Month: March 2015

Grab Them By The Eyes Review — Cart Strife

by Jed Pressgrove

On the surface, Terry Cavanagh’s Grab Them By The Eyes is a privileged version of Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life, trading the latter’s working-class pathos for quick math-based fun. You play as an unassuming hamburger stand owner who finds a natural enemy in two hip-looking youngsters who set up their own hamburger stand right down the sidewalk. A war of words ensues as you and your opponents buy signs to attract more customers. Different messages and visual effects for your signs attract different amounts of customers, but you can’t spend more than your budget allows, and you must take turns with your enemies when purchasing signs. The advertising gets ugly when you have the opportunity to buy a sign that slams your rivals (you can write your own disparaging messages, though they won’t bring as many new customers). Morality didn’t matter while I played; I just wanted to beat the game at all costs. Interestingly, once you learn the game’s logic, you’ll have little trouble winning, and once you win, no new or bigger challenges remain. You’re left with Cavanagh’s ending where the person selling the signs runs you and those hipsters out of business. Grab Them By The Eyes is a minor morality tale, as Cavanagh’s doesn’t connect his ironic conclusion to anything specific, but the lack of extra content after an empty victory suggests conviction about the pratfall of vicious advertising.

Naut Review — A Mirage of Fun

by Jed Pressgrove

Developed by Lucie Viatgé, Tom Victor, and Titouan Millet, Naut seems bold. The soundtrack demands the most attention, evoking the hypnotic Phillip Glass and hinting at the transcendence of Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra” that fulfilled the vision of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The mixture of warm and cool colors complements this sense of mesmerization, as does the quick onset of ubiquitous lightning and night. This style fits Naut’s invitation to explore, and not just on foot — a car awaits next to the starting point. The automobile also signals the frustrating repetition of poor functionality. Steering the car is a nightmare. Ideally, this shouldn’t matter in the open setting of a Mars desert, but small rocks and other surprisingly sturdy obstacles cannot be seen until you get close to them. Naut attempts to sidestep this problem with whimsy. You can drive the car even when it’s upside down, or you can exit the vehicle to flip it over with the press of a button, which often makes the car perform high-flying stunts. These humorous concessions soon become a monotonous game activity. Running across the environment is more attractive than fumbling around in the vehicle, though the relative slowness of the former breeds impatience as the gradually appearing sights remind me of Jake Clover’s Tandoor, an unsubstantial game that was at least nonirritating with its fleeting appeal.

Dream.Sim Review — Colorful Nothing

by Jed Pressgrove

Some may put OXAM’s Dream.Sim under the same umbrella as Proteus because of its first-person wandering. The similarity ends there: Dream.Sim has a vague, nonspiritual vision. The best moment comes at the beginning when you jump off the balcony of an apartment, defying the laws of life and death to explore a neon city. Look around enough and you’ll find an allusion to nature in a mysterious inky space outside (or within) the metropolis, but the slower walking speed in this area gives one plenty of time to observe a lifelessness that is off-putting compared to Proteus’ active celebration of the natural world and its creation. The most interesting prospect in Dream.Sim is trying to jump onto higher buildings. Unfortunately, high jumps require running, and pressing the run button in the city turns exploration into an ultrasensitive mess of claustrophobic run-ins with black and empty walls. I can’t help but feel I’m staring at nothing despite Dream.Sim’s bright colors and elaborate environment.

1942 Review — The Laziness of Shooter ‘History’

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on an emulation of the 1984 Capcom arcade game at game-oldies.com. The emulation was played using the analog stick of an Xbox 360 controller.

Recent accounts about 1942 have zero insight. Whether dull or facetious, these writings fail to consider the gravity of packaging great spectacle in unimaginative propaganda. Designer Yoshiki Okamoto is a video-game genius for his work in not only 1942 but also Street Fighter II, the rightful benchmark for fighting games. But genius should not be divorced from responsibility. 1942 is a significant entry in a trend of naive history that continues to this day (see 2014’s mediocre Wolfenstein: The New Order and its lazy moral superiority to imaginary Nazis).

