What I’m playing: Amnesia, GTA3, Lollipop Chainsaw, SimCity Social Edition

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been jumping between quite a few different games. Three games I’ve been playing more than others – Amnesia, GTA 3, and Lollipop Chainsaw.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

I got Amensia with the latest Humble Bundle. I heard it was pretty scary, and it definitely lives up to its reputation. It’s a first-person adventure game that came out about a year and nine months ago. It looked older than that to me in the way the interface works. When you approach an item with which you can interact, a hand icon appears. You can move things or hold them by clicking on them. If they’re not an inventory item for use later but are able to be picked up, they’ll float in the center of the screen. You interact with everything in a similar way. For example, you don’t go through a door by running up to it and pressing the enter-key. Rather, you press the left mouse button and either pull or push (depending on the door). This makes the game feel very immersive. The game revolves around solving puzzles… oh, and keeping your sanity.

Being the dark will slow drive you insane, which, among other things, will make you hear things that aren’t real. This is particularly scary because then you can’t be sure whether something’s really coming for you or not. Being in the dark drops your sanity, so you need to keep your lantern fueled or be able to light enough candles. When you see a monster, the longer you look at it, the more it drives you insane. You can hide in the dark from the monsters (but that drives you insane as well), but if it wants you dead, you’ll die. There really isn’t any fighting it.

It has a really fascinating story. Your character has purposely given himself amnesia and left himself with a letter telling him to kill someone. He assures himself that the person deserves to die even if he doesn’t like it. I can’t wait to find out more about the story.

The game suggests you play it in the dark with headphones. I don’t do either of those things. However, the fact that I’m playing without the brightness maxed out means I’m at least trying to play by the rules. There’s also the fact that I’m still playing even though most people I know gave up. I’m about 2/3 of the way through the game I think.

Grand Theft Auto

After playing the first GTA (and London), I tried GTA 2 once before jumping forward a number of years and playing GTA 4 and Chinatown Wars. I never beat any of the early games, so I picked up the classic pack on Steam. I tried playing the original, but I have to be honest, it doesn’t hold up. I like the core game type; I loved Chinatown Wars, for example. But the missions are just tedious. It’s all more of the same. The story isn’t very interesting. Worst of all, levels are very long, and alt-tabbing almost always will eventually lead to the game crashing. I even tried cheating by giving myself unlimited lives. That didn’t work because I didn’t have enough time to beat a level in one sitting, and like I said, alt-tabbing leads to crashing. I decided to write this one off. I won’t be returning to it.

Grand Theft Auto III

Instead, I’ll be playing GTA 3. It’s really telling that GTA 3 can be so ugly by today’s standards but still be so good. I don’t even think about it being old while I play it. It just feels like GTA 4. I’m really enjoying it so far. I’m only a handful of missions into the game – maybe around 10. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it later. For now, it’s definitely satisfying a third I’ve been having.

Lollipop Chainsaw

Lollipop Chainsaw is the one reason I’ve used a console recently. It’s Suda51’s latest game, and it’s an odd one. It’s about a cheerleader who’s also a zombie hunter. When her boyfriend gets bit, she cuts off his head with a chainsaw and takes it with him, allowing him to survive with magic. You hack and slash enemies sort of like Devil May Cry. It doesn’t take itself seriously, and I had a lot of fun with it. The claim to fame, beside being developed by Suda51 of course, is sex appeal. There’s a lot of talk about sex, and a lot of cussing. The sex is, honestly, not much worse than a bunch of B-horror movies anyways, and that’s the flavor the game seems to targeting. The over-abundant cussing just seems odd. Mad World had a lot of cussing, and it seemed appropriate. It doesn’t really feel appropriate here. There’s also a peculiar gameplay element. Control is removed every minute or so to show the player something. I understand the the game needs to let the player know what’s happening, but it should do it without taking the game away from me.

