Author: Jed Pressgrove

World Heroes Perfect Review — Staying Humble

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review was inspired by the Switch version of the game.

Back in the 1990s, games like World Heroes made it easy to call a clone a clone. The two main characters in World Heroes, Hanzo and Fuuma, obviously borrow qualities from Ryu and Ken of Street Fighter II, right down to the white and red outfits and the special-move trio of the projectile, flying uppercut, and spinning horizontal attack. Even the theme of “World Heroes,” much more than the titles of clones such as Fighter’s History, trumpets Street Fighter II’s emphasis on geography and ethnic pride.

This clear debt to a recent ancestor gives a humorous edge to the last word in the title of the final World Heroes. If this game were perfect, its appeal wouldn’t be so reliant on the qualities of a monster hit like Street Fighter II. (Similarly, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild shouldn’t go down as a groundbreaking work given its liberal dedication to concepts from recent pop games.) Here, perfection merely amounts to a series-best effort in using logical, player-friendly rules: attack strength is determined by which buttons you press rather than how hard you mash buttons, you can block in the air, and so on.

Yet in some of its characters’ endings, World Heroes Perfect displays more humbleness about its limited aspirations than open-world adventures like Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn (which, in some ways, offer far less freedom than the first two Fallout games, for instance). The most blatant evidence of World Heroes Perfect’s awareness comes in the conclusion for Fuuma, the Ken proxy. After emerging as a victor, Fuuma believes it’s time for him to go on a date to celebrate his success. But as in his ending in the original World Heroes, Fuuma instead finds himself tied to the monotony of office work. Ken, Fuuma’s inspiration, never faced such a banal finish. Never a real threat to Street Fighter II’s greatness, World Heroes Perfect at least playfully observes the tired maxim that applies to countless sequels and wannabe trailblazers: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Nioh Review — Somewhat Soulful Action

by Jed Pressgrove

The word out there is true: Nioh swipes a lot from Dark Souls. Enemies resurrect when you heal at a shrine (a parallel to the bonfire in Souls); you lose experience points (known as Amrita in Nioh) when you die but can regain them if you make it back to your point of failure without perishing; shiny objects on dead warriors attract your eye; and so on. But developer Team Ninja shifts the focus from deliberate horror to whip-smart action, similar to how Hideo Yoshizawa’s Ninja Gaiden (1988) revised Castlevania (1986), and avoids Hidetaka Miyazaki’s pseudo-existential, juvenile gibberish that made the latest Souls games (Bloodborne and Dark Souls III) case studies in pretentious pop gaming. The only catch is that, unlike Ninja Gaiden and its cutscenes, Nioh doesn’t understand how brief storytelling can supercharge spectacular martial arts.

When it comes to the spectacle and intricacies of fighting, Nioh is what Bloodborne should have been all along. Whereas Bloodborne neutralized its speed, its kinetic potential, with awkward risk-reward concepts (such as regaining health by immediately attacking enemies after taking damage), Nioh adds fresh nuance to the 3-D beat ’em up with the “Ki Pulse” move, which rebuilds your stamina more quickly when you tap the right shoulder button just as balls of light touch your character after you perform an attack. “Ki Pulse” is a rhythm game within the action that, when mastered, creates an unprecedented sense of stabilization and can work as a way to recover from combos, set up jabbing strikes, neutralize stamina-draining fields, or avoid a counterattack. (The flexibility of this system surpasses the color-coded defensive cues in the tragically underrated Golden Axe: Beast Rider.)

Nioh’s triumph over its obvious predecessors doesn’t stop there. You can take one of three stances (low, mid, or high) to improve evasion, counterattacking, or power. These stances also alter the normal and strong attacks of any weapon, granting the player artistic and technical license that make the stylistic flourishes in Devil May Cry, 3-D Ninja Gaiden (2004), or Bayonetta seem amateurish in comparison. As you go from boss fight to boss fight, Nioh forces you to grasp new layers of its complex combat. This approach is a far cry from the grinding that players often experience in Dark Souls, where luck can play as much of a role as skill. You are far less likely to be fortunate in Nioh; continued victory demands an articulate understanding of the game’s martial theories and practices, which emphasize the satisfaction, rather than the relief, of winning.

