Written by Eric Layman
Category: News and Other Musings
Published: 28 December 2011
Hello and welcome to my top ten for 2011. A couple odd trends worthy of note; only two games were developed in North America, and only two were legitimate sequels. This is consistent with my particular interests, meaning I tend to favor new ideas (even when they fail) and ambition rather than engage an experience I've already had several times over. In the case of the two sequels I think it's hard to make an argument that either game didn't completely overhaul its predecessor, and, regarding the lack of American/Canadian development, well, my heart's always been in Japan.
Additionally here are my top tens from previous years: 2006 I 2007 I 2008 I 2009 I 2010
And in no order...
Child of Eden
Child of Eden blends the dreams of 80's era game design with 1999's desire for an infinite euphoric apocalypse. Player control, even with Kinect, is unapologetically simple; all you really do is move a cursor around and shoot two different types of ammunition in traditional rail-shooter fashion. In Child of Eden's case, context overwhelms input and builds toward a visual presentation that's as impressive as it is unprecedented. I don't remember a game where you saw giant space whales evolve into massive condors, or helped bash two opposing planets together so they could transform into dueling running men, which, by the way, was all in the name of harvesting the memories of the first girl born in outer space who, of course, sometimes appears dancing in the background in full motion video form. That's quite a mouthful, but it's why Child of Eden made the list. Like Sonic Team's Nights: Into Dreams, Child of Eden is categorically insane and yet also supremely composed and confident. It's pure gameplay masked in layers upon layers of chaos. Even as a sequel to Rez, there's nothing quite like it.
Signature moment: Passion is the best level, but Evolution broadcasts Child of Eden’s craziest sequence. Upon attacking the final core, each time a shot connects images of Lumi dancing flash across the screen. Given the visual overload from the last fifteen or so minutes I actually thought I was hallucinating, but then it happened again and I realized the folks at Q Entertainment actually went to the trouble of video capturing and syncing an real human into the game in perfect harmony with both the gameplay and the music.
PixelJunk SideScroller might as well be Child of Eden's evil twin. Whereas the latter smothers its 80's influence under layers of glorious confection, SideScroller proudly wears its lineage on its sleeve. While SideScroller does concede a few amenities to modern game design (continues, in particular, feel like a godsend) its roots are in the days of hazy arcades and semi-shitty cathode ray tube screens. Rather than settle for a deliberate replication (ala Mega Man 9) SideScroller goes the extra step and uses its shoot ‘em up base as a tool to enhance one's sense of supposed nostalgia. The subtle Japanese voiceovers, the ridiculously catchy music, charming graphical filters, and endless detail on the tiniest objects charm the living hell out of anyone born in the 80's. And the final level, with the possible exception of M.s Spolsion Man, is one of the greatest interactive climaxes of 2011. My Review.
Signature Moment: The final level. I'll skip the context (and for shit's sake don't click that link if you haven't played it), but SideScroller's climactic finish ties the bow on the entire experience. The whole game is exceptional and on harder difficulties easily lends itself to a transcendent, almost zen-like experience in maintaining perfection, but if every level is your standard street level smack then SideScroller's blowout would default as uncut Colombian cocaine.
It's not just about the insane profanity. "Here comes butterdick Jones and his heavenly asshole machine" and "suck the tears off my dick you ugly mudf--kers," were oddly endearing doses of sophomoric wordplay, but they were complimented by fresh mechanics from a developer willing to twist and turn the rules of boilerplate first person shooter game design. That's because in Bulletstorm, you don't just shoot dudes in the face. Using a leash, a mighty boot, and your surrounding environment, the context of the kill is just as important as actually killing someone. Racking up points for all kinds of crazy kill combinations was incredibly addictive, and creating dozens of "skillshots" remains 2011's greatest contribution to first person shooters. In a perfect world this would have caught fire like Call of Duty 4's infectious multiplayer and spawned a dozen clones, but that's a topic for a different day. My Review.
Signature Moment: The Wheel of Death level. Bulletstorm was rarely at a loss for words or interested in dull moments, but I think it hit its peak when the hundred foot tall razor blade was tearing up Alderan (or whatever that planet was called) and the player was charged with murdering bad guys while all of that was threatening in the background. And that was all in a turret sequence, which is atypical for that game (and my personal taste). Pulling off seemingly impossible skillshots felt great too, but no I'd have to say the huge razor blade wins out.