SimCity Social

I can’t believe I’m playing this. I swear, I don’t usually play Facebook games. It’s like normal SimCity, but with some twists. Each action you take consumes one energy, and energy regenerates over time. This means you have to stop playing and come back later. Money and manufacturing materials are also generated on a timed cycle. You have to log into the game to claim them, so this pushes players to stop playing but to check back in frequently. Certain buildings require staff to complete them. This means you have to hire friends as staff. You can only hire each friend once per day. If you don’t want to wait, you can spend diamonds, a rare resource that can also be purchased using real money. None of that for me, thank you.

Worms Crazy Golf

It’s Worms. It’s golf. And I guess it’s crazy. I’ve been using it as a nice way to get over the shock of playing Amnesia. What’s particularly great about it is that it supports local multiplayer.
Super Mario 3D Land
I’m pushing through the “bonus game” in this. I’m in World S5 now.
World of Warcraft
Of course, I’ve been playing this as well. I’m working on Grizzly Hills as well as PVPing and participating in the holiday.
Monsters Ate My Condo
Adult Swim Games brings one of the most fun iOS games I’ve ever played. You build a tower of condos while trying match their colors and feeding some to giant monsters. Mmhmmm. Totally great.

Zynga Slots and Zynga Poker

Two bad games by Zynga. Zynga Slots is a little addicting, and I don’t know why. Stay away from it.
Tap Tip Block
What if the zombies mode from World at War was cartoonish, featured monsters instead of Nazi zombies, was made by Capcom, and developed for iOS? It’d be Tap Tip Block. It’s short but fun.
Pucca Noodle Rush
I finally finished this little time management game. It wasn’t really very good, but I like Pucca.
SQUIDS Wild West
The sequel to SQUIDS, and a great iOS strategy game. Check out my recent Game Boyz review for more information.
Imaginary Range
Square-Enix making an interactive comic/game for iOS is great. Square-Enix taking a year to release a new issue is not. I doubt we’ll see an end to this story.
Shadowgun
Shadowgun’s a third-person cover-based shooter built in Unity for iOS. It looks great and is pretty fun. I only recently got around to returning to it to beat it.
Terra Noctics
Like Shadowgun, Terra Noctis is another iOS game that I finally got around to finishing. It’s a fun little platformer.
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Level hubs need to die

Level hub in Super Mario World for SNES.

Level hubs are bad. Well, they’re usually bad anyways. If there’s no compelling reason for one to exist, it shouldn’t exist. Level hubs are the worlds you explore to find the actual levels. In a level, you have fun, progress the story and game, are taught new mechanics, and are tested on those mechanics. In the hub, you look for a level. Why? Menus work better than explorable hubs.

The Mario series has an interesting history with hubs. At first, there was no level hub at all. Finishing one level sent you on your way to the next. Super Mario Bros. 3 let you pick your level from the hub. You didn’t really explore. You couldn’t jump. You weren’t really in control of Mario, but you could pick your next level. There were multiple paths of levels, and sometimes things could block your path. Because you’d need to see the paths between levels and try to get to (or away from) the enemies blocking you, the level hub was important. Super Mario World was similar; it had multiple paths you could take. Levels that had multiple exits that would lead to different levels were clearly marked on the map. The hub also organized the levels and provided context. Again, the map had a purpose. Importantly, these hubs were not difficult to navigate and didn’t add a significant amount of time between levels.

