The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

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, and like with Underhero, it was a part of the massive 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.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Quarantine Game Recs: Murder By Numbers

I’ve written before about my interest in video games that mash-up different genres and the interesting results that it can yield. Today’s mini-recommendation revisits that topic, with Murder by Numbers by developers Mediatonic (another title that I played on Switch, with a PC version available on Steam as well).

I haven’t covered it as much as some other things, but I’m a huge fan of Picross/Nonagram games. My gold standard for the series has long been Jupiter’s Picross S, which are sort of the platonic ideal of the format. The user interface is intuitive, there are a variety of modes and extra features, the puzzles are solid, and generally, they’re just all around well-executed games.

But they’re also extremely straightforward: if you want no-frills logic puzzles, you get no-frills logic puzzles. Granted, that’s not nothing! Plenty of other games try to offer that same thing, but don’t produce a Picross experience that’s as well-polished as Jupiter’s games. But it seems like something that one could easily build upon by combining it with something more than just super-refined Picross gameplay. I’ve seen a few games attempt that, but so far, Murder By Numbers is by far my favorite implementation of that idea.

The idea is pretty simple, although there are a few clever touches that add to the overall game. It’s a combination of mystery visual novels and adventure games with Picross puzzles, where one of your (amateur) detectives is a robot with a faulty visual processor. You look in the field for clues that serve as your items to use, but the robot needs to “decipher” what it’s seeing, by way of you solving the puzzle. It’s a really elegant explanation on a lot of levels (“Why do I need to “solve” the thing I’m looking at? Why is it so blocky?” etc.).

Of course, the biggest of those levels that it succeeds is the most basic one as well. It’s not really a secret that many detective games have a pretty major flaw, in that an investigation is a massive, open-ended thing, and it’s hard to map that onto a full range of choices for the player, particularly in a way that doesn’t also guide them to an answer.* It’s not something that totally ruins the genre, but it is a notable quirk that regularly pops up. I don’t know that Murder by Numbers totally solves that issue; it is entirely possible for you to figure out the solution to a case well before your detectives do, for instance.

*For those wishing for a more in-depth look at this and how other games have tackled it (to varying success), Game Makers’ Toolkit of course has a good episode on the issue.

But I do think it does a few things to help cover this issue. Part of it is, of course, going for a narrative justification. Honor and S.C.O.U.T., the detective duo of the game, are amateurs tackling a whodunit out of necessity rather than any sort of training or interest, and you’re very clearly guiding around these existing characters rather than inserting yourself into the player character role. That narrative justification… doesn’t totally solve or excuse the issue, but it does prime the player to be a little more receptive of things

The other trick, though, is more interesting, I think. Essentially, Murder By Numbers presents the player with in-game actions that operate on a symbolic level for the thing they’re standing in for, sort of like a Metaphorical Mechanic. For example, whodunit stories operate on some level with logical deduction; you take the separate pieces you have, fit them together based on what you know, and slowly, the explanation takes shape.

And that’s why Picross puzzles make for a genius stand-in, as a game mechanic: it’s a literal example of the same process. The puzzles give you a grid and a set of numbers telling you how many of the squares need to be filled in, and whether there are any gaps between them. Slowly by surely, you use logic to fill in squares and mark out gaps in some lines, which gives you a rough outline, which you can then use to get a more defined picture in other lines, and so on, a feedback loop based on all of the random data you’re presented at the start.

There are other ways the game’s systems line up with detective stories, too. For example, you find the evidence puzzles by doing sweeps of the crime scene visually, with a sensor indicating whether you’re close. And 100% completion of the game relies on finding every clue. So thoroughness is rewarded, and the easiest way to ensure that thoroughness is developing a systematic, comprehensive search of each scene, and being sure to check those scenes regularly to see if new context has made any new clues stand out. It might sound exhausting, but the developers did a good job of balancing things, so no one scene is too overwhelming in size, and there are also additional UI tells you come to expect to let you know when you’re done with a region. Once again, being able to observe the small details as a detective would is a plus.

There are other nice things about combining the two styles of games, too. Tying the puzzles to a story progression allows for a nice sense of forward progress that some purer Picross games lack. Sometimes, when playing the latter, I’ll find myself zoning out and just doing puzzle after puzzle, even when I’m no longer in the mood to keep playing them, just because the end of one puzzle and the start of the next can just bleed into each other, one endless string of filling out rows and columns. I never had that in Murder By Numbers, as there’s a pretty clear ebb and flow to the scenes that makes it clear when you can take a break and come back later.