Xenoblade single handedly corrects the disappointment left behind by the wake of Final Fantasy XIII, Lost Odyssey, and Blue Dragon. Hundreds of quests, countless expansive environments, worthwhile fiction, great characters, a smart combat system, and a world big enough to support dozens upon dozens upon dozens of hours of playtime. Almost every other stab at the genre has carried the weight and tradition of its predecessors and subsequently failed in the current gaming landscape, but Xenoblade absolves every sin. It has fast travel anywhere at any time. It has an unlimited inventory. Your health recharges. Quests are well organized. And it has Giant god damn robots. Forget that it’s on Wii, it’s actually coming to North America in April and it’ll be worth every penny.
Signature Moment – Entering Bionis’ leg. When I got out a cave and walked into Bionis’ leg, there, right before my eyes, was a playground at least twice the size of Final Fantasy XIII's prized Gran Pulse, and Xenoblade only spent a few blissful hours before getting there. Dozens of quests, tons of loot, countless monsters roaming the land, it was almost as if Monolith was flaunting its ability to give JRPG fans everything they were looking for.
Time travel is an ambitious concept, one that often requires a significant budget for top shelf visuals and brain melting CG. Radiant Historia, a modest DS RPG from Atlus, has none of that. The team didn't have the resources (or the hardware, really) for whiz-bang effects, leaving their aim focused squarely on the gameplay end. It worked wonderfully. The battle system is classic turn based, but relies on a clever hook of shifting enemies around a 3x3 grid for maximum effect. The narrative is woven into the gameplay via the White Chronicle, a device that allows the protagonist Stocke to move around to different nodes over two timelines and play out scenarios in different ways. This not only alleviates the worry of missing something (you can essentially replay everything as many times as you want), but also adds the potential of consequence without the stigma of game-over failure. Radiant Historia could have easier pushed its concept harder, but what's there is still good enough to be one of the most innovative and worthwhile games of the year.
Signature Moment: Whenever it was I finally wrapped my head around how Radiant Historia allowed the player to move forward and backward in time. It honestly wasn't explained very well (despite being quite a wordy game) and when the light bulb turned on and I suddenly realized that I go back and do everything and/or anything over again, Radiant Historia went from good to exceptional. It's proof that a great idea can power a game without much of a budget. (note: YouTube DS footage sucks so that link goes to Alistel’s wonderful music)
Dead Space 2
Dead Space 2 offers the player maybe a half second of control before it starts unloading lethal threats upon Isaac Clarke. The opening sequence is a haunted house of carnage, and really sets the tone for what Isaac must endure for the next ten or so hours. The fiction is ultimately hokey when examined with any sort of scrutiny, but experience as a whole, specifically when walking down abandoned (space!) apartment hallways or running the hell away from necromoprhs. With Isaac desperately shooting out airlock doors, attempting pin point accuracy on necromorph appendages, and playing cat and mouse with stalkers, the gameplay end held up its end of the bargain as well. My Review.
Signature Moment (major spoiler): Reboarding the USS Ishimura. Discovering that that ship is on the premises and realizing you're going to have to board it again is terrifying. Better, Visceral wasn't content to recycle the same assets or lame scares, not only canvassing the entire ship in white plastic as if it were some sort of biohazard, but also crafting gameplay segments that deliberately play with Dead Space veteran’s expectations.
Dead Island's loot system was a poor facsimile of Borderlands. It's dearth of enemies and weapon crafting reeked of Dead Rising 2. The mission structure was ripped right out of Fallout 3, and the open-world jungle setting was employed better by Far Cry 2. What Dead Island did have was an unwavering commitment to raw survival. This is an odd thing to say about a game that only penalizes death by taking ten percent of your money, that relies almost exclusively on energy drinks and power bars for health replenishment, and requires arbitrary money to repair weapons and create modifications, but it's surprising how seriously Dead Island takes itself. Zombies that level up with the player create a constant sense of vulnerability, further enhanced when you're in the middle of nowhere armed with a hammer, two flaming baseball bats, and a defective handgun with six bullets. Whether I was driving my truck around and exploring abandoned gas stations or walking up and down the beach, I felt somewhat prepared, but ultimately powerless and alone. Dead Island probably hit its peak on the first "area," but that feeling lasted throughout the entire game. You're always on edge. My Review.
