Teslamancing the Wii U with Teslagrad

So Teslagrad is out on the Wii U, and everything I said about the PC version applies to the port. The gameplay, like the audiovisuals, seems like something you’ve seen a hundred times before until you look a little closer. Then you see that it’s got far more Metroidvania DNA than your average Braid-alike, and that it draws more from cel animation and rotoscope than from the painterly and/or pixelated aesthetics usually associated with indie games. It’s something quietly and subtly special, this game.

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There’s a real intimacy to playing Teslagrad on the Wii U Gamepad, and a real joy to seeing it next to Shovel Knight on the Wii U Menu—a celebration of platform games’ twitchy, adventurous origins, sitting next to a prime example of the lush, contemplative places the genre has gone since.

Also worth noting: Achievement descriptions served as Teslagrad’s only textual exposition on PC, and so the Wii U’s lack of achievements allows the game to double down on its wordlessness. Which is just fine by me. Say what you will about Nintendo’s frequently antediluvian online infrastructure, but it can be refreshing to play a game that functions simply as a game—as an experience solely for you, the player—rather than an implicit social performance.

Here’s a port that plays to most of the Wii U’s strengths and is unhampered by most of its weaknesses, and more importantly, a game that is every bit as worthy of your attention as it was last year.

Highly Competetive Nonsense in Gang Beasts

It’s so clever, because it’s so dumb, the idea behind Gang Beasts: Take the isometric arena brawling of Power Stone 2 (complete with environmental hazards) and make the combatants little ineffectual Play-Doh people, punching and pummeling, lifting each other up and tossing all comers off to oblivion.

It’s like if Octodad were a character in Super Smash Bros. Or if you could play QWOP competitively.

That’s the real magic: Taking the wonky-controls-as-comedy genre and applying it to a competitive multiplayer setting. Two to eight players, just sort of flopping around and bumping into one another, but doing so with a certain undeniable seriousness. This is absurd, but even so, I’m clearly better at it than you are and furthermore I’m going to prove it.

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Gang Beasts is an Early Access title, published by DoubleFine, and it should be said that it’s in a much earlier state than, say, DoubleFine’s own Hack ‘n’ Slash. The game is undeniably in alpha, rough around basically all of its edges, with menus that need work, sometimes-dodgy framerates, and lack of variety in characters and settings.

If you can look past that, though, there’s already tremendous fun to be had if you can wrangle some friends and get them into the spirit—not too hard with my group of friends, but your mileage may vary. The old alpha version is still free if you’d like to give it a shot without committing to the vagaries of Early Access.

I daresay this is one to watch. Straightforward as Nidhogg and dead-serious about its sillier-than-hell core mechanic, Gang Beasts has the potential to become a fixture at right-thinking parties everywhere. Bring it on.

The Joyously Disorderly World of Super Time Force Ultra

All videogames are about time travel, kind of. They’re about the strangeness of repeating or overlapping timelines. They’re about going back again and again until you get it right.

Dark Souls and The Stanley Parable both address the existential dread lurking behind that idea—the idea that we live in a disorderly and mutable universe, or else in an absolutely preordained universe whose strange mechanics we can never understand.

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Super Time Force, which recently saw a Special Edition release on Steam as Super Time Force Ultra, takes that same chaos and gives it a propulsive, Rick and Morty energy. If somebody really did invent time travel, the game argues, then everything from that point on would be unbridled madness, with the inventor altering history for selfish or short-sighted or just-plain-stupid reasons, and the world being destroyed and undestroyed and destroyed again, many times over.

It would be awful.

And also, it would be irresistibly fun.

The titular Super Time Force treats individual human lives, the flow of history, and the fabric of spacetime itself with gleeful nihilistic abandon. After all, we can always go back and fix this stuff later, right?

Sure we can.

Probably.

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But alright, the nuts and bolts: Super Time Force Ultra starts each mission by giving you sixty seconds on the clock and the ability to rewind time thirty times. You can rewind a fraction of a second, or you can rewind to the beginning of the mission, or anything in between. And you can initiate a rewind whenever you like—though usually, you’ll do it when you die.

