kjorteo: Portrait of a happy Celine hugging a big plush snake. (Celine: Plush)
I started playing this game when it first came out, and I really loved it, but I never finished it. My memory of the experience was that the game was fantastic, but maybe a bit long and samey after a while. I sort of got the point early in world 6 (out of 8) and got bored and stopped. It's been on the "I really should finish this one someday" shelf ever since, and now I finally did. Enough years have passed since then that I was fresh and rested on the Squeak Squad experience, so clearing out the final stretch now was fine. However, even the three worlds this time felt like "Yes this was a good experience, I am content with this and am pleasantly full now," so I can see how I might have gotten tired and overstuffed from the prospect of doing eight.

So, there's my overall impression, I guess: Squeak Squad is phenomenal, and if an abbreviated version of it had been in, say, Super Star or some other collection like that to keep things varied, it would easily have been my favorite game in the entire collection. As a full title, though, I am inclined to agree with my past self's assertion that it runs a bit long. It's a shame that there's too much of a good thing here, though, because I really cannot overstate just how good the thing itself is.

Squeak Squad is a fairly traditional Kirby-style Kirby game (which is kind of saying something in a series that's known for Canvas Curse and other experimental oddities) that's probably most similar to Dyna Blade from Super Star, if I had to pick a point of comparison. It has that Mario 3-like hub world maps between stages, anyway. You can float around and get Copy powers and blah blah the actual draw to Squeak Squad in particular is, of course, the Squeak Squad.

The primary antagonist for most of this game is The Squeaks, a gang of rodent thieves bent on stealing all the treasure in Dreamland. For some oddly specific reason, that includes making double extra sure Kirby can't have the delicious strawberry cake that he was about to eat before it was tragically stolen. Seriously, every faction in this game spends the entire game treating Kirby's cake like it's the Ark of the Covenant. Even Meta Knight gets involved because cake is that important. That's a Kirby game for you, I guess. Because eating is serious business in Dreamland, Kirby will stop at nothing to stop the Squeaks from stopping at nothing to stop him from stopping them.

It's all typical Kirby plot nonsense but I'm saving the best part for last because LOOK AT THESE SQUEAKS. Especially look at their leader, Daroach, who boldly answers the burning question everyone has always been dying to know: "What if Plok's fursona became a magician and then a thief?" He is my new favorite character in the entire Kirby franchise and I love him forever.

Seriously, even their theme music is great. The "Squeak, Squeak!" effect between certain sections is the cutest thing.

(I mentioned Meta Knight is in this too, which is also fantastic. He is my other favorite character in the franchise behind only Daroach, because he is basically an actual canon in-universe version of someone's grimdark DeviantArt Kirby OC. He tries so hard to be Christopher Nolan/Christan Bale Batman in a world that stubbornly insists on treating him as Adam West Batman, and it's incredible every single time. So yeah, this game gets high marks for its cast, for sure.)

Every stage has up to three treasure chests in it. The HUD on the map screen very helpfully shows you how many you've collected, making it very easy to know where to look if you feel like hundred-percenting this game. (Which is recommended, actually, because later it pulls a nasty trick where five star fragments from various chests scattered about the first six worlds are needed to access world seven and continue the game.) Most contain things like alternate palette swap options for Kirby, music packs for the sound test mode, and various extras like that. The typical stage formula sees every treasure chest except the last one be hidden through some side passage or something along the way throughout the stage, and then the last one is in the last room and involves facing off against one of the Squeaks for it. (Grab it and reach the exit while they're chasing you, it's right next to the exit but you need to get there before the Squeak does, beat it out of the Squeak in a straight up miniboss fight, etc.)

It's all good fun and there's not much else to say I guess because I mean it's a Kirby game, but it's a GOOD Kirby game. Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to go back to making heart-eyes at my magic squeaky boyfriend.
kjorteo: Teary Bulbasaur portrait from Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. (Bulbasaur: Teary)
Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition is the best Lilo and Stitch/Super Meat Boy/Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest crossover fanfic I've ever-- wait hold on let me start that again.

So, once upon a time in IM, [personal profile] xyzzysqrl sent me this recommendation:

"As far as I know, you enjoy:
Difficult platformers.
Nonlinear Metroidvania style games.
Cute things.

Have you seen this game?


Never let it be said that Sqrl doesn't know exactly how to pitch a game to me.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a Metroidvania-style action platformer that the developers themselves claim was inspired by Super Meat Boy, which I can maybe sort of see in the gameplay. Death comes fast and frequently if you're not careful, but is cheap and relatively painless. You can save almost wherever you want (there are unlockable tech tree abilities specifically to facilitate this) and the death/reload/respawn process is quick and seamless.

The main difference, of course, is that Super Meat Boy is pure carnage played for laughs, whereas Ori's violence is more bloodless and its presentation is that of a more serious and stunningly beautiful game. That trailer should give you a good idea of what this game both looks and sounds like, but I'll also add the Sorrow Pass theme because it's my personal favorite. Definitely get a version that includes the soundtrack if you get this.

Anyway, you play as Unico Ori, and adorable little fluffball with a huge and loving heart and the power to bring light to the darkness, tragically orphaned and put through increasingly intense levels of DOES NOT DESERVE THIS. At first glance the basic plot is almost comparable to an early ZZT purple keys collectathon--the forest is in ruins because the elements need to be restored, do the chain of [Go to area A to find the mystic Thing that unlocks the door to the temple in area B, clear out the inner temple proper which is big enough in its own right to count as area C] a total of three times and restore the three elements and you're done. However, oversimplifying it to this extent does a gross disservice to the emotional impact of the plot in the fine-details level and the characters living through it. Sqrl managed to cry for every single cutscene in the game, and while I didn't quite hit perfect 100% cry completion the way she did, boy I sure got punched in the heart by a lot of them anyway.

Exploration is controlled through a combination of hard and soft gates--things like the door to the temple (or almost any locked door, really) are more or less impassable barriers until the plot lets you through, but there are also collectibles and even entire areas that open up as you gain new powers. The latter is almost just like any Metroidvania, only (with one or two exceptions) rather than needing a new beam or missile or other sort of offensive weapon to blast through a wall, it's mostly just treacherous high jumps that require Ori to get increasingly more mobile in the air, like some kind of speedy high-flying luchador. The game has a very good learning curve and pace to distributing its enhancements, though, so you never really feel overwhelmed by all the moves you're expected to keep track of, even as you go through a series of triple jump-glide-air dash-fire an energy ball and ricochet off your own shot-air dash (again, because the ricochet resets all your jump options) shenanigans near the end.

I have very spoileriffic thoughts about this game which I will hide below the warning, but for now, suffice it to say that this is an exceptional top quality product. Everything from graphics and sound to gameplay are all finely tuned and outstanding, and if Sqrl's recommendation sounds as good to you as it did to me, then definitely check it out. Also check out Sqrl's review when she beat it, which can be found here.

kjorteo: Screenshot from Hatoful Boyfriend, of Miru & Kaku looking excited and triumphant in the seat of their tank. (Hatoful: Miru & Kaku)
Hi, can you still tell I'm still on my "short, light, and fluffy indie game" kick after recovering from the unexpected marathon that was the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers postgame? This should be the last one before I work my way back to the big stuff, but we'll see.

It was in an IndieGala bundle recently and it just looked too cute not to try, and I'm glad I did! It was indeed very cute and charming.

I've long had a complicated history with games like Seiklus and Endless Ocean. They promise gentle stress-free exploration, no combat or anything, just explore around and have fun. On paper, that sounds like something that really should appeal to me. It's at least interesting as a game concept, and I really want it to work out and have fun with it. In practice, though, neither Seiklus nor Endless Ocean particularly did it for me. The former is easy to get lost and, well, kind of boring honestly, and the latter starts out strong but is a bit too long, wears out its welcome, and kind of runs out of things to do. Which is a shame, because I really want to like these kinds of games!

Enter Marvin's Mittens, which at best looked like it could finally be what I was looking for, and at worst was like a couple dollars as part of a bundle so it's not like I'd really be out anything if it was another failure. The trailer looked very promising, like a sort of Seiklus-alike but with a "child playing in the snow" theme.

You play as Marvin, a cute little overly-bundled up kid with suspiciously good voice acting. (Seriously, did they find an actually-good actual-child actor for this? Or is that just the best impression of one I've ever heard?) One day, while playing in the snow, a cute but fast little blur of a fuzzy thing steals one of his mittens. In the nearby elf village (this game plays fast and loose with the laws of realism) the elves reveal that they, too, have had their mittens stolen, and give Marvin the special power of that sort of double-jump-hover-thing you see in the trailer, where the second jump has him float upwards. The kind of height he gets on that depends directly on how many snowflakes he's collected; it barely improves his mobility at all at first, but the kid can basically fly by the time you get them all.

