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The Red Strings Club Review — Left-Wing Puppetry

by Jed Pressgrove

Don’t listen to the cries of narrow-minded fans: it’s fine for politics to be in games. But political expression should not be divorced from intelligence and context. With The Red Strings Club, developer Deconstructeam often presents a leftist viewpoint that is critical of corporations and patriarchal power, yet the game is content to fall back on wise-ass, pandering dialogue to share its perspective, as opposed to building a convincing narrative that compels the player to consider the validity of its biases.

The Red Strings Club takes place in a future where citizens can receive cybernetic implants that can do everything from increase their charisma to reduce their stress. Most of the story is set in the game’s titular bar, where you play as Donovan, a bartender who can mix drinks so as to manipulate people’s emotions and gain whatever information he wants. Along the way, you’ll also assume the role of Brandeis, Donovan’s hacker boyfriend, and Akara-184, an android that manufactures implants for a corporation called Supercontinent. The overall goal of the game is to stop Supercontinent’s plan to take control of people’s minds through a new program called Social Psyche Welfare.

Curiously, Jordi de Paco’s script reveals very little about the culture that is being threatened with Supercontinent’s scheme. With the exception of suggesting that people can better realize their dreams through technological modifications to their bodies, the story doesn’t highlight how the game’s fictional society is different than ours. Even stranger, despite The Red String Club’s preaching about the dubious intentions of corporations, the concept of class — the linchpin that connects leftists, and people generally, of all backgrounds — isn’t specifically addressed in the plot.

This oversight about class is particularly puzzling given that the principal characters seem to champion revolutionary behavior. In one scene, Donovan says, “Revolutionaries don’t live long,” and Brandeis replies, “But we do live intense.” But what have these people been fighting for? The impoverished? Oppressed groups? The script never says, even though the answer could obviously be tied to the malevolent actions of a corporate enemy.

At a pivotal juncture in the story, Akara-184 lays out several things that could be eliminated through Social Psyche Welfare: rape, suicide, xenophobia, homophobia. But when Akara-184 insists women are oppressed in the game’s fictional setting, something doesn’t line up, given that women don’t appear to be in bad shape within the game (Supercontinent’s CEO is even a 15-year-old girl!). If you, as Donovan, disagree with Akara’s assertion based on the game’s lack of attention to women’s plight, she will call you stupid, never offering any explanation of her righteous position. With this idiotic scene, Deconstructeam unintentionally parodies left-wing commentators who refuse to make a clear argument despite having a wealth of information at their fingertips. In resembling such insufferable, arrogant leftists, The Red Strings Club puts the “punk” in cyberpunk.

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Loaded Questions Vol. 12

Loaded Questions is a regular feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Question 1

Mingying Wang: As a big fan of film (you are as well, I assume?), I had a thought about video games that fall into the romance or romantic-comedy categories. Both genres have been popular in film, but why haven’t there been any in video games? I searched for examples through Google and found disastrous non-answers. Do you think romance or romantic comedy could work in video games? Or are there examples out there already?

Jed Pressgrove: First, I love film and the many genres within it. To answer your questions, romance or romantic comedy can work in games if the writing, presentation, and design are strong. As you’ve found, though, the mainstream often doesn’t have much to offer outside of relationships or moments between certain characters. One example that comes to mind is the great cutscene in Final Fantasy X where Yuna dances on water and Tidus is spellbound by her image and movement. You can see how romance blossoms on sight in that segment. For a more recent game, check out Florence. Unlike most pop games, Florence revolves around a romantic relationship in terms of both storytelling and mechanics. You might also be interested in Cibele, which has a lot to say about how online relationships can create unique challenges for people.

Of course, there are a number of well-known games that feature dating systems. There’s Stardew Valley (or, as I call it, Harvest Moon Wannabe). There’s Persona 5. And so on. But to be frank, I find that, more often than not, these games are superficial and contrived in how they explore romance dynamics. Boiling down potential romance to whether you give someone the right gift or whether you choose a particular dialogue option is asinine.

If you look outside of the mainstream, you might have more luck finding romance and romantic comedy in games. Visual novels seem to be a breeding ground for this sort of thing, but unfortunately I’m not as familiar with that sphere.

