review

The Old Man Club Review — Literary Deceit

by Jed Pressgrove

Michael Kolotch’s The Old Man Club has been praised as a strange, smart adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The graphics of The Old Man Club are undeniably provocative in how they lampoon Hemingway’s infamous manhood, but all this finger-pointing is a testament to contemporary snark and, eventually, unchecked homophobic and racist tendencies of “progressive” thought.

Essentially, The Old Man Club turns Hemingway’s novel of spiritual struggle into an ode to smart-assed secularism. Ignoring the humbleness and Christ parallel of protagonist Santiago, Kolotch settles for depicting the same joke multiple times: hairy, over-the-hill men fighting to prove they’re still alpha dogs via arm wrestling. With its absurd references to The Old Man and the Sea, The Old Man Club gives itself the illusion of relevance. If the game didn’t have Hemingway to lean on, it would be more easily dismissed as a monotonous, tone-deaf send-up of the “Test Your Might” segments in Mortal Kombat, as you’re expected to defeat your opponents by clicking the mouse as quickly as possible. Not even a fish head on a muscular man’s body is unheard of in video games — the avant garde shooter Shutshimi used this idea to great effect in 2014.

Kolotch’s emphasis on the bulging penis conveys that repressed gay identity might play a role in the pathetic spectacle of manliness. It’s an easy way to get laughs, as homosexuality has been a traditional, built-in target for people looking to affirm their supposed morally superior lifestyles. This cliche gets uglier toward the end of The Old Man Club when you have to arm-wrestle a shark from Hemingway’s book. As the big boss of the game, the shark is depicted as a black man and gets the most sexually suggestive lines (“I smell a fresh scent” and “You drive a good harpoon”) in addition to a sarcastic reference to providence (“God pities you”). Consider the irony of this hindsight and critique: condescending portrayals involving race and sexual orientation weren’t the focus in The Old Man and the Sea. You have to wonder whether some read the books they talk about.

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Crime Is Sexy Review — Punching Up, Down, or Across

by Jed Pressgrove

There’s not a more vicious mockery of computer game politics than Crime Is Sexy. The sarcastic title has a double meaning, with the more obvious one being the jab at glorified crime series like Grand Theft Auto and Hotline Miami. Developer Jallooligans puts force into this punch by making the 1980s-inspired David Hasselhoff song “True Survivor” the score to its satire. In this context, Hasselhoff’s trivial 2015 Internet hit evokes the same type of retro sentimentality that game development churns out to make its celebrations of illegal activity seem like a part of every happy childhood. The self-aware yet unthinking heroism in “True Survivor” has a parallel in today’s smart-assed consumers who get hoodwinked by industry.

The second meaning of Crime Is Sexy plays off the contracts between players and “Overlords” like Steam, Electronic Arts (Jallooligans steals EA’s logo for an opening credit), and Ubisoft. Jallooligans depicts digital rights management as inherently absurd and, thus, criminal. Crime Is Sexy begins with you filling out credit/debit card information, reading a user agreement that outlines how the “Overlords” own everything related to the game (including you by extension of playing it), and giving away personal details. Hasselhoff’s line “Fighting for life, for good, for all that we believe in!” provides a biting contrast to the lack of action taken against what Jallooligans portrays as make-believe authority.

Crime Is Sexy then opens up as a collection of (supposedly) 1,000 unique games. As you scroll through and try titles such as Middle-Class Conflict Trainer, Bureaucratic Inferiority Non-Game, and Ethnic Downfall Statement (and numerous variations on these and other themes), you find every game is about failure as represented by a block that can’t quite jump to a higher platform. This repetitive send-up, along with an accompanying Kickstarter video pitch suggesting that popular social technology transforms game developers into beggars and swindlers, is mean-spirited but also true to Jallooligans’ class-driven implication that there should be more of a conscious fight from audiences and artists.

Resonance of Fate Review — Guns Over Swords, Laughter Over Tears

by Austin C. Howe

Note: If you are prone to motion sickness, you are not recommended to play or watch Resonance of Fate. More than one person has become motion sick as a result of watching the author play this game.

Resonance of Fate has possibly the best combat ever devised for a Japanese role-playing game. Very few complex systems are this elegant. Very few sets of choices are as self-explanatory. Very few sets of rewards for given actions are as clearly balanced against one another. And while every other thing in Resonance of Fate is an experiment with JRPG form that is as bold as its reinvention of combat, the results are incredibly mixed to say the least.

