Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Death has never been so reasonably priced.

Everybody loves a bargain! Be it popping down to your local supermarket and buying two loaves of bread when you only need one because the second would effectively cost you a quarter of its usual value, or choosing a crap DVD that you will probably never actually because it allows you to get the two titles you DO like in the "3 for £10" sale, the lure of a good bargain is hard to resist. Retail is well aware of the draw of "cheaper than normal", frequently using it to sell us stuff we might not have bought otherwise.

This strategy is one that mostly seems to have bypassed the videogame industry. When it comes to buying games, it seems that prices will remain as high as possible for as long as possible, because there is a sucker born every minute, you never give one an even break, and they are soon parted from their wallets.

Well, in retail, at any rate.

Digital distribution is a different kettle of kippers altogether. Free from the shackles of bricks and mortar premises, and the costly overheads that come from having to pay extortionate rent to some local council or private company, the e-tailers are able to play around with unconventional methods of getting their games out there. Valve Software's Steam leads the way, being the first real digital store aimed specifically at those with a taste for videogames, but many others are coming to follow their philosophies.

Steam frequently drops the price of games to absolute minimum, and twice a year has pretty massive sales. Interestingly, they make more money during these times than they do whenever things are NOT on sale, so much so that there is actually something on sale at up to 90% off EVERY SINGLE DAY on the service. The content changes every day, and one can only assume that the publishers have absolutely no problem with being featured, because sometimes there are some fantastically big-name titles on there. The Steam model is successful, but there is an alternative model out there that has been adapted by an initiative that refers to itself as The Humble Indie Bundle. This is a charity that grabs together a few independently produced titles, and puts them on sale as a package. A percentage of the proceeds goes to charity, and a percentage goes to the developers. The point is, these percentages are determined by the purchaser. Along with, and this is the real kicker, the price to pay!

Read that again, and let it sink in. You choose to pay as much or as little as you like for your games. They are then yours, with no catches at all.

Unsurprisingly, the deals generate a lot of sales. Perhaps surprisingly, the average price paid by the people who download RISES throughout the length of the sale. During the first 5,000 downloads, the price people were paying was published on the site as an average of $3.39 for Windows. After 20,000 downloads, it had risen to $3.77. So, basically, people are happy to pay what they consider a fair price for games, and the games sell more copies.

It truly is a fantastic initiative, so much so that whenever I get a new email from Humble, I near wet myself in excitement. This is how it was today. Especially as the latest title is a game that I have naught but the highest praise for. That game is one Frozen Synapse.

To describe Frozen Synapse in a way that people can relate to is quite difficult. It is probably safer to say it is a Real-Time Strategy game than to try and call it anything else, but that is only telling half of the story. Because, it is also turn-based. At the same time. Which might make no sense, so I should start again.

This paragraph is my second attempt at telling you what Frozen Synapse is like, and that in itself is a suitable metaphor for the play mechanics. Imagine it, if you can, as a kind of meeting between Chess and Command & Conquer. Both players, simultaneously, decide their next moves, and the game then plays the outcome. You decide what your squad is going to do, the opponent does the same, and then you watch. The entire game is thus sliced into 5-second long segments, which you can and will plan for literally HOURS at a time. You try every possible imaginable scenario, watch what will happen if your opponent does what you think he will do, and then undo it all and try something different in a massive loop of panic-induced second-guessing. The tension level is virtually unmatched. For, not only are you playing against another player, you are pitting yourself against your own paranoia’s and insecurities. Whatever you think of, you will abandon, tweak, retry, ignore, pin all your hopes on, and then hope beyond all hope that it will work.

Your squad of vatforms are all capable of miraculous feats of gunmanship, but your opponents are too. In this way, all forms of twitch skill are removed from the game, and it becomes a test of absolute strategy. The player with the best prediction, with the best planning, or just the best hiding skills will invariably win the contest. Vatforms work on a line-of-sight basis, so if they can see an enemy they can shoot him. Thus, knowing where to send your men is paramount. Early on, it all seems like guesswork, but after a while you start to just 'feel' what you need to do next.

Nicely, there is no need for both of you to be online at the same time. It works in a somewhat play-by-mail fashion, as once you commit your turn you then send this information to the game server. Once you have both done this, the server makes sense of it all and then shows you what happened. An email tells you when you have a new turn waiting, and this can be a moment of elation AND dread. You carefully laid plans will either work perfectly, or unfold in an instant because of one rocket that blows the nearby wall to shreds. Guys with shotguns beat snipers when up close, if they can ever get close to them. Grenades can be insanely dangerous, for both target and yourself. Danger potentially lurks around every corner, but if you are really clever you know exactly which corners to stay the hell away from.

Oh, and it looks like THIS:

Outnumbered, not that it matters...

Which hits all of my buttons, because I am a child of the Eighties and the whole style makes me warm to my very core. It is as if it sings lullabies to me whilst I sleep, such is my love for the whole Neon-tinged retro look. I would personally be delighted if games forgot about trying to look even remotely realistic and just all concentrated on looking like videogames, with cel-shading, blocky pixels, low-polygon models, and garish colour schemes. Games should look like GAMES!