Question 2

Andrew Smith: I was wondering what role a game should play in explaining its mechanics. The example I’m thinking about is Kingdom Hearts II. I beat it on its normal difficulty setting and thought it was a fun game, but it also had a lot of button mashing and seemed to lack depth. I then watched some videos of higher-level players and realized that I either missed or didn’t use half of the game’s mechanics. I immediately played the game again on a higher difficulty, learned more mechanics, and had much more fun and appreciation for the game the second time around. For the first time ever, I’m playing a game for the third time right after my first and second playthroughs and having even more fun.

The thing is, while I greatly appreciate all the hidden mechanics and depth, I realize a lot of them are poorly explained, and I feel most people would never know about some of them without learning about them online. Then again, most people wouldn’t need to know these mechanics unless they played on higher difficulty settings.

Do you have any thoughts on this? You frequently say most people don’t need to be great at video games but just need a level of understanding. Thoughts on this situation?

Jed Pressgrove: I don’t think a game must always explain its mechanics (in fact, I often criticize overtutorialization), but the experience will usually be more interesting if the developer gives players the opportunity to explore mechanics in an intuitive or experimental fashion. Take Octahedron. It doesn’t spend much time telling the player what to do, but it consistently puts you in situations where you must play around with new things in order to advance through each stage. I typically prefer it when games tell you less or just enough to play.

On the other hand, Guacamelee! 2 always points out what you can do in it, and I have found it to be a blast so far. You can make so many different choices during combat in Guacamelee! 2, so even though the game spells everything out, the player still has a great degree of kinetic freedom.

I haven’t played Kingdom Hearts II, but it’s typically annoying to me when a game is boring or doesn’t show its true colors, so to speak, during its first playthrough or on its normal difficulty setting. I can’t say too much about your situation, as I can’t judge the game without playing it, but my gut reaction to your account is that Kingdom Hearts II missed a lot of opportunities to be interesting within a shorter timeframe.

Questions 3-5

Carlo: Has reading a piece of game criticism ever drastically changed your evaluation of a game?

Jed Pressgrove: I can’t remember a case where a piece transformed my opinion in such a way, but sometimes an article will challenge my view of a game and force me to think again about my stance. Jess Joho’s review of Octopath Traveler made me reconsider how I viewed some of the female characters in that game. Another interesting piece was Ed Smith’s take on Nier: Automata. Smith’s essay didn’t call into question my interpretation of the game, but it did make me muse about Toko Taro’s overall maturity. Reviews should get us to think more, not necessarily change our minds.

Carlo: You named your website Game Bias. Is this a declaration that you embrace your biases, a joke (on commenters who type “You’re biased!” if they don’t like a review), or something else altogether? What does bias mean to you?

Jed Pressgrove: I can see how the blog name can make people think it was a response to a certain type of commenter, but it wasn’t. A few years ago I said something on Twitter about needing a name for a new blog, and Farida Yusuf, who has a sharp and provocative critical mind, half-jokingly (I think) suggested “Game Bias.” The term immediately struck me, so I went with it and never looked back.

I get a kick out of the phrase. I like that you can take it either as a serious statement or as humor. I embrace my biases in any case. To deny them would be to deny my heart, mind, and soul. In general, I believe everyone should let their feelings flow.

Having said that, I don’t think we should be biased against games before we play them. There are too many critics nowadays who dismiss work before they even honestly try it.

Biases, in their most honest form, are not merely angles or slants. They stem from convictions, personal experiences, and moral codes. Criticism, as a form of expression, can’t ignore such things.

Carlo: I really liked your podcasts with Tevis Thompson and Keith Andrew Hathaway. Do you have any plans to do more?

Jed Pressgrove: Glad you liked those. I have no plans now for a podcast with anyone, but you never know when another project will pop up. It’s a format that I remain interested in, and I always enjoy talking to people.

Beckett Review — New Look, Old Habits

by Jed Pressgrove

Few things have escaped the cynical crosshairs of the noir genre. So when you come across the line in the detective game Beckett that reads, “Beckett stopped believing in any notion of God the day his baby sister died,” the prose fits the noir profile, regardless of whether you have faith of any sort. Developer Simon Meek, like many crime fiction writers before him, always stays on script; his protagonist’s observations about life are dark and to the point. But Meek’s way of executing the formula — his unusual mixture of text, full-motion video, photographs, and strange audio within a point-and-click adventure format — makes it more difficult to reject Beckett as another case of fatalistic mimicry.