Prevent your own death, and you can absorb your former self’s special attack, as well as an extra hit point. Or let the old you go, and use the diversion to speak around and flank the enemy. Or screw up your rescue attempt a half-dozen times, then finally get it right, giving you six now-not-quite-dead selves to absorb.

Of course, you can also embrace the idea of having multiple timelines going at once, fanning out two or three yous to explore the level while another powers forward to the end—a speed run and a completionist run, all in one.

Find yourself asking how you could have possibly seen that trap coming and, well, you’ll know it was coming next time, now won’t you?

Find yourself wondering how in the world you’re going to to that much damage to the boss in that amount of time, and an answer prevents itself immediately: Have five of you firing right at each of your enemy’s weakest weak spots the instant the fight begins. Glory ensues, and afterward you can see it playing out as it would have looked to some omniscient outside observer, your attempts all overlapping Super Meat Boy-style.

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Super Time Force Ultra satisfies the perfectionist in me, and it satisfies the large part of me that needs things to feel a little messy if they’re going to feel authentic. It’s a precise and finely tuned simulation of a universe that’s all disorder and flux. It’s a functional model of a hopelessly broken reality.

It’s probably the most realistic prediction I’ve ever seen of what the world might look like after the invention of time travel.

In that it’s chaos.

Beautiful, endlessly repeatable, just-about-but-not-quite-perfectible chaos.

Making a Sequel to Chess and Making Sense of IP Law, with Zac Burns

ETAO Podcast, Episode 14.

 
Zac Burns of Ludeme Games joins me to discuss his studio’s digital adaptation of Chess 2, which is out on OUYA, and as of today, on Steam as well. Along the way, we talk about the challenges of translating tabletop games into videogames, the (many) problems with modern intellectual property and copyright law, and why the OUYA has been and remains such a welcoming space for first-time independent game developers.

That, and why free-to-play is not, in and of itself, the devil.

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Chess 2: The Sequel is just what it purports to be, namely a sequel to Chess. Not just a variant of Chess, mind you, but an attempt at an iterative sequel that builds on the original game’s much-lauded merits (deep, chance-free, intellectually demanding one-one-one confrontation) while eliminating or mitigating its key deficiency (an emphasis on strategic stasis and rote memorization).

Chess doesn’t have an author as such. Chess 2 does. Which raises all manner of odd questions about ownership, tradition, culture, subculture, and yes, sequels.

———

Here are the rules of Chess 2. You can download them for free, or kick in a $5 “tip” if you so choose—and as Zac says, you can try the game out with nothing more exotic than a regular old Chess set and some loose change.

• As Zac says, we recorded this interview on Independence Day. Yay America.

• For those interested in the Aereo case.

• WordPress was indeed hiding some of the older episodes from iTunes, Stitcher, Podbay, and so on. That should be fixed now, and you can always see our whole back catalog of podcasty delights right here on ye olde blog.

———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“General Lavine” from Preludes, Book 2, by Claude Debussy.
“I’m in the Mood for Love” by Vera Lynn with The Casini Club Orchestra.
Nocture in D Flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2, by Frédéric Chopin.

Both piano pieces were performed by Paul Pitman, and the recordings are available for free on Musopen.

We’re on iTunes. We’re also on Stitcher. And let’s not forget Podbay.
You can also subscribe using good old-fashioned RSS.

Lose Yourself to Necrodance in the Crypt of the Necrodancer

After a long period of semi-private gestation, roguelike-alike/rhythm game mashup Crypt of the Necrodancer is about to enter a period of mostly-public gestation on Steam Early Access. Leading up to the June 30 launch date, the developers are putting on a Twitch-streamed “NecroThon” for charity, and thereby also offering you—yes, you!—the chance to see monsters being slain to the beat, and to see whether the game looks like your kind of thing.