There are two further strokes of genius that elevate the title. The first is the inclusion of an in-built system to record the game and upload it to YouTube. Thus, if you demolish your friend, or even some random stranger, you can then humiliate them even further by posting the link all over your internet forum of choice. And, the second MASTERSTROKE is that you don't buy a copy of the game. You in fact buy two. Yes, a free code is provided to give away to anybody in the world, thereby ensuring that you have somebody to play against. And the makers have even included a single-player campaign to boot, although be warned that this is a whole lot harder than playing against other people who have no clue what they are about to do as well.

All in all, you should already have bought Frozen Synapse, as it is one of the better PC games of 2011. If, however, for some reason you haven't, then at the cost of WHATEVER YOU THINK IT IS WORTH along with GUARANTEED ENTRY TO THE NICE PLACE THAT YOUR RELIGION RESERVES FOR YOU IN THE AFTERLIFE for donating to charity gains you, you would have to think really long and hard for a good reason to not buy it. And, as this is the internet and things live on long past their posting date, if you happen across this piece at a time when the offer has expired, then I will even link you straight to the game direct from the creators or via Steam, thus depriving you of any possible excuses.

Buy the game, save your soul, and love your life. This is why games are magical, and you can rightly be very happy with yourself for being part of them.

Let's see the mainstream media complain about that!

(Special thanks to David from GeekMandem for the vocabulary help, by the way!)

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Facebook Friday Fing : Dino Golf

Good old Facebook. Without it, how would you ever find pictures of American girls who like photgraphing their bathrooms? How would you ever come to know that 4 of your friends 'like' looking at the microwave timer even though you only put the meal in 25 seconds ago? And, most importantly, how would you ever get to read my latest Friday Facebook Fings?

Like, this week's game. Dino Golf, from, is about as simple as games can get. Essentially, it is nothing but an evolution of the same principle that hooked us all 6 years ago when we were smacking a penguin in the head with a club . Except now, we get to see how far our friends can get with their efforts, and get rewards for beating them.

Things start out straightforwardly enough, with our caveman avatar walking up to the ball to hit it. Of course, the ball is just a rock, and the club is just a big old stick. This is because it is based in prehistoric times, and such luxury items as a Big Bertha just weren't invented yet. To be fair, consumerism as a concept hadn't been invented, which was probably for the best. There have been multiple times in my life that I have wished it didn't exist, several of which came during playing this game itself.

Starts out well enough

So, the usual golf rules apply. A large arrow starts swinging back and forth, and you click to stop it. This sets your angle of hit. Then, the same thing happens for the power. I have no idea why this would be, because the whole point of the game is to hit for a further distance than other players. There is no aiming, no subtlety, and no strategy. Just hit the ball as far as you can, which logically means you hit it hard as you can. WHY THE HELL DOES IT GIVE ME THE OPTION TO HIT LESS THAN FULL POWER? Who, pray tell, are the freaks that will use this? Hell, why not go the whole hog and give us the option to not even hit the ball at all? Or, let us teach the ball to do impressions of French politicians, it would prove as useful.

Beyond your initial hitting of the ball, there is little else for you to do. You watch as your balls sails through the air, and then as it bounces on the ground. It may hit a spider's web, which acts like a trampoline and gains you some extra distance. It may hit a tree trunk, which stops you dead. It may hit a dinosaur, some of which move you forwards and others of which just get in your way. If you are extremely lucky, a bird will catch your ball and fly off with it before spitting it further forwards. Sadly, there is also a bastard bird that can catch you and take you backwards.

The entire game is, therefore, one of luck. If you hit obstacles, you lose. If you hit helfpul stuff, you win.

Repeat the process two more times, and then suddenly you get a most unwelcome intrusion.

Uh oh, here comes the spam...

Yes, by watching an advert embedded from youtube, you can earn the right to hit your ball one extra time. These adverts genuinely last between 30 seconds and just over a minute, so it is painless enough to endure. So, I suppose one can't really complain at their existence. Unless, of course, one is of the mindset that they were supposed to be playing a FUN GAME. Frankly, my idea of fun rarely involves being forced to watch some arty conceptual movie designed to make me want a car that I could not possibly afford, particularly when I am only playing in the first instance because that annoying dude on my friends list is constantly challenging me.

At least he has a good reason for challenging me. This is one of those games where you can upgrade your equipment, thus increasing your chances of hitting the ball REALLY FAR. To do this, you enter the in-game shop and buy new balls, new clubs, and other helpful additions. The in-game currency appears to be skulls, which are earned by beating your friends. This will be why said annoying dude constantly challenges me, and also why no matter how hard I try, which is admittedly not very, I just can't beat him.

I'm quite poor at this game.

That score may look good, but it is frankly rubbish.

Naturally, these bonus items can also be bought for REAL WORLD CASH as well, because the creative guys at GameDuell are well aware that fools and their wallets are soon parted. This very phrase would appear to be the modus uperandi for the majority of the developers on Facebook, as it happens.

Just heartbreaking

It was during my perusal of the shop that I lamented the blatant capitalist trappings of this game, and indeed Facebook itself. When a game is so primarily concerned with squeezing a few pennies out of you instead of giving you an enjoyable time and hoping you reward it, things have gone very wrong.