Signature Moment: Pure Blood. Unfortunately this was the mission that nearly wrecked my Dead Island experience. I had to break the game in a different way in order to move past that section, and the Dead Island’s final scored ultimately dropped two points because of it. Unlike Skyrim, It was an isolated incident from a lack of testing rather than a global problem (and it’s since been patched out), but it left a lasting impression on an otherwise thrilling experience.
Portal 2 is Valve bringing a novelty sized calculator to a gun show and (once again) walking away with first prize. Creating a clever first person game without a traditional weapon front and center is reason enough for celebration, but Portal 2's sentiment is magnified under the lens of its spectacular characters. GlaDOS was destined to impress, but the emergence of the spherical buffoon Wheatley and Aperture founder Cave Johnson were some one of the best surprises of the year. Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons, respectively, employed great writing with hilarious personality, often relying on subtlety and nuance rather than vapid easy one liners. Over time most of Portal 2's puzzles will fade away, but no one will ever be able to forget those characters. My Review.
Signature Moment - (major spoilers) It has to be the end, right? Knowing that the white gel was composed of moon dust, looking at that hole in the ceiling, seeing the moon, and, in a split second, going from "oh shit is this going to work" to "HOLY SHIT THAT ACTUALLY WORKED" was marvelous. Yes, the game was built with that finale in mind and there's no other way it could have possibly ended, but in the moment it felt spontaneous, like I was actively breaking the game in half.
You wouldn’t expect beers with friends and the moral complexity of infidelity to be suitable for an interactive medium, and you certainly wouldn’t anticipate marrying those concepts to a box pushing puzzle game to materialize into anything remotely interesting. And you would have been wrong. The elevator pitch for Catherine sounds like a joke, but it’s actually one of the most thought provoking, challenging, and legitimately interesting experiences out there. It's no secret that Atlus' in-house development teams are something of a late bloomer in console generations, and if Catherine was Altus only getting their feet off the ground, I can't wait for a Persona-fied follow-up. My Review.
Signature Moment - (considerable spoilers) Catherine keeps the player honest by planning Vincent's actions in cut-scenes through otherwise unrelated questions elsewhere in the game. Meaning, when his girlfriend Katherine catches him cheating with bar trash Catherine, there's no telling which way the shit is going to hit the fan. Wondering which way the angel or devil in Vincent's ear was going to push him was unexpectedly terrifying, and even though it was admittedly stupid and unrealistic, the tension of that particular scene went unmatched in 2011.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
El Shaddai is a work of surprising confidence. Combat that favors leveling up the player's (as in you, not the on-screen character) skill set is worthy of admiration, as is a wildly imaginative, frenzied art department that never allows their beautiful work to overstay its welcome. In a way El Shaddai feels like it was born to be a cult classic, a game with a highly specialized aim that isn't interested in pleasing everyone, but feels absolutely perfect for its intended audience. I haven't seen very many of those in this generation, and El Shaddai should be commended for daring to dream up something different.
Signature Moment: Chapter 6. El Shaddai was always content to devour its scenery; a theme or visual style that could serve as a backdrop for an entire game is briefly employed before, almost immediately, being burned away, but the sixth level is where El Shaddai really blows its load. Before that the game had stayed close to an ethereal, pastel pallet of various sizes and shapes, but then Enoch dropped down into what I can best described as Tron meets Akira. I had no idea how much I wanted that until I played it. My Review.
What either fell short or what probably could have (had I played it) made the list:
Ms. Splosion Man - Great platformer with one of the best ending sequences…I don’t know, ever? My Review.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Currently at 105 hours with much more to go, but I can't, in good conscience, praise a game that's constantly fighting off my desire to play it. I made the mistake of buying the PlayStation 3 version, which, as history has taught us, Bethesda can't bother to bug test properly. It's broken, fundamentally broken, after the save file starts hitting double digits, and it really puts a damper on every moment. Nathan's Review (of the 360 version).
