tobacco and alcohol, especially in the workplace.

The stark contrast of society 50 years ago and today forces the viewer to examine the status quo from a future frame of reference. What is socially acceptable today that will seem ludicrous 50 years from now? Back to my original point, I’m a software developer. For better or worse, I don’t spend much of my spare time thinking about society. It’s typically consumed with technical thoughts: how do I prepare for application updates, how do I make a fluid and transparent user experience, what is causing my software to crash?

Watching Mad Men has forced me to take a look at society today and make some of my own conclusions about my values and morals. If you’re of a technical bent like me, I really recommend checking this show out. Netflix has the first three seasons (I think), although not on streaming. If you appreciateĀ aesthetics and design this is a great show to watch. Worst case scenario, the show may move a bit too slow. Hopefully, as in my case, the show pays off in more ways than one.

September 25th, 2010

XBLIG Review: Super Avatar Hero Force

Avatar games have become a bit of a joke among XBLIG developers: they’re almost invariably terrible, shameless money grabs, and the grand majority have the word “Avatar” in their title. Super Avatar Hero Force manages to narrowly avoid that first bit but obviously not the second.

SAHF has a super simple premise: avatars are running at you from the left (and the right!) and you have to punch or kick them away. You can’t move, you can’t jump, you can’t even control whether you’re punching or kicking. You choose the direction for an attack and the character attacks, sending enemies flying into the air. If you get tapped it’s game over.

Oh, and you rescue kittens. I almost left out the bit about the kittens, but I know the grand majority of my audience has a bit of a thing for kittens.

Super Avatar Hero Force

There’s not really anything more I can say about the gameplay, because that’s all there is. I kept coming back to the game to see if there was something I was missing, something that might inspire me to keep playing, but no - everything the game is about is right there at the beginning, and you’ll know within seconds of play whether this is the game for you. That’s why we have trials, I suppose.

In the beginning I said the game avoids being terrible, and it avoids that less by being an inventive game and more by being charming. The graphics look good. There’s an animated environment with a distinct comic style that really stands out above more complete XBLIG titles, and it’s clear UberGeekGames put a lot of love into this. The game has some nice camera and slow-mo FX that punctuate knocking people around, and I even found something to appreciate with the font. The only flaw here is the music, which is repetitive and uninteresting after about 30 seconds.

Oh, and the kittens make an adorable little “meow” sound when you rescue them. How awesome is that?

Super Avatar Hero Force

If this review seems short, it’s because I can’t find a lot to say: Super Avatar Hero Force is a cute game that charms for about the length of a trial but doesn’t contain anything compelling enough to warrant a purchase. There’s a lot of untapped potential here - game modes, extra gameplay mechanics, additional themes/environments, better achievements - that could’ve given the game some extra oomph, but as it stands the game doesn’t have much to offer.

September 24th, 2010

XBLIG Review: Nasty

I suppose it’s only fitting that since my first XBLIG review was a positive tribute to Fun Infused Games’s Hypership Out of Control, my second review should be a considerably harsher look at a game by the same group: Nasty.

Nasty is a fairly straight forward run ‘n gun: every level is a single screen full of enemies, platforms, and traps; your goal is to kill all the enemies to move on to the next room, all the time collecting gems and fruit to increase your score. On your way, powerups/weapons will aid you while bosses try to impede you.

First thing’s first: go ahead and turn off your rumble. Every time you shoot the controller vibrates, and since you’re constantly shooting, the game becomes a cleverly disguised massage app. You’ll probably want to turn off the sound effects too, since those gun shot sounds aren’t doing the game any favors but are still not the worst SFX the game offers.

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Now let’s move on to the game itself. The premise isn’t terribly inviting - killing things until everything is dead is, quite bluntly, dull. On its own that’s forgivable. Plenty of games survive on a diet of mindless explosions and bro-tastic gunplay. Unfortunately, where those games succeed in their execution, Nasty does not.

The most glaring problem is the level design. The game boasts 100 levels, but a good majority of those levels can be beaten by standing still and shooting. This is no more apparent than in level 65(!) where I literally held down X until the level ended. In the few instances where that is not sufficient, you generally never have to take more than a few stops, stop, shoot, repeat. It’s about as mindless as it gets.

There are infrequent levels where the game tries to force a bit more from you, either by making you do some tricky platforming or by throwing in awkwardly positioned enemies. These are welcome, but even these levels have flaws - the platforming can be frustrating, especially when there’s a low-hanging ceiling that you repeatedly bump your head into only to fall in a pit of spikes. The awkwardly positioned enemies usually don’t increase the challenge, they only necessitate the need to find a better angle.

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The boss battles are where we see the game’s potential shine, but there are only a handful. I fought two over the course of the first 70-ish levels. They were fun and challenging, and I would’ve much rather seen more of this and less of the straight-moving, easily predictable enemies that littered every level.