There is a daily time limit, where eventually the sun goes down and the voice of Marvin's mom calls out that it's time to come home, at which point the day is over and the game cuts back to Marvin's home. It autosaves and continues over a screen of Marvin sleeping in bed with a gentle lullaby playing, complete with a dream thought bubble cycling through images of things he's seen so far on his adventure like an early Windows screensaver. Then Marvin sets out again from his home the next day. Progress is made by expanding your range and how far you can go before it's time to head home, which you accomplish mostly by Etrian Odyssey-like shortcuts that have to be opened from the other side first. On day 1, I barely made it to the Elf Village before mom called me home. By day 3, after collecting just enough snowflakes to boost my jump, retrieving my sled for quicker downhill travel, and opening a well-placed shortcut tunnel, I could get there in about fifteen seconds, and of course then I had the rest of the day to keep exploring from there.

This game was everything I wanted it to be, and I was delighted with it from start to finish. The graphics are adorable, the music is so cozy that I might put the soundtrack on next time my anxiety issues start acting up, and the game is just the right length (about three hours) to feel like something "real" and not some Flash game or something while still being light and breezy. The only "difficulty" comes from trying to find everything (1,000 snowflakes total split up over about 30-50 per room on average, plus 11 animals you can sketch and get a picture of if you walk up slowly enough to not scare them away) and even those are perfectly balanced--just barely hidden enough that I felt clever and like an explorer for finding them all, but nowhere even close to FAQ-requiring "where the fuck is the last bullshit snowflake" frustration. Basically, if you're even moderately thorough then you'll be fine.

I'm still a little confused about this genre, because truth be told, I don't know why I loved this game after hating Seiklus. Marvin's Mittens has a gentle and loving aesthetic, far better graphics and sound, and the daily reset gives you a nice overall feeling of progression, I guess, but is that really what was holding Seiklus back? Or was it that Seiklus was a little too labyrinthine and Marvin's Mittens felt easier to me? Or something else entirely? I don't know.

But I do know that I adored Marvin's Mittens and I highly recommend it.
kjorteo: Glitched screenshot from Pokémon Yellow, of Pikachu's portrait with scrambled graphics. (Pikachu: Glitch)
As I said in my Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers entry, my original plan had been to cross a few more light and fluffy one- or two-hour popcorn games off the backlog before starting on my next big project, and I had very mistakenly assumed PMD:E was one of those. (All I had to do was the postgame! I should just breeze through that, right?)

After what was supposed to be a light and fluffy popcorn game instead turned into a marathon, I needed another light and fluffy popcorn game just so I could remember what those were like. I wasn't sure I could handle jumping from PMD straight to another full-length game. Enter Thomas Was Alone, possibly the poster child of one-hour indie jaunts.

I will try not to textwall because otherwise I would stand a very real chance of spending longer writing this entry than I did actually playing the game, and also because... like... everyone knows about this one already, right? I mean, PewDiePie has a fetish for it. It's not exactly something I have to explain...

okay fine real quick this is an indie platformer about a bunch of squares and rectangles with different jumping abilities and miscellaneous powers and they have to help each other get to the goal. The thing that sets it apart is the cozy British narration of Danny Wallace, who personifies everyone in a way that is surprisingly effective and thoughtful for such simple gameplay. Like, you'll be controlling a long flat rectangle who serves as a trampoline, and then the narrator will helpfully inform you that her name is Laura and she has always been insecure about her ability and even tries to hide it from new people she meets, because she's afraid of people who just use her to reach high places and then abandon her. It works really well!

My favorite character is probably Claire, the big massive square with the power of being the only character in the game who doesn't instantly die in water. This makes her the game's Surf HM for the rest of the party, but the way the narrator spins her personality as a depressed insecure wreck who suddenly fancies herself a superhero is instantly endearing. Like, I can easily imagine this big massive (heavyset?) slow square throwing herself into the superhero role because it beats the alternative of feeling like a failure at everything else. I just want to give her a hug and cheer for her. You are definitely my hero, Claire.

So yeah. Good game. Even better palate cleanser.
kjorteo: Teary Bulbasaur portrait from Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. (Bulbasaur: Teary)
The original plan, way back when I had finished 999, was to complete a few more quick things from my backlog before venturing into my next big "start a full-length game from scratch" project. I had a ton of games on the list that were either one-hour indie romps or something I'd already 90% finished years ago, and just needed to dust off and do the final stuff. I like cheap easy victories to pad the "number of games I've completed this year" and blog post counts. So it was that I nibbled my way through shorter games like AM2R and "I was almost done anyway" games like TIS-100. While I was at it, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness had been haunting my to-do list basically since it came out, and I'd already beat the main game, so I just needed to do the postgame content and be done with it.

I vastly underestimated just how much postgame content there was.

It's only fitting, I suppose; the sunk cost fallacy is basically what pulled me through a good chunk of the game, even down to the fact that it was this version I was playing. Honestly, if you're going to play PMD: Explorers, play Explorers of Sky instead. It is literally the same game but better, a later enhanced rerelease with extra dungeons and side stories and generally more and better everything. There is no downside to Sky and no reason whatsoever to pick Time/Darkness, unless you're like me and were already 35 hours into Darkness when Sky first came out and you just didn't want to start over. (In retrospect, with how much of a marathon the final few acts of this game became, not having to play it twice was absolutely the correct decision.) But even then, for the love of Arceus, make sure you still find a way to catch Sky's side stories and content--maybe in a YouTube Let's Play or something. They are easily as good as, if not better than anything in the main game.

Version differences aside, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers has all the things you would expect, including:
  • Pokemon!
  • Mystery Dungeons!
  • Explorers!
  • Having your feelings crushed like a grape!

I have no idea how it came to pass that a series whose entire premise is "You know those cute collectible monsters kids love? Put them in a slightly-friendlified Roguelike" also became synonymous with having among the highest amount of sobbing per capita in Nintendo game history. Neither Pokemon games nor Roguelikes are typically known for their plot, but mix the two and it somehow explodes in a geyser of tears. It's like Professor "Stock brainteasers and crying" Layton in that regard, I guess. Everyone who's played any PMD or even has heard of its reputation knows what they're in for at this point, but if you were somehow unaware, there's a reason this is the series where this icon (along with all my other emotional Bulbasaur icons) came from.

The gameplay of Explorers can get a bit repetitive. (Do you like exploring mysterious dungeons? Do you like exploring mysterious dungeons to the point of it almost being a fetish even within the game itself, with characters revering it the way people in the Laytonverse talk about Puzzles? Good, because here's fifty hours of it.) Furthermore, not every story element worked. The main, non-postgame ending is almost identical to that of the earlier PMD: Rescue Team, with slightly different explanations for why the same things are happening, and overall I feel like Rescue Team did it better. Granted, some of that could be because I'd played Rescue Team first and it doesn't hit quite as hard the second time you see the same thing, but Explorers' take on it did ruin some of its own impact with some clumsy fridge logic which I might get into at another time (ask me in PM or something.) The postgame had a ton of padding, with entire plot arcs that go nowhere and gratuitous abuse of the "Go out and do random bulletin board missions to pass a few days before you wake up one morning and suddenly..." method of plot advancement. The game has more endings than Peter Jackson's The Return of the King, with me at various times thinking I was finally done with it when I had:

  • Completed the main story
  • Completed the first postgame story arc
  • Oh no that was just one arc and it turns out there are five entire arcs according to this walkthrough
  • Completed all five postgame story arcs and defeated the postgame endboss
  • "After a few more filler days, you'll wake up to find there's a commotion on the beach..." (I was done with dungeons after the postgame endboss, so at this point I tried passing the days via the sentry duty foot-identification minigame because I didn't want to go out anymore. It didn't work, so instead I found a password generator and gave myself a bunch of Wonder Mail passwords to go arrest a low-level Pachirisu on B1F of Beach Cave.)
  • Recruited a certain Pokemon after a few filler days, who told me about the existence of a dungeon after a few more filler days. I didn't care. But hey, that was officially where the story events stopped happening which means technically...
  • Wait no you can still go complete Spacial Rift again to unlock the ability for you and your partner to evolve Don't care.
  • Watched an LP of all the Sky side stories (Obviously yes to this one)
  • Recruit all the Legendaries, max your levels and IQ, unlock the extra dungeons, do all the plotless hardcore 99-floor Zero Isle South type bonus nonsense No.

In short, a lot of this could be because I'd underestimated the postgame and expected it to be over sooner, but the main story ending fell flat and a lot of the postgame was kind of a slog.


What Explorers does do well, it does really well. Explorers is, above all else, a story about its characters, and this is where it differentiates itself from Rescue Team and really shines. The cast is full of personality, especially after you've lived in Treasure Town for a while and really gotten to know everyone. These personalities become a huge part of the game's draw. Even if they had the same main story ending (and Rescue Team's was better), Rescue Team didn't have Wigglytuff, Chatot, Bidoof, Sunflora, and all the others in Wigglytuff's Guild, who bond with each other and with you over the course of the game. They all have their quirks, some you invariably end up liking more than others, but together they're a family. That family includes you, by the way. Toward the end of the postgame there is an entire dialogue to that effect. On one hand, it is so Stock Heartwarming Speech that I swear it came straight from 80s Ending, but on the other it worked and it was moving and, yes, I choked up for that too. (I expect this part in particular will hit [personal profile] xyzzysqrl even harder if/when she ever plays it. She is 100% okay with "yeah it's a little cheesy BUT" and, well, given how much she likes Summer Wars....)

