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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Alwa's Awakening Is a Solid Little Indie Metroidvania

My last few indie game reviews have been really, really big, in different ways, touching on big, thematic stuff and more in-depth analysis. But doing only deep dives on the best of the best is exhausting and limiting, in a lot of ways, and I think there are also a lot of smaller titles that are incredibly solid and deserve love and attention, too, even if they aren’t in my running for whatever the video game equivalent of the Oscars or Pulitzers would be.

So this one is more in the vein of my Blossom Tales review, which is fitting since there are quite a few similarities. Alwa’s Awakening, by first-time developer Elden Pixels, is an incredibly well-designed little throwback number that has clearly learned from the best. An 8-bit Metroidvania/platformer that feels like the perfect distillation of the genre, playing it on my Switch made me feel a connection with my younger self hunched over my Game Boy, while at the same time feeling like it’s own distinct unique thing rather than a recreation of a specific classic.

Of course, that nostalgic feel makes sense; Elden Pixels really feels like they’ve taken an old-school approach to designing things here. There was definite attention paid to focusing the game on specific set of elements the designers wanted to include and an emphasis on refining them, rather than letting the scope of things sprawl out of control. The player character only has two abilities in the start of the game, a jump and a staff attack, and every ability that you unlock over the course of the game is a spell that you cast with that staff attack. Not only that, but the game decides to pare that spell list to just three, with improvements to those three being the late-game finds that finally open up the entire map to you. There's a beauty in that level of straightforwardness.

And there’s a deeper deliberateness in all of that. It becomes very clear what types of abilities you’re going to be finding, as you come across areas of the map that are clearly kept inches out of your reach. Every challenge feels like a puzzle that you can solve if you just piece it all together, whether it’s dead ends that clearly just need one more tool, or learning the trick to spotting fake walls, or even finding ideal strategies for toppling bosses.

There are other nice things about their world design besides just the puzzle aspects, too. The different sections of the map are distinct enough in their design to stick in your mind and make it easy to remember spots to return to later. And the map is a very solid example of Metroidvania game design; secret tunnels connect you to areas you didn’t know would come back up, branching paths make you feel clever when you find them and explore them fully, everything is connected enough that it doesn’t take too long to get anywhere from any of the warp points which makes jumping between areas to further explore not a problem, and all of that good stuff.

Too many games in this genre stray into making things too linear, but Alwa’s Awakening has the good sense to leave things open and let you explore at your own pace with only general checkpoints for you to go towards at your leisure. You can poke into various parts of the map pretty early, a nice preview for what’s coming and a good way to get a sense of how things are laid out, and most of them have secrets to reach even if you can’t do much else yet. It’s all appropriately twisty and turny, and you can really jump ahead at your own pace in some areas (sometimes with ways forward that are clever enough that you feel like you may have accidentally broken the sequence the designers intended, even when it is all part of the plan).

The non-gameplay elements are all solid as well, if a little basic. Most of the character designs are lovable, if a little basic (particularly main character Zoe). Most of the story elements are pretty standard, but there are enough interesting hooks in everything that it certainly feels like the team is capable of more with more time, resources, and experience. The interludes in towns or up mountains add some nice variety from the dungeons and tunnels that make up the rest of the world, and again, with more time, I’m sure Elden Pixels would come up with a host of more interesting locals and characters to populate them.

The makers clearly studied their fundamentals of game design from the best, especially of the Game Boy/NES era, and applied that to creating their own vision of that style. All in all, it was enough to keep me coming back for ten hours or so in an attempt to find every secret and still leave me wanting more, which is always a positive experience. The things Alwa’s Awakening is good at are enough to grab your interest, and even it’s weakest points are never weak enough to make you feel like the game is missing out on anything. I look forward to seeing where Elden Pixels goes from here.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Wandersong, a Groundbreaking Musical Video Game, Is One of 2018's Best

One of my favorite games of 2018 was Wandersong*, and I wanted to write something about it for a while, but wow was it difficult to come up with something that didn’t just devolve into gushing praise.

*note: I played the Nintendo Switch version, but it’s also available on PlayStation 4 and PC/Mac via Steam.

Not that gushing praise wouldn’t be merited; the game is beautiful in every capacity, and the team of Greg Lobanov (creator), A Shell in the Pit (music), and Em Halberstadt (sound) deserves all of the compliments. Everything clicked with me. The game looks beautiful, with a strong art direction full of bold colors and a look that brings to mind construction paper and Paper Mario. The writing and story is fantastic, and full of probably my favorite cast of characters I’ve seen; even random townspeople stick in the mind, and the main cast are all incredibly endearing. And man oh man, the music.

