The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

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!

Friday, May 22, 2020

Quarantine Game Recs: A Fold Apart

My second quarantine game recommendation isn’t quite as long as my first one*, but then again, there’s not really a weird concept like “orphaned game mechanics” that I need to explain. Instead, A Fold Apart by Lightning Rod Games is a straightforward puzzle platformer that executes its simple yet complexly multilayered idea to perfection.

*Although in a lot of ways, One Step From Eden does feel kind of like the exact opposite of A Fold Apart; they just both execute their different visions extremely well.

It starts at the basic conceptual level; the game’s set up is that each level is a piece of paper, where you need to get your character from the starting point to the ending point. Your options to do so are limited, though: you can only walk your character along the path and conquer small height differences. To help cross larger obstacles, you can manipulate the level like an actual piece of paper (to the point where, when I got stuck, I could experiment with a real piece of paper to help me think through it) with various folds and flips. It feels like a simple and obvious idea, but I certainly don’t know of any other games that have tried it, and the puzzles get pretty tricky and creative.

And if it were just that, it would be a pretty solid game; a creative gameplay idea and well-built puzzles making good use of that idea are a strong core. Of course, you can also build off of it to something more, which is the route A Fold Apart takes. The entire game’s art style builds off this paper theme, using an art style that feels like a cross between papercraft art and Pixar-style computer animation, filled with strong, bright color palettes, and it’s extremely appealing to look at.

The story is what ties it all together, though. It’s an extremely intimate portrayal of a romantic couple (genders of your choosing) beginning a long-distance phase of their relationship, and you use the levels to walk them through all the issues that will come up. There’s the sanguine, outgoing teacher Red, and the more melancholic, studious Blue who accepts a prestigious one-year architectural opening some distance away. The pair continue with their normal conversations via messaging, but challenges that come with a lack of in-person contact and general uncertainty in their shared future casts serious questions about what would normally be minor aspects.

The writing is extremely solid in its application, presenting a realistic look at the challenges that arise. With only two characters to focus on, each one gets a lovingly detailed portrayal; you really get a sense for what makes these characters tick. And the disagreements that come up don’t feel at all contrived in the way that misunderstandings in relationships often can be in fiction.

Each set up gives you a clear sense of where the conflict will arise, thanks to your fleshed-out understanding of the characters’ desires and needs. You see a text that you know is well-intentioned, playful banter, and can tell how the sender meant it while viewing their side of the narrative. But you also know their partner’s unspoken insecurities through their levels and monologues, so the small remarks that will cut them the deepest and send them into a spiral instantly stand out in a way that will make you shudder a little as you read them, even before there’s time for the characters to react.

It really is a well-rendered portrait. After a while, it almost feels mean; I joked while in the moment that it felt like I was driving my protagonists to mental anguish just to play more puzzles. But it’s not just the desire for more levels that drives you forward, but also the hope that they’ll finally both be able to talk candidly about their fears and wants, and work to help each other through their current situation, hopefully reuniting in the end.

And of course, there’s all of the extra layers of meaning. Paper works as an apt metaphor for the two sides of the relationship, with the characters feeling on the same page in what they want but unable to see each other eye-to-eye. And there’s some flexibility involved to bridge that gap, bringing the two sides together; origami and papercraft really are perfect metaphors for the story, in addition to being a fun mechanic to play around with.

If there’s a downside, it’s that the game is a little on the short side, but better to leave you wanting more than overstay your welcome. So if any of this sounds interesting, I’d definitely recommend checking out A Fold Apart.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Quarantine Game Recs: One Step From Eden

I’ve been playing more video games than normal thanks to sheltering in place, and it makes for a good topic to discuss during times where many other things are cancelled, so I figured: why not write up recommendations for some of my favorite games I’ve played while in quarantine? Today’s entry is One Step From Eden by Thomas Moon Kang, a Kickstarter project that finally released in back March. So far, it’s been one of my favorite releases of 2020.

One thing I’ve thought about a decent amount is “orphaned” series and their gameplay; that is, major game series that try new game mechanics and formats, but later abandon them, meaning they just...aren’t seen again. Like, sure there are plenty of games where you play as Mario and run and jump on platforms. That will never change. But every now and then, those major series will try a spinoff or something, and those formats are less likely to stick.