And wow, does Explorers live up to the series' reputation of punching you in the feelings, the Sky content in particular. People warned me that Bidoof's Wish was the destroyer of emotions, and they were largely correct. I expected In the Future of Darkness to be pretty devastating just given who/what it was about, and braced myself accordingly, even if that bracing was kind of like remembering to close the screen door before a hurricane. No one warned me about Igglybuff the Prodigy, though.

So, even though I was really starting to get tired of how many different ways I had to complete this game before it was actually completed, I absolutely loved it in retrospect. In fact, even though I'm free now, a part of me really wants to do Super Pokemon Mystery Dungeon next. I probably won't, if only because I have a lot of other games that kind of have dibs as far as what I need to play next. Someday, though. As grateful as I am that Explorers is finally over for real this time, it did leave a very good impression, such that "okay but this is technically a new and different game" is apparently all it takes to make me want to jump right back in.

But for now, it's onto the next game for me, and I guess a certain Bulbasaur in Wigglytuff's guild will just have retire to a quiet life of staring at Pokemon feet all day. I'm sure that's what she would have wanted.
kjorteo: Screenshot from Daedalian Opus, of a solved puzzle with the text "GOOD" displayed on underneath it. (GOOD)
I picked this up from the Humble Voxatron Bundle ages ago. The point of the bundle was obviously to promote Voxatron (but not PICO-8, sadly; this was before they came out with that one.) Voxatron didn't interest me at all, but the bundle also came with three other Lexaloffle games: Jasper's Journeys, Chocolate Castle, and Zen Puzzle Garden. The latter two caught my eye enough to push the bundle into "Eh, why not" territory, and now here we are.

In Zen Puzzle Garden, you are a monk raking the sand in a giant... well, zen garden. The gameplay is a combination "paint every tile" quest with "you can only change direction when you hit something" controls straight out of every ice skating room puzzle ever. Eventually it introduces further complexities in statues can be pushed and leaves must be collected in a certain order and act as walls until it's their turn. Still, the goal is always to rake every square of the garden and then get back out safely without trapping yourself.

This game started out strong for me, with a charming aesthetic and beautiful sand graphics. Yeah, the little monk dude looks like he came straight out of an early newbie RPG Maker game, but the sand, both raked and unraked, is more gorgeous than it has any right to be. The soothing riffs as you make moves and the "Puzzle Complete" tune are suitably... well, zen. In the earlier parts of the game, this was something I could not only enjoy, but relax while figuring out the solution. For someone with anxiety issues, this is always a nice bonus.

Those last few rows of puzzles, though. Whoof.

Remember when I played Splice and then had that problem that I needed a better word to describe? I never really found a term that jumped out at me but... that issue. (Here's someone complaining about it happening in Cosmic Express, for reference, which kind of makes me feel better knowing it's not just me.) It happened in Splice, and unfortunately, Zen Puzzle Garden ended up going in that direction toward the end as well.

I was talking with [personal profile] xyzzysqrl about this the other night, and I think the best way to explain it is that I get overwhelmed and can't keep up when puzzles become too open. Puzzles can still be hard, but as long as they give you some sort of clue what you're supposed to do, I'm okay. I can work with that. Hell, it's actually pretty fun to work with that! For example, take this later level from Hanano Puzzle 2:

(For reference: blocks bloom flowers when they touch same-colored existing flowers. They bloom in the direction printed on them, so that red block with an upward arrow on it, once it touches a red flower, would turn into a 1x2 piece consisting of a block on bottom and another red flower on top. Movement is sort of Yoshi-style swapping controls; adjacent blocks can swap places with each other, or you can move one block along by continuously "swapping" it with the empty space in front of it. The goal in each stage is to make every colored block bloom.)

Once you have a good handle of the rules and how these puzzles work, you can look at this screenshot and sort of work backwards. The only way to get that blue block to bloom is to move it one space over to touch the flower next to it, which means that there needs to be some sort of solid surface plugging that hole so it won't just fall off the ledge when you move it. Given the layout of that area, it looks like the only way to do that is to have the upward-pointing red block slide underneath that low ceiling and then bloom upward when it touches the flower on the ground. That, in turn, means that you need to find a way to move the upward-pointing red block from its perch in the upper left corner there all the way over to that lower-right area, clearing that gap in the middle (blocks can't exactly fly and, short of blooming shenanigans, there isn't an easy or convenient way to lift them again once they're on the ground,) all without having it touch any other red flower and blooming prematurely before it reaches the one below the blue block.

It's a tall order, and it's definitely a tricky puzzle (this is a Qrostar game we're talking about) but you at least have that goal, you know? You can see what you're supposed to do, so the trick is just figuring out how.

Compared to that, Zen Puzzle Garden is far more open, and ultimately I do not think that is a good thing. I didn't mind or even notice this at first, because the earlier puzzles are easy enough...

Push the statue down just enough that it's between the rocks, turn the movement from that into sectioning off the top and sides. The only real trick is remembering the "previously-raked areas count as walls" rule so you can bump against your own work to get that dip in the bottom center there.

That's fine. That's all well and good. It works, and it's even pretty fun! But then later on you get things like...

What in the everfuck.

What... I can't... I'm sorry but there are just too many directions this puzzle could possibly go for my mind even to process where to start. Every one of those statues can be moved somewhere (they can be, but maybe some of them are fine where they are, who knows) and the only real overall goal you have is to come up with some sort of configuration that lets you rake every square. This makes it next to impossible to tell whether any given solution is on the right track.

Let's say you push that statue in the lower right corner up and then to the left, to slide it in between the two stones in the upper right corner. Then, later, you seemingly paint yourself into a corner and run out of valid moves. Is that because you're just not seeing the right solution for that last part? Or is it because there is no solution, your very first move was a fatal mistake, and you've been searching fruitlessly in a doomed timeline this entire time?

For the record, I'm pretty sure this is the kind of puzzle design logic that turns Roberta Williams on.

It's that lack of confidence when puzzles get too big and open and out of control that regrettably kills the final portion of this game for me. I don't mind difficult puzzles--I like difficult puzzles, even--but I have to at least know I'm on the right track. Otherwise, I tend to miss things because I assume getting stuck later on means I must have messed up earlier (even when I actually haven't) which is far more frustrating than fun.

Fortunately, Lexaloffle has hints and solutions on their own site, and needless to say I started relying on those pretty heavily toward the end. As it turns out, the very last puzzle ended up having a perfect example of the exact point I'm making: Four hints in, the board looks like this. Once I got that far, filling in the sectioned-off areas on the top were easy enough, but something very interesting happened in that three-tile-tall strip along the bottom there.

There is, of course, a trick to winding yourself around those rocks and putting that statue somewhere less in the way, all without creating any dead ends. It is somewhat sneaky and not immediately obvious. I was stuck for a while even after getting the board to this state, just trying to figure out how fill in that bottom part. And you know what? At that point, it was fine! I knew for a fact that there was a way to do it, because the hint said right there that the board was in fact supposed to look like this, so anything beyond that was just some hidden answer I wasn't seeing. Eventually, I found it. I actually felt pretty clever and proud of myself when I did. This is, in fact, what puzzles are supposed to feel like.

Meanwhile, with how stuck I got just on that one section, I know for an absolute fact that, had I tried this level unaided, I would have assumed that getting the board to this state was obviously wrong. I would have fiddled with the bottom for a bit, concluded it was clearly impossible if you make the top look like that, and then I'd be stuck forever trying something else from the very beginning, never knowing I incorrectly wrote off the right track as a dead end.

So, yeah. In the end, Zen Puzzle Garden is the kind of game where the bottom third of the final puzzle is a fun and appropriate challenge.
kjorteo: Screenshot from Hatoful Boyfriend, of Miru & Kaku looking excited and triumphant in the seat of their tank. (Hatoful: Miru & Kaku)
I am massively bending if not outright breaking my own rules to count this one as something I completed this year. I actually played through it with [personal profile] davidn and Elijah last November and the only thing I "completed" now was finally getting around to editing and posting the video we took. I was planning on doing some sort of award roundup thing around the end of the year, and I wanted this one to be included. It deserves it. It may not actually win anything (the categories I'm thinking for it have some very fierce competition) but if nothing else, it deserves a shot.

Plus, this way I get to gush about A Bird Story in blog entry form. I know a couple of my friends have hangups about YouTube videos with our real-life voices and whatnot (and mine really isn't all that great anyway,) so here's your chance to hear how much I love this game even if you didn't watch our Team Hatoful play-through and hear how much I love this game.

A Bird Story is a game by Freebird Games, which usually means several things:
  • It's an RPG Maker game, though there's no combat and it's basically a story-driven walking sim.
  • It has gorgeous high-quality custom assets (sprites, tilesets, music) that make it both visually and musically beautiful.
  • It will punch you in the feelings. Frequently and hard.

In this game's case, I think all you have to do is check out the title theme and its cover art and you can pretty much tell this one's going to be a great big check for all three.

Also, this one is sort of related to the Sigmund series, so if you're going to play it, probably best to do so after To the Moon and its two minisodes (but before Finding Paradise, if you're reading this in the future and Finding Paradise is out.) There aren't any To the Moon spoilers or anything, and this isn't even directly related, nor does it any of To the Moon's characters, but... it's sort of a side story in the same universe. The boy from this game will apparently have an upcoming role in Finding Paradise, if that counts for anything.