I mean, the game is called Wandersong, so of course the music had to be good. But it really is something else. The soundtrack is, naturally, amazing, and I’ve been listening to it on repeat since even before I finished the game. It’s loaded with memorable tunes, and so many are tied to key moments in the game that instantly call them to mind when you here them. It’s a perfect synergy.

It’s more than that, though; everything in the game revolves around music, from the biggest story themes to the smallest game mechanics. It’s a level of focus that many games don’t have, especially games in the rhythm/music genre. Every action in the game more complicated than basic moving in a 2D space (basically left/right/jump) is undertaken using the singing wheel that serves as the game’s main mechanic. Puzzles to cross large gaps or scale large heights? Casting magic spells? Dialogue with non-player characters? Encounters with large monsters? Every one of them, you use the wheel to get the Bard to sing, and the Bard’s music in turn interacts with the game environment in some way to meet the challenge.


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Super Smash Marvel Ultimate: Continuing the Hypothetical Series to the Present

Three years ago, I had some fun with my love of Marvel and the Super Smash Brothers series to make a series mashing them up (one, two, three, four). In each case, I looked at things like when each game in the Smash Bros series came out, the size of the rosters, and where Marvel stood at each of those release dates to come up with what I think is a reasonable approximation of what a hypothetical Super Smash Marvel series would have looked like.

With the highly-anticipated Super Smash Bros Ultimate coming out this Friday, I figured that now would be a perfect time to continue the series. After all, Nintendo has already announced exactly how big the roster will be even after DLC, so we know exactly how much space we have to work with, and this has been a pretty big year for Marvel (including five of the top ten grossing movies of the year being based off of Marvel properties, and the still-upcoming Into the Spider-Verse garnering a ton of early praise), so we should have some new possibilities to choose from.

Thankfully, there are a lot of roster spots open this time as well. Throughout this series, I’ve been matching my roster sizes to the Smash Bros games, but I haven’t been removing characters like they have. So, for example, when the games added eighteen new characters in Super Smash Bros Brawl, I only added thirteen characters to Smash Marvel Brawl since I wasn’t also removing five characters. However, for Ultimate, Nintendo is bringing back every playable character that has ever been in the series. Counting the six upcoming DLC characters (only one of which, Piranha Plant, has been announced), plus including the new echo fighter character as distinct options, that leaves us room for 82 characters in Smash Marvel Ultimate, or 22 more than I featured in my last go-around.

Also of note, this will be the first Smash-Marvel entry will I won’t have to reconstruct where Marvel characters’ popularity stood at the time, which might make filling all those slots a little easier. So with all of that lead up out of the way, let’s get started on our monumental task.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Second Fantastic Beasts Movie Multiplies the First's Problems

I’ve been trying to best summarize my experience watching Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and I think the best I’ve got so far is “I didn’t hate it, but it has a lot of flaws, and I struggle to imagine anyone caring much about it at all absent a strong love of Harry Potter”. A mostly spoiler-free review:

There’s a lot going on here, almost like it’s condensing 600 to 700 pages like some of the later Harry Potter movies…but there’s no source material here that the movie is adapting from. It’s just stuffed full of characters and plot threads and details like the books, but doesn’t have time to really focus in on any of them. And yet, feels almost like a filler episode in a TV show, throwing out a few sort of interesting bits that make you go “Oh. Okay, I guess,” but otherwise treading water while you wait for the real “exciting stuff” to come around.

I almost wrote about this spin-off series two years ago after the first movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but I didn’t find myself impassioned enough to write a full article. The problems with the first one largely came down to the fact that there were two different main narrative threads going on, they didn’t really overlap or compliment each other very much (until the very end, where they were loosely tied together), and both were worse off for it. The sequel, instead of using that movie’s worth of set up to try and establish a sort of main story going forward, instead decides to explode it into even more character arcs to follow, making it even more claustrophobic and underdeveloped.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Iconoclasts Is One of the Best Games of the Year

Few games have hung in my mind like Iconoclasts. Hell, few works of narrative art in any medium have, and I knew I wanted to write about it immediately upon finishing it. But wow, does it feel like a big thing to tackle.

So let’s start from the top. Iconoclasts is a one-man project, the culmination of seven-plus years of work by Joakim Sandberg (also know as Konjak). And yes, he made every part of it; the art, the music, the programming, the story, and the stuff he didn’t know how to do already, he taught to himself, simply because he wanted to make this specific project. This gives the game a unified creative vision that just isn’t at all common in projects of this scale, and it’s amazing in so many ways that I feel I can’t adequately capture in language. And it’s easy to forget while you’re playing the game as well; I did, until I got to the credits, which, to pad out their length to fit in a full “Where are they now?”-style epilogue that plays simultaneously, lists the name of every character in the game after starting with a simple “Game by Joakim Sandberg” and getting through all the testers, special thanks credits, and such in under two scenes.

