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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Music Monday: End of 2020 Supplemental Playlist

I got asked about doing a follow-up to my Summer Playlist post from last year, basically filling in the gaps of the rest of 2020. I enjoy doing these, and only covering a few months seemed like it would be easier and quicker than the last one, so I decided why not. I have a Spotify link below, but there’s also a full track listing at the end of this post. In the meantime, I’ve included a few random thoughts about some of the music.

[Spotify Link]

Monday, March 1, 2021

Phoenotopia: Awakening is a Great Game, and an Even Greater Experience

Today, we return to focus on a game that I first mentioned back in my 2020 year-end roundup, Phoenotopia: Awakening, by developer Cape Cosmic.

I knew very little about Phoenotopia (pronounced “FEE-no-topia”, like “Phoenix”) going in. I first saw it when it popped up on the “Upcoming Games” section of the Nintendo Switch eShop last year, and unlike some other indie games, it hadn’t been released on other platforms yet (it was released on Steam finally earlier this year). But something about it drew me in. It looked beautiful, rendered in gorgeous pixel art with beautifully-detailed backdrops, and the story promised some sort of mystery set in an expansive world. Compared to a lot of other game releases, there just wasn’t a lot to go on pre-release, but I was intrigued, and picked it up pretty quickly after it came out.

And what I found was pretty incredible! In fact, it went on to become one of my most-played games of the year. So, what exactly is it? Well, that’s hard to describe briefly, so bear with me for a second.

Phoenotopia: Awakening actually has a pretty substantial history that I wasn’t aware of until after I started playing it and looked around even more. It was largely the project of a single person, developer Quang “Quells” Tran, and was preceded by another game simply called Phoenotopia, which was uploaded to Newgrounds back in 2014. Awakening is something between a remake and improvement of the original game that was worked on for the next six years, expanding on and changing around various things as needed, until it was something new and substantially bigger, with only a general outline of the plot in common.

With all of that real-world background out of the way, we can move on to the story itself. In the distant future, humanity’s ever-escalating wars and weaponry eventually destroyed a lot of the Earth’s surface, driving humans underground. After centuries below ground, humans eventually re-emerged to find that the planet had recovered enough to sustain life once more. Society began to reform, and hundreds of years after that, there are once again towns and nations in a world that’s largely medieval-style agrarian towns, but with a number of technologies from the modern day around helping everyone out.

That’s all just the opening text scroll establishing the world. The story in question follows a teenager named Gail, from the quiet farming town of Panselo. After retreating into the nearby forest to round up the local children for dinner, the group witnesses a UFO visit the town. After rushing back, they find the entire town empty, with the only clue being some machinery from space they found in the forest after it fell to earth the previous day. As the eldest remaining person from Panselo, Gail sets off across the continent in search of anyone who can help them find their missing neighbors.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

2020 Video Game Recommendation Roundup


I did a lot more writing on video games in 2020 than I have in the past, which was a nice goal that I had wanted to hit for a while. But it still didn’t cover all of the interesting things that I played this year. So, to that end, here’s my annual “Everything Else that I Wanted to Talk About” video games post. But first, if you missed it, here’s everything from this past year that already got its own post:


One Step from Eden (Thomas Moon Kang)-A roguelike, deckbuilding action game about colorful characters traversing an ambiguous apocalypse landscape that takes the long-discarded battle style of Megaman Battle Network and refines it to perfection. If I were doing rankings for this group, this would probably be the runner-up.

A Fold Apart (Lightning Rod Games)-A cute little puzzle platformer that sees you guiding a long-distance couple through their relationship challenges made physical.

Super Mega Baseball 3 (Metalhead Software)-The new edition of my favorite baseball game right now, now with a franchise mode!

Underhero (Paper Castle Games)-You play as a video game minion who has accidentally defeated the hero too early, and is now torn between listening to the hero’s talking sword, who’s pushing you to take up his mission, and your boss, the big bad, who seems to be planning more than he’s letting on. A fun platformer RPG, especially recommended for fans of the classic Paper Mario entries.

Murder by Numbers (Mediatonic)-A fun little detective visual novel starring a ‘90s TV detective moonlighting as a real detective and her amnesiac robot friend, where you find clues by solving picross puzzles.

Yooka-Laylee (Playtonic Games), plus A Hat in Time DLC levels (Gears for Breakfast)-The new Hat in Time levels make an already great game even better. Yooka-Laylee didn’t quite reach those heights, but it’s still a solid entry in the canon of 3D Platformers.

Lenna’s Inception (Bytten Studio)-Probably my game of the year. A 2D Zelda-style roguelike that shuffles the map and dungeons every time you play it, telling the story of a schoolteacher trying to save her students from an otherworldly force that is slowly tearing apart her world. If I were doing rankings for this group, this one would take Game of the Year.


With those out of the way, let move on to everything else:

Monday, September 28, 2020

Music Monday: Summer 2020 Playlist

It's been a while since my last playlist, but as I mentioned recently, there's been a lot of good music released lately, so I feel like this would be a good time for a comeback. Not everything on it technically came out this year since I can't listen to everything the exact moment it comes out (although I did keep it entirely to at least "modern" acts), but it is at least all stuff that I've been listening to over the spring and summer, and this is as much a time capsule for me to look back on as anything else, so it makes the cut. I've also included a few thoughts about some of the songs included below.