As the titular private investigator, you are trying to find Peregrine, the adult son of a woman named Daisy, who spends most of her time watching television. Peregrine is an awkward young man who can’t take female rejection and has essentially ran away from home. Beckett himself has his own psychological issues, which stem from his childhood, a general sort of world-weariness, and the loss of his wife.

This game constantly undercuts the predictable framework of the 2D point-and-click adventure as the story advances. You never know what kind of storytelling device or audiovisual cue will be triggered by your clicks. When you click a person, sometimes a text conversation starts immediately, but you won’t hear voice acting. Instead, every character has a repetitive sound associated with their dialogue. For Beckett, it’s coughing, most certainly a result of his smoking habit and age. For others, it might be the sound of lips aggressively eating and kissing (Daisy), the din of a typewriter (a receptionist), or a jackhammer (a construction worker).

Other times the game will perform visual gymnastics when you click something. After you initiate contact with a city representative, the camera zooms in on the character’s avatars, and the background becomes blurry and starts to rotate, eventually resembling a spinning vinyl record. During another pivotal conversation, the typical text-based exchanges evaporate as you begin to hear one of the character’s voices, and humongous words start to fill up the screen. From there, the game shifts to a display of prose with full-motion-video worms writhing in the background. Meek’s off-the-wall style, somewhat reminiscent of Jack King-Spooner’s use of kaleidoscopic audiovisual elements in RPGs, is always intriguing and defies the tried-and-true structure we’ve come to expect from adventure games.

The game’s script, while concise and engaging, isn’t as exceptional as its balls-out presentation. The resigned atheism of the protagonist makes sense initially, as you gather that Beckett’s mother had faith and probably pressured her son to follow in her footsteps. You also learn that religion-inspired guilt plagues the investigator: “Beckett seeks forgiveness. From whom he doesn’t know.” The storytelling falls apart, though, when Beckett sees a crying baby in the alley and muses, “Leave it be.” Why would a guilt-stricken man, whose baby sister died, be this apathetic about a helpless child? Meek never provides an answer. It’s as if the player is supposed to assume the worst just because the game is within the noir genre.

The protagonist’s puzzling lack of compassion is perhaps explained by one interpretation of the story’s ending. There is reason to believe after the conclusion that Beckett is not a real person but rather a projection of an aspect of another character’s psychology. While this reading can leave room for weird inconsistencies, it doesn’t help the game step out of the large shadow of numerous crime and psychological thriller stories that use a similar type of plot twist.

One of the game’s most memorable final lines is “There is no meaning to this world beyond which we give it.” At best, the absurdist philosophy of this quote doesn’t ring true in the context of the story’s relentless negativity. At worst, the thought registers as an excuse for Meek’s game-ending obfuscation. Beckett is compelling for how it says what it says through provocative images and sounds, but its overall message is confined by the typical nihilism of a genre that, for years, has had nothing new to point out.

Legendary Gary Review — Meta-Masterpiece

by Jed Pressgrove

Metatexual independent games have become more popular over the last few years, but the works of this movement — The Stanley Parable, Undertale, Pony Island, and Doki Doki Literature Club!, among others — have been more egotistical and shallow than humanistic and insightful. Evan Rogers’ Legendary Gary rejects the cynicism of this trend by daring to have players empathize with a stereotypical unemployed gamer who lives with his Bible-thumping mom. In showing how video games can serve as both escapism and inspiration, Rogers offers a mature cultural perspective that transcends the manipulative tricks of his too-cool-for-school indie peers.

As Gary, you always wind up playing an RPG called Legend of the Spear. This game allows Gary to forget the commentary of his mother and girlfriend and to exist in a world that, while challenging to survive in, lacks the more serious problems of real life. But responsibility soon demands Gary to get a job to support his mother, and as he navigates the very dubious politics at his grocery-store gig, he starts to notice that the events and people in Legend of the Spear mirror those of his everyday life.