Super Mario 64 changed all that. Peach’s castle was the level hub, and in it you controlled Mario the same way you would in any level. Certain paintings in the castle allowed you to enter levels through them. In this way, the game rewarded (and required) exploration of the castle. Was this good? I loved Super Mario 64 when it came out, and I’m still quite fond of it. It’s hard to decide whether this was a bad decision. There are a few things that Nintendo did to keep the hub from being terrible. First, the game mechanics functioned the same way. If you enjoyed controlling Mario in a level, at least you could potentially get the same enjoyment out of the hub. I enjoyed controlling Mario and remember playing in the castle itself. Second, most levels weren’t hidden. You could clearly see where a level was based on the doors, and the doors were even marked, letting you know how many stars you needed to unlock it. Third, after obtaining a star, Mario would come back out of the painting, standing right in front of it. This is great because the majority of the time you need to go right back into the same painting for another star. Of course, that also emphasizes a problem. If I’m usually going to jump right back into the painting, why even take me out of it in the first place? I’m going to go ahead and declare the hub bad. My best guess is that at the time it was new and interesting to have an explorable hub world, and it made Mario’s adventure seem grand. We were still at a time where all video game urban legends weren’t immediately debunked by the Internet, which made the hub feel like a mysterious place worth exploring. We were also new to 3D platformers; the hub gave gamers a chance to get used to controlling Mario, and the developers must not have thought of making the courtyard a one-time introductory level. Hindsight is 20-20. The hub is bad.

Nintendo thought we still needed hubs in Super Mario Galaxy. It’s practically amazing how terrible the hub is in that game. Not only was it a waste of time when what you really wanted to do was get to a level, but it was also confusing and hard to navigate. Things got a lot better in Super Mario Galaxy 2. The level select screen is very close to that of Super Mario Bros. 3. It has multiple worlds consisting of different levels, this time called galaxies, and a star select screen after that like the one found in Super Mario 64 or the first Galaxy. However, it seemed Nintendo couldn’t shake the terrible idea all the way. Perhaps young gamers like a non-threatening place to play as Mario. I don’t really believe that to be a worthy reason, but I can only assume that Nintendo has some sort of logic, however flawed. Whatever the reason, there is still a spaceship that Mario uses. After beating a level, Mario once again appears on his ship. What is there to do on the ship? There are plenty of NPCs with whom to speak, but there is little incentive to do so. Yes, there are times where there’s a reward, but this could be awarded to the player in a better way (such as the mini-game at the end of levels in Super Mario Bros. 3). In actuality, every time I get back to Mario’s ship, I run forward for a second to jump onto the button that brings up the level select map. Why put me on the boring spaceship hub if what I want to do every time is get back to playing Mario? And no Nintendo, that’s not an invitation to put more crap on the spaceship next time. It’s a request that you list what we want to do in your game and take out everything that isn’t on that list. Putting me back on the ship just to make me jump on the button is pretty similar to putting me in front of a painting just to make me jump back into it.

Nintendo’s not the only offender. Sonic Adventure had an awful hub world that was incredibly time-consuming. Finding a level shouldn’t take a long time. Despite the bad hub, I did finish Sonic Adventure. I wasn’t as angry at hub worlds back then, and I had a lot more time on my hands. However, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to play it again. Luckily, it seemed Sega had learned. In Sonic Adventure 2 it was much easier to find levels, and in Sonic Heroes it did away with all hubs and went back to stages and acts. Fantastic! While Sonic Heroes was buggy, I greatly appreciated how they mapped out the game. There were a lot of faults with the Sonic series at that time, but Sega learned from their mistakes. And then there was Sonic the Hedgehog (2006). What were they thinking? The hub world was back in full force, and it was absolutely terrible. It was the first game I purchased for PS3, and it was a big mistake. I never have picked it back up again after my first day with it. Sonic Unleashed on 360 was a lot more fun, but still suffered from the bad hub world. Trying to figure out where the next level was got so bad that I gave up. While I haven’t yet, I plan on trying it on Wii because that version, or so I hear, doesn’t have the hub. (If any game developers are reading this, note that I’m giving up better graphics and achievements for playability.)

Blue mission marker in Grand Theft Auto III for Steam.