And that, as they say, is pretty much the entirety of the game. Hit a rock, watch an ad, fail to beat that annoying guy who keeps on playing, and try not to spend any real money on it. Sure, it is a pleasant enough distraction, particularly notable because it doesn't beg you to play it every single day for the rest of your existence. But, you could find so many better games. (For example, Pacman S!)

There ARE good games on Facebook. Amongst the mountains of utter dross, the odd gem does shine out. This is not one such gem. This is in fact naught but a polished turd. Ignore the cartoony graphics, for in its heart Dino Golf is not cute at all. It is the very Devil, seeking to steal as much of your money as it can get its grubby cloven mitts on.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

They're at it AGAIN!

As gamers, we are somewhat used to the ridiculous musings of journalists who seem to think that our hobby is not just fair game to be the blame for the ills of an entire world, but also as a convenient hanging post for whatever nonsense they feel fit to print at any given time. Maybe they think we are easy targets, or that perhaps we can't read, but whatever the cause it is clear that print journalists can not resist writing the kind of incomprehensible garbage that could only make sense in the mind of someone who has spent the last few years trying to find proof of terrorist events in their breakfast cereal.

Today, I came across a piece so astonishingly inane that it literally beggars belief that anybody could find the time to attempt to justify it. Ordinarily, I just shrug my shoulders and laugh them off. After all, we have seen various forms of entertainment blasted as being the works of Satan himself down the years, with videogames simply being the most recent magnet for hatred. The Daily Mail is infamous in the UK for their hatred of all things videogame.

But, a new low has been reached. A piece so mind-bendingly ... I was about to hesitate to use the word "stupid" but I don't know why, for "stupid" is the only word that fits ... so unimaginably stupid that I can only assume that the authors cornflakes were laced with hallucinogenic cocktails that he accidentally inhaled whilst searching for Bin Laden amongst them. The kind of piece that needs to be singled out as the WORST VIDEOGAME STORY OF ALL TIME. And it was not even in the Daily Mail! Nope, this missive was to be found on page 7 of the Metro newspaper, a free newspaper handed out to commuters in all the major cities.

It is entitled Gamers 'can't tell real world from fantasy', written by one Fred Attewill, and centres around a study apparently undertaken at Nottingham Trent University. The opening paragraph sets the tone, and I reproduce it here unedited. (The piece is actually so short that I could probably just type it out in its entirety, but I do not wish to sully my blog any more than I have to with this one.)

"HARDCORE gamers become so immersed in virtual worlds that they turn to imaginary consoles to 'zoom in' to people in crowds or to pick things up from the floor."

Read that again, because I promise you I am not even paraphrasing.

"A study of 42 gamers aged 15 to 21 who played for at least ten hours a week revealed that most have experienced 'games transfer phenomena' - doing or thinking things in real life as if they were still in a fantasy environment.

Researchers from Nottingham Trent university (his choice to not capitalise, not mine) said gamers sometimes use reflex actions instinctively picked up over hours in front of the screen."

In other words, some teenagers have wanted to do the things they have done in a game in real life. Which, apparently, is a terrible thing. Because, nobody ever tried to use the Force. No Harry Potter reader even tried to use "Accio" on anything. And nobody has ever played the Air Guitar. Nope, this kind of thing only happens to people who play videogames. Those poor fools, do they not know how their enjoyment is tragic?

Also, and this may be pedantic, but to criticise for using reflex actions instinctively ... I'd like to know how many other ways of using reflex actions there are? Perhaps Mr Attewill plans his reflex actions. If so, I wonder if he can teach the rest of us to OVERCOME THIS BASIC AND UNAVOIDABLE ACTIVITY, which is by very definition an action performed without conscious thought.

"One 15-year old named Simon admitted wanting to use a 'gravity gun' from the game Half Life to fetch something from the fridge."

Well, apart from not giving it the correct name of Zero-Point Energy Field Manipulator, the main mistake with this sentence would have to be - what exactly is the problem here? CALL THE COPS! Some kid likes the idea behind the Gravity Gun! Know something? I am 41 years old, and I would gladly sacrifice one of my testes to have an actual Gravity Gun. Anybody who has seen that weapon and has even one gram of joy in their soul would simply love a Gravity Gun. After the Portal Gun, it would simply be the most useful and awe-inspiring tool that humanity would ever have access to. If you DON'T want one, there is something wrong with you. Imagine the fun possible? Imagine the potential for scientific achievment?

"Another gamer, Milton, 19, said when he dropped a sandwich after playing Prince of Persia: Sands of Time his finger 'twitched' as he tried to revive it with his console."

This poor adolescent is so deluded by his years of playing games that he has even wished he could turn back time to undo a mistake. Surely no normal and sane human has ever had such thoughts?

I could go on, but I really don't want to. Besides which, you can see the "story" yourself by going to the e-edition of the paper. In an age where terrible journalism is rampant, I think we have found a new prize-winner for the accolade of "World's Most Massive Wanker." The guy actually gets paid to come up with stuff like this! But, what can we do about it?