Every day after work, you move Gary into his room to resume gaming. The sense of isolation is initially freeing, but when Gary’s worlds start to clash or reflect each other, wake-up calls abound for the protagonist. During one session with Legend of the Spear, Gary abruptly quits the game when he learns his friend has had an overdose. And when Gary begins to see similarities between his boss’ questionable orders and the quests given to him by a reptile queen in Legend of the Spear, his sense of integrity is doubly called into question. Through such occurrences, Gary learns how to care about people other than himself.

This story of coincidental redemption might sound sappy, but Rogers infuses wit throughout Legendary Gary to underscore the silliness of the game’s premise and the hilarity of human behavior and thought. At one point, Gary, tired of his mother’s constant references to her faith, declares that God doesn’t make video games. His mother’s response is sharp, believable, and ridiculous: “How do you know what God makes? Are you his accountant?” In a later scene, Gary’s boss has been fired for her unprofessional approach to management, and Gary is interrogated about his dealings with her by two corporate stooges labeled Serious Man and Other Serious Man. The sliminess of the situation is beyond palpable when one of the men advises Gary, “Just remember to keep it profesh’ from here on out.”

The audiovisual approach of Legendary Gary is a perfect fit for Rogers’ blend of humor and drama. The hand-drawn art of Legendary Gary is cartoony but exquisitely detailed, highlighting both the absurdity and complexity of Gary’s life. The soundtrack is an unusual mix. When Gary engages in turn-based combat in Legend of the Spear, you hear songs that seem like they were composed by a Talking Heads cover band. At first, it feels as if you’re listening to the most unorthodox score for RPG battling ever, but the music complements the dance-like movement of the characters when they all take their turns simultaneously — half spectacle and half nonsense.

Legendary Gary’s conclusion implies that life and video games are better when they have cathartic value, as opposed to when they only seem to suck away our spirit and our time, reducing us to human shells. The final scene is in a graveyard where Gary’s father was buried. Both Gary and his mother come to grips with the massive hole in their family unit, and the newfound bond between them suggests a sense of hope for the future. At the very end, the game visually confirms that every character in Legend of the Spear is an analogue for someone in Gary’s life. Legendary Gary is as meta as they come, but more importantly, it’s far wiser than the norm for imagining a more positive relationship between art and humanity.

All Our Asias Review — The Risk of Being Didactic

by Jed Pressgrove

All Our Asias is admirably upfront about its purpose. The game’s introductory message relays developer Sean Han Tani’s intention to untangle the complicated meaning of being Asian in the United States. From there, All Our Asias becomes less straightforward as Japanese protagonist Yuito, with the help of futuristic technology, enters the mind of his dying father to learn as much as he can from the fading memories of his old man. But in the second half of the story, Han Tani’s contrived lecturing about the dubiousness of U.S. Asian identity unravels the surreal tone that serves the game’s theme so well in its first hour.

Despite the concern of his mother, Yuito, curious about the life of his aloof and neglectful father, decides to take advantage of an opportunity to dive into the brain of his soon-to-be-dead dad. When he travels through his father’s memories, he is but a floating pod, just like the people he encounters on his journey. Yuito is pushy when he speaks to the denizens of the strange world, demanding to know if they might know anything about his dad. Later he meets a character named The General, who sends Yuito on a political mission to level the playing field for Asian restaurant owners in a memory-based Chinatown of Chicago.

All Our Asias is almost nothing to look at in the beginning. That almost everyone appears to be a robotic pod during Yuito’s quest creates a uniquely vacant feeling as your own pod hums its way through the game. The lack of meticulous detail for the characters and environments, along with the jagged look of the polygons, evokes the messiness of human memory. And Yuito’s bullheaded determination to uncover truth is disturbing in this ethereal setting; his aggressive interrogation of individuals essentially kills them, turning them into forgotten things.

Yuito’s obsession eventually takes him to areas that have more visual punch, including a nightclub rendered with wireframe graphics, a hazy forest, and a cold-looking train station. The soundtrack of All Our Asias is as ephemeral as the memories that Yuito pushes around. The score, most of which was composed by Han Tani, goes in numerous different directions in terms of emotional effect, rivaling the quality of Earthbound’s various mood-setting tunes. During one of All Our Asias’ most memorable tracks, it’s hard to tell whether you’re hearing static or rain, and that lack of clarity complements Han Tani’s conflicted perspective on Asian identity.

