Month: December 2016

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2016

by Jed Pressgrove

In my estimation, 2016 has been a better year for games than 2015 or 2014, the year Game Bias started. While nothing in 2016 beats last year’s best (Cosmo D’s Off-Peak), the quality has been more evenly spread across releases, and I hope this trend continues in 2017. A friend, critic Patrick Lindsey, asked me if the new Doom would be on this list, so now that he and everyone else knows it is not on the list (I would say spoiler alert, but spoilers can’t hurt creative expression), I can say Doom serves as a prime example of a good game that had too much competition to make the cut.

(For more reading, check out the 10 best games of 2015 here.)

Note: I am aware my No. 1 choice arrived to Steam in 2015, but I only first heard of and played it this year when it came out on consoles. If this troubles you greatly, imagine it is not on this list at all, move each subsequent choice up a spot, and insert your own No. 10.

1. Assault Android Cactus

Assault Android Cactus tops every twin-stick shooter in arena and weapon design, transforms into camp when you fail and listen to Jeff van Dyck’s “Little Android” (the video-game song of the year), makes Doom (2016) look relaxed, and puts an unforgettable spin on evasive maneuvering. For these reasons and more, developer Witch Beam can say it has made one of the greatest shooters of all time.

(See review of Assault Android Cactus here.)

2. Severed

Through Severed’s touchscreen/motion controls, developer DrinkBox Studios has reimagined the first-person dungeon crawler as a bizarre action game that requires both turn-based logic and frantic but precise timing. When you’re not interrupting enemy tactics or dicing up the bodies of foes into parts needed for upgrades, Severed mesmerizes with dream-like cuts as you move from one part of the map to the next and unsettles you with its ominous tone, which is sometimes punctuated by maddening melodies that evoke Philip Glass. The search for the protagonist’s family members is an emotional roller coaster that few games this year can match, with the denial of catharsis trumped by the rush of continuing a strange adventure.

3. Titanfall 2

The big-budget masterpiece of the year, Titanfall 2 supports the idea of suicidal combat and thus elevates the standards we should all have for single-player campaigns. The “Into the Abyss” and “Effect and Cause” missions deliver the most dizzying one-two punch of the 2010s, as the former puts you through a horizontal and vertical gauntlet of prefabricated communities and the latter allows lightning-fast time travel with the press of a button. “Screw getting online with a bunch of strangers,” the people might finally say after experiencing the story of Titanfall 2.

(See more broad thoughts on Titanfall 2 here.)

4. Kirby: Planet Robobot

As a contrast to 2014’s Kirby: Triple Deluxe, Kirby: Planet Robobot proves that new content means nothing without new context. Director Shinya Kumazaki has delivered a personal, essential take on Kirby that goes unexpectedly suggestive in its climax, challenging the way we have always looked at the androgynous hero and his role in restoring dreamy worlds.

(See review of Kirby: Planet Robobot here.)

5. Hyper Light Drifter

Unlike Arnt Jensen’s Inside, Alex Preston’s Hyper Light Drifter understands that mature nihilism leads to an appreciation of life as much as it does to a criticism of supposed meaning. By making the world design of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask more nonlinear and limiting characters to a language of imagery, Preston creates an unpredictable and mysterious fluctuation between beauty and misery so that life and death are never trivialized nor fetishized.

(See more broad thoughts on Hyper Light Drifter here.)

6. Layers of Fear

P.T. director Hideo Kojima should take design and writing lessons from developer Bloober Team, whose blunt Layers of Fear registers both as the most spectacular vision of unnatural hallways in games and as an unsentimental critique of the tortured artist and self-obsessed husband.

(See more broad thoughts on Layers of Fear here.)

7. That Dragon, Cancer

Don’t let most positive reviews limit your understanding: That Dragon, Cancer will remain underrated until critics realize the “empathy” marketing label should not drive our personal reactions to art. Relying on far more than emotional appeals, Ryan and Amy Green don’t make the game only about the brief life of their son, sending the player through myriad portraits of humanity affected by cancer. With this more universal framework and an unrelenting dialogue on faith in God, the vignettes of That Dragon, Cancer represent a philosophical challenge to those in troubled times: what are you going to rely on when all hope seems lost?

(See more broad thoughts on That Dragon, Cancer here.)