There are plenty of little tidbits to collect to boost your score (I did enjoy the point scoring system) and a good assortment of powerups/weapons. Alas, even most of the weapons work against you - the grenade launcher and wave shot were both pretty useless whereas the tri-shot was stupid powerful.

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Moving past gameplay, there are a host of technical issues. The controls are loose - sometimes I would duck when I wanted, other times I would run forward and shoot at a downward angle, leading me straight into an enemy. The options menu is especially broken, with every move of the thumbstick doing something unwanted. There are collision detection bugs (when using the tri-shot weapon I frequently managed to shoot through walls) and a few places where the game noticeably jerks. There’s nothing here that explodes in your face, but there are enough little “gotchas” to cause frustration.

From a production value standpoint, the game is a mixed bag. Menus and screen transitions and cinematics feel appropriately polished. I legitimately enjoyed the handful of music tracks. Character and enemy designs are charming. Environment art runs the gamut from OK to atrociously bad. I’d say the game is pleasing to look at with a few standout experiences both good and bad. Oh, and again, the sound effects. Not good.

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If the game does one thing really well, it’s its multiplayer offering. You can play the entire game with a second player. Better still, you can challenge others to competitive matches with different goals. The levels are a bit tight for a four player match, but this mode is a welcome diversion from the single player experience.

Unfortunately multiplayer is not enough to save Nasty. There’s just too much working against this game, with bland level design, extremely repetitive gameplay, loose controls, and a host of bugs. The game is a step above much of the XBLIG rubbish that litters the service, but I still can’t call it a good game. A little bird (who hopefully won’t hate me forever after reading this review**) has said the game’s sequel Nastier is in development; I’d skip Nasty and hope that Nastier turns out better.

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(Footnotes follow)
** For those unfamiliar with my background, I’m a game developer, and I talk to other developers over Twitter. I’m writing these reviews from a position of unbiased respect - I like the creator, and I know how hard it is to make a game, and I’ve personally had my own games blasted; while I’m reviewing, though, I’m trying my hardest to set all that aside and look at a game critically. If you’re a developer I talk to who asks for a review, please keep that in mind.

September 24th, 2010

Review Pipeline

Some developers have been kind enough to share some free tokens for their games, allowing me to build a backlog of (slightly older) games to review:

Nasty (Fun Infused) - Coming This Weekend!
Dungeon Adventure (UberGeekGames)
Oldschool Adventure (Chris Hughes)
Super Avatar Hero Force (UberGeekGames)

That’s not necessarily the order, and you’d be silly to hold me to any kind of timeline, but that’s what I have so far.

These are all slightly older games; after I go through this batch, I’ll probably start picking out of the new releases or games that personally interest me - unless of course other people want to send me free games.

Random dungeon generator successfully ported to iPhone!

September 22nd, 2010

Some Spam Statistics

Google sent me an imposing e-mail threatening to shut down my hugely lucrative Google Ads account ($30 after over 2 years) if I didn’t remove the profane material from my site, to which I went, “Huh?”

There’s a small spattering of profanity that I cleaned up (legacy stuff mostly focused in one of Zach’s more colorful posts dating over 6 years old). I left behind snarky remarks in my passive aggressive way.

Mostly, though, I think they were more interested in the comments. Did you know this site gets comments? I sure didn’t until I had a look at some of the stuff that was silently passing through the spam filter before the days when I closely monitored everything that goes on in this guarded little world.

Here are some random notes:
Pages of comments before cleanup: 56
Pages after: 17
Comments per page: 20
Approximate number of spam comments: 780
Approximate number of real comments: 340
Spam comments filtered out: Well over 100,000

Hot topics:
Some sites involving some very explicit sexual videos
People “adding me to their RSS feed”
A language I couldn’t read or recognize
“Thanks!”

Spam isn’t a very interesting topic to discuss - it’s saturated the internet to the point where it’s just accepted as a fact of the medium. It’s still curious how much attention gets paid to a site that gets about 20 hits/day, but I guess software is unlike teenagers in that it doesn’t care how popular you are. Oh, if only I knew a spambot in junior high, we could’ve gone to the Summer formal together. But that analogy is getting away from me.

We would dance and laugh and talk all night.

September 22nd, 2010

XBLIG Review: Hypership Out of Control

I playtested Hypership Out of Control near the end of its development cycle, catching it somewhere in the late Beta stage. I didn’t (and still don’t) know the developer especially well, but he was asking for help over Twitter, and I had some time to kill one night.

And then I found that I had some time to kill the next night. And the next. If you’re not catching what I’m saying here, allow me to phrase it another way: I didn’t really have time to kill. I was staying up past 2 AM every night, having a bitter high score feud with another developer - not much of a feud since he is much better than I, but still. I tried.

Let that set the tone for this review: I enjoyed the game enough to sacrifice sleep for it.