The philosophical thrust of Han Tani’s message is at first cleverly conveyed. At one point, Yuito hears Japanese but can’t understand any of the language. Despite his removal from the culture of his parents, Yuito is inundated with racial slurs in another scene by people who don’t recognize him as an American. When he later finds himself on a train drifting in outer space, you can imagine how alien he must feel on his search for clarification.

The game loses its footing when Yuito begins doing work for The General, a memory that claims it knew his father well. This is when Han Tani’s storytelling suffers from its contrivances. Not only is labeling a bossy character “The General” too on the nose, but The General’s sermons about the diversity of Asian experiences in the United States come across as overly presumptuous.

Although it’s clear Yuito needs a lesson (his great line “Mom, maybe you were right” shows that), The General goes into left field when informing Yuito that Asians “don’t all look the same” after Yuito expresses sympathy for a struggling Korean restaurant owner based on his perception of shared identity. Yuito’s ignorance never reaches a level where he’s literally unable to recognize any physical differences. Han Tani’s point (via The General) about the cultural and social separation of Asians of different classes and backgrounds is needed in a kneejerk U.S. culture that lacks nuanced understanding. Yet All Our Asias’ preaching seems like a clumsy slap on the wrist in its final act, losing the unorthodox power of its challenging, suggestive first half.

Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate Review — Repeater Design

by Jed Pressgrove

Hunting monsters is easy in Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate. Hunting distinct quests is another matter entirely in this game of cookie-cutter experiences.

When you first start Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate, you don’t even necessarily hunt. To unlock more stuff to do, you must complete challenges in which you must gather a certain number of things, such as mushrooms or butterflies, before 50 minutes elapse, though it’s unlikely you’ll need more than a few minutes for any of these fetch quests. The work is tedious all the same, as you must experience a bureaucratic process several times in a row: talk to the village quest-giver, select a mission from a list, run out of the village to start the mission, explore segments of a map while triggering loading screen after loading screen, find the required number of items, go back to your initial starting point to deposit the items in a box, and wait for the game to give you its dramatic “Quest Complete” stamp. A revised title like Monster Hunter and Item Gatherer Generations Ultimate might not roll off the tongue, but developer Capcom should learn how to market its repetitive nonsense a little better.

The game eventually offers more opportunities to hunt. “Hunting” in this context means strolling from one part of the map to the next until you see the monster(s) you’re supposed to kill. Conveniently, your prey is always ready to fight; only a bigger type of monster will try to escape after you’ve flogged it a good bit, but you can usually find it immediately after it skedaddles. A wounded beast often runs to another obvious point on the map, and you simply follow it until a loading screen appears. Amusingly, after the loading screen went away in these situations, I frequently found myself in front of the limping creature, as if I were the one who hurried off the screen first.

There are multiple villages in Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate that need your services. Unfortunately, almost all of them require you to extinguish what is best described as idiotic velociraptor wannabes. These reptiles will charge in the wrong direction and generally fail to take advantage of their spatial positioning. Interestingly, you will often wipe out the same number of these poor bastards even when you’re on a supposedly different quest at another village.

The other monsters in the game aren’t that clever, either. Sure, there are exceptions, such as the ones that can hide under sand and pop out when they feel like it. But in general, you’ll use the same combat tactics every time, and provided that you keep upgrading your weapons and armor, eating meals before hunts, and using various stat-boosting consumables, you’ll keep doing fine.

Deceptively complex activity management and a lighthearted tone are why the Monster Hunter series has been a hit. In line with this formula, Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate gives players enough busywork so that they feel like they’re somewhat experiencing the intricacies of a hunt; censors certain off-putting parts of the process (when you carve up an animal, you see no blood or mutilation); and ignores the high level of care that goes into actual wildlife management (one character in the game flippantly says, “Time to put ’em on the endangered list”). But even if you’re ready to fully buy into the game’s neutered, childish version of hunting, Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate takes so long to get going and repeats itself so much that your standards for fun would have to be quite low to keep playing.