Sonic Generations - This was the last one out. Loved playing the game and devouring properly induced nostalgia, but couldn't put it before any other game on the list. My Review.
LittleBigPlanet 2 – Right behind Sonic Generations. The level where you control robot bunnies, dogs, and hamsters was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in co-op. My Review. Nathan’s Review of the Special Edition.
Trenched - Right behind LittleBigPlanet 2. Chris’ Review.
Bastion – Loved the atmosphere and music, didn’t care for player control.
Gears of War 3 - Haven't played enough of it.
Super Mario 3D Land - Haven't played enough of it. Greg's Review.
Saints Row The Third - Bought it, have yet to play it. Will’s Review.
Shadows of the Damned - Bought it, have yet to play it. Steven's Review.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception - Bought it, have yet to play it. Steven’s Review.
Rayman Origins – Right up my alley, but waiting for Vita.
Written by Will Johnson
Category: News and Other Musings
Published: 23 May 2011
I got a call yesterday from senior editor and my friend Nathan Stevens. He said he wanted my opinion on his L.A. Noire review because folks had commented on it, some of which were less than positive about his writing and his very positive score, a 10/10. In short, the comments brought up the issue of controls (saying the game sports a simple port from the GTA4 scheme) and others simply said that no game is perfect, and does not deserve a 100% (very quickly I would just like to say that a 10 does not mean "perfect," but rather "superb"). Nathan retorted, stating that while he agreed that there is "always room for improvement," he honestly could not come up with something bad to say about the game when he wrote the review. He gave his honest, independent opinion on a title that is getting much critical appraise from many other publications. One only needs to go to MetaCritic.com to see that our site is not the only one listed with the "100" green square.
After reading it, I called him up and told him my thoughts. Sure, it may have gushed a little on some points in the game, but if the creators get something right, then it should be noted just as quickly as a mistake would be. But after looking at the aforementioned scores on MetaCriticI saw that the divide between critic and user was really far apart, considering. While the average score from opinion's "in the industry" is 90/100, the user score is a modest 76/100. Initially I thought well, perhaps this game will be like the low budget survival horror title Deadly Premonition. Many critics hailed the game for being the B-movie equivalent of survival horror games, one that pays homage and pokes fun at the quirky conventions of the genre as a whole and had a relatively cheap price tag to boot. But many gamers didn't feel as "lenient" about the title, citing that just because you know something is a piece of crap doesn't mean it shouldn't face the same level of retribution for being bad. And I have to say that I can completely see where someone could come to that conclusion. But when I was looking at other games to compare scores, I started seeing a trend that is counter-intuitive to the status quo in terms of the opinions about games.
Generally speaking, the opinions/reviews from critics are usually worse or lower than that of the average player, watcher, consumer, etc. For example, the website Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com) has a star rating composed of some critics, but it's mostly from the users on the site. Recently, they have also listed the critic's score from MetaCritic (if applicable) that often features write-ups from film vets like Roger Ebert and Peter Travers. The recently released Fast Five has an IMDb rating of 7.7/10 while the MetaCritic score is 67/100. Same with Sucker Punch, IMDb: 6.6/10, MetaCritc: 33/100. Now, I understand that movies and games are different in many obvious ways, like a film usually only being a two hour experience and a game is much longer and much more engaging (for the most part). But the main disparity is price. A movie ticket is usually about $10 (although it is higher in large cities) or at worst the Blu-ray copy can retail $30. So, while the average movie-goer might say "hey it wasn't that bad, and for a $10 spot and something to do on a Friday night, give it a shot," critics usually stick to their guns and give their honest (albeit sometimes jaded) outlook, cheap price be damned. And historically, the same rating dichotomy could be said about games, but this is starting to shift.