It’s definitely my kind of thing, as I said back when I got to play an early build. The game has come a long way since then. There’s a solid tutorial, and lots more NPCs to rescue, and many more items, and all that.

But more to the point, the shopkeepers will now sing to you in an autotune-modulated operatic tenor while you browse for torches and broadswords.

I’m not made of stone.

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Kentucky Route Zero by Night: Act 3 (Xanadu, Rock Mine)

I’m outside of time again, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. This time I’m headed to Belgium. I’m going to land in Brussels, and then I’m going to drive about an hour to a little town called Genk. It’s in the Flemish part of Belgium, so people are going to speak Dutch there, mostly—but practically everybody in Belgium also speaks French or German or both.

Later in this trip, I’ll learn that each linguistic group actually has its own government, federalized under the national one and existing alongside the figurehead monarchy. It sounds like chaos, and it maybe even sounds volatile, but everybody in Belgium, or in the Flemish part at least, or in Genk at the very least, seems to regard the system as first and foremost a waste of money.

Anyway, I don’t know any of that yet.

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I only know that they speak Dutch in Belgium, even, because I noticed that they were making flight announcements in Dutch as well as English and French, and I decided to wiki it. (When every announcement has to cycle through three languages, you have the time to wiki all sorts of stuff from the runway).

I barely speak French or German, but man, I really don’t speak Dutch. So there’s a better than even chance that, sometime on this trip, I’ll misunderstand or be misunderstood. Which isn’t usually a big deal. Usually it’s merely awkward. But occasionally it’s disastrous.

It won’t be at all clear what this has to do with Act III of Kentucky Route Zero unless you’ve played it. If you have, then you’ll probably know that it’s about misunderstanding, ambiguity, lapses in communication, leaps of faith. You’ll know about Ezra’s conversation with Junebug about how you can never be yourself until you’re sufficiently specific in how you describe yourself, and your relationships to others.

You’ll know that finally finding the Zero may be a matter of rendering the familiar unfamiliar, and vice-versa.

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You’ll know how ambiguities—including intentionally confusing, deeply nefarious ambiguities—have profoundly effected Conway’s body, and his sense of self, and how they may have just changed his career path as well. As he says at the end of the act, that’s just the way these things go sometimes.

And you’ll know about Xanadu, which (without giving away anything specific) is a Synecdoche, New York-style thought experiment about worlds within worlds, representations within representations, simulations within simulations—and also, appropriately enough, an attempt to create a surreal, alluring, vectory game-world within the surreal, alluring, vectory game-world of Kentucky Route Zero.

Not just a game within a game, but a version of this specific game living within this specific game.

Making sense of things, and sparring with the possibility that some things are nonsense, and worse, that you may lack the tools to know sense from nonsense.

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Like going to a country whose language you don’t speak, whose language you don’t even know until you’re already on the plane, harried business traveler that you are.

My misunderstandings were mild this time around. Misunderstanding how to use two lane roundabouts. Having a hell of a time finding my way back to the airport. Finding it more or less impossible to explain to the proprietor of The Rock Mine in Genk that I’d like dinner as well as drinks—maybe because my German is awful and my Dutch is worse, or maybe because they play their metal at the appropriate volume, which is to say pretty loudly, at The Rock Mine.

That kind of thing. No big deal.

Nothing life-changing. Nothing urgent.

Not this time, anyway.

Lizardry, Technology, and What to Call Roguelikes, with Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett

ETAO Podcast, Episode 13.

 
At first glance, A Wizard’s Lizard doesn’t seem like a roguelike-alike, but more specifically like a Binding of Isaac-alike, what with its distinctive combination of Zelda and Smash TV. But on closer inspection, A Wizard’s Lizard is a fairly different beast, owing more to A Link to the Past than to the original Legend of Zelda, and not exactly riding Isacc’s nightmarish coattails—more drawing from a common pool of Spelunky-afflicted design DNA.

Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett, the team behind A Wizard’s Lizard and the Lostcast, stop by to discuss their creation, the lizardry (sorry) behind its systems, the cult of Spelunky, and all manner of things that the three of us all really roguelike. (I’m so, so sorry).

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• Tiny Speck did indeed put all of Glitch’s assets not just into Creative Commons, but into the public domain.

• That Clay Shirky quote is from Here Comes Everybody.

Lars Doucet coined the term “Procedural Death Labyrinth.”

• For more about how games teach through their level design, take a gander at Anna Anthropy’s “Level Design Lesson” series, and also Extra Credits’ new “Design Club” series.

• Great Caesar’s ghost! There is a new Sequelitis about Zelda! (And it was in fact just two days old when we recorded this podcast).

• If you’re keeping score, Egoraptor hates Skyward Sword considerably more than I do, but still probably less than Alex Preston does.

———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“A Wizard’s Lizard” and “Buy Me Something!” from the A Wizard’s Lizard Original Soundtrack by Joshua Morse.

We’re on iTunes. We’re also on Stitcher. And let’s not forget Podbay.
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The Oddness of Art and the Forgotten History of Sound, with Lila Newman

ETAO Podcast, Episode 12.

 
Self-described Actor/Writer/Comedian/Musician/Plant-Owner Lila Newman stops by to discuss her piece-in-progress about Ora B. Nichols—one of the most influential artists of early radio, and specifically of early radio sound effects.

You’ve heard Nichols’ work if you’ve ever heard the the 1938 version of The War of the Worlds. You know, the one produced by Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater on the Air. The one that may or may not have freaked people all the way out when it was first broadcast. That one.

But despite being involved in something so iconic, Nichols herself is largely unknown and borderline-ungoogleable. At least in part, that’s because we don’t talk nearly enough about the history of radio, or of sound in general—and that’s because the aesthetics of radio have taught us all how to hear, to the point that we take those aesthetics for granted.

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Lila Newman walks me through a bit of that history, and along the way we talk about her work on A Prairie Home Companion, the endless oddness of making art (for lack of a better term) for a living, why not all performance art consists of “crying and punching meat,” and the importance of discussing women who did great work without essentializing or over-emphasizing their gender.

Also, we talk about Imposer Syndrome, which is quickly becoming a theme around here. (Ahem, and also-ahem).

———

• As I mention in the intro, arts.uchicago.edu made this interview possible. You can read my piece on Lila’s work and the Edes Prize over there, and the edited, narrative version of the interview is on SoundCloud.

• I mispronounce Descartes as “Dis cart” and Edes as “Eddie’s. And I say “Nakobov.” Ah well.

• Here again—hard to post it too often, really—is a link to the live Radiolab about The War of the Worlds.

• If you’re so inclined, you can go and listen to the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, as well as some of The Mercury Theater on the Air’s other productions.

• And here’s that perform-your-own-4’33” app.

• On the topic of trading in unhealthy compulsions for health(ier) compulsions, see also: Thomas Lennon talking about video game addiction/compulsion with The Indoor Kids.

Binaural recording is interesting stuff, and more people than you might think are giving it a whirl.

• Seriously, get out a pair of headphones to listen to Lila’s binaural recordings.

———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
Sound effects and ambient binaural recordings by Lila Newman.

We’re on iTunes. We’re also on Stitcher. And let’s not forget Podbay.
You can also subscribe using good old-fashioned RSS.

Evaluating Transistor

ETAO Podcast, Episode 11.

 
Transistor is Supergiant Games’ follow-up to Bastion—not a sequel, and definitely not a rehash, but just as definitely an iteration, a more refined approach to the same set of themes and gameplay ideas.

This time, the the skill system is a dizzyingly intricate mutation of Materia, rather than a more standard weapon combination system. This time, the beautiful ruined environment is a cohesive cyberpunk maybe-machine world, rather than a catch-all ersatz frontier setting. This time, Logan Cunningham is talking to you not as a semi-disembodied narrator, but as—well, spoilers follow.