Hollow Knight Review — Symphony of the Ninja Souls X

by Jed Pressgrove

With gorgeous art, an exquisite score, and an array of places to discover, Hollow Knight resembles a masterpiece. Indeed, the game is very good at resembling things, whether because of its focus on ruin, souls, and hollowness (Dark Souls); its level structure, wherein players can travel new pathways via newly acquired techniques (Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night); its curt swordplay (Ninja Gaiden); and its wall-jumping and dashing mechanics (Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man X). Look beyond its great looks and great sounds, and Hollow Knight more than lives up to to the first word of its title.

In a world of bugs, you play as a warrior on a vague quest in which you have many sorrowful run-ins with destitute and hostile creatures. As such, Hollow Knight is indebted to the storytelling approach of Dark Souls, but it says nothing specific about the human condition. In Dark Souls, a sense of real-world ennui pervades the proceedings as your character goes through the motions of killing, leveling up, and collecting currency, and the game is never shy about showing the deleterious effects of a decaying habitat on the mental states of the characters that you meet. In contrast, Hollow Knight’s friendly nonplayable characters, distinct in their audiovisual quirks, often display a strange level of enthusiasm considering the wretched state of their environments, yet there doesn’t seem to be any philosophy that inspires their general positivity. Worse, the protagonist is but a silent and nameless shell who moves with a ruthless type of efficiency; he’s a cold product of decades of video-game logic with no emotional meaning.

Controlling this brutal killer is pleasurable once you gain enough abilities after combing the game’s interconnected locations several times. You can double-jump to swing your sword up at an aerial enemy, then dash away toward a wall, kick off the wall, slash the foe from the side to eliminate it, dash again in midair, and use your final jump to land safely on a modest platform. You can bounce on adversaries by swinging your weapon downward at them from above. You can perform a few special moves, including a fireball of sorts and a dive-bomb, if you have enough Soul, which also allows you to heal if there’s enough distance between you and an active threat. But looking back at it all, I can’t name a single thing in Hollow Knight that I haven’t done in other games — a realization that creates a feeling of profound emptiness, especially considering the length of the experience.

It’s almost like developer Team Cherry bases Hollow Knight on a disturbingly patronizing pitch: “This time, it’s with bugs!” If all you want is to admire how intricately detailed animation and audio can make you feel as if you are among a wide variety of creepy crawlies (the game’s Deepnest region ingeniously epitomizes this sensation), Hollow Knight is the greatest platformer of all time. Outside of that, it’s simply another title, like Shovel Knight and Axiom Verge, that echoes the past with the vain hope that it too will go down in history.

Paratopic Review — Surreally Dull

by Jed Pressgrove

Paratopic will try anything to unnerve you. Hard-to-follow but violent plot? Check. Abnormal-looking humans? Check. Disturbingly garbled dialogue? Check. Dubious VHS tapes? Check. Far from a personal vision, this crude horror tale from developers Jess Harvey and Doc Burford is one of the most derivative and snooze-worthy games of the year.

Right away, Paratopic appears to be an amateurish idea thief that thrives on the devices of other works of art. The opening line of dialogue, “You have an enemy, friendo,” recalls the deadpan, subtly threatening, and amusing language of the No Country for Old Men antagonist Anton Chigurh, but the character who delivers these words carries no significance outside of informing you that you’re playing as a smuggler at the beginning of the game. Paratopic’s introductory scene takes place in a dimly lit hallway, and that, coupled with the PS1-era visuals, forces a comparison to Silent Hill, which comes to mind again later in the game when a mutilated human body with a television for a head stumbles toward you. Such imagery might be more frightening if it didn’t rely on overused concepts and if the game’s script gave one a reason to care about the vaguely defined characters.

In other sequences, Paratopic not only swipes material from another game but also seems to do its damnedest to be as monotonous as possible as part of some uninspired attempt to build suspense or to acknowledge the little things in life. Three times you must steer a car for minutes on uneventful stretches of road. Besides steering and ramming the car into rails (which never results in any damage to the vehicle), you can look around and turn the radio dials to hear ominous-sounding gibberish from commentators. With these driving scenes, Paratopic clearly copies the 2014 independent title Glitchhikers. While Glitchhikers itself is an uneven blend of surrealism and the common human experience of taking a late-night drive, it never comes across as a ripoff of another game like Paratopic.