Again, I return to yesterday afternoon, and I happen to scroll down the page to see other recent reviews to find other instances of "Critic-high, User-low" ratings. At first I thought I would struggle to find any, but within a few seconds I was firmly shocked by what I was reading. Let me run over a few. Average score on MetaCritic from "inside the industry": Mortal Kombat - 84, Brink - 71, Portal 2 - 95. Average score on MetaCritic from the "users": Mortal Kombat - 81, Brink - 65, Portal 2 - 79. WHAT! Folks, Portal 2 is going to contend for Game of the Year on almost every gaming publication's, cable television channel's, and website's year end honors. So, for there to be a 16 point disparity between the critic and "average" gamer, with the gamer being the less of the two numbers, was rather astonishing to me. While I was sitting and pondering over this obvious "buck in the trend," I had a thought that inspired this piece in the first place.
Most of you probably know a kid (or even teen) like this: someone who will only eat one thing. No matter what feast/buffet/smorgasbord that is laid out in front of them on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, 4th of July, random weekend, what have you, they'll say "no, I just want Hot Pockets." "No, I don't want anything else, I want a Hot Pocket." "LOOK, I KNOW WHAT I LIKE, AND THAT'S ONLY HOT POCKETS!!!!!!" I understand that I'm comparing grown people to children and adolescents for some of you, but for the sake of argument stay with me. It's almost as if, more and more, gamers are falling victim to this unfortunate outlook upon the games they play. If its not Call of Duty, or Madden, or Call of Duty, then it must not be worth playing. No thanks, I can't keep a 30 year Dynasty going, rush for 3,200 yards in a fictional NFL season (which may be the only pro football we get this year, on the real), or be in the top 100 gamers in the world. No thanks, I can't prestige, use my pro perks, shout at "noobs" for being horrible teammates, and watch myself on Final Killcam after Final Killcam for being awesome. Sorry for my sarcasm, but this is the way, I believe, many gamers are starting to think. And it shows in the scores they are giving on some sites like MetaCritic. Noire also has "high to low" rating, 90/100 compared to 76/100. It could be said that Rockstar pulled a "bait and switch" of sorts considering that most of us probably believed this was the king of sandbox game's attempt to challenge the surprisingly good Mafia II by 2K. But this game is not that experience in the least, with you playing a character on the right side of the law and much less of an emphasis on all out gun fighting for more calculated, "investigative" work. But just because it's different, does that alone make it "lack-luster"? Sure, it might feature the same simple, sometimes clunky driving and fighting/shooting mechanics as most other Rockstar sandbox games, but that was good enough to make us connect and love playing with characters like Tommy Vercetti and play ghetto paratrooper over the skyline of San Andreas. And the same favorable feelings were offered to the more recent GTA4. So, over the time between the release of that title and Noire, it seems that some gamers have become impatient with anything that doesn't fit into their predetermined "mold." Of which, any "worthwhile" experience must fit. Anything different that may take some risks, or doesn't feature run-and-gun "Rambo" action at every single second just can't be as good as the critics say. I'm not sure that's necessarily correct.
Don't get me wrong. I am in no way, shape, or form saying that anyone's opinion is better or worse than someone else's. I, myself, have only been doing this critic thing since September of last year and I do not think I am above anyone else in terms of being a gamer or movie lover. But, I think that more and more people keep closing themselves off to great experiences just because it's a new, fresh idea. I guess I am being so adamant about this thought because my favorite genre is shooters. My $60 went to MW, Black Ops, Halo 3, Reach, GoW2, ect. as quickly as anyone else's hard earned money. But that doesn't prevent me from enjoying other types of games. My last review was of the awesome Mortal Kombat. And even though approximately 60% of my library is FPS and TPS, I also love fighting games. And the way that WBIE and NRS were able to combine serious fighting game characteristics with classic MK heritage was the reason I gave it a 9.4. Now, is it as deep or lengthy as a campaign driven shooter with a huge online community, or an RPG with 60+ hours of gameplay? No. But, for a fighting game, is it fun, fast, addictive, hard to master, and surprisingly deep? Definitely. It's not my favorite game and I would rather play other things most of the time. But it would be unfair to rigidly and extensively compare it to anything outside of other fighting games. To directly set MK side by side with anything else would be the proverbial "apples and oranges." In the way that fighting games go, it's great, but it probably doesn't have the weight to be up for Game of the Year, and that's okay. I'm sure the creators are more than pleased with it being on the short list for Fighting Game of the Year.
Sorry this is so long, but it's my honest opinion and I'm writing this in the hopes that it will stir some respectful, but spirited debate. Thanks for reading.