Anyway, A Bird Story is very short and... honestly, kind of weird until you get used to it. There is no textual dialogue--some rebus bubbles every now and then, but even those are rare--and the entire story is told through visuals, gestures and expressions, etc. Our protagonist is a somewhat neglected latchkey kid whose primary communication with his parents consists of notes that would probably say something like "Working late, dinner's in the fridge" if there were text in this game. He's kind of a ghost at school, too; not exactly picked on or anything but no one really notices him either. He goes through the routine every day, but it's a gray and lonely-feeling existence, until one day he happens to encounter and save an injured bird in the forest. Hilarity Feel trips ensue.

The presentation is incredibly surreal. The game will signify walking home after school by just sending you down a hallway that starts out in a school with tiles and lockers and and then slowly blends into dirt and trees and then an apartment building. The journey is always exactly as long as it needs to be for the narrative--if the point the game is currently trying to make is "He grabbed his umbrella before heading out the door, and at school there was a...." then his classroom might be just across the street about ten feet away from his bedroom, because we're taking the trip there for granted. Of course, him walking through the woods is very important on the day he finds that bird, so there it's shown and extended. Also, the trees literally move and change configurations as he approaches them to signify him going a different way home than usual. And that's not even getting into his ability to turn an entire book's worth of pages into a giant paper airplane and back. The whole game is made of effects like that, and I still don't claim to understand a lot of them. It all feels like traversing a dream... or a memory, which could be very important given the potential Finding Paradise connections.

Either way, there's hardly any gameplay to be had here. With the exception of a few "press space to splash in the puddle" type playing-around moments, it's literally just walking from one cutscene to the next as the narrative unfolds. But it's a really good narrative so this is fine.

I mentioned this in the Team Hatoful run, but here it is again for people who don't want to watch that: It is hard to tell a story visually. Words are cheap, but it takes skill to show the plot, what the story even is to the protagonist's emotional reactions to it, just by the way a character walks or runs or looks up or down or breaks into a wide-eyed O_O face. It is also hard to pull off effective dreamlike visuals with wildly differing settings melting into each other. Freebird Games not only was able to do both in one game, but it did both in one game in RPG Maker. I really want you all to stop and think about how impressive that is. How much work must have went into the tilesets, the boy's sprites, the cutscene scripting.... Freebird plays RPG Maker like an experienced old master plays a priceless artisan-crafted musical instrument, to just as beautiful results.

So yeah, this one was so good I worked around my own rules to include it.
kjorteo: Screenshot from Daedalian Opus, of a solved puzzle with the text "GOOD" displayed on underneath it. (GOOD)
This one was next in line in the "smartphone game to poke at while waiting for the bus" slot after Solar 2 finally fell. It didn't torment me for nearly as long, but it was a good solid romp while it lasted.

Splice is a puzzle game based on binary trees and cell division. You have a starting shape, an outline of a target finished shape, and X moves to get there from here. Later levels introduce cells that split/extend/disappear/etc. as a special power when you poke the cell in the center (which critically does not cost a move to do.) There are seven "sequences" of seven levels each, then you get a credit sequence, then four more "Epilogue" sequences with the truly brain-breaking ones.

First off, this game has an amazing soundtrack. It has a very strong and clear acoustic piano motif throughout, but within that framework it takes you to so many different moods along the way. Note the theme to the last sequence in the main game, which really does have a sort of "last level, this is it, invading Dr. Wily's fortress now, everything has led up to this decisive final battle" feel to it despite remaining a pure acoustic piano piece like all the rest. The last Epilogue sequence has a good feeling of finality to it as well, at least when it gets to the... chorus? Is that what it's still called in an instrumental piano piece? Refrain? Big main part?

As far as the actual gameplay, the basic premise works fine once you get used to how it works, though it was easy to get overwhelmed in some of the Epilogue levels where the shapes get a bit too complex for me to follow in my head. At that point, I tended to rely on accidentally surprising myself by just throwing a piece somewhere out of desperation and... oh... hey... that... actually almost lines up? Huh. (And if it doesn't, Epilogue sequences 3 and 4 are where I finally started to use hints with more regularity. Not all the levels in either, mind, but a good few.) I want to call this a complaint, and say maybe this game was about one or two Epilogue sequences too long and some of those final puzzles are a bit much, but... well, I'm kind of hesitant to play the "this game is bullshit" card just because I personally couldn't keep up. Especially because it was great until then! So maybe that one's just me.

No, if I have to lodge any actual complaint, it's that the menu is rather clunky to navigate. See the end of the gameplay trailer, where it sort of zooms back out past all the old levels counting all the way back down to the Splice logo? That's how you exit the game. The "Back" button brings you back one sequence, so keep pressing it to count all the way down until you're back to the logo. Back again on that brings up a "Terminate? Y/N" prompt, but Back again on that cancels the prompt and returns you to the Splice logo. So, basically, you have to spam Back until you get to the logo, then carefully hit it one more time and select Y at the prompt to exit. That's... there had to have been a better way to do that, guys. Come on.

Also, I don't know if it was just me, but my phone could barely handle the credit sequence after finishing the main game for whatever reason. Like, it ran at about one frame every 1-2 seconds. Still, it looked like it was just a scroll through all the puzzles you'd completed, and the music still worked fine, so whatever. It didn't crash and my progress counted so I'm good.
kjorteo: Crop from Action Replay box art, of a very cheap imitation bootleg Charizard with a hippo-like giant nose and ear tufts.  Text on the bottom reads "NOT FAKE" (PARizard: NOT FAKE)
I thought I was done with this game, but much like Mega Man Unlimited, I sort of fell into the bonus content and one thing led to another and somehow> I ended up doing a 100% RG+ run on hard mode.

My first completion of this game was on the original version 1.0 of it. Since 1.0 came out and was immediately C&D'd/DMCA'd by Nintendo and the original author backed down without releasing the source code, other fans have reconstructed it and updated it with new modes and features. I grabbed version 1.2.6 out of curiosity over how far it had come. Since 1.2.6 is therefore an unauthorized fan reproduction of an unauthorized fan reproduction, that officially makes it the most bootleg ass thing I've ever seen, and [NSFW!] I've commissioned porn of that Action Replay Charizard from this icon. [NSFW!]

Anyway, version 1.2.6 has a few new modes compared to 1.0. In addition to every mode having Easy/Normal/Difficult settings through a separate unrelated menu, there's now a somewhat poorly-named New Game Plus feature that actually has nothing to do with starting over again and doesn't require a clear file, and is basically just "fuck your earthquakes, bruh" mode. It lowers the lava level down to just before the sequence with the first Omega Metroid, meaning you have to go around killing all 30-something other Metroids in the game to unlock the actual last level and it proceeds normally from there, but until then it's much more open and limited only by your ability to navigate around and not die horribly in areas you shouldn't be in yet.

Part of me wanted to append "you know, like Metroid should be" to that, but on second thought, there is a such thing as too open if you're a brand new player. You shouldn't have heavy-handed forcing where the plot itself issues stringent demands where to go next, but neither should you leave a wide-open crossroads with zero indication where the "next area" is and punish the player for being somewhere they didn't know they weren't supposed to be yet. I don't like Metroid Fusion, but I don't like Final Fantasy 2, either. Still, if you've been through the game before and have a rough idea of the sequence and can be trusted to more or less get there on your own, New Game Plus is a fantastic addition and I love that it lets you do it.

Also, there's Random Game Plus, which is New Game Plus with an item semi-randomizer. (It makes sure certain categories of items are kept to themselves so you won't get a missile tank instead of the Spider Ball, it makes sure you at least have either Bombs or Power Bombs before you get to the point where you need to blow walls up to proceed further, etc.) Supposedly the randomization logic was redone from the ground up for 1.2.6 and beyond, and people were leaving comments praising it, so I thought I'd just poke my head in for five minutes just to have a simple curious peek.

Then the very first item I got was the Screw Attack.

Then the second was the Plasma Beam, followed by the Ice Beam (which is redesigned in AM2R to be less freeze-things-for-platforms utility since you already have the Space Jump anyway and more just an endgame SUPER DAMAGE INCREASE deal.)

Well okay, I guess I'm doing this run after all, then.

Then I noticed a very interesting shift in gameplay style. I was also playing this run on Hard, and the combination of that plus getting the best weapons in the game first felt a lot like Dante Must Die mode from Devil May Cry. I could slice through just about anything in the game without even slowing down, but if I hit anything that fought back (like the first boss or anything immune to the Screw Attack, or just about anything in the endgame areas,) they could cut through my Power Suit/No-Energy-Tanks ass in one hit as well.