Paratopic gets close to being subversive when it has the player, on multiple occasions, wander in the woods and take snapshots as a photographer. The picture-taking is quite meaningless by itself. Because this activity isn’t presented as part of a photo mode within a larger game, the scenes in the woods are meant to simulate the mundane actions of a hiker in a strange, isolated place. A more humorous tone might have allowed Paratopic to satirize the cliched fetishization of scenery in games like Firewatch, but the extended walks in the woods ultimately function as a dreary way to build up to a nasty discovery. The photographer, the innocent bystander, is nothing more than another first-person shell from which the player laps up the game’s overly deliberate weirdness. As a story, Paratopic favors mood over substance, but the mood, pathetically, is not even halfway extraordinary.

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #5-1

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: You can read the intro to this list here, the entries for #15-11 here, and the entries for #10-6 here.

5. Solomon’s Key (1986)

Solomon’s Key, designed by Michitaka Tsuruta, might star a sorcerer who is perpetually trapped in locked rooms, but the game’s central mechanic — the ability to create and destroy square platforms — gives the player a unique type of freedom. Most 2D platformers before and after Solomon’s Key feature platforms that are set in place, so being able to manipulate the very things that inspired an entire genre creates the brilliant illusion that you are a magician. Adding to Solomon’s Key’s sense of magic is the weird secrets throughout its 50 levels. After you accidentally make a few odd discoveries, it’s hard to resist the urge to experiment in all corners of the enchanted rooms, especially since you will be revisiting the levels many times due to the game’s high degree of difficulty. Before Spelunky and Dark Souls, there was Solomon’s Key.

4. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1989)

Although Konami’s Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse keeps the deliberate style of the original Castlevania, it holds a different place in video-game history by reimagining how players might progress through a journey in an action platformer. After you complete certain levels, branching pathways offer distinct challenges as you inch closer to Dracula’s castle; it’s impossible to experience every level on a single playthrough. On these different paths, you can discover multiple secondary characters, each with a completely different style of play and who can replace main protagonist Trevor Belmont with the touch of a button. No matter what path or character you choose, the game is full of ingeniously nerve-wracking sequences, the best of which is the optional Clock Tower level, where you must scale the building then work your way back down through its various mechanisms. Very few platformers can compete with Castlevania III’s epic quality, and none of them can match its emotional tension, partially because of the game’s startlingly articulate soundtrack, which is one of the greatest technical achievements on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

3. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995)

For a sequel to one of the most crowd-pleasing franchise hits of its era, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island has a ton of gall. The game’s hand-drawn art surges with a joyful and nervous energy that has yet to be surpassed among platformers — sometimes it seems like the visuals are about to, elatedly, rip apart at the seams, as when, in one stage, you touch Fuzzy and get dizzy (an unforgettable ode to psychedelic drugs) or when the first boss, initially diminutive, blows up to take up about half the screen. Then there’s Yoshi’s Island’s bizarre and even irritating premise: to survive, the player must take care of a young Mario, who cries and floats off in a bubble whenever Yoshi is hit by an enemy. By daring to turn a Mario game into one long escort mission, producer Shigeru Miyamoto and his team make an uncompromising artistic statement, rejecting the philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And that’s why when people talk about this title, they rarely say, “Super Mario World 2.”

2. Ninja Gaiden (1988)

When director Hideo Yoshizawa decided to transform the 1988 Ninja Gaiden arcade beat ’em up into a cutscene-filled platformer — the birth of “Tecmo Theater” — he changed video-game history. As a story about a young man wanting revenge on the ninja who killed his father, Ninja Gaiden is simple, emotive, and urgent, inspiring scores of developers to try their hand at complementing action with bursts of cinematic aplomb. But no cutscene has yet transcended the Sergio Leone-inspired opening sequence of this game, which, through alternating close-ups of faces and running legs, showcases the anxiety, excitement, and tragedy of a duel. The last image in this montage is the masked visage of a son enraged by what has occurred, and so when the first stage finally starts, the player is already shot with adrenaline as they take control of a hero with quick feet, a beyond-efficient sword slash, and the ability to jump off walls. As the story becomes more complicated after each level, and as the soundtrack evokes everything from energetic rage to demonic mystery, Ninja Gaiden never lets up.

1. Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988)

It’s not just that the eight worlds of Super Mario Bros. 3 contain enough ideas for several video games. It’s that the realization of the game’s concepts leads to a wide variety of emotional states. The child-like thrill of sliding down a tall hill, taking out multiple foes as you go, and landing into a pool of water. The sense of dread while you jump onto moving tanks and dodge cannon fire and walking bombs. The urge to laugh when you first see the silly oversized goombas. The shock of being swallowed alive by a giant flying fish. Whether you’re in the middle of a level, navigating a world map, or going toe to toe with a friend in Battle Mode (which is more fun than most fighting games), Super Mario Bros. 3 constantly appeals to senses and feelings and, of course, our fascination with moving an avatar on, around, between, above, and under platforms in a wonderful array of fashions.

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #10-6

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: You can read the intro to this list here and the entries for #15-11 here.

10. Downwell (2015)

Some might define Downwell as a shooter, but developer Ojiro Fumoto ingeniously riffs on one of the platformer’s most common features: the ability to dispatch an enemy by bopping them on top of the head. In Downwell, you can safely bop certain enemies but get injured by touching others, and it’s this concern that gives this pacey game its fundamental tension as you try to rack up combos or merely survive through the greatest fall in video-game history. The newest game on this list, Downwell shows that Fumoto is a brilliant independent artist who should get more attention from the gaming press (which is too obsessed with, among other things, the randomly generated sci-fi banalities of No Man’s Sky).

9. Kirby’s Adventure (1993)

Kirby’s Adventure doesn’t exactly conform to the standard notion that platforming should involve a distinguished approach to jumping. This Nintendo classic — which has the fingerprints of the late and great Satoru Iwata, in addition to those of long-time Kirby and Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai — is more driven by the freedom to fly, and Kirby’s copycat ability both complements the established formula of 1992’s Kirby’s Dream Land and predicts the surreal, morally dubious nature of Super Mario Odyssey. As a game where you can casually advance through its levels or dive deep into its hidden areas through fun uses of the hero’s many powers, Kirby’s Adventure has flexible appeal and is one of the greatest technical achievements of the 8-bit era.

8. Spelunky HD (2013)

I’d like to meet someone who has stopped discovering tricks and quirks in Derek Yu’s Spelunky HD. The fundamentals of this game — the climbing and hanging, the running and jumping, the throwing and dropping — are fine-tuned to an absurd degree, and Yu’s level design strikes an impeccable balance between randomness and familiarity. And pay attention to the game’s underrated satirical undercurrent, where the protagonist’s greed and treachery — the damsel in distress, who is wryly labeled a villain in an in-game notebook, can literally be used as an object — are almost always rewarded with death.

7. Mega Man 3 (1990)

An honorable mention in my 15 greatest shooters list, Mega Man 3 fully realizes the potential of its predecessors. This game’s silky smooth run-and-jump action, a revelation after the slippery play of the first two Mega Man games, is accompanied by faster screen-to-screen transitions and a now-legendary move, the slide, that redefined how the blue hero can travel and react to threats. The game’s kinetic flare makes it hard not to feel propelled through its gauntlet of outstanding villains, from Snake Man to Gemini Man to Top Man. (For more on the greatness of Mega Man 3, read my essay here.)

6. Donkey Kong (1994)

The best remake in video-game history, this Game Boy masterpiece opens with the four levels of 1981’s Donkey Kong before sending the player, as Mario, on an indisputably epic quest. Without a tutorial sucking the creative spirit out of the whole affair, you’ll learn how to create temporary ladders and bridges, ride on the heads of harmless enemies to reach higher ground, take advantage of a highly athletic moveset (a clear inspiration for the acrobatics of Super Mario 64), and more as you identify and then carry a key to open the door to the next stage. This stunning interpretation of Donkey Kong as a limitless well of dynamic action is also an audiovisual home run, with sound effects that pay homage to the arcade classic, an urgent soundtrack that ranks among the best on the Game Boy, and cinematics that amusingly reimagine Mario’s neverending pursuit of the titular antagonist. Jonathan Blow, eat your heart out!