8. Mighty No. 9

Due to Kickstarter drama that the gaming press shamelessly helps invent, people have been denouncing Mighty No. 9 creator Keiji Inafune when they should be thanking him for executing a daring take on the shooter-platformer so well. Basing a combo dynamic on stunning and dashing through enemies is a simple yet wild innovation that results in some of the most unusually compelling action of the year.

(See review of Mighty No. 9 here.)

9. Clustertruck

What appears to be an idiotic game becomes an exhilarating breed of racing in which platforming is mandated and disaster is ensured. Creator Wilhelm Nylund needs a slap on the wrist for forcing players to unlock essential maneuvers via points, but the level design of Clustertruck gets better and better (that is, crazier), reminding us that counterintuitive game design can be as elating as rules and conditions you can depend on.

10. Shadow of the Beast

With this brawny but emotive remake, Heavy Spectrum Entertainment Labs infuses the original game’s parallax scrolling with gravitas. Through mostly visual suggestion, Shadow of the Beast’s bloodletting is accompanied by moral purpose that shows up the storytelling of most platformers.

(See review of Shadow of the Beast here.)

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Super Mario Run Review — Sleepwalking

by Jed Pressgrove

Anyone who says Super Mario Run represents an admirable effort from Nintendo to reach a wider audience is either lying or not thinking. Super Mario Run can only be played on one’s phone with a sufficient Internet connection, a shortsighted requirement that betrays notions of reliability and accessibility.

One might pardon this sin by claiming Super Mario Run is good, but that’s not true, either. Director Takashi Tezuka and producer Shigeru Miyamoto, two men whose fingerprints appear on many classics (including Super Mario Bros. 3, the best Mario game of all time), have run out of ideas if judged by the eyes. The art direction in Super Mario Run is prefabricated; none of the level or enemy concepts stray enough from previous games to give this entry its own visual identity. This timid approach is exemplified by the embarrassing boss fights that imitate, rather than build upon, memorable scenes in Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3.

That Mario automatically runs across levels doesn’t make Tezuka and Miyamoto’s lazy oversight more tolerable in Super Mario Run. Although nabbing every special coin as Mario jogs along can be somewhat satisfying, the game drags compared to the pacing enabled by the run button in Super Mario Bros. It’s more than a bit odd that a 2016 game with “Run” in its title would feel slow compared to its 1980s counterparts, but this limitation also reflects how postmodern the video-game stratosphere has become: because fewer people care about historical precedent, fewer will know how running can and should operate in a given release.

But it’s the jumping, not the running, that feels the strangest in Super Mario Run, despite its low difficulty. You have to hold your finger on the phone for Mario to perform a higher jump, and even though this action can be consistently accomplished, it seems as if Mario is barely able to cut through the air. I am often surprised Mario is able to do anything that my fingers tell him to because of a fundamental disconnection between me and the avatar. For example, you might tap twice expecting Mario to do two short jumps in a row, but if you’re not careful enough, you will perform a spin move during the initial jump. Or you might tap the screen with foresight so that Mario can smash a flying enemy, only to run into the bad guy’s face. Yes, this type of failure could occur in previous Mario games, but Super Mario Run makes success seem as arbitrary, as you can smash ground enemies with little precision. If you don’t want to know, or if you want to forget, how Mario can feel, sleepwalk with Tezuka and Miyamoto through Super Mario Run.

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Video Games of 2016

by Jed Pressgrove

2016 brought more mediocrity than disasters in video games. For the first time, Kentucky Route Zero resembled a sitcom too comfortable in its clothes, but Act IV wasn’t a stupid game by any means. Street Fighter V gave the middle finger to the working class with its lack of a traditional single-player mode at launch and its requirement of online fees; at the same time, the strategic possibilities of the game are impressive. While Dark Souls 3 is pandering and regressive compared to the original, it did manage to be more tolerable than last year’s flat-looking Bloodborne. I’m not saying we should be thankful for these titles, yet their shortcomings don’t compare to those of the following choices. (For more reading, check out 2015’s 10 worst games.)