In 1942, you control a World War II American fighter plane on a virtual solo mission to destroy every Japanese plane you can. This theme deviates from that of vertical shooters like Space Invaders, Galaga, and Xevious, but it doesn’t deserve exaggerated praise like the following: “1942 sets itself apart with extremely balanced gameplay and a real, historical situation as opposed to the then-cliche space shooter scenario.” This nonsense misses that 1942’s lone-wolf grind is far from “real” and “historical” despite its pandering WWII heroism. (At least Street Fighter II’s ethnic stereotypes speak to the fighting pride of multiple nations.)

Okamoto does place 1942’s masturbatory premise in a technically outstanding frame. As in Xevious, the enemies in 1942 fly in at specific cues, but their flight and fire patterns during these cues can vary from game to game. 1942 also excels at enemy entrances. While enemies fly in from the top and sides of the screen as they did in previous vertical shooters, 1942 sends slow but sizable enemies at the rear of your plane from the bottom of the screen, which explains why your plane can’t fly to the very bottom — a logical reprieve from cheap, instant death. Before you play 1942 enough to memorize its enemy cues, the entrance of large planes introduces a considerable element of surprise and requires you to coolly fly out of the way and develop a new strategy for avoiding fire and taking down enemy craft, all the while dealing with the fact that you can’t fly on most of the top half of the screen. The large planes from the bottom of the screen eventually start shooting bullets at regular intervals, so you have to wait in safe parts of the screen and anticipate these bullets for evasion before flying below the ships to take them out as they deliberately rise to the top of the screen. The smaller, more common enemies in 1942 are comparable to the pests in Galaga that circle you when you don’t destroy them on first sight. When 1942 sends waves of these familiar planes from the top and sides of the screen along with bigger planes from the bottom of the screen, your patience and nerves are tested the most, which also means the potential for kinetic art is at its highest.

Weaved into 1942’s straightforward shooting — there are no enemies on the ground as in Xevious, Dragon Spirit, and TwinBee — is Okamoto’s articulate emphasis on maneuvering. The primary button in 1942 shoots; the second gives you temporary invincibility, sending your plane in a looping pattern. This evasive tactic can only be performed three times for each life (more opportunities can be gained through power-ups), but the beauty is that you can still control where the plane flies during the maneuver, which creates one of the most exciting illusions of flight and handling in vertical shooters. This brilliant stroke from Okamoto demands care, though: you must become aware of how long this evasive tactic lasts, as your plane can drop directly into enemy fire once the maneuver ends, meaning that you can die immediately if you don’t carefully place your reentry to the normal field of play.

This intoxicating design is ultimately a distraction from 1942’s incoherence. The soundtrack trades the alarm of Xevious for a sense of duty. The percussion and whistling in 1942 evoke a soldier rightfully taking orders. This righteous tone raises the question: is the WWII theme only a commercial ploy, or does the lone American hero against the Japanese horde reflect any of Okamoto’s feelings on his country’s part in the war? Considering 1942’s bland history references, it would be foolish to assume how Okamoto feels. At the same time, the game provides no convincing reason as to why it takes place during World War II. That war was not black and white, yet 1942 registers as mindless propaganda where destruction of a past political enemy is exaggerated. At best, the use of history is superfluous, as the game could have worked the same with simple allusions to military technology. For those who want to talk about marketing, let’s do it: 1942 and its ilk offer a knucklehead’s history.

Pitch a Review to Game Bias

The game review is personal expression, so it is an art, not a science. As part of a commitment to this idea, Game Bias wants to publish game reviews from a variety of writers. Over a 12-week period starting in April, Game Bias will run a review from a different writer every two weeks based on a submitted pitch. Each review published out of this process will result in payment of $20 to the writer.

Here are guidelines and other comments:

1. Email your pitch to pressgrove84@yahoo.com. The deadline is April 1. The subject line should start with “Game Bias Pitch.” The pitch should be no longer than 150 words. The first sentence of the pitch should state the thesis of your review. All other sentences should give an idea of how you will express the thesis.

2. Reviews can be about any video game — old, new, forgotten, well-remembered, independent, big-budget, freeware, whatever. Game Bias expects any review to offer unique perspective. There is no length requirement for the review. The review can be positive or negative — tone is up to you.