If only he had a twitter account on which we could tell him what we think of him. If only the Metro had a contact section where we could tell them what we think of both Mr. Attewill and this particular article. Whilst I am sure that my small readership would never consider any kind of retaliatory actions, none of which I would condone should they surface, I am also aware that the internet does home plenty of people who may well want to express their distaste in ways which are alien to me. It is therefore to be hoped that this information does not find its way to those less savoury areas of the web that may well take offence to what has been written.

If only we didn't have to constantly put up with this bullshit. I, for one, am tired of it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Sure, Epic, just take my money. I am stupid."

So, everybody been good little consumers? You have all been and pre-ordered Gears of War 3, and turned up at one of the midnight launces, I hope? That's right, do as you are told, nice obedient customers. Don't question, don't think, and whatever you do DON'T STOP SPENDING!

Admittedly, the idea of midnight launches seems quite fun. At least, until I spend more than 20 seconds imagining it. Being in a queue with the kind of people who are not only willing to queue at midnight to get hold of something that they almost certainly could have gotten cheaper on one of the specialist online videogame retailers, but also play Gears. Don't get me wrong, the first two games were very good. But, playing them online always left me cold. Halo has a bad reputation because of the online community, but trust me. Halo players are relative paragons compared to the Gears fan base. I would rather discuss morals with David Cameron than enter into a conversation with the average Gears player. I'm no prude, but even I can't stand to hear the F-bomb more than seven or eight times per sentence.

What makes the midnight madness even more laughable is that I know for an absolute cold hard fact that I will be able to wander into more or less any store that sells videogames today at my leisure and pick up a copy of the game itself. With no fear of it being out of stock at all. Better yet, if I go to one of the supermarkets, I may well find myself getting it at a genuine bargain price. At time of writing, Morrison’s will let me walk out with a copy for £24.99, provided I also buy 2100 MS points at the slightly increased price of £18.99. Since 2000 MS points cost £17.00 on the dashboard, this works out at a premium of about £1 for the points. Weigh this against the saving of £20.00 on the games RRP, and I think I can take that. Especially as I can always find a use for MS points.

Maybe I could put them towards the Season pass, which is advertised as a pre-order for four DLC packages at a 33% discount. Wait ... what? PRE-ORDER for DLC now? Worryingly, the blurb states quite clearly that this content is going to have new content for Campaign, Horde, Beast, and new characters, You know what word is NOT mentioned once on that page?


I'm not being paranoid, just stating a fact.

I'm not against online passes, as it happens. I'm not against DLC. I'm just against stupidity, and when I see it being catered to so grotesquely as it is in this case, I need to comment. I am talking specifically about one of the other specials that I could maybe choose to spend my MS points on. This beauty right here is a clear example of just how fucking moronic they think we are. Or, worse, of just how fucking moronic we have all become. For a mere three-thousand and two hundred MS points, you can buy all of the available weapon skins.

Sorry, but it needs to be said again, slowly just in case you didn't spot it. (And, those who are considering buying something like this probably didn't.) THREE. THOUSAND. TWO. HUNDRED. MS POINTS.


I make this promise right here and now. If I find anybody I know who pays for that package, I will personally hunt them down and do disgraceful things to their dog. Weapon skins? They really expect people to pay to change the colour of their weapons? (Hint: Yes.)

Back when I first got Quake 3, I would frequently go and download entire new models for my character, along with various skins. I was Animal from the Muppets, I was Bender from Futurama, I was The Tick. All of these were free. Speed on 10 years, and things have gotten so bad that we are now expected to pay for any addition outside of the initial launch that the developer feels like putting in. (Often already on the disc, we just pay to unlock.) And I'm not one of those freeloading entitled whiners who cry out that everything should be free, either. Honestly, if devs wish to make money off of the idiots who will blindly shell out for whatever bit of virtual tat that gets thrown their way, then fair play to them. Nobody was ever forced to buy the Horse Armour.

But what bothers me is the way that the new model has become so incredibly successful at getting said idiots to part with their money. We are constantly reminded by publishers how expensive games are to produce. Well, if any publisher is trying to tell me that changing the colour palette of a weapon skin takes so much time that I am duty-bound to pay them the cost of an entire top-quality Indie game for it, I am flat out calling them a liar.

Oh, and my 2100 MS points? Most likely going to go on the rather SUPERB Renegade Ops from SEGA instead. A FULL GAME for one-third of the price of the weapon skins pack. And I'll still have 900 more to play with.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Saturday Social-Network Spectacular : Pacman S

Introducing a BRAND NEW FEATURE to the blog. Yes, that's right, an actual BRAND NEW FEATURE! This particular feature for Saturdays is BRAND NEW, and is in no way a desperate attempt to cover up the fact that I didn't do my usual Friday post at all this week... Nosiree, BRAND. NEW. FEATURE!

Now that we have that out of the way, let's take a look at this week’s game, shall we?

EVERYBODY has played Pacman at some point in their life. It would be fair to say that Pacman may be the single most iconic videogame ... um ... icon ... of all time. The simple memorable designs of both Pacman himself and the ghosts have entered into the realm of popular culture, so much so that even your Mum knows who they are and what they represent.