It’s a shame, then, that Nioh is a rambling mess otherwise. As if samurai protagonist William looking almost exactly like Geralt from The Witcher isn’t embarrassing enough, the narration in Nioh’s intro sounds like someone doing an exaggeration of William Shatner’s choppy delivery. And the cutscenes do not get more lively, outside of when bizarre animal spirits show up. Ironically, the most powerful text in Nioh is its message to you when you die (“Freed from this mortal coil”), which kicks off initially sorrowful music that morphs into something peaceful and content (a breath of fresh air after the dread of the Souls series).

In contrast to Nioh’s one-dimensional superiority over its influences, Ninja Gaiden wasn’t merely a better action title than Castlevania. It revolutionized storytelling in video games, allowing a concise narrative to bring a distinct emotional urgency that played off the speed of the hero. Thanks to protagonist Ryu Hayabusa’s pregame outburst about the death of his father, a fatal duel in an introductory cutscene drives every bit of the nonstop action in Ninja Gaiden. In Nioh’s first map screen, a duel is talked about casually, objectively. Yes, this duel involves only a sub-mission, but it’s a wasted opportunity to inject the human condition into the fighting, a missed chance to further enhance an already exciting kind of action, where rhythmic conservation reveals a blistering array of aesthetically sophisticated violence. Let raw emotion run through the entire affair — that’s what Ninja Gaiden on the NES tried to teach the pop video game world, and Nioh is yet another entry that doesn’t get it.

Resident Evil 7 Review — Make (Urban) America Hate Again

by Jed Pressgrove

One of the most superficial claims about Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is that it brings the Resident Evil series “back to its roots.” What this game, written by westerner Richard Pearsey, actually does is reuse anti-rural American horror cliches while sporting a “new perspective,” as if making a first-person title is revolutionary. With this in mind, Resident Evil 7 is most accurately described as a nostalgic survival-horror reboot for city snobs.

Set in rural Louisiana (again, not Resident Evil’s roots), Resident Evil 7 puts you in control of Ethan Winters scouring the home of a “hick family” (to quote condescending critic Simon Parkin) for his missing wife Mia. The proceedings get grotesque quickly: within an hour or so, you will be invited to eat maggot-ridden food and then chased around the house by drawling patriarch Jack Baker, a villain who recalls Nemesis from Resident Evil 3. With his own life on the line, Ethan must fight back with a standard array of weapons (knife, pistol, shotgun, grenade launcher, etc.) that feel like a sentimental regression from the superior combat options of Resident Evil 4.

Although Pearsey eventually provides an extraordinary explanation as to why this rural place and family are so decrepit, his script borrows heavily from American films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance, Wrong Turn, and others that suggest rural people are backward. Pearsey’s co-opted vision reveals its contempt for country folk with ridiculous dialogue (“Welcome to the family, son.” and “Rise and shine, sleepyhead. It’s time for supper.”) and references to outdated items like VCRs (which doubles as a treat for nostalgia-obsessed nerds). The implication is that rural people already talk and live funny in their isolation, and when you mix this existing idiocy with nasty science fiction, you have what many critics and fans have called a return to scariness.

Only problem is you’d have to be oblivious to or willfully ignorant of the movies that Resident Evil 7 copies to find this garbage shocking. Even if Pearsey isn’t as snooty and resentful as his script suggests, you would think he, one of the writers of the deconstructionist Spec Ops: The Line, would be more aware of how unoriginal and cheap this horror story is. When you approach a refrigerator to read notes like “Male 20s Portly BBQ,” you have to wonder how anyone living in the Information Age could overlook the vicious repetitiveness of this rural cannibalism idea, which was also excused when it appeared in the second episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. That critics like Parkin would compare this slasher-film crap to Truman Capote’s multidimensional brilliance shows you how delusional a city snob can be.

Curiously, this same type of audience, supposedly progressive, has glossed over the racism and misogyny of Resident Evil 7. The deputy David Andersen is a textbook example of a token black character who is only there to die. And not only does he die, but Ethan, upon finding David’s corpse in a dissection room, quips “Poor deputy.” In one stroke, developer Capcom gets in its minimal diversity quota, and in another stroke, the company implies the black guy doesn’t matter anyway. In another scene, you fight Jack’s wife Marguerite. Here, Pearsey confirms his unexamined urban bias with Marguerite’s line “There’s no escape, city boy.” This dialogue comes at about the time you discover Marguerite’s weak point: her exposed, corrupted vagina. It’s a shameful way of degrading an already-savage rural caricature.