3. Do not pitch or write a so-called consumer review. Making broad assumptions about the identity of one’s potential audience is a mistake.

4. You can do whatever you want in interpreting/critiquing the game (e.g., emphasize graphics over other elements, discuss cultural/political biases or issues in the work, etc.). However, a review should focus on the game, not when you ate at Wendy’s and listened to Radiohead between sessions of playing the game in question. A review should sound like a poem before it sounds like an anecdote, and it should attempt to say something essential about a game.

5. Don’t hesitate to compare games to each other. A comparison can give the reader a great reference point. Comparisons can fit everything into a historical context that you find valuable.

6. Game Bias values diversity and provocation.

7. If you have questions, email me with the subject line “Game Bias Question.”

– Jed Pressgrove

Pregnancy Review — A Game That Should Have Been Aborted

by Jed Pressgrove

“Who the fuck are you?”

Lilla, Pregnancy’s 14-year-old protagonist, directs this question to the player early on, but she should have posed it to her developer, Locomotivah. Lilla has become pregnant after being raped, and you are her guide of sorts, clicking away at dialogue options. After she asks the above question, you can choose to tell her you’re an adviser, a friend, or her conscience. It doesn’t matter. Locomotivah’s goal is profoundly banal, the latest attempt to one-up Telltale Games (The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us) on player choice/agency. Whereas Life Is Strange tries to top Telltale by maxing out the latter’s methods like an amateur, Pregnancy has a more savage ploy: using in-detail rape to hook you into a shallow lecture on abortion debate.

You have to wonder whether Locomotivah or Kotaku’s Mike Fahey, who laughably said Pregnancy “is a harrowing journey that countless women go through every year,” ever played or heard of Choice: Texas, which expresses the life politics of abortion though the dreams, strengths, and insecurities of different women. Pregnancy just goes for the gut. Background pictures accompany the game’s text, and you soon see two big hands wrapped around a girl’s throat, the image static but with a haze effect. Locomotivah draws out the scene with choppy descriptions like “A lot of pain. Inside.” and “A cry. Mine. He laughs.” This scene might trigger people who have been been sexually assaulted or make others uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s meaningful communication. The sexual violence horror merely sets up the pins for Locomotivah’s focus on player ego and, later, lukewarm political bowling.

The fourth wall is shattered as you talk to Lilla, who even prompts you to type your name — anything to reinforce an illusion of player importance. Eventually you respond to Lilla’s pro-life and pro-choice suggestions. Based on how you guide her, Pregnancy flips the script at the end when Lilla announces that she can make her own choice. As if this conversation with a conscience couldn’t be any faker, Lilla adds “I feel plenitude” when making the decision that is the very opposite of your supposed advice. Locomotivah wants to let you down gently with this closing text:

“Note: Hey, please don’t get mad at Lilla … In this game Lilla’s final decision will always be the opposite of what the player allegedly wants. There are valuable arguments on both sides of the discussion.”

Pregnancy then goes full Telltale with post-game statistics on the decisions of players. The final cherry on top is a list of links to pro-life and pro-choice websites. Locomotivah tells us what we already know: an abortion debate exists.

Nothing valuable precedes that stupid ending. At best, everything about Pregnancy amounts to bland acknowledgement of reality. Like Pregnancy, Choice: Texas illustrates a pregnancy due to rape with the character of Leah. Choice: Texas emphasizes how social institutions play out in rape’s aftermath, as Leah seeks guidance from her pastor while facing judgment from certain church members. Pregnancy merely pushes spiritual tokenism when Lilla asks you if you believe in God before dismissing her own belief about providence with as much attention as she gives The Hunger Games and Jennifer Lawrence. This approach favors a perspective based on secularism and an all-powerful consumerist identity. While Leah in Choice: Texas implicitly faces spiritual hardships based on her interactions in society, Locomotivah has Lilla mention God and hypocrisy for an appearance of depth.

Immature “hardcore” gamers will mock Pregnancy for all the wrong reasons. The cursive pink title font, the mawkish piano, and the impersonality of player advice are only symptoms resulting from a more significant problem. Indie trash like The Walking Dead, Gone Home, and Always Sometimes Monsters want to drive discussion on human nature in specious terms. Pregnancy’s mockery of personal experience and player choice is a response to this miserable canon. Shock and trickery are the new empathy.