In battle, you inflict two types of damage in Resonance of Fate: scratch and direct. Scratch damage fills up quickly but cannot damage an enemy directly and, therefore, cannot kill an enemy. Direct damage can take out an enemy but builds up slowly. If this dynamic seems reminiscent of the relationship between magic and physical damage in Final Fantasy XIII, Resonance of Fate is like Final Fantasy XIII if the latter knew what it was doing.

This is the fundamental flow of combat: you use a “hero action” to send your scratch damage dealer, a party member equipped with submachine guns, running across the battlefield to fill up an enemy’s green life bar with blue, then you use another hero action to send a direct damage dealer, a handgun user, in similar blazing fashion to convert that damage into death. In this process, you’ll have spent two hero actions — out of a beginning set of three that expanded to around 10 in my personal endgame — and hopefully regained one action for killing the enemy, maybe two if you blew off the enemy’s armor in the process. Destroying armor and killing an enemy are the only ways you can refill the hero gauge, and if you fail to do either of those things quickly, you will enter Condition Critical where you take damage much more easily and, most of the time, lose the battle. In this way, Resonance of Fate is cutthroat. Early decisions more or less determine the course of battle. I often found myself making a mistake on the first turn, then immediately pausing the game and pressing “Retry” because I knew I had already lost.

Thankfully, good planning is rewarded with the opportunity to do even more damage and prevent that sort of thing from happening. The key weakness of your three-person party is that only one character can move at a time, while all enemies can move at the same time. Granted, this trade-off comes with the advantages of moving swiftly, jumping through the air, dealing highly concentrated damage, and avoiding attacks, but it also means your other two party members who aren’t trying out for the circus will inevitably take some amount of damage throughout the course of battle.

To subvert this weakness, you have to perform Tri-Attacks, which enable all three characters to attack together, but Tri-Attacks require Bezel points. When you move your submachine gun user across the line between your other two party members, you collect a Bezel point. When you send out your first handgun user and cross the path between the submachine gun user and the other handgunner, you collect another Bezel point. The only way to collect Bezel points is through these meticulously planned hero actions, taking stock of the battlefield and drawing routes in your head. Such thinking often resulted in me considering as many as three turns in advance. Managing Tri-Attacks is the only way to win most of the major battles in Resonance of Fate. I usually find myself opposed to systems that strongly dictate a single play style, but unlike the Dark Souls games, which present multiple styles even though only one is actually interesting, Resonance of Fate works hard to push you toward the only style that will allow you to beat it.

Sadly, the razor-sharp thought and design behind the combat does not come through in the plotting, character development, or thematics. Resonance of Fate replaces melodrama, one of many JRPG conventions that the game defies, with comedy. I have probably laughed more times while playing Resonance of Fate than during any other game that resembles it (or even just a video game in general). That said, far too many of the jokes rely on the mistreatment and objectification of Leanne. I laugh, but the laughs leave a bad taste in my mouth. In particular, Vashyron and Zephyr, both male characters, will often say things like “easy on the friendly fire” during combat to deride Leanne, but she is mechanically the same as both Vashyron and Zephyr, a glaring example of ludonarrative dissonance and misogyny that I’m surprised survived playtesting or script edits unquestioned, and that only reinforces how little thought is put into how women in video games are written.

The characters are generally undeveloped, which is a shame given their likability as a group. Vashyron is a military veteran who survived a botched operation, but his survivor’s guilt, his relationships with other soldiers, and his reason for sticking with Zephyr and Leanne are all left ambiguous to the point where I wonder if I’m meant to assume certain details based on his character stock type. Leanne has supposedly died and come back to life, but what her second chance has changed about her remains a mystery. Zephyr really gets a shaft: he massacred a number of people at the church in which he studied to be a clergyman. Zephyr’s murders are revealed in the game’s introductory cutscene, but the game treats this as a secret that Leanne slowly learns about, and her reaction to learning about the violence does little to alter her and Zephyr’s relationship, which is, in true anime fashion, a romance that goes nowhere. The plotting also spends an astounding amount of time in cutscenes with the primary anti-villain, Cardinal Rowen. Even though Rowen is a very interesting character, he takes little action that drives the protagonists’ actions. Rowen does not interact at all with your party until too close to the end, at which the writing flails with flaccid attempts to increase the stakes of the drama. Rowen creates next to no conflict.