It also helps that the non-Picross half of the game is a good, pulpy whodunit mystery serial of a visual novel that can stand on its own. The setup is simple: S.C.O.U.T. is a robot who wakes up in a Hollywood dump with no memories. He seeks out Honor, co-star of a popular network murder mystery series, thinking she’s a real detective who can help him rather than an actor. But the pair suddenly ends up being forced into solving real murder mysteries when Honor’s showrunner inexplicably fires her and immediately turns up dead.

The game is pretty clearly modeled after the type of show Honor stars in, subdivived into four episodes where the duo of new partners show up at places just after some murder has taken place and deciding to find clues and question suspects to piece together what happened (as well as find a few other clues pointing to a larger overall mystery). I don’t know that it will win over non-fans of the genre, but if you like this type of story, Murder By Numbers knows what it’s doing and executes the style well.

It helps that the character design and art direction are both pretty strong as well, with a distinctive cartoon style and a nice blend of archetypes and characters quirks for the former, and a period 1990s aesthetic that’s apparent yet tastefully understated for the latter. The music also leans into that era, with a smooth jazz-inspired soundtrack that’s a little cheesy, but I still appreciated it (especially in the context of soundtracks for other Picross games or similar titles, which often get repetitive much quicker than this one).

In all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Murder By Numbers. The game ends on a sequel hook, and its genre and episodic format would make it well suited to more entries, so I would be excited to see this become a recurring series. It’s certainly a bright spot amongst the sea of Picross video games out there, and worth checking out.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Quarantine Game Recs: Underhero

In my first Quarantine Game Rec back in May covering One Step from Eden, I discussed orphaned game mechanics and gave a whole bunch of examples, many of which were unrelated to the subject. One of those examples I namedropped was the original Paper Mario*, with Underhero being named as a successor to the mantle. As it turns out, that was what we like to call “foreshadowing”, because it’s the game that I’m covering today.

*Which, funny enough, has gotten a new sequel announced that looks much closer to the original two games in the month and a half since I wrote that.

Underhero is the debut game of studio Paper Castle Games. I played it on Switch, but it’s available for PC, Mac, and all game systems (and, in fact, if you chipped in for the recent Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, it was included in there as well!).

And, as I alluded to, it’s a sort-of platformer-slash-RPG, with the notable twist on the formula being that the battles trade the normal turn-based system for a more free style approach, where you and your foes are limited solely by your stamina bar. You can attack or dodge only as long as you have the energy to; do too many things and you’ll be helpless until it recharges, with successful dodges speeding up the process. It means that you need to learn to properly balance the two elements while not strictly limiting you by a turn counter, which makes for an interesting dynamic.

Of course, for as interesting as the battle system was, that wasn’t my favorite element of the game. No, the single biggest draw for me was the writing, which was clever and amusing at every level, from the broad concepts to the minute-to-minute banter.

Let’s start at that broad overview: you play as a Masked Kid, a Shy Guy-like minion in the army of the evil Mr. Stitches (who has a great villain design for an evil overlord, I might add, with an iconic “burlap puppet being piloted by shadowy evil core” feel). You’re not even a particular memorable Masked Kid, just number 745.

Of course, it turns out that what actually sets your Masked Kid apart is that they dare to ask the hard questions in life, like “why fight the Hero of Legend directly when we can just drop a chandelier on him while he’s distracted?”, which leads to you successfully offing him. Of course, that just catches the attention of Mr. Stitches, who can’t stop being creepy even when he’s treating you as his newly-promoted assistant.

This leads to Stitches sending you on a mission that is ostensibly to return the magical artifacts to the Boss Monsters of his army in preparation for the inevitable next hero, but there’s clearly something deeper going on. And further complicating matters is that you have wound up in possession of Elizabeth IV, the magical talking sword of the late hero, who is adamant that you take up the late hero’s quest to overthrow the tyrannical grasp of Lord Stitches.

And, as far as short pitches go, that’s a pretty fun set up for a game. There’s a pretty clear “juggling of dual lives” conflict that Paper Castle is great at milking for comedy and drama. And really, that applies to most aspects of the game; it’s great at taking the broad tropes of other games and crafting them into something recognizable, yet also recognizing the potential for adding their own unique twists to make them into something more interesting.