The beginning of the game was a mixture of feeling omnipotent and helpless at the same time because of that, and also because of how my draw went as far as utilities. I had the Screw Attack, Plasma Beam, and Ice Beam, and later even Super Missiles, but I didn't have the High or Space Jump, Spider or even Spring Ball, or even Bombs. I did get one Power Bomb (expansions give you 1 each instead of 2 on Hard,) which basically let me into the front door of a lot of places, but it's actually very easy to softlock yourself in a run like that if you use your one single Power Bomb to get into a screen, there aren't enemy drops or anything, and the bomb block respawns when you try to go back out. This tormented me, especially because--fun fact--early Screw Attack means you can access the teleport hub in the Distribution Center as soon as you get to the Golden Temple. Even more fun fact: the Gravity Suit is still unchanged location-wise, because it's a machine you step into and get that cutscene and isn't just a thing on a Chozo statue. Funnest fact: you can get to it with the Screw Attack and a single Power Bomb. Least fun fact: you can't get back out until you have either a second Power Bomb or, you know, Bombs. :(

So, with no lava and even early access to the teleport room, but none of the basic utilities you'd need to get around anywhere once you got there, (and of course since the loot is semi-randomized anyway,) the early game involved a lot of trial and error. I'd save before using my one Power Bomb to go down a certain passage, see if I could possibly make progress and get anything from there, and if the answer is no and I got stuck or died, reload. Eventually I broke through, though. One of the areas I tried had the Space Jump, and from there... well, there was a lot of gradual rebuilding my arsenal from there. You know, like a Metroid game, only the sequence is random, which I guess is literally what a randomized Metroid run. Wow, I'm smart.

Anyway, the random element sort of fades to the background the closer you get to the endgame, because once you have basically everything anyway, does the path you took to get there really matter? Still, even the endgame had a surprise or two because holy crap they weren't kidding about having rebalanced (and dramatically improved) the Omega Metroid battles since 1.0. You know how one of my complaints in the last COMPLETE entry was that they were too much of a damage sponge with "you can figure out all the patterns and everything but they still take like 20 Super Missiles to kill" fake difficulty? Never mind.

I did notice a bug, though: When you get 100% completion, you should have 118 Missiles, 10 Super Missiles, and 10 Power Bombs (because 2 Missiles/1 Super Missile/1 Power Bomb per expansion on Hard, rather than 5/2/2) plus 10 Energy tanks. I got every item in the game, I did in fact get 100%... but I still only had 9 Energy Tanks. I did, however, have 120 Missiles. Clearly one of the Energy Tanks became an extra Missile expansion instead. Oops. Still, that's minor, and my 100% still counted.

I'm glad I did this run, because I got to experience what was definitely a new play style and new feel to this game, and also because getting to write another COMPLETE entry gives me a chance to point out some things I missed last time. Specifically, did you know how awesome the music is in this remake? Seriously, whoever turned this into this is a miracle worker.

Also, one criticism I've noticed of the AM2R remake specifically is that it makes the caverns feel less oppressive. Yes, the original Game Boy music is terrible, but people in comments report that it gives you a sort of sense of gloom, being lost and utterly alone in this environment (which is technically true in any Metroid game but this one makes you feel like it,) and they regret that that feeling is missing in the new version with the improved music. To which I say... not really? Actually, if anything, this game does a better job making you feel lonely just by repeatedly teasing the possibility that you might not be, except oops never mind you totally are. You can stumble across not one but two instances of wrecked and deserted research outposts where maybe there were people here about a month ago but there are very obviously no survivors now. The one time you do find actual living people, they're mid-battle with the first Omega Metroid, who promptly slaughters them all. Like, I knew you weren't going to find a living NPC and have a conversation or any sort of text with anyone because it's Metroid, so obviously none of those leads were going to pan out, but I would argue that getting your hopes up like that does a lot more to make you feel isolated than having to listen to this.

I know AM2R is kind of all the rage these days in my friend circle--[personal profile] xyzzysqrl just did her own complete entry on it, and [personal profile] xaq_the_aereon has been all over it for some time now--but Sqrl's entry is right: this is a fully professional grade release, even surpassing the actually-official and professional Zero Mission, and you really owe it to yourself to check it out. Of course, you legally can't after Nintendo shut the project down, but... well, my morals are more or less in line with the Extra Credits stance on game piracy, where availability is the one true above-all-else threshold for determining whether it's okay. If Nintendo somehow changed their minds, reached out to and worked with the developers, and either partnered for an official release or even just let them make an official release, you'd better believe I'd be the first in line to give them money for this because holy hell do they deserve it. But obviously that's never going to happen, so, you know, fine, go play this really outstanding game by the one means you actually can.
kjorteo: Ukiyo-e woodcut-style portrait of a Skarmory. (Skarmory: Ukiyo-e)
Oh thank God that one's done. My clear file only has about 10 hours on it, but don't let that deceive you; this one has been plaguing me for years due to a combination of me treating it like a low-priority smartphone time-waster that never ends (think PathPix) and because it's absurdly hard whenever I do get around to poking at it.

Solar 2 is... uh... kind of hard to describe, honestly, but it's more or less an infinite galactic sandbox, with missions. You are anything from a lowly asteroid to a small planet to a life-bearing planet to a star to several stars and/or bigger star(s) to a black hole. The higher forms are achieved by gaining mass, but once you become something once, you can respawn as that from the menu at any time. That alien-looking guy there is... well, he's never referred to by name in game but external sources such as walkthroughs call him The Entity, so let's go with that. The Entity has a bunch of errands for you to run at your leisure depending on what you are at the time, and most of them are incredibly tricky bouts of dexterity. (Example: one of the Planet missions is to go to a nearby solar system and knock all the orbiting asteroids off each individual planet--done by getting just close enough to let them smash into you--without touching the planets themselves. With gravity physics factoring in, like everything in this game, this is much harder than it sounds.)

The save feature doesn't keep track of a state or snapshot or anything; rather, it auto-saves the list of which missions you've cleared, and you can manually save your solar system once you reach star level and have one. So, if I'm a medium-size star and have two planets orbiting me, and just finished getting enough mass for one that it evolved to a life planet, I can save that system. When I go to reload it, I'll just lose control of whatever I was controlling at the time, the camera will zoom over a bit, and land on what is suddenly and conveniently an exact replica of whatever I saved (in this case, a medium star with two planets, one of which has life. It even keeps track of exact mass and how close you are to the next phase!)

All in all, it's a fun little fly-around-and-do-whatever sim, or it would be if anything involving the Entity wasn't so hard.

The earlier missions are impossible feats of dexterity, as previously mentioned. The later missions, once you're a solar system, are... well... grindy. When the mission is to go fight and destroy a system that has a medium-sized star and four life planets (life planets spawn ships loyal to that system that fire on their enemies, and also give the central star(s) shields) then all you can really do to make that fight winnable is fly around and absorb stuff until you are a large-sized star with six life planets. (You'll probably lose most of them in the fight anyway, but at least if you win it will save the achievement and then you can respawn as your saved system to get everything back such back.)

By the time I actually cleared the final mission, I was a connected system of nine stars (three medium, six large) with eight planets, all of which had life, thus shielding my entire system. And getting to that point... ugh. At least you can sometimes be lucky and catch a free-floating life planet if you encounter one and you have room, but the only way to gain additional stars in the same system is to evolve orbiting life planets into them, which means flying around carefully enough near asteroid fields that that particular planet catches a few in its orbit, so you can absorb them for mass. I wasn't going for the Grind Star achievement (a forty star system!? haha fuck you) but even getting to the nine-star/eight-planet one to beat the last mission still involved a lot of play that looked like this.

There are tons of achievements and such to get even after clearing the game, and you can always just work on building up your system for the fun of it, but... no, I've grinded enough in this game thank you.
kjorteo: Scan from an old Super Mario Bros. comic,, of King Koopa explaining something to his son with an 8U facial expression. (Koopa: 8U)
This is mostly just behind-the-scenes recordkeeping, but technically I officially crossed something off the list which means it gets a post.

Last Dream is a fine game--in fact, [personal profile] xyzzysqrl just beat it and did a lovely writeup of it. I concur that it's great, and I'm not even abandoning it for anything it did wrong, but....

Actually, I may as well take the time to coin/explain a term while I'm here, since I expect this will not be the last time this happens.

When Style Savvy: Trendsetters for Nintendo DS came out, I was in love. I hadn't played that series before but it was just so me in every way. I got a good ways into it... then other games came out, I got sidetracked, and it sort of faded back into the background with a half-done save file, as is usually the case for most things I play. I always wanted to go back to it someday....

Then Style Savvy: Fashion Forward for 3DS came out.

Style Savvy isn't exactly Final Fantasy: (with the exception that I actually kind of am embarrasingly into where Fashion Forward's story is going,) you generally don't play a Style Savvy game for the riveting plot specific to that particular game. Moreover, a game is going to look much like the older ones except with some improvements. Trendsetters was a fine game, I had a blast with it while it lasted, and my abandoning it was through no fault of its own... but I knew I would never touch it again, because if I really wanted to play Style Savvy, I could and probably should just play Fashion Forward instead. You know, get the new and improved version if I'm going to be playing more or less the same thing anyway.

