The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

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!


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Celeste Perfectly Unites Story, Theme, and Gameplay

Continuing my ongoing attempt to highlight and analyze amazing indie games (especially those on the Switch), I would like to discuss one of the year’s best titles, Celeste by Matt Makes Games (previously of Towerfall fame*). For anyone curious, I played the Switch version, but it’s available on pretty much any platform you’d want to play it on.

*Which, it was recently announced, is itself coming to the Switch at the end of September, if you haven’t tried it yet and are looking for an excuse; it’s wonderful in its own right!

Celeste is a rare beast, a game that is mechanically tight, incredibly well-designed level-wise, and fun to play while also being an incredibly moving narrative and thematic experience. For those who haven’t heard of it yet, the premise is pretty simple: a girl named Madeline arrives at a remote peak (the titular Celeste Mountain), looking to escape some sort of (initially undefined) personal trauma by climbing it. Along the way, she meets a variety of figures that aid her in her journey, with the entire story rendered in some simple-yet-beautiful pixel art graphics, and with one of my favorite game soundtracks supporting the whole thing.

The game is an incredibly tough platformer, challenging players in a variety of ways while also being one of the more forgiving games of its kind. Save points are frequent in the normal course of a level and carry through between sessions, and on top of that, the game has a variety of options to tweak the challenge in almost any way imaginable so that anyone can feel comfortable playing it, regardless of whether or not you’re the type of person who can beat a classic Mario game in ten minutes. That in and of itself is pretty notable; Game Makers Toolkit has more on these features, which is definitely a worth a watch.

If you’re at all curious about it and want to go in unspoiled of the deeper plot details, I would absolutely recommend trying it! From here on out, I’ll be getting pretty deep into the nitty-gritty of the story.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King Is an Interesting Indie Homage to 2D Zelda Games

A big part of my love for the Nintendo Switch is that it’s a platform highly conducive to indie games. Sure, the big titles like Super Mario Odyssey and Splatoon 2 are incredibly fun, but they’re only part of the experience. Smaller titles like Battle Chef Brigade or Crypt of the NecroDancer or Celeste (more on this one coming soon) have comprised a large chunk of my playing time as well. I like that Nintendo has begun to do more to showcase these titles, which often wear their inspiration from earlier Nintendo games on their sleeve, and Nintendo’s support has made the Switch all the more attractive for independent studios.*

*This isn’t to say that it’s perfect; in fact, I have a lot of opinions on how they can improve their support for these types of games. But it definitely beats the system that’s in place for indie games on, say, Steam, which appears to be “approve everything, and then release something constantly with no notice”.
One of the big success stories from this set up has been Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King from developer Castle Pixel. The game did well enough on Switch to keep the company open after it got lost in the massive shuffle on Steam. It’s not hard to see why it likely resonated with Nintendo fans, though: the game is a clear love letter to the 2-D Legend of Zelda games and others like them. A Link to the Past, in particular, is a clear influence, which is a big part of what convinced me to pick up the game initially; ALttP was my introduction to the Zelda series, the one I’ve played through the most, and still probably my personal favorite entry.

And Blossom Tales definitely feels like playing it’s inspiration, which took me through a weird roller coaster of emotions while playing the game that I wanted to break down because of how unusual they felt. Castle Pixel has done a great job in making a game that feels cozy and familiar, but bright and new simultaneously. The Kingdom of Blossom is a pleasant place to explore, filled with diverse locales to discover; large enough to feel satisfying, but with a helpful and tastefully-restrained fast travel system that hits the fine balance of making reaching every last corner not feel like a chore, but also not making it feel like you’re just skipping by the entire map. The story is pretty straightforward, but with an added Princess Bride-esque framing device of a grandfather telling his children of the adventures of new knight Lilly, which is both charming and a useful reminder of what to do when you pick the game back up.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Remembering Meteos: A Retrospective

The other day, there were plenty of people on social media who were discussing their “Gamestruck 4”. For those who missed it, the inspiration for the conversation was the day before, when movie streaming service Filmstruck started a hastag asking people for to name the four films that “defined them”. From there, other people began applying the thinking to other mediums, hence “Gamestruck 4”.

With that background out of the way, I decided to think about it some. Video games have been a large part of my life, so which four could be the ones that most “defined” me, whatever that meant? There were a lot of contenders. Super Mario World, as the first video game I played, was a starting point. I’ve probably put more hours into the Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart series than any other games. I’ve written about my love for series like Mario, Pokémon, and Backyard Baseball in the past, all of which had major impacts on my formative years. There are more modern titles that remind me of why I love the medium, like Super Mario Odyssey, A Hat in Time, and Undertale (which I’ve wanted to write about for years, but still have no idea where to even start). Or, I could pick games that are highly representative of genres I like, or which line up with my aesthetic tastes.

There were some interesting titles there, some of which included games that I hadn’t thought about for years. Golden Sun was a big one, an old Game Boy Advanced RPG with a sprawling fantasy epic at its core centered on a group of magic users traveling the world. I spent a lot of time on that one, but of course, I already had a potential RPG representative in Pokémon. Then, there’s games like Tetris and Tetris Attack; I love puzzle games, but especially ones like that.* But what about something that could combine those aspects?

*I have no idea what the official subgenre name is. “Match Three Games” seems like the style, but name that doesn’t really apply to Tetris. Wikipedia suggests “Tile Matching”, which seems the most accurate even if I’ve never heard it used before. Of course, I’m also fond of my mostly-buzzword-yet-technically-not-wrong descriptor, “rougelike puzzle games with permadeath”. 

And that’s when I remembered Meteos.

For those who weren’t fortunate enough to try it, Meteos was a 2005 Nintendo DS puzzle game created by Q Entertainment (and under the design lead of the brilliant Masahiro Sakurai, of Super Smash Bros and Kirby fame) in the same genre as Tetris. But whereas Tetris felt (to young me, at least) like something basic and ancient, even primal, that had always existed in some form or another*, Meteos felt distinctly new.

*And to be fair to young me, Tetris predated me by nearly a decade, so it was pretty close.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Few Criticisms of Avengers: Infinity War

I’m just going to cut straight to the point: I don’t think necessarily think Avengers: Infinity War is a bad movie. I enjoyed myself watching it in some capacity, which is ultimately what Marvel Studios was going for. But it was a certain type of movie, the kind where, as I’m watching it, I start thinking of all the ways it could have been better. So with that, I figured I’d give the few most significant changes I think would have improved the third Avengers film. As a warning, if you haven’t seen Infinity War yet and you’re concerned about spoiling the movie for yourself, maybe hold off, because I’m going to cover some major plot points.