Pearsey does offer Zoe, Jack and Marguerite’s daughter, as a counterexample to her family’s inherent backwardness. Still, Zoe seems like more of a plot device compared to how writer/director Eli Craig uses the character of Allison to show a genuine connection between rural and non-rural people in the sociological masterpiece Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. Craig’s film exposes Pearsey’s low standards for horror writing and raises legitimate points about how fear on both sides of the urban/rural divide results in destruction. Resident Evil 7 only offers longstanding stupidity to go along with its clunky action — a frightening combo for all the wrong reasons.

The Last Guardian Review — Bizarre and Cliched

by Jed Pressgrove

The resistance of Trico, a humongous griffin-like creature, makes The Last Guardian a satire of the virtual-pet and virtual-helper concepts. As the boy protagonist, you are called to work with Trico to solve puzzles, but Trico doesn’t always care about making progress, so you find yourself having to feed, pet, and shout over and over again at the beast, whose whims ironically become the whole point of the affair. With this capricious animal, director Fumito Ueda lays the foundation for one of the most emotionally complex games of the 21st century, yet this startling approach is somewhat undone by the predictability of the journey.

By pouring traits of our favorite pets into Trico (such as a cat’s tendency to raise a paw, pause, then slap at things), Ueda taps into humankind’s sentimentality for animals. Such fuzzy feelings are counterbalanced by the realization that a pet makes life (the puzzle) more difficult than it should be and by the fact that an animal is frightening under distress, best illustrated by Trico’s roaring and stomping after he smashes a foe. Because these sentiments happen in the context of a puzzler/platformer, The Last Guardian mocks convention when Trico doesn’t obey.

For example, sometimes the simple task of riding Trico as he jumps to a higher platform is mind-bogglingly slow compared to how such an action would go down in a traditional video game, where logical patterns dominate. Trico can be calm and positioned right in front of the ledge, with you stamping your feet on his head and pointing at the destination, but the animal might very well show no acknowledgement of the mission, obliviously staring and turning its head. To rub in this absurd lack of rationality, Ueda includes a camera that is baffling to deal with in 2016. The frustration of wrangling Trico in a smaller room can be compounded by the camera — in a strange interpretation of your analog-stick input — doing an illogical close-up of the creature’s feathers, closing off your avatar and the environment from sight.

Due to irritation, it’s hard to laugh at Ueda’s rejection of synchronization and flow, but in hindsight The Last Guardian is hilariously, ingeniously defiant. This obstinate quality means that when things do go right, the catharsis, the affection, is more powerful. At times it can seem like you’re spending minutes (rather than actual seconds) rubbing Trico’s body to calm him down, so after he finally stops going ballistic and shows an appreciative glance, you are moved by something unusual: the sweetness of a colossus.

This emotional purpose is cheapened by a lazy approach to plot. While it is relieving and terrifying watching Trico annihilate armored foes that were trying to kidnap you, Ueda often recycles this scene as if writing another scenario is pointless or impossible. This tendency to turn great ideas into cliches wears down the first half of the game, but excitement returns when the suspense heightens in a section where platforms collapse, kicking off a slow-motion free fall where Trico misses catching you with his mouth, only for his dangling tail to offer salvation. Then Ueda repeats that idea. It’s an unfortunate reminder that even a game-design genius can confuse more content with epic intentions.

The Folly of Consumer Reviews

by Jed Pressgrove

Many argue game critics serve readers via “consumer reviews.” The argument goes that everyday people don’t have the time or money to play all the new games, so critics do this and then write reviews suggesting what people should buy.