There are some series I will zealously and perhaps irrationally insist on doing in order--I won't play Wright v. Layton until I finish Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask, which I won't even start until I finish Professor Layton and the Last Specter, which I won't even start until I finally dust off and get through my half-done file for Professor Layton and the Unwound Future. I stuck to Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness even when Explorers of Sky came out because I was already like a million hours in and didn't want to start over. Sometimes, though... sometimes you see something like Last Dream: World Unknown coming out soon, and you just have to give the original Last Dream the Trendsetters treatment.
kjorteo: Screenshot from Daedalian Opus, of a solved puzzle with the text "GOOD" displayed on underneath it. (GOOD)
Another one I figured I'd power through and cross off the list because it probably wasn't very long--I mean, it's Metroid. If you take more than five hours to beat any 2D Metroid game, you're not very good at Metroid the way it's "supposed" to be played.

(Note: I am not very good at Metroid the way it's "supposed" to be played.)

AM2R (or "Another Metroid 2 Remake") is an unauthorized fan-made... well, Metroid 2 remake. It basically is to Metroid 2 what Zero Mission was to the original Metroid: take the original game, update it to around the level of SNES/GBA sensibilities, add an auto map, and add the modern equipment Super Metroid invented (Super Missiles, Power Bombs, Speed Boster, Gravity Suit, etc.) and possibly make up new sections to justify needing them.

This game does an excellent job fixing a lot of Metroid 2's issues: the world is no longer a non-Euclidean impossibility, and the Super Metroid quality of life improvements (auto-map, beams stacking instead of you only getting one at a time, etc.) are an absolute Godsend. However, there are still some gameplay issues that are sort of core to Metroid 2 itself and that the AM2R devs had to recreate, such as the "seek out and kill every Metroid on the map" mechanic being a bit repetitive and needless at times. (Again, let me just make it very clear that I'm not blaming them for this, and that this is strictly the source material's fault.)

My biggest issue is that Metroid 2 feels more authoritarian about its enforced order of exploration than some other Metroid games. Yes, every Metroid game secretly is all about only letting you progress in one area at a time, but the better ones do a good job hiding that. In a well designed Metroid game, unlocking new areas will feel like something you have the power to access now (for example, being able to reach a door on a high-up platform after you acquire the High-Jump Boots.) In a badly-designed one, it will feel like something the game is allowing you to access now (for example, as unopenable gray doors that flash and become openable when the plot says so. This is why Fusion is the worst game in the series, by the way.)

Yes, I'm setting all that up to complain about the Metroid 2 earthquakes. Come on, they were heavy-handed back then and they're heavy-handed now.

Other issues that are either AM2R's fault or that AM2R could have fixed but didn't: Some later areas have to stop to load. (The first time this happened to me, I thought my game had frozen. Fortunately I just had to give it a moment.) Backtracking can be a chore when the world map is so big and there are no Castlevania-style teleport rooms. Every single Metroid life cycle stage feels like a damage sponge when mixed with how hard they can be to hit in the first place. Even that Alpha they put right before the first Omega is still a long and careful fight when nothing else from that stretch of the game should even slow you down anymore. The knockback effect Zetas and Omegas get is a neat way to show that they're powerful/a big deal, but not when they have the power to send you flying out of their room and reset the fight. Also, the chirpy monstery sound effect when they explode sounds a lot like "Oh noooo" and now I feel bad for killing them. Thanks. :(

That being said, these are mostly minor issues, and the game is still phenomenal overall. I used to say Zero Mission was my favorite Metroid game, but AM2R easily does all that Zero Mission does and more. We'll see how my mood fluctuates after the dust has settled, but we may just have a new champion.

As a random aside, though, (and this one's not an actual complaint,) can I just point out how weird the item distribution order is in this game? It gives you the Space Jump--something that's usually an end-game item because basically you can fly--shockingly early. Instead, it jealously keeps Super Missiles, of all things, away from you until much later on. Those came in early Brinstar in Super Metroid, and seeing them promoted to near-endgame status here was unexpected. It plays with almost the entire item table like this; I had the Space Jump, Screw Attack, and even Gravity Suit before I had the Ice Beam. (Though, to be fair, once you have the Space Jump and Spider Ball and mobility isn't an issue anymore, you really only need the Ice Beam for the "freeze and then missile" Metroids.) It works, definitely. It is clearly and carefully designed around what you're meant to have at each point. It's just that what you're meant to have is so unusual compared to other games. Not a bad thing, mind you. Just... huh. Strange.

Anyway, I beat it with a clear time of 6:15:Something and an item get rate of 91%. I looked up a map to find what I was missing, but it's mostly just Missile/Super Missile/Power Bomb tanks here and there around the map. Apparently nothing special happens when you get 100%, as opposed to Zero Mission where that got you a new version of the endboss. So... eh, not really worth the backtracking, in that case. Like, I could, but it would take time and it wouldn't do anything, so whatever. I did get the obligatory "perform an extended sequence of convoluted Shinespark shenanigans just to get a missile tank" expansions, so really, it's complete enough.

Edit: Or not. Please continue on to the COMPLETE entry for AM2R (RG+/Hard Run) for more on this game as I went through it again.
kjorteo: Photo of a computer screen with countless nested error prompts (Error!)
TIS-100 is a puzzle game by Zachtronics. Much like Qrostar, that name alone should more or less tell you what you need to know. In this case, (with the apparent exception that they also made Ironclad Tactics for some reason?) "It is a Zachtronics game" means puzzle games based around outputting the correct solution to the goal by manipulating abstracted variations of worker nodes with instructions that... it's programming. The word we're looking for is "Programming." Here's how this game's nodes and instructions work, now write a program that sorts all the gems by color and puts the red ones on the right.

Zachtronics games tend to start with exceedingly simple and direct "pick up the thing from this square, move to the right, and put it down on that one" tasks, and then escalate to convoluted nightmare code like this. They also tend to have somewhat Lovecraftian stories surrounding these puzzles, like the player character is working on some sort of Lament Configuration and either their sanity or the actual world or both descend to eldritch horror as... well, as your code does. But hey, at least you can look at your cycle count/instructions and space used statistics to compare how optimized your solution is versus those of your friends and the Steam community as a whole!

So there.

TIS-100 uses the abstraction of an old-styled computer with a sort of variant of assembly language, meaning either Zachtronics just gave up even trying to hide that they're making you do their CS 222 homework or you are now somehow playing a game about coding dressed up as a game about coding. The presentation was fairly minimalist by intention as a direct result--ASCII graphics, no music--but it worked well for the general mood.

I confess that I just gave up and used a walkthrough for one particular puzzle: Sequence Sorter, the penultimate one. Now, bear in mind that I've beaten every Qrostar game, beaten every North American Lolo game and even one of the Famicom ones, hundred-percented the first two Layton games... unless it's a genre that I just don't play at all in the first place (Myst-likes, 3D physics stuff, etc.) I tend not to want to admit that any puzzle game is ever just too much puzzle for me. But making an honest to God sorting algorithm in assembly is not a puzzle game. That's an actual programming task for highly-compensated professional software engineers. In fact, I have a friend who is a highly-compensated professional software engineer, with a technical degree and a Project Lead title and everything, and even he said that's not normally something people do in assembly and, you know, maybe just go ahead and walkthrough that one. I got all the others, though, including the actual last level and even the secret hidden puzzle (the ILLEGAL_EAGLE Achievement) to make up for it. So I think that counts.

I'm not doing the user-submitted bonus content, though. I had a peek at that tab and the very first puzzle involves taking two pre-sorted input streams, merging them, sorting that, and outputting the sorted megastream.

You know what? No.

Still, this was fun, and like any Zachtronics game, it gives you a strange sense of pride and an urge to show off your solution compared to everyone else's. If coding in the arrival of the Ancient Ones sounds like fun to you... well, honestly, play SpaceChem. But if you've already played SpaceChem and loved it and just want more, you could do a lot worse in the programming-puzzle genre than this one!
kjorteo: Screenshot from Jumpman, of the player character falling to his doom, with the caption "FAIL" on the bottom. (Fail)
Oops, I swear none of this Megazeux stuff was supposed to happen. I just got a couple of the top rated games on DigitalMZX along with Megazeux itself in case I ever wanted to learn/get into Megazeux someday and reverse-engineer anything at that point. Then I went through the ones I downloaded with the intention of peeking at them just long enough to establish what kind of games they even are, before filing them away somewhere for the far distant future. Somehow that led to me accidentally beating Caverns of Zeux and briefly being sucked into this one. It ultimately wasn't my thing and I'm not going to finish it, but technically I spent longer on it before reaching that decision than I did on MANOS, so I guess it deserves a write-up too.

So Thanatos Insignia is an overhead action game that plays kind of like someone made Operation Logic Bomb in Megazeux, paired with single-screen narrations between each level about someone in the hospital trying to use some fancy computing system to model human behavior and solve why violence exists, slowly becoming more obsessed with using the system and becoming more antisocial themselves in the process. Also the levels have random and really unfitting J-pop music, I guess in case you want to feel like you're shooting aliens while playing DDR.

I wasn't really feeling the gameplay, but the story segments interested me enough to keep going... right until I got stomped by the boss of level 12 (who fights to the tune of GIGA PUDDING for some reason.) I forgot to save and I really didn't want to go through the first twelve levels again, so I poked around the data files until I found where it was storing the story bits, read through those, and called it good.

I was wondering if this game was eventually heading toward some sort of point with juxtaposing the narrative of questioning the human nature toward violence in between levels of pure "gun down every bad guy that moves" but if it did, I didn't get that far and it wasn't in the story files.