The game itself may well have been a breakthrough when it was released back in 1980, being one of the first games that wasn't specifically about shooting aliens and was instead a family-friendly experience. It does need to be remembered just how worried people were about these arcade machines back then, so it was nice that there was the occasional title that parents could actually feel safe about when they gave into the constant "PLEASE CAN I HAVE ANOTHER 10P FOR IT PLEEEEEEEEEEEASSSSSSEEEEEE?" from me. Um, I mean, their children.

And, for years, Pacman was one of those fond childhood memories. It wasn't until I revisited it with an adult gamer’s eye that I discovered just how harsh the game itself was. And, also, that it hadn't really dated well. Namco, to their credit, were also aware of this, as they released the rather magnificent Championship Edition in 2007, and the even more astonishingly awesome Championship Edition DX in 2010. These games took the basic "Eat dots, avoid ghosts, oh look a power pellet NOW EAT THE GHOSTS!" format, and tightened it up by adding a time-limit, multipliers for eating consecutive ghosts, and placing the entire game into a single maze that was constantly morphing throughout the play experience.

Pacman S on Facebook takes its cue from these games. What starts out looking like just the same old game you may have played 30 years ago soon reveals something much more exciting.

The first change you notice is one that is possibly quite familiar to anyone who has played more than 3 or so Facebook titles. It is this :


This slot machine gives you some bonus points. Now, these points are nothing at all to do with the game score, they are in fact the currency with which you can buy in-game powerups. There are 4 to choose from, shown below.

Have some of those!

I'll save you some time. Go with Slacker and Speed Up, the other two are pretty rubbish.

Then, we come to the game itself. Like I said, it looks like Pacman.

As expected, really.

As you can see, all the expected Facebook trappings are built-in already. Nicely, the friend’s leaderboard is built-in, and takes a good focus at the bottom. (Not so nice when your bloody friends just won't play it no matter how much you tell them how brilliant it is, though.) But then, you play the game itself, and it goes from Pacman with added Facebook frustrations into Pacman with added Magic from the Sex Fairies. Eating the 4 ghosts in succession makes one of the ghosts start carrying a multiplier, and eating that ghost is the true key. Before you know it, the multiplier adds up, and the game speeds up in accordance with your score, and OHMYGODITSOSGOODNOOOOOOODONTGOTHATWAY!


Pacman was rightfully popular worldwide. The recent versions have retained everything that worked, and turned it into the most adrenaline-infusing competitive experience this generation has to offer. As a gamer, you owe it to yourself to play these versions, however possible. Here we have the most accessible version to date, which strikes a finely-tuned balance between the nostalgia and charm of the original and the highly-polished addictiveness and focus of the Championship Editions, without quite going into the pyrotechnic excesses that the new games often stray into. (Although, something like the Ghost Chain in DX would be a welcome addition from this reporter’s point of view.) It is something instantly playable by anyone, that doesn't tie you to your screen for hours at a time unless you want it to.

There may well be some kind of pressure to spend real money on the game, but if there is I have yet to witness it. This is because the balance of points the game gives you to spend on powerups is quite obscenely high, and may well last you the rest of your life. And even if it doesn't, the powerups will cease to matter once you get the knack of the game, and the hypnotic rhythm that comes from knowing exactly which direction to head through the maze to maximise your scoring opportunities. Until this muscle memory sets in, you may well find yourself cursing your keyboard, but more often than not it is just that bastard red ghost you will be shouting at. Which is a sure sign that the game is successful.

I implore you to play this one. There is so much nonsense on Facebook that when something quite incredible comes around it behoves all of us as people who genuinely love games to spread the word.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The great downloadable games Swindle.

With a quite astonishingly low total of THREE reviews on Metacritic, you could be forgiven for not having heard of GO Series: Portable Shrine Wars before now. And even if you have heard of it and read all the reviews, you would probably be no wiser as the scores for it vary quite drastically. IGN gave it a rather splendid 9/10, whilst at the other end Eurogamer gave it a derisory 4.

I'm not going to give it a score, because to be frank I think scores for reviews are about as much use as pockets in your wellies. Besides which, the rather excellent trailer tells you everything you need to know :

So, got that? You steer the shrine, collect guys to speed up, shoot them at the other shrines, or bump into them or even jump on them. You can see within about half a millisecond if this sort of thing will even remotely appeal to you. (Hint: It should.) You can also see that it is hectic, colourful, and available only on DSi/3DS as part of the DSiware range. What you can't see is the price, which stands at 200 Nintendo points. In real money, that translates to two of your local currency units in the US or Euro zone, and even less in the UK. So, $2/€2/£1.80.

That is RIDICULOUSLY cheap! That is down at the App Store "Did I even just pay for that?" price point of outright impulse buy essentiality. The kind of price that, were it put on sale on Steam for, you would drop sight unseen just because "Well, it's cheap, innit?"

And yet, because it is DSiware, there is seemingly this assumption that it is going to be awful. That, even at such a mere slip of a price point, it will still not be worth the money. Or, worse yet, that it is going to be some casual nonsense that no real gamer worth his/her salt should be bothering with.

Well, you know that assumption? As a great man once said, it makes an ass out of you and umption.