How about open-world games? Well, Grand Theft Auto does it very well, but it’s not really the same. Finding missions take place in a city that, for now, let’s call the hub. The missions take place in the exact same city. It’s seamless. Because the levels exist as part of the hub, I wouldn’t really call it a hub. There are fun things to do in the city, making it a part of the game proper. Of course, you can skip the city a bit and take a taxi to any mission on your map. And how do you pick your destination? With a menu. Infamous and Infamous 2’s cities are much like GTA’s. They contain levels, which make them like hubs, but they’re alive and fun. No More Heroes looks similar but is actually very different. There’s a city in which you can drive, but none of the actual game takes place in the city. This makes NMH’s city a hub, and a terrible one at that. Whether this was good design or not is debatable because Suda 51 has made the argument that this was a critique of open-world games. If he’s critiquing Grand Theft Auto though, then my previous statements about GTA would stand as my counter-argument.

Level select in Cut the Rope for iPhone.

Many iPhone games use a grid to represent levels. Level select screens have multiple pages, and each page has a grid of levels that each have three objectives or stars. Of course, far less than every game use this system, but I see a level select screen similar to this often enough to feel it’s work mentioning. This isn’t a hub, and this is close to what I’m advocating. However, you can’t deny that this looks very dry. In fact, I say we look once again at Nintendo. Quite often they get it exactly right. They don’t use multiple pages; they use multiple worlds, such as the different islands in Super Mario World. Instead of stars representing levels, arranged in a grid, Super Mario World featured dots set up to reflect the world they represented. You could maneuver through the hub quickly and effectively, yet it still conveyed the idea behind that set of levels. It looked fun, but most importantly, let you get back to the actual fun quickly.

There can be reasons to include a hub or world map, but it needs to be done properly. It should be unobtrusive and add to the game.

Thank you, Super Mario World, for getting it right.

River City Ransom: My foray into the most buttkickingest game ever made

 
My girlfriend once told me about a game she loved from the NES, River City Ransom; she told me you ran around beating people up, but that it also had RPG elements in which your characters got more powerful. She enjoyed buying sushi and visiting saunas in the game. I had to try it out.
 
Knowing that I was waking up early to go to Disneyland with her the next day, I booted up the game on an emulator on my Palm despite it being late at night. (I also obtained an actual NES cartridge, not that any proceeds could actually reach anyone related to the game.)
 
I hold your city captive &
Ryan’s girlfriend hostage.
With my gangs of students &
evil bosses, nobody can stop
me now. Meet my demands – or
else! … P.S. Alex & Ryan if
you interfere, you’ll be in
for the fight of your lives!
… SLICK
 
Yes, that’s the introduction to the game. I don’t know what I would have thought of it if I was an adult when the game was released, but now I love it. Here’s a game that knows it’s a game. Could I survive SLICK’s gangs, defeat his bosses, and rescue Ryan’s girlfriend? I had to find out.
 
“[Intro][NES] River City Ransom” posted by YouTube user kad3t
 
Once the game actually starts, the amazing music begins. You can hear this starting at 0:25 in the video. The bit at 0:35 is so fun! Starting at Cross Town High School, I began to explore the world, beating up anyone who dared approach me. Were the men who ran up to me working for Slick? Were they partly responsible for kidnapping Ryan’s girlfriend? I didn’t care. I didn’t question. I punched.
 
As an enemy ran up to me, I began to pound him in his face until he fell.
 
“BARF!”
 
What a rewarding word to read.
 
Controls were simple. I was punching and kicking. I was picking things up, attacking with them or throwing them. I was jumping on walls and fences and running across them. And I did it all smoothly and easily with just two buttons. Perhaps one of the most fun discoveries was realizing that a fallen enemy was also a weapon. After defeating an enemy, I was treated to a bouncing coin, increasing my total money. At the start, I didn’t know the purpose of the currency.
 