Oh, well.

Still a technically and visually impressive, well-made game if this genre speaks to you.
kjorteo: Screenshot from Daedalian Opus, of a solved puzzle with the text "GOOD" displayed on underneath it. (GOOD)
Well, that wasn't supposed to happen. I mean, it wasn't on the list or anything, and I'm trying to be good about sticking to that now. But here we are, I suppose.

Basically, I have a few game ideas kicking around, from a Lolo clone to an RPG to that (probably) not serious Mega Man X fan game, but I've been stuck for ages on 1) ahahaha like I have time to make games on top of the novel and everything else in my life, and 2) what GCS/platform would I even use, anyway? 1 is still an issue so don't expect anything to be happening soon, if ever. For 2, I was curious about Megazeux, having spent my embarrassing teen phase in the ZZT community and never actually having gotten into what the "like ZZT only more powerful and can do sorcery" side of it was like. Admittedly Fusion is probably a better idea for flexibility and making something anyone would actually play, but I figured learning MZX could serve as an interim ZZT --> MZX --> ??? step between something I actually know and something modern devs actually use.

So obviously step one was to beat Caverns of Zeux, AKA The Game That Comes With MegaZeux. (Or it did until recently, anyway, and it's still a recommended first download even if it's technically decoupled now.) ZZT has Town, MZX has Caverns. I'm sure someone from the MZX community can explain why the first game ever made for MegaZeux was Zeux 2: Caverns of Zeux, and Zeux 1: Labyrinth of Zeux didn't come out until years later. I'm also sure they've probably addressed that so many times that I'm pointing out the equivalent of the "if it doesn't scan that must mean it's free" joke. Sorry, I'm new here.

Anyway, Caverns is fairly short and simple by actual game standards--any ZZT veteran would instantly recognize this as a standard "collect the 5 Things" quest game... except that it's not. Collecting all five rainbow gems is how you clear the first area. From there, there are six more bosses, seven pendants, six crystals... it feels like a hybrid of an N64-era Rare collectathon and Wonder Boy: Fail You Have Turned Into A Furry. (Really, any game where the clear moral of the story is "Be a dragon always" is okay with me.) It's long by ZZT standards, and by that I mean it took two days to beat rather than an hour, and it's... well, cavernous.

The biggest obstacle I experienced (other than that you can Sierra-softlock your game with no warning if you go into the wrong mouse hole first) is that there is a ton of backtracking and it is frequently unclear what area you just unlocked by accomplishing whatever goal you just accomplished. Once I was in a new area, I could find my way through and beat the boss easily enough, but if the boss didn't actually give me anything except a dead end and maybe turning me into a skeleton then the sense of "okay, now what?" necessitated a walkthrough on several occasions.

Still, as an MZX pack-in it's... well, to be honest, a little daunting. Coming from ZZT to MZX, Caverns already does some fairly complicated special effects and programming tricks that kind of make me afraid to try to break into it. I mean, this looks hard already, and this is coming from someone with ZZT experience looking at a language that reviews call easy to learn and is specifically designed to be a smooth ZZT-but-better transition. And that's for Caverns, which is, again, the Town of MegaZeux. If this is anything like ZZT, well, eventually the ZZT community hit a point where games that looked like Town weren't even allowed on Z2 anymore; the entire community had advanced so much that "your game must at least use STK I mean come on" was kind of a benchmark. If this is Baby's First MZX game, what do real MZX games look like nowadays?

(Answer: Like this or this, apparently. Holy fuck this was a bad idea.)
kjorteo: Screenshot from Daedalian Opus, of a solved puzzle with the text "GOOD" displayed on underneath it. (GOOD)
Hoo boy do I have a lot to cover on this one. I love this game's story to pieces but it has so many issues in execution. It's the sort of game I absolutely could not put down on any given run (except one, which we will cover shorty,) but between runs I shelved it for months to almost years at a time because the thought of slogging through it all again was just... sigh. It lives right on the edge where if the story weren't as amazing as it was, I'd never have put up with all the glaring design issues and this would have been an ABANDONED entry instead. Of course, if the design issues weren't so horrible, maybe it wouldn't have taken me so long to get through this game which I did ultimately like.

Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (or 999 for short) is a visual novel with miniature point-and-click room escape sequences in between stretches of pure reading. You play the role of Junpei, an ordinary college student and one of the titular Nine Persons who have all been kidnapped and forced to play their way through this twisted puzzle escape sequence on a very-slowly-sinking ship. Each Person has a number assigned to them from 1 to 9. Because of "it would take forever to explain" plot contrivances, the Persons must get through a series of numbered doors which will only open for sub-groups of no smaller than 3 but no larger than 5 Persons, and only if the digital root of the Persons in the sub-group equals the number on the door.

Digital Roots are when you add up a bunch of numbers, and if the sum is greater than 10, treat each digit as another number and add those up, until you're left with a single-digit number. For example, the group of Persons 1, 4, and 9 could get through door 5, because (1+4+9) = 14 and (1+4) = 5. The game is completely obsessed with digital roots and even gives you a automatic tool specifically to calculate them.

Junpei is Person 5. Person 6 (code name June) is an old childhood friend he hadn't seen since elementary school, and every other Person in the cast is a complete stranger. The cast must get to know each other and work together to solve puzzles and escape with their lives, all while working on the mystery of who kidnapped them, why them, and why this game. The overall plot is phenomenal, and no matter how much I hated the actual gameplay at times, I cared deeply about this mystery and I always wanted to know what happened and what it all meant, and that was what kept me coming back through... well....

Like I said, there are a lot of issues that drag the otherwise stellar experience down. I've been waiting to write this entry so I can rant about them pretty much since I started this project, so buckle up. Heavy spoilers, by the way.

Read more... )

Whew. Okay. So. That was easily the longest entry in this series I've ever done, if not one of the longest entries I've ever written period. I've been in a love-hate relationship with this game for years and I had so much I wanted to get off my chest now that I'm finally done. But... oh, God. It's over, both the game and this writeup. It's over. I... this is the most relieved I've felt to have finished a game since my Dagger of Amon Ra Let's Play.

It was a good game, though.

kjorteo: Pixel-style portrait of Celine's face (GOOD.)
After beating this game as Mega Man just yesterday I said I'd put this one on the back-burner for a while, maybe come back and go through it again as the freshly unlocked alternate character, and do another complete entry when I did.

Then I accidentally Civilization "just one more level"-ed my way through the entire game. Oops.

Compared to Mega Man, the other character is an absolute game breaker, and intentionally so. This isn't meant to be another challenge. It's meant as... if anyone ever watches RoahmMythril's Mega Man perfect run YouTube videos, sometimes he'll struggle a lot on a certain stage because of his self-imposed buster only/no damage rules, then get fed up and go back and just outright slaughter everything with the special weapons to blow off steam between takes, usually while cackling madly and shouting "REVENGE!! SWEET [special weapon]-Y REVENGE!!"

The unlockable MMU character plays kind of like that.

He kind of does the Final Fantasy Dark Knight thing where all his attacks including his default regular weapon cast from hit points. On the other hand, to make up for this, they all have a vampirism effect where he regains life by damaging enemies. The weapons also tend to ignore enemy mercy invincibility and hit multiple times per swipe, so losing 1 HP to swing your sword for about 5 hits (and get 5 HP back) is a very good trade. He also plays sort of like Zero from Mega Man X4 wherein he learns special abilities from fallen bosses instead of new actual weapons, and in this case the vast majority of them are defensive/utility (double jump, air dash, etc.) By the end, you have two actual weapons (plus special moves) which you mostly switch between depending on whether you need to hit one thing far away or a cloud of things (or just Crissaegrim a boss) up close. You don't need more than that because boss weaknesses aren't really a thing; every boss is weak against every attack you have.

Basically, what I'm saying is that this is Mega Man meets Guncaster. You almost never have to worry about losing a straight up fight with anyone. (Okay, some did take multiple tries, but most didn't.)

You do, however, still have to worry about spikes and bottomless pits and whatnot, which is where the vast majority of my deaths came from. His entire playstyle encourages rampant aggression, literally rewarding you for blindly rushing in like a whirlwind of death (no enemies stand a chance against you and that's how you refill your life.) You almost forget you're still mortal at times, and then you end up paying for your carelessness in Rainbow Man's stage.

Still, hiccups like that aside, mwahaha.

After working on my Mega Man file for months, I breezed through this character's run in a day because it felt good. It was mad-cackling fun to get my RoahmMythril-y revenge on this game, and I also feel accomplished because now I really am done with it can take it off the list entirely rather than having that feeling of "yeah but there's still that other run someday..." haunting even a tiniest corner of the back of my mind. The unlockable character took that feeling and slashed it into millions of ribbons in one attack like he was the guy from Metal Gear Revengeance. It was completely over the top and awesome.
kjorteo: Pixel-style portrait of Celine's face (FAIL)
Because if I'm stealing [livejournal.com profile] xyzzysqrl's COMPLETE record-keeping concept, I may as well steal the NOT COMPLETE side too. I have a zillion games in the backlog, some have been languishing almost as long as I've been alive, but I do feel the need to make special record-keeping note of the ones where I tried them and now (just like the COMPLETE entries) I am done with this game.