For instance, I (like many other people) am a big fan of the first two Paper Mario games, spinoffs from the main Mario series. The second title was a nice expansion on the original entry, but from the third game on, Nintendo went in a radically different direction, and nothing since has really hit in the same way. Anyone wanting more of that was out of luck.

Sometimes with these orphaned spinoff series, if you’re lucky, you’ll see a revival, like Luigi’s Mansion, which took over a decade to release a second entry. Or maybe the company will make spiritual successors that are at least somewhat similar, like Sega moving on from Sonic Riders’ hoverboard racing games to more standard kart racer. But often, these ideas can also end up just as orphaned as smaller series; ask anyone still waiting for sequels to, say, Pokémon Snap or Diddy Kong Racing.

This has been one of the biggest areas for indie games to explore, in my opinion, since most of these ideas still have room to grow and explore. For instance, I’m partially convinced that the boom in 2-D Metroidvania indie titles is in part due to Nintendo’s seeming hesitance to continue the semititular series.* If Nintendo wasn’t sure where to go with new ideas for the series, plenty of other fans were ready to step in with their own interpretations. Other orphaned subseries and mechanics have seen their own revivals (for another example, the original Paper Mario’s influence lives on in titles like Underhero and Bug Fables).

*For reference, the last five 2-D Metroid games have been: 2017’s Samus Returns (a remake), 2010’s Other M, 2004’s Zero Mission (another remake), 2002’s Fusion, and 1994’s Super Metroid.
One game mechanic like this that I grew up with was Mega Man Battle Network’s battle system, where you moved your character around a grid throwing attacks at an opponent on the other side of the screen. It was really interesting, but when the series petered out shortly before the 2010s began, there really wasn’t anything to work with those ideas anymore, making it ripe for someone to take and re-invent.

And that’s where One Step From Eden comes into the picture. Taking inspiration from the old Battle Network series, it improves and expands on the battle system and transforms it into a wonderful new experience.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Building a Backyard Baseball 2020 Roster

It's a video game, so I'm linking to it here as well, but I wrote another modern re-imagining of the Backyard Baseball roster over at Hot Corner Harbor and The Crawfish Boxes. Go check it out!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

2019 Game Recommendation Round Up

Sure, it's early March, but I wanted to give stuff I played at the end of the year a chance, so here we are.

I wrote several things about video games I played in 2019 over the course of the year. There was my review of Alwa’s Awakening, a solid little Metroidvania title (and I’m excited for Eiden Pixel’s sequel, Alwa’s Legacy, which should be coming later this year). In other Metroidvania writing, I took more of a narrative approach in breaking down Lunar Ray Games’ Timespinner. I looked at Brace Yourself Games’ Crypt of the Necrodancer follow-up, Cadence of Hyrule. If you like music games like that, there was also my recent review of Simogo’s Sayonara Wild Hearts. And that’s not even counting my articles of things I played prior to 2019 that only went up this year, like my look at Wandersong, or my three-title look at genre mash-ups. (And even older than that, I wrote about A Hat in Time from Gears for Breakfast over two years ago, which came up again this year thanks to a new level releasing back in May and a new Nintendo Switch port dropping last October).

But that still only wound up being a small slice of things I played in 2019. So I wanted to do some quick wrap-ups on other good things I saw last year; maybe I’ll come back later and write more about one or more of these if the right idea takes me, but for now, I want to at least give them a shout-out.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Indie Game Recs: Sayonara Wild Hearts

2019 was a great year for video game soundtracks. I already covered the Crypt of the Necrodancer spinoff Cadence of Hyrule a few months ago. I also finally got around to trying Lumines Remastered, a puzzle game that also makes the soundtrack part of the gameplay, and enjoyed that (although not quite as much as Meteos). And while less integrated into the gameplay, the Pokémon series, which has always put out great soundtracks, hit their strongest one in a while (in my opinion) with Sword and Shield. Similarly with Waypoint, a company that always has good music, and their new game River City Girls (although it integrates into the game in a cute meta way when you fight the soundtrack vocalist as a character in the game). And this isn’t getting into a few other music games that I didn’t get around to, like Ape Out or Songbird Symphony.