Then again, taking the text as a whole, Resonance of Fate’s lack of conflicts is, to some degree, the point. The game intends to focus on the day-to-day lives of Vashyron, Zephyr, and Leanne as bounty hunters. My biases and taste may lean too heavily toward the social observations and protagonist-villain interactions that drive, for example, Xenogears. But Resonance of Fate tends to undercut its subtexts as well. Bazel, the world the game takes place in, has a clear gradient scale between the rich, middle-class, and poor as you move from the top of the structure to the bottom, yet that class aspect feels significantly unaddressed. Most of Bazel’s citizens express no displeasure for this class division. Some will even, for example, show empathy that a Cardinal’s wedding day has been ruined. The game also clearly structures its dominant social class, the Cardinals, after the Catholic church from which that term emerges. And while there is plenty of typical JRPG atheism and anti-theism on hand, there is very little discussion of this connection between faith and wealth, even though such a connection could be drawn easily. I don’t claim these things lightly: the intensely developed sidequests will have you visiting more or less every location in Bazel and talking to most of its inhabitants at least once. The lack of social and political awareness in Resonance of Fate is especially tragic given that the bottom of Bazel contains some of the best-photographed, most gorgeous, and most desolate depictions of urban dystopia in a video game since Final Fantasy VII.

Such is Resonance of Fate, a game brimming with confidence and not shy about being more than 50 hours long, yet somehow registering as incomplete. It’s frustrating how close Resonance of Fate comes to being a genre-defining masterpiece. Other games, particularly Xenogears, share its problems, but very few share its strengths: its humor, its unique gun-grey steampunk aesthetic, its shockingly casual soundtrack, its astoundingly complex combat. Despite those strengths, Resonance never manages to convince me of an imperfect-yet-undeniable genius that can be seen in essential games like Terranigma, Resident Evil 4, or Xenogears. The game often plays as a proof of concept that needs and deserves a good writer. As it stands, I’d recommend playing Resonance of Fate on the strength of its combat alone and approaching its other experiments with more distance.

Austin C. Howe writes the blog Haptic Feedback and does a weekly, public-radio audio criticism series called Critical Switch with Zolani Stewart, which you can support on Patreon. He is in the late drafting stages of his long-delayed book of essays on Final Fantasy VII, for which he is currently seeking a publisher.

Grab Them By The Eyes Review — Cart Strife

by Jed Pressgrove

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

Naut Review — A Mirage of Fun

by Jed Pressgrove

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

Dream.Sim Review — Colorful Nothing

by Jed Pressgrove

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

TwinBee Review — Not That Cute

by Jed Pressgrove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragon Spirit Review — A Strange Absence of Conviction

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the emulation of Dragon Spirit in Namco Museum: 50th Anniversary on Xbox. This emulation represents the newer version of the 1987 arcade game that allows you to bypass levels when you start a new game.

In theory, Dragon Spirit is a cool improvement on its predecessor, Xevious. But the more I play Dragon Spirit, the more I dislike how it stacks the deck against you, and the more I see a lack of expression, a lack of technical focus, compared to Xevious.

As in Xevious, you use two buttons to shoot enemies in the air and enemies on the ground, but this time you’re a dragon, and you can upgrade your dragon by collecting flying orbs, which appear when you destroy an egg on the ground or kill a flashing enemy. When fully upgraded, you are a three-headed dragon that can shoot long swaths of fire. This idea is interesting, but what separates Dragon Spirit from Xevious is a better illusion of flight (which, as I argue, is a hallmark of vertical shooters compared to horizontal shooters). Unlike the ship in Xevious, the dragon in Dragon Spirit isn’t a static avatar. The flapping wings complement the feeling that you’re flying.

More significantly, the greater movement in Dragon Spirit creates a high that Xevious never achieved. In Xevious, you can fly on about 60 percent of the screen. In Dragon Spirit, you can fly anywhere on the screen. Accentuating this freedom is limited horizontal screen movement. While the screen always scrolls vertically in Dragon Spirit, you can see different parts of the level by flying to the extreme right or left. In other words, the screen can move just outside of its horizontal boundaries before your dragon hits an invisible wall. An interesting dynamic occurs: don’t like dealing with a particular enemy on the extreme right? Then move as far as you can to the left, though the extreme left might present a greater threat depending on your timing.

Given its freer movement and reptilian charm, Dragon Spirit has joyful moments. Unfortunately, the game nullifies its potential with an unfocused structure. While Xevious is the more challenging, grueling game, Dragon Spirit begs more frustration. The biggest issue comes with the power-ups, that is, the different colored flying orbs you collect for upgrades. Different orbs have different effects (three purple orbs give you an extra life), but besides avoiding the rare orb that downgrades your firepower, the only relevant strategy is actually touching the orbs. Many of the orbs appear after you destroy a red or blue egg on the ground, but you can’t rush toward the destroyed egg with the expectation of nabbing the flying orb — if you rush it, the orb will fly away from you and off the screen, useless. You have to stay back and allow the orb to home in on you. This twist means you have to make sure that you can move to a lower spot of the screen without taking a hit from an enemy. Such effort doesn’t necessarily translate to success: sometimes the orb doesn’t home in on you that well. It’s not out of the question for the orb to fly right by your dragon’s wing.