One of the more common ways it does that drilling down into those common tropes even more to come up with unique ideas, either by looking at the mundane side of the fantastical, or looking for silly twists on genre conventions. For example, the main hub world is the backside of a traditional video game “Final World” level, complete with minion break room, cafeteria, and service elevators to both the boss’s lair and generic apartment complex for minor enemies. Or the main buddy duo being taken to an extreme, consisting of a jaded, sarcastic, but still all-in mentor and a cowardly, semi-reluctant protégé, who happen to also contrast in that one is an extremely talkative sword who can only instruct you, and the other is your expressive, yet still totally mute Masked Kid minion.

The other surprise Underhero uses is a gradual change in its genre. It starts out as a sort of “heroic quest buddy comedy”, and it takes the main happenings largely seriously even if the characters engaging in it are a little goofy. In that way, it also inherits a lot from Paper Mario; like, it was always still a Mario game with bright visuals and a colorful supporting cast, but in the end, they still wanted you to take the threat of Bowser (or whoever took over his role as the final villain) seriously. Same here; chatting with a lost moth minion at the local bar, or frat bro ghosts desperate to end their patrol and go party, or a nerdy shark on a Segway , or whoever else about their problems is good fun, but at the end, you still have to do something about the looming horror that is Mr. Stitches and his plan to take over the world.

And like many other things, it even plays that in an unexpected, original direction. As more and more big questions pile up, Underhero never loses its sense of humor, but does move from a “big epic adventure” tone to more of a conspiracy thriller. And you know what? They do a really good job with it! Wanting to figure out where it was going, what secrets they were hiding, Mr. Stitches’s ultimate evil plans, it all worked. And there’s enough there that it never feels like it’s being done for the sake of it; you can even pick up on a lot of the twists, or at least the general direction of where they’re going. There were several times where I said “Wait, we haven’t dealt with this dangling plot thread for a bit,” right before it was brought up and explained more. That’s a good sign that the writers did a good job of foreshadowing their ideas.

So yeah, if any of this sounds interesting, I can’t recommend picking up Underhero enough! I loved every minute of it, and I’m looking forward to whatever Paper Castle Games does next. There are a few more elements of Underhero that I want to discuss, but they’re all extremely spoiler heavy, so I want to give anyone who hasn’t played it yet a chance to duck out and try it first. If you’re ready for discussion of the end of the game, feel free to check in after the skip.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Quarantine Game Rec: Super Mega Baseball 3

(This post is also up over at The Crawfish Boxes and Hot Corner Harbor, since it's both baseball and video games.)

I think there’s a real art to making fun, arcade-y baseball video games. Maybe it’s because my first baseball video game was Backyard Baseball. Maybe it’s because I can sometimes get a little intense with more in-depth simulations, like Out of the Park Baseball (although it also does fill a different niche as a game, coming more from the management simulation side of things). Some of it is probably experience in my younger days that some “official” games relied on carrying MLB’s license to move units rather than actually fun gameplay; when you’re designing things as a game first rather than a marketing opportunity, you have to be sure the game is fun enough to stand on its own without official MLB names and logos. For instance, both Backyard Baseball and Out of the Park began without official licenses, making use of fictional players and teams in their initial entries.

And on top of that, there’s an added difficulty in making games that are not just fun, but also intuitive to pick up and play for most people; there are a lot of things going on in baseball, and sometimes, in trying to adapt every single aspect for fidelity, you end up with a complicated heap of systems for the player to memorize before they feel like they have a handle on things. Backyard Baseball was great at this for a while; growing up, I could even sometimes get my dad to play it, when more official and complex titles would frustrate him.

Of course, with Backyard Baseball more or less dead as a series, and Out of the Park doing something different entirely, I had been looking for something to fill this void. MLB’s recent video game efforts have been extremely lackluster, in all honesty. Most of their attempts at easy-to-pick-up-and-play baseball games have left a lot to be desired. MLB: The Show is a solid series, but still on the more complicated side of things, and even that has been a Playstation exclusive for the better part of a decade, leaving a lot of people (myself included, since I’ve usually focused on Nintendo systems and PC) totally out of luck. Which is why I was really excited to find the Super Mega Baseball series a few years ago.

From Canadian-based developer Metalhead Software, Super Mega Baseball was released in late 2014 to high acclaim; the sequel, Super Mega Baseball 2, came out in 2018. And the newest version, Super Mega Baseball 3 released just last month (currently available on Steam and all three major consoles-I’ve been playing the Switch version, thanks to a review copy from the developers); both sequels have been similarly well-received.