For anyone who hasn’t ever given much thought to video games as a unique art form, games like Iconoclasts are some of the best examples of the medium. The game has an epic fantasy/science-fiction world and lore that I find utterly compelling, hinting at intergalactic refugees settling a strange, new world and building a entirely new society off of what they had left, with what they find on their new home shaping the new society. Konjak’s art style is beautiful, distinctive, and detailed, giving several unique biomes that feel lush and real. And it all feeds into a story that does what the best science fiction does, using its novums to build a compelling story that explores universal things like society and human nature.

The plot follows Robin, a mechanic (with an iconic, physics-defying wrench-shaped ponytail) who has inherited her passion from her father but lives in a repressive, dystopian theocracy that has outlawed the practice. When caught fixing some of the world’s advanced machinery, she goes on the run from the Agents of One Concern (the local religion), working with various other fugitives as they try to piece together what’s causing the shortage of native miracle fuel Ivory that’s killing their planet. It’s a pretty straightforward general plot fleshed out and enhanced by the uniqueness of the world.

From a gameplay standpoint, Iconoclasts is a rock-solid entry in the Metroidvania genre. The decision to make a wrench one of the key central mechanics is a fun and memorable gameplay decision that ties in nicely with some of the themes, and the boss battles against a variety of large machines stand out as some of the biggest highlights and challenges (although the multiple difficulty settings keep things accessible for novices and challenging for experts). All of them are impressive in their own way, but there’s also a sense of skill in their design that makes them all feel like big and important moments within the story; yet, the important ones get a little extra something to them that makes sure you grasp how monumental they are within the story, which etches them into your mind.

And Konjak’s skill for visual design doesn’t stop with just the setting; the characters are a visually eclectic and loveable bunch, fleshed out even more by his strong writing. Everyone in the main cast is deeply nuanced and relatable, if not likeable in spite of the deep flaws they are each working to overcome. And as mentioned, their exploration through a twisting narrative is an emotional roller coaster, buoyed by some fantastic twists (including an absolutely brilliant one in the final boss of the game that I would absolutely recommended not spoiling yourself on).

If any of this sounds appealing, I would absolutely recommend checking it out. From here on out, I’ll be discussing a little be of story and thematic bits, so if you want to remain totally unspoiled, now would be the place to start playing. I’m pretty vague about most of the specific details; it’s mostly about the big, overarching themes, so don’t worry too much if you’re still unsure and want to learn more, but if you want to go in with a total blank slate to form your own opinions, go check it out first and then come back. Iconoclasts is available on just about any or any game platform (I played the Nintendo Switch version, and it ran perfectly smoothly on that), so you have plenty of options if I’ve piqued your interest.


--mild spoiler break--

Friday, October 26, 2018

The New American Song Book and the Pop Music Canon

Slate ran a fun piece last week looking at what they termed “The New American Songbook”, or the pop hits (some from non-American acts, despite the name) of the last 25 years that will be listened to long into the future. The full balloting can be found here, while this piece covers the top thirty songs (which basically wound up being anything that got more than one vote from their 19 panelists).

I wanted to weigh in on it because, let’s face it, this is right up my alley. A panel of experts weighing in on the best, most memorable entries in one of my hobbies from the past twenty-five years? I basically write a dozen articles each year on the baseball version of that.

I wanted to write a few thoughts on the balloting and maybe provide my own nominations.


1. The list is generally pretty solid.
Nothing there seems totally out of place. I don’t know if it’s necessarily in the order from “most likely” to “least likely” (just for starters, “Let It Go” is probably too low at 30, given that it has a recent popular movie for young children and the full force of Disney behind it), and there are certainly songs that I thought deserved more votes (I’m still a little shocked “Mr. Brightside” was only named three times and landed at the middle of the list). There are things missing, but any list of just twenty-five songs is going to be missing a lot. Also, “Hey Ya” seems like a strong number one, so it’s hard to quibble too much with the system.


2. Twenty-five years was probably too long of a window to use.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Music Monday: Summer 2018 Playlist

I’ve been listening to a lot of great music this past summer, and I wanted to do something to highlight it. The end of summer seemed like a good time to commemorate it, and I struggled with ways to cut it down and focus on some select songs or artists, but eventually, I just decided to go with a long, uncut list to get a wider scope. That meant cutting the writing part of this so this didn’t balloon into a novella, but I think the music is strong enough to speak for itself (and maybe there will be more writing on some of it to come).

If you find something you really like, I definitely encourage looking into these artists more. I didn’t want the list to spiral even more out of control, so I had to put some limits in pace, but a lot of these are snippets of really strong albums, or artists who are newer and could do with some new listeners. Take a listen!