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For the uninitiated, the premise of Hypership is thus: your ship is out of control, constantly accelerating, headed toward an inevitable and untimely crash. All you can hope to do is dodge and shoot to prolong your life, which becomes increasingly tricky as stages start introducing moving obstacles and tight paths. There is no winning; you play until you die and hope to collect as many points as you can on your way down.

This is a retro game at its core: its graphics, its music, and its simple move & shoot mechanics place it right at home with old arcade games. It has a definite mood to hit and it executes on that flawlessly.

Being a retro game, however, earns very few points with me. The internet is full of NES and MAME emulators. XBLIG and Android and iPhone and Flash portals are lousy with retro games. It’s all good and fine to be retro, but I don’t really think anyone can claim it as a major selling point anymore.

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Luckily that’s not really what Hypership has going for it. Hypership’s primary claim to “good” is with its level design. The creators clearly put a lot of thought into the stages, letting each one unfold gradually over multiple playthroughs. The first level is easy, but you can clearly see that you’re not getting the whole picture as you zoom past points and powerups. Not soon after you’ll start crashing and cursing and wondering how stage 7 is even possible. Then you’ll get deeper and discover a way through all the stages. And then you’ll break down optimal paths, gradually learning how to get through all ten waves without losing a life. And then you’ll find ways to optimize for points. And then… well, hopefully you get my point. The game has replay value all over it.

This is all augmented by a solid hosting of achievements and a high score system. The high score system isn’t flawless - when I was logged on, there was no one to share points with**, so I couldn’t get a feel for how I was doing.

Tack on a few extra game modes, four player multiplayer, and a “Fun” mode (which I found mostly throw-away) and you’ve got a fair bit of variety here. Overall, that’s where Hypership shines (and shines brightly) - it encourages lots of replay and lots of competition and lots of Twitter smack talk.

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It’s not a perfect game. The music could stand to do with some variety. The major track isn’t terribly annoying, it really falls into the background, but that’s not a compliment.

My harshest criticism of Hypership, though, is its lack of depth - once you’ve witnessed stage 10 on any mode, you’ve seen all the game has to offer. If replaying and finding the best route through levels and earning high scores isn’t something you’re interested in, this isn’t your game. Even then, I can’t say the game held on to me for more than a week.

A couple things would’ve been nice additions: a random level generator (perhaps similar to the Helicopter Game’s) could add a bit more replayability, and multiple difficulties would’ve been nice for those of us that had essentially solved stages 1-7.

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In summary, the game is super fun while it lasts, but it won’t last forever. It’s a worthy purchase***, and it’s seen more playtime from me than Brutal Legend.

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(Footnotes follow)
** High scores are one of the places where I cut indie games some slack. XBLIG games aren’t allowed to use the Xbox leader boards, so they’re forced to use a somewhat unideal alternative - high scores are shared between players as they sign on and silently connect with each other. If there are no other players, no high scores. Unfortunate, but that’s the best they can do.

*** I’m purposefully not giving the game a rating or mentioning its price. A rating in this instance is meaningless - I can tack on some arbitrary number, but the actual words in the review will give a much better indicator of whether you’ll like the game than a number.

September 19th, 2010

XBLIG Reviews Forthcoming

I’ve been wanting to review XBLIG games for some time now - to praise the noteworthy entries and vilify the monumental rubbish. Peers though they are, I have no intention of being kind to every developer that has shipped something, but I also don’t intend to focus solely on the rotten products. In short, I’ll be reviewing without any regard for the creators, regardless of the relationship we might have.

I’m also going to deviate from other reviewers who mention cost as an important factor. When we’re discussing games in the $1-$5 range, I don’t believe cost should be a consideration for anyone who has enough money to own an Xbox 360 in the first place. If you wouldn’t buy the game for $2.50 you wouldn’t for $1. Quality, as far as these reviews is concerned, is not a function of price.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’d be particularly realistic if I didn’t treat indie games separately from mainstream titles. There’s a huge gap in production value that simply can’t be ignored. I’m going to try and highlight where I make such distinctions and “take it easy” on the little guys, and I also intend to pay special tribute to those that break away from financial/time/resource limitations and manage something special regardless. You can argue that this is exactly the wrong approach to take, but I disagree, and I’m doing the writing.

I want to make this a regular feature. I’ve been aching to do writing, and there are a lot of titles to write about, and it’s a topic I’m invested in. I’ve wanted to make lots of things regular features, so don’t take that as a promise, but you can keep your fingers crossed.

For now I’ll be hand-selecting the games with a skew toward newer releases, but I’ll dip into the archives for a game I think is deserving. Of course, if someone out there has a game they’d like discussed and wants to send me a free copy, I’ll gladly give it a (critical) eye.

And no, I won’t be reviewing my own games. Even the totally awesome ones.