Top Five Game Critics Who Could Fall Off the Face of the Planet

by Jed Pressgrove

I’m not sure if any of the following individuals should fall off the face of the planet. But maybe they could given their talent and insight, and if they did, I would expect most of the online video game community to recognize such an accomplishment.

1. Ben Kuchera

2. Total Biscuit

3. Leigh Alexander

4. Jim Sterling

5. Ian Bogost

Note: This list is dedicated to The Cult of No Personality.

TwinBee Review — Not That Cute

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the emulation of the Famicom version of TwinBee on the 3DS. The emulation is titled 3D Classics: TwinBee, but the 3D effect was not used for the purposes of this review.

Playing TwinBee proves that “cute ’em up,” a description frequently attached to the game, is almost as inarticulate and useless as “shmup.” I’ve never thought about TwinBee’s cuteness (the visuals are fairly bland in the Famicom version), which testifies to both the non-communication of trendy game terms and, more significantly, the intensity of TwinBee as a vertical shooter.

Developed by Konami, TwinBee follows the lead of Namco’s Xevious with the dual concern of shooting flying enemies and bombing enemies on the ground, but the inspiration largely ends there. TwinBee introduces a bold conceptualization of the power-up. Clouds appear as the screen scrolls in TwinBee, and some clouds release bells when you shoot them. The bells are typically yellow and change color when you juggle them with enough shots. Non-yellow bells grant upgrades that include speed, twin-fire, two ghost copies of yourself that shoot their own fire, and a shield.

Unlike the unfocused Dragon Spirit, TwinBee establishes a clear strategic point for its elusive upgrades. The most obvious problem is that you have to battle flying and ground enemies while juggling the bells, which are lost once they fall past the bottom of the screen. You soon realize the challenge is far more complex. TwinBee only has five repeating levels, but the enemies grow deadlier each time the levels repeat. When you desperately need an upgrade in a tougher level (your default speed and weapon are disadvantaged to say the least), you run the risk of inadvertently juggling a non-yellow bell while killing enemies. If you juggle a non-yellow bell, it turns back to yellow, that is, a non-upgrade, meaning that you have to juggle more bells for another chance to upgrade.

But never forget, the main point of TwinBee is a high score, not survival, even though the high score requires survival. The game’s five levels contain zero of the visual allure or mystery of Xevious’ one continuous level, so the only convincing reason to continue beating the five levels is attaining the highest score imaginable. If you’re not getting a better score, survival is a nuisance given the madness of the bells.

The dialectical art of TwinBee follows: the yellow bells, which don’t help you survive, are the key to higher scores. This rule is more counter-intuitive than Xevious’ approach, where destroying enemies is often the best path to both survival and a high score. In TwinBee, you get a higher point bonus every time you collect a yellow bell, provided you never allow any bell to fall off the screen. Once you hit the maximum bonus of 100,000 points, every yellow bell you fly into will be worth that many points. Gaining more points also gives you extra lives.

Extra lives don’t prevent your inevitable destruction as effectively as a strategy that incorporates different upgrades. My preference is the triple shot, a candy-shaped upgrade left behind by certain ground enemies you destroy, combined with a shield and four or five speed upgrades. (Too much speed in TwinBee can kill your handling.) The triple shot has a wide range of fire that can destroy enemies and juggle bells straight ahead or in two diagonal paths. The triple shot can be particularly devastating with lateral movement. The issue with this style is that triple-shot bullets can juggle bells when you would rather let them fall for collection. Simply collecting bells is a tricky affair, as you have to make sure you’re not running into an enemy or fire as you anticipate the descent of the bells after some juggling. You also can’t collect bells at the very top of the screen — quite the nerve-wracking rule.

If any of this sounds cute, it certainly doesn’t play cute. The panic you experience in TwinBee is more comparable to the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Bells.” The last part of Poe’s poem goes (for the proper format of the poem, visit here):

In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells–
Bells, bells, bells–
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

In TwinBee, a bell turns into an enemy if you shoot it too many times. You’ll have trouble thinking of a more diabolical vertical shooter.