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Lenna's Inception Is One of the Best Games of 2020

Let’s start by getting right to the point. Playing Lenna’s Inception by Bytten Studio has been my favorite game experience of the year, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you’re at all a fan of 2D Zelda games and games like them; or enjoy things like Undertale and their style of storytelling, meta-awareness and genre commentary, and decision making, I cannot recommend this highly enough. It’s still only for computers rather than consoles at this point, but it is on both Steam and itch.io, and like with Underhero, it was a part of the massive itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality from earlier this year, so once again, if you contributed to that, you already have it!
 
I want to give people the chance to go into the experience mostly blind, as I did, because while I think learning spoilers doesn’t necessarily ruin a work of fiction, in retrospect, this is one game that I really did appreciate going in knowing relatively little other than “it’s good”. So I’ll set a warning for “minimal spoilers”, for things that you might not get out of a trailer but would get with a little bit of playtime (you know, things that are okay to read if you aren’t the type to rush out and make purchases based on my word alone), and a later one for “maximal spoilers” that discuss late-game developments (you should definitely avoid them to not ruin the surprise, and I’ll just casually reference things like you have a working knowledge of the game, so they may not even make sense anyway).
 
Let’s just start with the basics: in gameplay, Lenna’s Inception is a top-down, 2D action-adventure game in the vein of classic Legend of Zelda games*, with the added twist of being procedurally generated. I think it does this very well, and if your major concern in looking for games to play is how it feels to play, know that everything it needs to do to work succeeds in spades.
 
*Side note: I’ve never really liked this genre name, as it’s sort of vague and doesn’t do as good of a job at quickly explaining the style in a way that other genre names do, for a few reasons. And it feels like there are more of them than there used to be, between things like Blossom Tales, Reverie, and Sparklite, so a better name would be helpful. Maybe I’ll tackle this issue in its own article eventually, but for now, I’ll make do with what we have.
 
Story-wise, the setup is a bit of a send-up of the classic Zelda formula. You play as Lenna, local schoolteacher in the Kingdom of [randomized name that also serves as the seed for how your world is laid out, which is a nice touch]. One day, she steps outside of her classroom for a moment, and finds that she is unable to return because her school has become a garbled mess of glitched-out pixels (another homage, this one to the other big story inspiration, but I’ll get to that later). You seek out local hero-of-legend Lance to help return things to normal, but in typical meta-storytelling/parody tradition, things immediately go sideways, and Lenna has to take action into her own hands.
 

--minimal spoilers warning--
 

Monday, August 10, 2020

Quarantine Music Recs: SUPERBLOOM by MisterWives

I've mostly stuck to recommending video games for these quarantined times, but there's been a plethora of good music coming out these last few months as well. Maybe I'll release a short summer playlist at some point, but in the meantime, I want to give a short shout-out to one of the albums I've really liked.

MisterWives has always released music that reminds me of summer (I even included "Chasing This" from their last album on my 2017 Summer Playlist). Three years later, and they've finally released their third album, SUPERBLOOM, and it's looking like a strong contender for my Album of the Summer (which is saying a lot, given how much I've liked new entries from some of my other favorite acts, like The Naked and Famous, Neon Trees, The Midnight, Carly Rae Jepsen...).

Some of it is that MisterWives is always great at producing bright and exciting pop jams, and SUPERBLOOM definitely has its share of those, between songs like "love me true" and the title track. But there's also a deep tinge of sadness to the whole thing, which makes the whole thing feel especially well-suited to this summer, in particular.

The entire thing is pretty clearly framed around a recent break up, but entirely in retrospect. The first song on the album is literally "the end", and it moves on from there, nineteen full tracks of moving on from massive heartbreak. And consequently, the emotional arc of it is a little less straightforward. This isn't working through the five stages of grief; this is starting from the perspective of someone who is already at the acceptance stage of things, and moving on from there.

That’s not to say it’s not also still sad, or that the sadness of the breakup isn’t there, it’s just that the focus is more about moving on, processing your feelings, and trying to stay positive. The knowledge of the breakup adds a tinge of sadness to things, but it’s also framed positively, and it does feel like there’s growth over the course of the album.

It probably also helps that SUPERBLOOM covers a lot of ground; the whole thing is 19 tracks. It never feels too long, though, coming in at just over an hour despite the sheer volume of songs. And most of those are MisterWives’ usual brand of energetic, uplifting pop, which keeps the pace up.

Also notably, it feels like the musical equivalent of “pitching backwards”; rather than save most of the more downtempo songs for the back-half of the album like pop records usually do, they’re more to the front-middle here, which gives things a shot in the arm at the halfway through. And the last quarter in particular has four of my favorite songs on the album (“decide to be happy”, “muse”, plus the aforementioned “love me true” and “SUPERBLOOM”), which makes for a big bang to close out on.

Like I said, there’s been a lot of good music I’ve been listening to this summer, and maybe I’ll do a fuller playlist post later on going more in depth. And maybe my opinion will change with more listens, but for now, nothing this summer has hit me as hard as SUPERBLOOM.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

More 3D Platformer Design: Yooka-Laylee & A Return to A Hat in Time

It’s been a while since my last article on 3D Platformers, one where I looked at the level design of Gears for Breakfast’s wonderful A Hat in Time. Since then, they’ve released two new worlds as downloadable content, “The Arctic Cruise” and “Nyakuza Metro”, and finally been ported to the Switch. I recently decided to replay the game, including the new content, and at more or less the same time, I finally got around to trying Playtonic Games’ Yooka-Laylee (which, for those not in the know, first got note for being a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie series from the Nintendo 64, made by many alumni from those titles). Playing them back to back gave me a lot of thoughts on both, and 3D platformers on the whole, so it seemed like a good time to revisit my last article.