1. Final Fantasy XV

This is the clunkiest, stupidest Final Fantasy yet. I would now welcome the frustration of watching characters swat at thin air in the original Final Fantasy on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Even the majority who praised this entry admit any sense of meaningful narrative is virtually nonexistent, so in theory I don’t have to talk about the story of four privileged meatheads performing beyond-banal extermination and fetch tasks, which should be unacceptable in light of the humanistic side quests of last year’s Witcher 3, if not those of 1999’s Planescape: Torment.

Director Hajime Tabata can prepare software patches for Final Fantasy XV’s plot during the entirety of 2017, but that won’t fix the delayed “real-time” attacks of the player’s avatar. Has SquareEnix forgotten its own action/roleplaying games Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore, which made you feel uniquely connected to your character’s slashing and bashing? (I might ask the majority of game critics this question, too.) Moreover, the platforming of Final Fantasy XV is limited and stiff compared to that of Super Mario RPG, and running in the two-dimensional settings of Final Fantasy VI, the greatest SNES RPG, is more exhilarating than dashing in the big and boring world of XV, whose protagonist eventually gets tired, an irritant to the player just looking to explore.

Anyone who calls Final Fantasy XV a road trip should play any game with great driving (like Driver). What good is having a car in an open world if the game steers for you and if, about two seconds after you press a button, the vehicle initiates a joyless U-turn? The mechanic who fixes your automobile is even more atrocious: don’t tell your “paw-paw,” but you’d have to be an urbanized ignoramus to think anyone in the South talks like Cindy Aurum.

And as if to further infantilize audiences to cover up the fact that the developers have churned out what amounts to Chocobo excrement, you get a “Report Card” after battle. One needn’t bother giving this game a grade because everyone involved deserves expulsion.

2. Mafia III

Racial and ethnic conflict sets the stage for fun and catharsis in this reprehensibly pretentious action game. The creators should knock off the bullshit about being aware of historical discrimination: the nonstop racist stereotypes and laughable moral debate in Mafia III dangerously suggest there’s no point in trying to respect people and their histories.

(See review of Mafia III here.)

3. Pony Island

This abomination from Daniel Mullins offers a type of cynicism that doesn’t know or care about video-game history. Most of Pony Island’s jokes (e.g., evil narrator, a game with a mind of its own, etc.) are so old and/or childishly executed that everyone should be rolling their eyes, but maybe some players welcome this audience-insulting garbage because they’re bored with big-budget franchises and hyped indie releases. Pony Island might appear to pull back a veil with its hacking and glitching exercises (which are inferior to those of Hack N’ Slash and Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic, respectively), but even something as unnecessary as Halo 5 could teach you more about game design than this descent into hipster cleverness.

(See review of Pony Island here.)

4. The Voter Suppression Trail

Chris Baker, Brian Moore, and Mike Lacher think it’s cute to obfuscate U.S. voting problems with nostalgic references to The Oregon Trail. This game serves as more disappointing evidence that too many people in the United States would rather encourage partisan smugness than articulate real-world experiences.

(See review of The Voter Suppression Trail here.)

5. No Man’s Sky

Ed Smith said it best when he compared the planet-generating No Man’s Sky to “the novel-printing Versificator in [George Orwell’s] 1984.” The protagonist’s too-slow gait and crappy jetpack prove that developer Hello Games is insecure about its universe: being able to zip through these worlds would only further reveal that the discovery experience is almost always the same.

6. Enter the Gungeon

I get it, Dodge Roll. You combined the words “gun” and “dungeon,” then you copied and pasted environmental details from the mobile game Wayward Souls, then you threw in a dodge roll because your studio is called Dodge Roll. Bravo for a flagrant lack of creativity in the year of Assault Android Cactus coming to consoles, a brilliant counterpunch to Enter the Gungeon’s lighthearted laziness.

7. Inside

Director Arnt Jensen fetishizes child death for the second game in a row, all the while encouraging yawn-inducing interpretations about power, whether that of a video game over players or that of an immoral society over human experiments. Nihilism is unenlightened when it is violent, unoriginal, and ambiguous like Inside.

(See review of Inside here.)

8. Virginia

The film aspirations of directors Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny emphasize something needed in so many video games: editing. Unfortunately, Virginia’s usage of cuts is often repetitive in smaller moments (e.g., riding in a car) or confusing in big moments (which involve enough plot threads and themes for multiple works), rendering the game tedious and bloated.