I could attempt to wax lyrical and extol the games virtues with some clever and inventive wordplay. I could layer the hyperbole on so thick and fast that you are left dizzy reading it, which is pretty much how the game makes you feel when playing it and is therefore exactly the kind of thing I do when reviewing a game. I could appeal to your better nature and talk about how downloadable titles from smaller studios need your support.

I'll not do that. I shall instead just reiterate that it is TWO FUCKING HUNDRED NINTENDO POINTS. At that price, it is an insult to not pick it up.

But, all this ignores the real issue. Which is, just why is this gem of a game at this gold-encrusted gem of a price being ignored by so many of the mainstream gaming websites? Eurogamer may have covered it, but they chose to stick it on page 3 of a "Roundup" which suggests before you even read that nothing in there is worth your time. IGN, to their credit, review more or less everything that gets released. But where are the reviews from Gamespot, EDGE, 1UP, Kotaku, GameTrailers, etc.? Why are they all actively choosing to ignore it?

It can only be because it is a DSiware title, and that means there is a stigma attached to it. "Downloadable titles on the Nintendo consoles are for casuals, therefore we won't review them." would seem to be the mantra chanted religiously by all the big sites who are happy enough to review Call of Duty map packs. (Which, incidentally, usually cost five times what this game costs.)

It gets worse if, dear reader, you were to try and find a review for newly released Wiiware title "Aya and the Cubes of Light" to help you to decide if you should part with 1000 Nintendo points. Because, to date, not a SINGLE WEBSITE has bothered to review it. Or, to be more accurate, not a single website that Metacritic deem worthy of including. Which is a shame, because it looks like a genuinely interesting concept, but one that is doomed before it even got off the ground. Whereas 17 websites to date have felt the need to tell us how predictably piss-poor Lucha Fury is.

What makes things all the more unbelievable is the way that all these big sites are geared towards getting hits above and beyond actually catering to the readers in any way imaginable. They review the Call of Duty map packs not because their readership demands it, but because they know that they will gain even more hit counts from these additional visitors, which all makes for good numbers to give to the advertisers. Of course, the fact that most of these visitors are of the non-returning variety is swept under the carpet. Never let the truth get in the way of a good statistic, eh?

The problem, as I see it, is that the DS is far and away the biggest selling console available today. And in 2nd place, we have the Wii. Which means that websites are not catering to what may well be their biggest audience by a considerable margin, and are doing their "hardcore" followings a disservice by not featuring the great and the good when it does arrive on the Nintendo services. I won't pretend for even one second that everything available in the DSistore or e-Shop is fantastic, but I know for a damn sure fact that it isn't all atrocious, either.

Gamers, you deserve better. Your websites are not working hard enough to show you the good stuff out there. All they ever show you is the marketed stuff, the stuff they get for free, and the stuff the publishers tell them to show you. When absolute bollocks like Hole in the Wall Kinect manages to garner more reviews than the GENIUS that is Portable Shrine Wars, then something is very rotten in Denmark. Very, very rotten indeed.

Once more; TWO FUCKING HUNDRED NINTENDO POINTS. And, dat trailer! Go buy it; you might just save the internet.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Friday Facebook Fing : Words With Friends

Facebook, contrary to popular opinion, is more than just a way to annoy your friends. Of course the option to tell a whole bunch of people who really couldn't care any less how sexy your name is is there should you want it, and it is surprising how many do, but for many of us this constant bombardment of inconsequentia and triviality grates somewhat. And, I choose my words carefully. I say grates, because I would in fact rather be vigorously massaged with a cheesegrater than subject myself to the daily arguments of people who I don't actually remember going to school with.

Amongst the contacts of any discerning Facebook user, there are obvious groups. There are those who you were forced to add because they are family or you have known them forever. There are those who you wonder why you added them at all, due to their obsession with posting Adele Youtube videos. And then, if you are lucky, there are those who you LIKE! It is this third group that I would like to focus on today. Because, today the game we are going to play is Words With Friends.

There is only one word needed to describe the entire concept of Words With Friends, which is yet another brick in the wall that Zynga appears to be building around the entire social/casual gaming world. And that word would be Scrabble. In everything except name, this is Scrabble Online. Which means 7 tiles, take it in turns to place them on a board, and swear loudly when you draw out three letter I's.

What would You do?
Scrabble is one of the board gaming world's true success stories. It could be said that a Scrabble board is a household necessity, and at the very least you would expect one to be in the houses of all but the Jeremy Kyle guest classes. It is a game that anyone can play and have fun with, but can fall apart because it may go on a little longer than you would ultimately want it to. Further, the need to have a dictionary on hand to solve debates can lead to arguments. I personally would have no qualms whatsoever about accepting the word "PWNED", but sadly Messrs Chambers, Collins, and Oxford outrank me in this respect.

Taking the game online has many benefits. The most obvious one is that it is impossible for the dog to eat your J. Without a board to look after, the setup and tidyup times are non-existent. Log on, play, log off. Also, there is greater flexibility as to the time that you can play, because the turns are stored on the server. At time of writing, your correspondent is in the midst of at least 5 games with various friends, some of whom are on the other side of the pond. Try doing THAT with the home version! Games may last several days, broken down into tiny slices of time spent staring at a virtual plastic tray shuffling seven vowels around desperately trying to find a word better than "AT" for 2 points.