The other major hindrance is the size of your dragon. You are bigger than most enemies, so you’re more likely to take a hit. One might want to chalk this up as a “design decision” (an overly apologetic phrase — most things in video games are the result of decisions), and Dragon Spirit does allow you to take two hits rather than one for each life. Even so, it can be hard to tell when you’re going to take a hit because of the dragon’s wings. Dragon Spirit gives you some leeway while finding a path through enemy fire, but some deaths seem like the fault of wishy-washy design. In contrast, I don’t have questions about whether I deserve a game over after playing Xevious.

The enemy cues and patterns in Dragon Spirit require basic memorization — the unpredictability of Xevious is gone. Once you learn how to allow the flying orbs to come to you without taking a hit from enemies, none of the nine stages stand much of a chance against your dragon. Granted, it can take dozens of attempts to master one level in Dragon Spirit, and once you lose your lives, it’s game over. But the “new” version of Dragon Spirit lets you start at the beginning of any level when you start a new game. I can understand why this version of the game was created: the majority of the challenge in Dragon Spirit is due to the bizarre flying orbs and the size of the dragon. The concession of a level select suggests a mistake in the original development of the game.

Dragon Spirit essentially trades drama for quirkiness. Xevious shows more articulate thought and urgency in its one level than any of Dragon Spirit’s nine levels. If the lack of a reticle for ground attacks doesn’t illustrate Dragon Spirit’s disregard for precision, the clash of its dorky music against prehistoric environments does. Besides irritation and goofiness, what are you supposed to feel while playing Dragon Spirit? There’s a strange absence of conviction that doesn’t deserve your tolerance.

Xevious Review — When Shooting Changed

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the emulation of Xevious in Namco Museum: 50th Anniversary on Xbox.

More than 30 years after its release, Xevious is essential. Developer Masanobu Endō’s technical execution, his distinct style, ensures the timelessness.

The music, a perpetual alarm, sets the tone. Xevious demands alertness: you play one continuous level, you get one hit per life, and destroying enemies means more points for extra lives. The screen always scrolls, though you do have tiny breaks in action as you transition to more challenging sections of the level. Between these breaks, you alternate between shooting enemies in the air and bombing enemies on the ground (each action requires a different button). This dual concept was innovative in 1982, but Endō’s work doesn’t coast on originality. Instead, his design ratchets up the tension in various ways.

With flying enemies, Endō establishes a process that hovers between predictability and unpredictability. Enemies fly in at specific cues in the level. The cues never change, but the type of enemy during a cue can vary from game to game. This variance can throw off your rhythm, as enemy patterns determine whether you should be lower on the screen, to give yourself more time for evasion, or higher on the screen, to take the enemies down before they crowd you. Learning the enemies’ flight and fire patterns precedes a bigger concern. That is, some enemies don’t always fire at you, meaning that recognizing an enemy’s appearance by itself doesn’t erase tension. Initially, enemies fly in groups of one enemy type, but as you advance, different enemy types can fly at you together. One half of this mixture might not fire, or, in the worst scenario, both groups of enemies come out firing, while some individual enemies may only fly toward you. As a result, you constantly question what’s coming next, and your only defense is quick observation followed by precise movement and firing.

Despite the unpredictable elements, shooting enemies in the air is straightforward. Just line up the enemy and fire. Bombing enemies on the ground is not as simple. You have to use a reticle to shoot bombs, and the reticle is always in the same place, a few inches above your ship. So you have to be a few inches below any ground enemy to take it out. The problem is that such a position may put you in a collision course with a flying enemy or a bullet. At first, ground enemies are stationary, but soon you approach ones that move. Using the reticle on mobile ground enemies requires judgment similar to that of the 1980 classic Missile Command. And like flying enemies, sometimes ground enemies withhold fire, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they fire more than usual.

As the stakes rise, you remain the same. No power-ups. You can only fly on roughly 60 percent of the screen, which becomes backbreaking when you’ve mistimed shots and when bullets crowd spaces of the screen. Your ship moves at a speed that would be an insult if it were any slower. Your movement, whether lateral or vertical, must be carefully considered for either survival or a high score.