And for good reason! I’ve been playing since the first one, which was fun but also clearly a first try at the subject. The modes were a little bare-bones, and the look had style but lacked polish. But what it absolutely had, though, was a smoothness to the play, which has held through to every sequel. It felt like the game was designed from the question “What would be the most natural way for a video game to imitate baseball?”, rather than “What’s everything that can happen in a baseball game, and then what buttons do we assign each of those to?”. That’s a small difference, but it absolutely comes through when you’re playing the games.

The first game you play in each gives you a little popup of each element as it’s introduced, broken down to the one or two main ideas you need to grasp to play the game. After a few innings, more advanced ideas will come up. And because of that design philosophy, none of the individual elements is overwhelming by itself, allowing you one or tries to implement the straightforward, basic ideas it’s giving you before iterating.

Another related thing that I noticed was that Super Mega Baseball, as a series, has done a better job at capturing fielding than most of its predecessors; growing up, it felt like you either had games that slowed down the action substantially to make it more natural for your average non-baseball player to react to; or they wanted you to have the reactions of a baseball player, but from an omniscient third-person, home plate camera. SMB splits the difference, giving you a moment of Matrix-esque Bullet Time to let you get the proper jump, then speeds back up accordingly. Also helping to smooth things out is better AI than the old games, and difficulty that allows you to set different aspects to different levels according to what you find easiest.

(Of course, the improved AI also allows extra challenge for an arcade-style baseball game, with hitters picking up on your pitching patterns if you get too repetitive or pitchers learning to throw you junk outside the zone if you get frustrated and just start chasing everything, like I do on my bad days.)

Even if you’re not sure about it because you don’t often play games or don’t have great reactions, it may still be feasible. As I mentioned earlier, when I was growing up, my dad (who was a huge baseball fan, but not nearly as familiar with video games) often couldn’t follow more complicated, “realistic” baseball games, but was able to occasionally pick up the more arcade-style ones. When I played the game while visiting home over the holidays, he saw me playing Super Mega Baseball 2 on my Switch one afternoon and was substantially more interested (and not nearly as lost) as when I played, say, MVP Baseball growing up. Of course, while the easiest levels are extremely accessible, the upper end of the difficulties is still challenging (admittedly, I still have not reached those peak difficulty yet, three games and dozens of hours in).

Of course, from the skeleton the first game established, subsequent editions have added more and more to flesh the series out. New modes, like online play, or new features, like increased customization options, have gradually expanded the series. The big new one in 3 is the long-awaited franchise mode, which I’ve been enjoying so far; Metalhead’s version of the format allows their fictitious rosters to get in the fun. Seasons can be chained together, players can improve or decline, rosters can turnover, and so forth. I had enjoyed playing through seasons in SMB2, but I missed having the roster management elements and sense of progression, so SMB3 has basically filled in the last remaining hole in the series’ lineup.

Outside of that, I’m especially fond of the series’ pretty deep options for building custom teams. Sure, they don’t have an MLB license, but you can build your own version of your hometown favorites (or, if doing that from scratch seems too overwhelming, there are plenty of resources to base your work off of, thanks to the game’s fantastic community).

I do especially appreciate the degree of creativity the customization allows for. Especially given their distinctive cartoon art style that they’ve honed over the years, which allows for caricatures of real players to square off seamlessly against more fantastic options like, say, Wolverine and the X-Men.

And with that art style have also come a dozen-plus original, picturesque stadiums that combine recognizable, real-world elements into unique and memorable locations. And while I’m talking about the game’s creative side, I really appreciate Metalhead’s decision to load the game with as many silly jokes as they could fit, from punny or goofy player names (like ace Manny Kays, or batters Liane Drive or “Downtown” Upton) to ads on the stadium walls that are just a bit off from what you’d see in the real world (like ones for Pyramid Investments in the New York and LA-inspired stadiums, or the one for Chewing Gumbo in the New Orleans-inspired Lafayette Corner).

In all, Super Mega Baseball 3 is the culmination of what this series has been improving to so far, and the total package. Simply put, if you don’t own a PlayStation, SMB3 is the uncontested king of the hill when it comes to baseball games, and even if you own PlayStation and MLB: The Show, it’s still a good enough game that it can stand on its own, different enough to justify a place beside it (and arguably more fun overall, given the greater ease in adjusting to it). And given that it’s available on the Switch, thereby making it portable, it’s pretty far and away the best portable baseball video game ever released, the type of thing ten-year-old me dreamed about. If any of that sounds interesting to you, definitely check it out!