After a couple screens I came across the first mall. I was presented with a variety of stores and purchasable goods – coffee, bagels, sushi, books, and more. Books taught different techniques, but what was engrossing was the delicious, delicious food. A little of this and I increase my punching ability. A little of that and I’m more agile. A little of this and… I regain health or increase my maximum health or something. (I later realized that how much my maximum health increased was partly tied to how depleted my current health was.) I was more than happy to go through trial and error to understand the economy. Different enemy types drop varying amount of money, and these can be used on the items in the malls. Eating items increases your stats, although I couldn’t find out which or by how much until I tried them. I could see this being annoying if money was scarce, but there were plenty of gangs of students and evil bosses to mug.
 
While River City Ransom looked fairly linear, I found it to be very open. I ran from area to area defeating such gangs as the Generic Dudes, the Jocks, the Frat Guys, and more. The bottom of the screen flashed. “BARF!” “Wham!” “Mamaaa!” Occasionally a bit of helpful text pointed me in the right direction, but I mostly encountered comical one-liners. These little snips of dialogue combined with the malls and shops to fully engross me. There was plenty to discover, including Merlin’s Mystery Shop, a secret shop hidden in a tunnel. Somehow this Merlin fellow managed to collect such powerful items as Excaliber and Zeus’ Wand. Did you know Zeus used a wand? I didn’t.
 
In the end, I reached Slick, who turned out to go by the name of Simon.
 
Thanks to ALEX & RYAN that
was the end of evil Simon!
The gangs returned to class
and became honor students.
Cyndi was rescued in time
to finish her shopping.
Yes… all was once again
peaceful in River City.
 
Clearly the problems of Ryan’s girlfriend being held hostage and the city being full of gangs of students had been solved. Nothing turns around gangs of students like a good whoopin’, and now River City High School and Cross Town High School must have much higher average GPAs and college admissions! Truly, I solved not only my problems, but I improved education as whole in our great nation!
 
In Japan, River City Ransom was part of the Kunio-kun series, which also includes Renegade, Super Dodge Ball, and Crash ‘n the Boys: Street Challenge. I’ve tried Renegade, but it lacks the comedy, exploration, and food of River City Ransom, causing me to put it down shortly after starting. I’ve yet to try any of the other games in the series. There was a Game Boy Advance port, River City Ransom EX, that I enjoyed, adding more customization but removing the multiplayer. (I recommend the original NES version.) A sequel was announced for the Wii and PC, due out in 2011 or 2012, but I couldn’t find any additional information on it.
 
River City Ransom inspired more than just me. Scott Pilgrim makes heavy references to the game. Besides coins exploding out of defeated enemies and similar boss names and placement, “BARF!” is a bit of dialogue the two universes have in common. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game feels very heavily inspired by River City Ransom. There’s even a secret shop full of incredibly expensive items placed like Merlin’s Mystery Shop. One of the other Kunio-kun games, Crash ‘n the Boys: Street Challenge, is obviously referenced by the band Crash and the Boys in the books and movie.
 
As I said earlier, I started playing River City Ransom the night before I was planning on waking early to go to Disneyland. I got two hours of sleep that night because I couldn’t put River City Ransom down. If you’re familiar with Disneyland, you might know that there’s a restroom at the front of Adventureland that you reach as soon as you enter from Main Street. When the rest of the group used the restroom there, I leaned on the fake rocks outside, getting a little extra time with River City Ransom on my Palm. I jokingly refer to that place as River City Rock to this day.
 
River City Ransom: Mugging gangs of students and eating sushi.
 
BARF!
 

Of Polygons and Pixels

Welcome to my new blog, Polygons and Pixels! I enjoy writing and sharing my thoughts but found that my catch-all blog, WebPageless, covered a spectrum that was too wide. After creating Kor’kron 501st for covering World of Warcraft (and other online RPGs), I found that I really enjoyed having a dedicated blog. I also cover iPhone and Android games (and sometimes PC games) for Game Boyz; however, I don’t have full control there. The reviews follow a formula and must include point values. That’s not always for me. Thus, Polygons and Pixels was created.

Really, it comes down to one simple fact. I wrote a piece about River City Ransom, and I needed somewhere to put it. Expect it on Polygons and Pixels soon.