I should point out that as this is on the internet that it runs in that awful "English Lite", or "American English", or even "English for the stupid" that they use over there. So, be aware when playing any trans-Atlantic games that there will be plenty of perfectly acceptable words that will make the in-game parser cry.

It is SO a word!

This is one that originally started out life as an iPhone app, and it proved so successful that the big boys decided that they wanted a piece. The good news is that they have maintained the iPhone connectivity, so it is possible to play it on the move as well. Originally there was an ad-supported free version and a paid-for 'Pro' version, but the Facebook game doesn't offer this distinction. You will get to see ads in your face between every couple of turns, but they never last long and are so irrelevant that you instantly forget them. They are intrusive, as you have to wait to click the "I DON'T FUCKING CARE SKIP THIS SHIT NOW" button, but also don't leave any sour impression. This is an improvement on the iPhone ads, which took over the phone for several seconds at a time.

Ultimately, the true strength of the game depends upon the depth of quality in your contacts. If you have a lot of "friends" who treat the letter U and the word "you" as interchangeable, perhaps you won't get the most out of it. If your feed is littered with people who comment on the latest reality TV non-entities, you may want to think twice about who to play with. But, if you have even a handful of intelligent and even remotely game-savvy friends, you can't go wrong with a good old word game now, can you?

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Why I love Ocarina of Time

There have been a couple of occasions recently where my 3DS has completely surprised me. The first was when I was playing about with the built in AR games, and was taken aback at how impressive they are. The 3D effect is actually quite incredible, and it is just such a shame that the nature of the games involves moving the console itself about, because if you shift your gaze by even a micron the glorious 3D gets replaced by the even more eyestraining blurry-double-shake-o-vision. Which becomes a bit of a problem when you are fighting a dragon that has risen out of your sofa.

The second surprise came from Pilotwings Resort. This latest version in the popular series starts off, in traditional fashion, quite simply. The basic tasks of "Take off, fly through some rings, land" are almost impossible to mess up on, and so you have to be a particular breed of thumbless wonder to not get a perfect score on these early challenges. Indeed, I managed this without even trying to on my first go in the aeroplane. Getting a perfect score is always nice, but what is not so nice is when you get rewarded with the following message :

Come again?

Wait ... what? BETTER than perfect? What the hell kind of Moonspeak is this, Nintendo?

It turns out that it is true, you can indeed improve on perfection. This is because there are bonus scores that are only available once you have achieved the perfect score. So, what turned out to be a bit of a shock turned into a pleasant surprise, because without this aspect to the game it would be dreadfully shortlived. (A fact that seems to have been overlooked in the vast majority of reviews, incidentally, which all like to shout about how short the game is. Honestly, does nobody play for high scores anymore?)

So far, so nice. But now, we come to something even nicer.

By far and away the best reason to own a 3DS is the rather wonderful Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. An undeniable masterpiece, it is widely regarded as the best game of all-time. And with good reason. That a 13 year old game can not only stand alongside anything else released this year, but actually tower over most of the current-gen titles speaks as much for Nintendo's timeless design as it does for the nature of modern gaming. From the moment Navi flies towards young Link, it is clear you are in for a treat.

Gaming has evolved in many ways since this landmark was released, of course, and a lot of this evolution came from this game. It is now standard to use a button to "lock on" to an enemy in a 3D space, but it was new at the time.

What was not new at the time was the sometimes total lack of clues as to what to do next, or even where to go. The only real hint system was that Navi, your fairy companion, would harass you with "Hey!" and "Listen!" before departing some vague blabber about something unclear. Phrases like "Let's go find someone who knows about sages", for example, which could mean literally ANY OTHER CHARACTER IN THE GAME! There have been times when I have been wandering around the map just hoping to stumble blindly into some kind of encounter or clue. (Or, to be completely accurate, rolling around the map making Link say "YAAAH!" because it is so much more fun than just running.)

It was during one such session that I discovered that I had not only gone the wrong way, I had managed to miss out an entire dungeon. Having gotten to a point where I could progress no more inside the Spirit Temple, I decided to go on a hunt for Gold Skulltulas, the collectable spiders littered throughout the game. Which meant a trip to Kakariko Village, for that is where the House of Skulltula is based, and if I wanted my reward for freeing 30 spiders I had to go collect it.

Entering the village triggered a cut-scene, in which Sheik taught me a new song and told me about the Shadow Temple. This song meant that I had now learned all the songs in the game, but even at this point I hadn't quite worked out what my mistake had been. It wasn't until I was in the Shadow Temple itself, just trying to make sense of anything I could see that I found the Winged shoes. These shoes let you cross otherwise uncrossable gaps, of which I had found more than any Temples fair share of in the Spirit Temple. And it was at this point that it dawned on me that I was obviously meant to complete this Temple before starting the other one.

This was a revelatory moment! I honestly couldn't tell you now when was the last time I did something like that. Have a game just let me go and do my own thing, instead of whisking control from me to dump me into its latest set-piece or cut-scene. Yes, Navi was quite insistent that I play my new song anytime I left the Temple for any reason, but at least I had the option to just not press the button to see what she was saying. I compare that to the Call of Duty franchise, for example, which basically has zero in the way of exploration or even choice. There, it is all about moving the plot on at all costs and throwing the player into their next gunfight as soon as possible, most likely to make sure the player doesn't get time to think about what they are doing and realising that they are playing a not particularly good game.