We truly were spoiled this year, but for my money, none of them take home the Best Music of the Year award. That honor belongs to Simogo’s Sayonara Wild Hearts, a masterpiece of a game with an absolutely killer soundtrack courtesy of Daniel Olsén, Jonathan Eng, and Linnea Olsson. And thanks to that music, it was one of my favorite games of the year.

Sayonara Wild Hearts is a game that is both stunning in its ambitions, yet also incredibly straightforward in conception. You might be familiar with the idea of visual albums, musical albums with video aspects added to them. Simogo took that idea and extended that into their specialty of game design: what if that visual aspect was instead a series of video game levels that you played through? It would almost be shocking that the idea isn’t more common, until you remember that it requires the effort of making both an entire album and an entire video game, and keeping it all cohesive (although it would be amazing to see others attempt it!)

Like most concept albums, Sayonara has an overarching narrative, steeped in big, sweeping, metaphors and abstraction and with most of the specifics up to player interpretation. This tale focuses on a young girl who experiences a heart break so profound that it ties her to a cosmic struggle for universal harmony between the forces of good and evil, represented by tarot card arcana. Thus, she becomes The Fool, the masked, swashbuckling hero charged with fighting the representations of the evil arcana (who may or may not be representations of her former lovers).

That’s really the main framework of the story, with most of the details told via the level designs and songs for the player to pick up on and work into their understanding of the narrative. It really is impressive how much story you can draw out of the three aspects put together, given how little of it is made explicit, and it makes building a personal interpretation out of all of that extremely fun.

The levels each serve as sorts of "music videos", with your character constantly running through different absolutely gorgeous environments and picking up different heart icons to score points. The level design mentioned mostly comes through both the placement of collectibles and obstacles, which often serve as accents on the musical accompaniment in cute ways, and Sayonara's impeccable aesthetic sense. Each level is a tightly choreographed (sometimes-literal) ballet of motorcycle chases, fistfights, acrobatic stunts, and more, against backdrops like neon-technicolor cities and surreal forest-raves; the actions and environments become more building blocks setting up the game's story, open to their own interpretation. But even if they weren't, they'd all be beautiful enough to check out on their own.

The levels themselves are rather short, as they correspond directly to the songs. Most fall in the 1-2 minute range, with longer levels coming out to more of a traditional pop-song length (and usually serving as boss stages of sorts). And the game itself isn't too long, and can be completed in under an hour. Of course, that's not too much of a problem, since the game is at once an album and an arcade game. Each level is infinitely re-playable as you try and outdo your best score, and the game stays interesting for as long as you still enjoy the soundtrack. I've played through it essentially three times at this point just as a function of wanting to re-listen to it, and I can see myself continuing to do so.

And oh, that soundtrack! Olsén is a wizard with synths, with complex layers filling out lush orchestrations to further build out the worlds shown in the levels. They all feel so propulsive and energetic that I can't imagine them accompanying anything but The Fool's constant forward movement, and yet, all of them feel like they could just as equally serve as dance tracks. Laser Love might be my favorite such example.

The pop songs bring in Eng on lyrics, and he writes perfect mood pieces to underscore the actions on-screen. They walk the fine line of filling in details to make the songs reflect a distinct experience, while also remaining universal in the feelings they convey. And Olsson's vocals are just perfect, ethereal to match the surreal world of Wild Hearts while also carrying intense emotion, driving home the heartbreaks and triumphs. Her voice reminds me a lot of Lauren Mayberry (lead singer of CHVRCHES), which I mean as the highest praise. To get a picture of how it all comes together, just take a look at the first "boss level", Begin Again, a story of preparing to move past a doomed romance set to an extended chase scene through a town known as Hatehell Valley. That sort of heightened emotion is the backbone of Sayonara Wild Hearts, and it really sells every minute of it.

I could go on about this game for ages, but I really just want to treat it as a short but strong recommendation. So if any part of this review sounds interesting, definitely pick up Sayonara Wild Hearts. It really feels like a genuinely interesting burst of creativity and ideas, the start of something genuinely new, on top of just being a stellar pop album, and I love it for that.