Endō’s genius lies in his articulation and improvement of previous concepts. The scrolling and movement in Xevious complicates the foundation of single-screen vertical shooters like Space Invaders and Galaga, and Endō’s inclusion of Missile Command’s anticipatory, strategic aiming creates even more potential for transcendent play. You can shoot enemies in the air while using lateral movement to avoid fire and to position the reticle for a bomb that will take out multiple ground enemies at the same time. Doing this consistently gives Xevious a unique kineticism.

Or you can choose to evade everything without firing a bullet. The level keeps going and juxtaposes mysterious beauty with the action at hand. The cues and positioning of the enemies can be appreciated as a devious art. Get far enough and you’ll see an etching of a giant bird in the dirt. Seeing the bird and wondering about its origin is a relief, a pleasure, a release of tension that transcends whether you have a new high score.

Family Matters — The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo

by Jed Pressgrove

To keep you playing, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo dangles multiple endings rather than inspired storytelling. Replaying this game reveals a rigid set of pathways, some of which can only be activated by clicking a single, seemingly arbitrary hyperlink. Unlike Depression Quest, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo doesn’t make a clear statement until you get the last ending, exposing the other endings (and any failed attempts to unlock a different ending) as a horror tease.

If you unlock the major (actual?) ending of The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo, the game directs you to its ultimate secret: a series of essays from developer Michael Lutz. Lutz calls these essays “an intended effect of the design,” but they render the game meaningless and vice versa. After the game finally makes its obvious point about the importance of humanity/friendship over product and macho gloating, Lutz muddies the observation with sections such as the following:

What these stories reveal, I think, is an underlying anxiety we have about games in general: that beneath their smiling faces and heroic poses Mario and Link are somehow hostile to us. That if these emblems of childhood and adolescent pleasure had their way, we would keep playing with them until it killed us.

Perhaps here we can find the “pretense of truth” that seemed to otherwise go missing: there is something about games culture, its particular awareness of itself in its own moment of history, that facilitates the experience of horror at the industry’s own promises of endless and repetitive play.

Games, in this perspective, both loathe us, and need us.

Moving past Lutz’s projection about collective anxiety, one might say the repetition within The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo loathes the player. The game, despite its “good” ending, wastes a lot of our time trying to say something. At the very least, the game’s Groundhog Day repetition lacks the sociological purpose of Mattie Brice’s Mainichi. Instead, Lutz’s horror hour appeals to the lowest common denominator with “creepy” whispering from Uncle Boogie Man.

Lutz’s use of family ties hasn’t always been this trivial. Lutz’s previous game, My Father’s Long, Long Legs, appears more cognizant of what its horror in the home might convey. The protagonist’s fear of and disconnection from the patriarch in My Father’s Long, Long Legs are compelling because they illustrate, rather than project, a widespread anxiety within many modern families. In contrast, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo doesn’t seem to consider that its terrible “uncle who comes at midnight” premise can bring to mind the ugly reality of sexual molestation within a family. The familial weirdness in The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo serves zero purpose other than setting up a brand of educated dread that Lutz shares in his concluding essays.

Lutz massively inflates the relevance of his dread. In one essay, he connects the enemy of The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo to the forces that created Gamergate:

When I began drafting this game at the beginning of August 2014 it was not topical beyond a general sense.

But as I write this note, it is the final week of August, and in the month I’ve been at work, the seemingly nebulous concerns I set out to treat — the way the modern games industry encouraged and continues to encourage entire generations of children to internalize hierarchies predicated on structures of access maintained by abusive practices of exclusion, deception, and emotional manipulation — have erupted to the forefront of the “culture” in a way more horrific and absurd than anything I could ever have made up.

We may not believe in the uncle who works for Nintendo anymore, but he is certainly still at work.

Women and minority voices are under attack. The finer details of the situation are, by this point, both fatiguing and immensely abhorrent. I will not bother to recount them here. Suffice it to say: the contingent of players taking up the flag of “gamers” are, in many ways, the realization of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that constitute the “enemy” of this game.

The fantasy underpinning the “happy” ending is that the people trapped in the unhealthy structures cultivated by a combination of late capitalism and videogames can become aware of the way in which they, their friends, in fact the very world around them, are all being devoured alive — and that we can escape it if we work together.

To those women who have been terrorized these past weeks, to those still here and those who had to step away, to those who are doing and who did their best to make sure we get out of this beast before its jaws close on us, if any of you read this, I am sorry, and I thank you.

In reality, Lutz was just lucky that Gamergate happened while he was finishing The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo. With this essay as an “intended effect of the design,” Lutz attempts to make his ideas and game appear more prophetic and sensitive than they actually are. This illusion of relevance conceals a more sobering thought: The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo is, at best, a sorry follow-up to My Father’s Long, Long Legs.