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———

• Lucio refers several times to me interviewing Alex Preston of Heart Machine, and also to my conversation with Richard Terrell of Critical Gaming.

• I refer several times to Experience Points’ excellent Transistor debrief.

• For more on Apple-as-the-death-of-technoegalitarianism, look into the ignominious death of HyperCard.

• I didn’t know a damn thing about HyperCard until I read Anna Anthropy’s superb book on ZZT and the half-forgotten history of homemade videogames.

———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“Impossible” from the Transistor Original Soundtrack by Darren Korb.

We’re on iTunes. We’re also on Stitcher. And let’s not forget Podbay.
You can also subscribe using good old-fashioned RSS.

Shovel Knight, Kickstarter, the Wii U Gamepad, and Magic

Shovel Knight is an adventure-platformer about a knight errant (who is, yes, armed with a shovel), rendered with the vivid pixel art and infectious chiptune fanfare of a late-period NES release. Critically, Shovel Knight doesn’t just look and sound like an NES game; it feels like an NES game. The levels have the fussed-over structure of Mega Man, the carefully choreographed enemy positions of Castlevania, and jam-packed nooks and crannies of Kirby’s Adventure.

Just as critically, the game doesn’t slavishly retread the stupider contentions of the NES days. There’s no lives system, for starters, and in its place is this Dark Souls sort of thing: the penalty for dying is that you drop some of your gold, and when you get back to the place where you died, the gold is hovering there in little winged moneybags. Die on the way back, however, and your beloved loot is gone.

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Shovel Knight occasionally feels like nothing more than a loving, catch-all tribute to a bygone era of game design. The spells have an Adventure of Link feel to them, and à la DuckTales, you can bounce around on enemies indefinitely, using your shovel as a lethal pogo stick. The more NES games you’ve played, the more parallels like those you’ll notice. (Am I imagining the similarities between Shovel Knight and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers? Is that just affection talking?).

That being said, the game more often feels like an actual NES game made in the the actual 1980s, but with the help of some alien futureperson, unhindered by 1980s technology and cognizant of the good parts of game design circa 2014.

There’s a special kind of magic, by the way, to booting up a game like that on the Wii U. You press the directional pad, and it feels like a Nintendo directional pad, and Shovel Knight moves like an NES hero (and the idea of a knight with a shovel, it occurs to you, is just the sort of agreeable nonsense that thrived in NES games).

You see that familiar font—they really got the fonts right—scrawling Shovel Knight’s oddly touching tale across the screen of of the Wii U Gamepad, and you think, this gimmicky piece of hardware contains all the same wonder that my NES did, and then some. Things are going to be just fine.

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Given all that, Shovel Knight is excellent news for anyone who wants to believe in the Kickstarter model.

We’ve known at least since FTL that truly great games can begin in that weird new world of crowdsourced funding and wild expectations, of fans-as-investors and carnival barker salesmanship. But it’s tricker when a project is sold at least partially on the strength of nostalgia—on the promise of some old form or genre or style being recovered, revived, revitalized.

It’s tempting to think of nostalgia-steeped Kickstarter pitches as shortcuts, and indeed, if you’re looking to rack up pledges quickly, tapping into your backers’ fond memories is a reliable way of doing so. But it’s a bit of a monkey paw wish. Once the dust settles and the kicks are started and all, developers are left with an impossible set of expectations: make it exactly like that older thing, but also make it totally new and fresh and exciting.

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What we think we want is for these new games to simply be just like those old games (which were better, we half-think). But on some level, what we actually want is new games that are the old games they’re recalling. We want Broken Age to bottle what it was like to play Grim Fandango for the first time.

It won’t. It can’t.

But what it can do—and still might—is feel like an adventure game built by an alien futureperson. It can bring new insights to old conventions, fresh eyes to hoary tropes, new worlds to old modes of world-building.

That might be what a generation of Kickstarted genre revivals has been aiming at, without quite knowing it.