Nintendo trusts that the game world will keep you happy. They let you leave the fast track to the end of the game in order to determine your own route. Modern games don't allow this freedom, being terrified to give a player time to breathe before dropping them into the next challenge.

I like the more free approach. I WANT the more free approach! In my extra life, all I want is some rough idea of the problem and then the time to fix it. I want to be allowed to make mistakes.

What I don't want is a smack on the wrist for daring to try and do anything other than see precisely what the developer spent half the budget on. Your bridge may be pretty, and your city may be impressive. But they don't mean a single thing to me if I'm not allowed to touch them until you say so.

So, the moral of this tale? It is threefold.

1) Pilotwings Resort is very good, ignore the reviews from stupids who don't understand that a game doesn't actually need a story of any kind. (You can buy it here.)

2) Ocarina of Time 3D is absolutely fucking magnificent, and MUST be in your collection. Buy that one here.

3) Games are better when they let you play them than when you mostly watch them.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The fabulous Friday Facebook fun feature ... flip-flop!

There is a reason why Bejeweled has sold a bazillion copies on every possible format you can think of. A big part is this actual availability on every possible format you can think of, because that certainly helps. But another part is due to how inherently playable the game itself is. Start out with a square full of differently coloured jewels, switch the position of two of them, and if this movement leads to you putting three or more jewels of the same colour in a row then by universal "Match Three" decree the matched jewels dissapear, making way for some new replacements. Repeat this until the game determines that you can't actually make any more moves, unless you are in the Infinite mode where every drop is guaranteed that you have at least one potential move on the board.

It is a nice relaxing puzzle game, and is one that anybody could learn. The element of luck is nicely underplayed, as even though you don't know what is coming next, you do have the option to plan a couple of moves in advance. Add in to this mix the powerups, which come from getting 4 or 5 jewels together, and a decent element of strategy presents itself.

It sounds like a poor candidate for a Facebook game, if you think about it. What Facebook wants is social interaction, not some poor sod sat there for hours on end. So, Popcap came up with a couple of rather good ideas.

First, they stuck a strict time limit onto the game. So, instead of potentially playing for the rest of your life, you play for exactly one minute. Then, they put a score element in this. And the final moment of sheer genius was to tie it all into a leaderboard made entirely of your Facebook friends. This is important. Were it a leaderboard of all the people in the world, everybody would quickly feel completely inadequate as some Korean kids took up all the top slots with scores so high that they should be written in Hexadecimal. But, when the person at the top of the scoreboard is your own Mum you KNOW you can beat that. And this is what gives the game such an addictive quality.

Soon, your humble scores start popping up with rewards. "You earned a 25k medal" is a big deal the first time you see it. But as you play more, you start to notice scoring opportunities as they arise more quickly. It doesn't take long before the medals are for scores in the hundreds of thousands, and the names of your friends (and those people you don't actually know but just accepted anyway for fear of upsetting them in the off-chance you ever actually meet them in person again) are queueing up below you in the high score table. Eventually, it will become a weekly battle between you and a couple of others, as you desperately hope for the run that nets you top spot. Scores are wiped every 7 days, so there are plenty of opportunities to say "HAHAHAHAHAHA!" to your work colleagues, and wipe their noses in their inadequacy. You can even record your particularly spectacular games, and post the video all over your friends feeds. And, no, nobody would blame your friends for deleting you if you did this, so use this humiliation tool at your own risk.

The polar opposite, then, of the sedate proceedings one is used to in Bejeweled, Blitz brings explosions and adrenaline into the mix. You start to live your life one minute at a time, and as "One more go, THAT ONE DIDN'T COUNT!" becomes a mantra, you suddenly realise that it is 4am and you have to be up for work in 2 hours time.

Bejeweled Blitz is one of those most rare of titles. It is the perfect mix of simplicity and rewarding pyrotechnics. When an explosion causes a chain reaction it is beautiful. When this is the result of your own planning, it is quite exquisite. Little in life is as rewarding as watching a game play itself at a speed that your eyes are struggling to follow, and your fingers can't hope to match. Best of all, it doesn't even need to be played on Facebook, as the iOS version connects to your account. Whilst this is quite unfair to those who don't own an iPhone or iPod Touch, it is their own stupid fault so let us not dwell on this too much.

Possibly, mere words can't really describe the game. Therefore, I shall link to a video that shows you just how good it is possible to get at Blitz. The score in this run is something that at first seems impossible and beyond your wildest dreams. However, give it a little time and you will easily be hitting similar heights yourself. (I have broken the 500,000 mark several times now, and people frequently break the million barrier.)

Anyone can play Bejeweled Blitz, and everyone should. It redefines the classic puzzle game, turning it into a battle for superiority with your friends . More than this, it becomes a battle to ever go to bed at a reasonable time again, because Popcap could have no argument if the game were to one day be classified as a Class A drug. It is certainly one of the best eaters of time that your reporter has ever come across, and has the highest of recommendations attached.