Here are four reasons one should reject this model:

1. Although the consumer review supposedly only gives readers an idea of what to purchase, the term implies we will and should consume. Consumer reviews are published right as games are released, suggesting the time to make a decision is sooner rather than later. This model puts pressure on readers to pay up to $60 for a new game and thus falls in line with what the game companies want, not what people should be doing with their money. For example, if a consumer review essentially says “Buy the new Resident Evil,” it assumes you have the $60 to spare, which may not be the case. This “timely” advice is more sensitive to the needs of the game publisher than it is to those of the reader, as companies will make more money per game sold near game release dates. People typically don’t call reviews published months after a game “consumer reviews,” even though it should go without saying that a consumer is better off spending less rather than more.

2. No game critic or so-called expert is qualified to suggest how to spend your money. The perceived objective quality of a game has very little to do with whether we should purchase it under whatever economic conditions we face. Critics would only be qualified to give such advice if they know your spending and saving habits and have your various personal needs in the forefront of their minds (which they certainly don’t). It is simply not logical to assume a critic should be telling working-class people what to buy, especially in cases where the critic doesn’t even purchase the game in question. (Catherine Vice, a.k.a. Indie Gamer Chick, nobly sidesteps this criticism by purchasing all games she reviews, but she also admits she is more well off than the average person.)

3. The consumer-review model implies games are little more than commercial products. If the purpose of a review is to help you figure out whether you should buy a game for any number of arbitrary reasons, you are less likely to gain insight into what a game actually is. Philosophically, journalism is supposed to be concerned with the truth. As such, a review should strive for truth, even in its most subjective forms. When a writer is primarily concerned with people’s purchasing decisions, the writer aligns more with the interests of companies than with the pursuit of truth. Thus, it’s not coincidental that the overwhelming majority of high-profile games will get at least 7-out-of-10 review scores, on average. The writer’s alignment with company interests explains the absurdity of certain “consumer reviews” that seemingly pick apart games but still give out scores above a 5. Because a 5 out of 10 naturally suggests average or mediocre quality, consumer reviews have offered us, for years and years, the highly questionable notion that most high-profile games are above-average products. But what is the truth about these games?

4. The consumer-review model rejects the review as a form of artistic or personal expression. A review can’t be expressive in this sense if the writer is concerned about what people buy. The model not only fundamentally constrains creativity and honesty; it frowns upon such things.

For these reasons, Game Bias will never publish a consumer review.

Dishonored 2 Review — Metal Gear Stolid

by Jed Pressgrove

The worst plague in Dishonored 2, a game full of rats and bloodflies, is the absence of emotional conviction. During the first mission of Dishonored 2, the script leads you to believe the two main characters, Corvo and Emily, are father and daughter, but the voice acting sounds like two disengaged performers reading their lines for the first time, and the dialogue (“Let’s see how quiet you are, young lady”) urges you to play along rather than understand the relationship. With a cliched pause in the story, the game asks you to choose to play as the father or daughter. Once you make this decision, the other character is turned into stone by a one-dimensional villain. Not only is this separation uninteresting given that Dishonored 2 fails to build a convincing human dynamic in the first place, but you might not care or remember family was involved in the setup by the third or fourth mission.

Just about everything in Dishonored 2 carries a slapdash, blase attitude. Take the cutscenes before the missions: sapped of color, they look like cheap themes for your console dashboard, and their snooze-worthy exposition could use a sudden noise, music cue, or facial expression (as in the NES classic Ninja Gaiden). Between missions you get on a boat and talk to a captain for no compelling reason, an inconsequential approach compared to how Titanfall 2 propels you to the next challenge through continuity of action. The faces of the characters, which often don’t even look halfway alive, reinforce a sense of detachment and reject the articulate humanity in the faces you see in The Witcher 3 and Beyond: Two Souls.

But Dishonored 2 assassinates its emotional potential the most with its lackadaisical execution of play concepts. The game claims you can “Play your way,” which is more honest than the original Dishonored’s bogus appeal to morality, but the options (for example, possessing a rat vs. turning off a machine) seem made for toddler brains compared to the world of possibilities of the first two Fallout games. More problematic, developer Arkane Studios doesn’t grasp the basics of stealth and playability. For example, you can sneak up on a guy resting in a chair, but if you are crouched directly behind the chair, you can’t execute a takedown. To do that, you must face the chair at an arbitrary angle.