So, what's the first official failure of this project? Well, I almost didn't bother counting this one because I NOPE'd out of it in under ten minutes, but... well, that's about how long Essence.exe would have been if I hadn't gotten stuck, and that one got a COMPLETE entry, so what the hell.

MANOS: The Hands of Fate is a tongue-in-cheek indie game based off the infamous Mystery Science Theater 3000-featured movie of the same name. Apparently they throw in some other MST3K miscellany to pad things out (there's a boss fight with Ro-Man from Robot Monster according to this trailer?? Geez, I didn't get that far.) It's just... well....

  • 1) I got the Android version as part of a Humble Mobile Bundle and the controls are hideous. See the left, right, B, and A buttons on the corners of the screen in that trailer? Using your touch screen, use those to... look, I know you can't exactly have an actual controller on a smartphone game, but this just does not work. At all. Not even in the best of times (I kind of gave up on Anodyne and the mobile version of Another World years ago before starting this write-up project, for much the same reason,) but especially not during a hectic boss battle when the A "button" is right next to my phone's actual built-in "pause and switch between apps" button.
  • 2) Even if the controls themselves weren't an issue, your character is clunky and hard to steer, and a lot of enemies and projectiles feel literally undodgeable as a result. I'm not against brutally difficult 8-bit games, but I am against fake difficulty.
  • 3) All this for what basically feels like "MST3K was great, right? LOL?"

In conclusion: Nah.
kjorteo: Pixel-style portrait of Celine's face (Default)
I'm marking this as "complete" even though beating the game as Mega Man unlocks an entire alternate bonus "start a new game only play as this other character instead" mode which I'm kind of interested in doing, but... eh, I'll think about it, keep it as a background process for now, and write another complete entry for the alt-character run if I ever actually go through with (and finish) that.

Mega Man Unlimited is an unlicensed indie fan Mega Man game that miraculously has not been C&D'd yet despite having been up and fairly well-known since 2013. I am actually extremely late to the party, which means I had access to a few quality of life improvements that would make the 1.0 veterans go off on a back-in-my-day tangent (charged shots, the ability to exit the stage from the menu, slightly different block placement in a few rooms, way better music for Rainbow Man and a few other stages, seriously RoahmMythril's MMU run is almost hard to watch at parts because oh my God that's what Rainbow Man's stage used to sound like?)

Gameplay is sort of a hybrid of Mega Man 3 and 4 (slide, no charged shots by default but you can optionally add them in now, MM4 and beyond version of the Rush Jet) only, being a Mega Man classic series fan game, the difficulty starts out at "fuck you" and as you-the-player get better it slowly levels out to... I'll peg it somewhere around Mega Man 9, from what I remember of that one (it was a while ago.) There is a severe case of Checkpoint Starvation, which can make some of the more instantaneously deadly situations (spike drops, tricky jumps over bottomless pits, etc.) feel more unfair in this game than even the same obstacle would be in other Mega Man games. It's no fun mess up one "jump too low and you won't make it across the pit, but too high and you hit the spikes on the ceiling" jump just before the boss and then half to do like half the stage again.

Getting the Rush Jet early helped shortcut my way around a lot of the bullshit, but even then, the game did spring some rather cruel trial-and-error tricks on you from time to time. Example: Occupied Wily Fortress Stage 1, see middle horizontal stretch of the overall S-shaped level? You have to go from right to left on the Rush Jet. This is the MM4 version that always moves forward, so this part is basically a side-scrolling shoot-em-up. If you try to get that first energy capsule on the pink column near the bottom of the screen, which you'll see before the second pink column that comes up to near the top of the screen even scrolls onto the screen, then you'll be too low to react in time, probably hit the wall and die, and that's a trip all the way back to start.

Still, other than that it was fun!

Story is... well, I was told going in that it was meant to bridge the Mega Man classic and X series, and the title screen looks like this, so right away I figured someone must like the cataclysm theory. 8 9 10 Robot Masters (counting a secret one and an extra one added later) have gone berserk and started attacking everyone, claiming to work for Dr. Wily, yet strangely Dr. Wily himself swears up and down that he had nothing to do with it this time and even volunteers to work with Dr. Light to figure out what's going on. They got as far as discovering that there was some sort of virus that was altering their programming (uh oh) but then a mysterious shadowy robot broke in and kidnapped Dr. Wily, and now Mega Man has to go beat everyone and save the day. For a classic series Mega Man game, it draws a surprising amount of mystery to "wait, is this all Dr. Wily again?" such that I feel like answering that here would actually be kind of a spoiler, which... that's never a spoiler in Mega Man games. (If you didn't know from the start who Mr. X was in MM6, shame on you.) So that's kind of a remarkable feat right there.

All in all, it's very well made. Great graphics, excellent music (especially in later builds where some of the original songs were improved RAINBOW MAN I'M LOOKING AT YOU.) A+ would recommend if you're into being beaten down by hard classic Mega Man games.

Edit: Please continue on to the COMPLETE entry for the MMU alternate character run as I took that difficulty and snapped it in half with an overpowered REVENGE character. It was very cathartic.
kjorteo: Pixel-style portrait of Celine's face (GOOD.)
These days I'm trying to pick which games I'm juggling via a more formal process and refrain from letting anything new just come in out of nowhere and cut in line, but... come on, it's Star Billions. What was I going to do, let it sit there on my list for months? Ahahaha no I'm tearing into this gift like a hyperactive child on Christmas morning, sorry.

As always, Star Billions is a mobile visual novel-type experience where the main cast (four furry AI programs on a mission to save humanity) gets into a jam, each one comes up with a mutually exclusive idea for how to get out of it, and you have to choose between them. Then, there's a real-world timer countdown between blocks of story, to sort of simulate the "our brave crew is flying toward their next destination now; they'll call you if something comes up" portion of the journey and pace out the story a little. There are retro-styled minigames that can shave time off the timer whenever you score points, and it's trivial to turn "15 minutes until the next event" into about one minute of Yes, Chef!, though if you're looking at eight hours or so then you may as well just wait.

All in all, this is not a game to be judged on its gameplay. It's a multiple choice personality test with some fluff and dressing around it, and even then, a lot of choices end up being glorified alternate-dialogue paths to get to the same end result anyway.

But oh my God, the fluff and the dressing.

This is a story, with characters. The core personalities have distinct and easily identifiable voices, which makes the contrasting decisions all the more clear. For example, one of the first obstacles in season 1 is an asteroid heading toward the ship, revealed after a quick scan to have signs of microbial-sized lifeforms on it. The gruff military-styled AI wants to blast it to protect the ship, while the pacifist friendly communications expert AI wants to fly around it just in case it might be home to more than just non-sentient space bacteria. Which one gets their way, and what ends up happening to the ship, the asteroid, and the entire overall mission as choices like these keep piling up? Well, that's where you come in....

At the same time, as strong as the characters' personalities are, they're also nuanced and fleshed out. These are not one-note gimmicks. These AIs live and learn and grow with their experiences. They are far, far more than the sum of their code (and without venturing too far into spoiler territory, this can actually be plot-relevant depending on how you handle a certain crisis in S2.) Similarly, everyone they meet on their adventures is has a strong and memorable personality as well. The writing is fantastic, and every word of it oozes charm.

The thing that struck me the hardest about this entire series, though, was just how much some of these choices stuck with me. Some of the hardest, most awful decisions you have to make also come during times of extreme crisis--"Hull integrity is at 2% and the next enemy shot will hit in about five seconds OH MY GOD WHAT DO WE DO, QUICKLY." The game does not actually hold you to this, of course. Like one of those burning house fires in a JRPG that patiently waits for you to finish the plot before actually consuming anything, the game will present you with the choice and then give you as much time as you need to make it. However, for personal role-playing reasons and because I was deeply into this story, I decided to go with it. I decided that if I'm only supposed to have a few seconds to make this choice, then that's exactly what I'll do. That means that some of the most heart-wrenching decisions I've ever had to make came in the form of "The first thought that pops into my head has me leaning this way, OKAY YES GOOD FINAL ANSWER GO." And that means that I spent a long time, and will continue to spend a long time even after this series has concluded, thinking about the fact that when it all came down to it, when the chips were down and everything was on the line, that was the first thought that popped into my head. In that sense, I feel like this game has taught me something about myself, that it's shown me something deep down that I normally don't get to see, and that, in at least that regard, this was my journey as much as it was that of the characters.

And really, how many games of any genre have you ever played that can say that?

I will try not to turn every single beaten-game book report in this journal into "please go buy and play this one right now" but I really feel like Star Billions deserves it. It's a lesser known hidden gem of a game that deserves several times the love it's currently getting. You can get season 1 for free on either the Google Play Store or... whatever the iPhone's app store is, with seasons 2 and 3 offered as paid (but very inexpensive) DLC. Please, I need more people to EEEEEEEE at about every major plot point and compare/contrast the choices we made. As [livejournal.com profile] xyzzysqrl opined, sometimes it feels like she and I are the Star Billions fandom, and that is an absolute travesty that I refuse to let stand without at least trying to signal boost it as much as I can.
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