(See review of Virginia here.)

9. Umbrella Corps

This Resident Evil online shooter approaches “so bad it’s entertaining” territory. Although this backhanded compliment can’t be applied to the choices above, Umbrella Corps is undeniably a waste of time — and puzzling, considering the high standards set by The Mercenaries modes in recent Resident Evil games.

(See review of Umbrella Corps here.)

10. Uncharted 4: Thief’s End

Notwithstanding pretty graphics or well-constructed scenes, you can’t excuse something as full of it as Uncharted 4: Thief’s End. To address the dishonest subtitle, there is zero lasting reflection on the actions of Nathan Drake. Jesus Christ, who is referenced in Uncharted 4 because of his crucifixion between two thieves, said on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The moral and spiritual points that show up at the beginning of Uncharted 4 might very well ask the same thing of the charlatan directing team of Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann.

(See review of Uncharted 4: Thief’s End here.)

Dishonorable Mention

Oxenfree

How can you care about the interpersonal relations of people in a horror story when they are too politically correct, like the protagonist Alex, or annoyingly underdeveloped, like the antagonistic Clarissa, who, if writer/director Adam Hines cared about complex emotions, should have been the star of Oxenfree? The proceedings aren’t helped by the worst visual aesthetics of any indie darling in 2016.

(See review of Oxenfree here.)

Gamergate Obsession

by Jed Pressgrove

You might know what Gamergate is, but perhaps you haven’t recognized Gamergate Obsession. Gamergate Obsession refers to people who speak about the lurid details of Gamergate to make themselves look smart. Even when Gamergate seems dead or irrelevant, these people want you to think “Gamergate. Gamergate. Gamergate.” so that they can feel insightful. The Guardian, no stranger to smugness, recently published something that tops every previous example of Gamergate Obsession: an article condescendingly titled “What Gamergate should have taught us about the ‘alt-right.'”

Matt Lees, the author of this piece, uses roughly 20 paragraphs to connect Gamergate to the alt-right, also known as white nationalism, Neo-Nazism, etc. What Lees doesn’t tell you is that his grand revelation could have been expressed in one sentence: “Steve Bannon, U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump’s chief advisor, is a founding member of Breitbart News, which publishes articles by Milo Yiannopoulos, a writer who rose to fame opining about Gamergate.”

But Gamergate Obsession demands more than that. It demands for you to believe, for instance, that “[T]he culture war that began in games now has a senior representative in The White House.” Nevermind that riling people up with discriminatory rhetoric has been a common practice throughout recent political history (citing Gamergate is hipper than articulating Hitler’s rise). Nevermind that this “culture war” likely involved scores of non-voting immature little snots who wouldn’t know a male Nazi from an old man buying chocolate for his grandchildren. Nevermind that Bannon is not merely defined by his involvement with Breitbart. Nevermind that Trump is not thinking, “You know, I think that Milo guy made great points about Gamergate; I need to hire a random founding member of Breitbart.” Lees just wants you to think that Bannon represents supporters of Gamergate.

After making this outrageous claim with evidence that amounts to “These two guys worked at Breitbart,” Lees showcases another common characteristic of those who suffer from Gamergate Obsession: defining women by the abuse they endure rather than by the work they produce. That Lees names specific women, rather than making a general point about sexist harassment, speaks to his concern that, if he doesn’t name the same names the media have largely focused on, his Gamergate Obsession will be called into question.

The most absurd Gamergate Obsession characteristic is pretending no one talked about Gamergate. Notice the irony of Lees, a writer for Guardian, saying, “This hashtag [Gamergate] was a canary in a coalmine, and we ignored it.” Who is he talking about? The Guardian? Certainly not: here is a collection of every Guardian piece that talks about Gamergate. Other media outlets? The New York Times, among others, ran more than one article on Gamergate. Social media? Just look up “Gamergate” on Twitter and see what you find.

Lees concludes his article with one final symptom of Gamergate Obsession: the implication that, before Gamergate, we had it all figured out, that no one experienced targeted online harassment or got phony-baloney information from the Internet. From Lees’ perspective, only right-wing movements deal in false or questionable language. That sort of bubble-world thinking doesn’t prepare anyone for what may come in a virtual land with virtually no grasp of what’s true or moral.