Even worse, enemies show little evidence of consistent intelligence. In the first mission, I was able to run past a dozen or so soldiers and board a ship without much harm or commotion. At times, foes won’t notice you while you’re almost under their nose, and other times they can see through solid objects to detect your still presence in what the game laughably calls “stealth mode” (when you crouch to enter this mode, the edges of the screen go dark — who the hell are the developers kidding?). Even games not marketed as stealth titles, like Dark Souls and Far Cry Primal, feel more logical in what they allow the player to do around enemies.

Like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Dishonored 2 tries to make up for its regressive understanding of stealth with an upgrade system. You gain superpowers by finding runes, which, idiotically, only show up when you equip a heart in your left hand, the same hand you need for teleportation, for instance. Essentially, the powers are there for you to revel in delinquency; you don’t need them, as you can easily take out enemies with a gun and sword, but the latter concept is so boringly designed that you feel like you need something to give you a jolt. After all, honor and its inverse have no meaning in such a cold, stupid game.

Overwatch Review — Style Is Everything

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is heavily shaped by my preference to play as Pharah.

Developer Blizzard Entertainment’s design philosophy for Overwatch follows Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s observation about the importance of style: “It’s not what we say but how we say it that matters.” Thanks to an eclectic cast with unchangeable unique moves, Overwatch is an online shooter that carries the spirit of a fighting game, the only video-game genre that consistently attempts to evoke ethnic pride. The combination of diverse playable heroes, straightforward rules, and a team-centric focus (you can be recognized for healing or defending as much as you can be for attacking) gives Overwatch a welcoming vibe that is unlike anything you will find in online shooters, whose learning curves and macho overemphasis on kill counts keep many newcomers at bay. The joy of Overwatch’s aesthetics — as represented by the dueling tactics of visually distinct legends — counterbalances familiar map design, redundancies in strategy, and inconsistencies in logic.

Much has been said about Overwatch’s characters allowing players of different backgrounds to feel more included, but similar to the case with fighting games, this effect is limited though admirable. Not every culture or identity is represented (Blizzard Entertainment making one of its characters gay in an out-of-game public-relations move is not compelling). And unlike Street Fighter II, where every fighter has his or her own specific stage, Overwatch’s settings are more about the dynamics of conflict than a sense of place, background, and purpose. Overwatch looks far more interesting than Team Fortress 2 and the like, but after a while, a passageway is a passageway, an arena is an arena, and a ledge is a ledge, regardless of what location a map supposedly represents.

Still, the different abilities of the characters make these places come to life, especially in cases where the two teams get locked in a seesaw battle for 100-percent dominion over a single checkpoint. Overwatch is at its best when no team gets a short break, with just enough members on both sides keeping the fight alive until the vanquished respawn and rejoin the chaos. Unfortunately, Overwatch’s design doesn’t make this scenario likely enough. Each character has an ultimate move, but the balancing is off with the attack-oriented ones. Some of these moves are tricky to perform (such as Pharah’s Barrage), while others are hard to mess up because of incredible range (D.Va’s Self-Destruct), so it can feel like you’re unfairly rewarded or punished when using an ultimate.

Another issue is the advantage of stationary shooting, which can create repetitive moments of frustration (especially when Bastion and Torbjörn huddle up). To describe how this dynamic can overturn a more interesting game, Pharah seems built for creative flanking maneuvers, but illogically, you will often have more trouble killing an unarmored individual with an automatic than they will have killing you, despite your flying around from a higher position. So instead of making use of her jet pack, you can perch on tiny horizontal platforms and kill people approaching objectives from ridiculous distances. On some stages, this tactic makes the proceedings downright unfair, despite the fun you can have being a cheap asshole. At the same time, the ability to switch characters after you die does allow opportunities to craft a viable, game-changing counter, as you can see the vantage point of the person who kills you after death.

Overwatch’s limitations are ultimately overcome by its unusual dedication to fun shooting for all. This commitment can be seen in the moments before the gates open to the battlefield, when you can destroy property ranging from arcade machines to nice furniture and act silly in front of your teammates. By the time you walk through the gates, the game is more serious and urgent, yet the feeling remains that Overwatch goes out of its way to ensure players have a good time, in victory or defeat, making it difficult to deny the revolutionary tone of the shooter’s popular appeal.

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.)

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


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.)