Written by Nathaniel Stevens
Category: News and Other Musings
Published: 12 April 2011
9. Deeznuts as a screen name? Not funny.
It always amazes me how creative online gamers can be in the world. There was a fellow online the other day that assigned himself a name that could only be found in porn (can't name the fellow because I would probably get sued). Here are suggestions that sound a lot cooler than the name you chose... shaftstroker? T*ttickler? Better yet, why not lonelykidwhoneverkissedagirl?
Advice for gamers: Think before you assign a name.
8. "9.6? This game deserves 9.0!" -- Bitter Madden fan
Yes, I scored the game '.6' higher than you wished, but is that really a major deal? Do I need 100 replies requesting I lower the score? In the scheme of things will this hurt you? Probably not. What's funny about this situation is that the next review on Metacritic is actually a 9.5, and that guy didn't get killed for it on his review.
Advice for gamers: It's okay not to follow. Why not lead?
7. No, we didn't get paid by the companies, please stop asking/accusing.
Do you see ads outside of google on this site? No. Do you know why? We don't have an advertising department. We don't have sales people. We could probably be making loads and loads of money if we were smarter, but we aren't smarter. So, when you see a review on the site that you don't agree with please eliminate this response. It's useless. It's dumb. It's regretfully not true.
Advice to gamers: Feel free to question other sites, but not us.
6. We're all f*cking geeks, fyi.
When you're on a message board making fun of someone for their technical prowess, please keep in mind that you're making fun of someone on a message board for their technical prowess. See that logic? For more logic go here.
Advice to gamers: Use logic (apply that to everything in life)
5. Yes, you were 'first' in the comments field. You get nothing except ridicule.
I get annoyingly tickled when people put 'First' in the comments field. Why? Do you get a prize for not being insightful? Is it a warning that you're a f*cking moron? I can't figure out the 'specialness' of being first, but I'm sure your parents are proud.
Advice to gamers: First!
4. Cheating on any online game instantly makes you the saddest human being on earth.
I admit that in the 90s when I played Doom and Doom II and entered 'God Mode', it was amusing. But think about this for a second... there is some douchetool out there that actually hacks into a game to cheat (could be hours and hours of doing this), so that their lame, sorry ass can actually beat 10-year old Jimmy down the street in an first-person shooter. That's like slapping a kid on the street and stealing his candy, and then going back to brag to your friends that you whooped a guy's ass on the street for talking shit.
Advice to gamers: No advice, just a sentiment. I don't hate you as much as I feel really, really, really, really sorry for you.
3. It's okay to like other systems. That doesn't make you a whore.
Advice to gamers: Don't be an asshole.
2. It's okay to explore other sites.
If you read one review please feel free to go to other sites to read their reviews. It's okay. One thing in life you need to know is that getting more and more opinions makes your opinion better and insightful. Research things on your own. Rent games. Do everything in your power to make sure that 'you' feel comfortable about a game. If you don't like a score or you judge your opinion completely off of another, single opinion then you're selling your intelligence short.
Advice to gamers: Read reviews, don't join alliances.
1. Smile more.
Your generation doesn't smile enough. It helped in the 80s. It will help you now.
Advice to gamers: Seriously, f*cking smile.
Written by Eric Layman
Category: News and Other Musings
Published: 08 March 2011
Super Meat Boy was voted our collective 2010 game of the year on Episode 16 of our podcast, Flap Jaw Space. One would think beating out Mass Effect 2 and Super Mario Galaxy 2 would merit additional coverage somewhere at Digital Chumps, but, outside of a small feature I wrote and some E3 coverage I can’t find, Super Meat Boy has been absent from the pages of Digital Chumps. After a month of blood, sweat, and tears I finally completed the game and sat down to try and figure out how it wound up our favorite game of 2010.
The first time I saw Super Meat Boy I couldn't imagine it being fun or interesting, or at least not enough to enjoy beyond a novelty. It looked like an exercise in frustration, something like the platforming equivalent of Demon's Souls. Occasionally I like to take the time to demonstrate my gaming prowess (completing Mega Man 9 and a run through Uncharted 2 on crushing are some of my more recent accomplishments), but generally I no longer have the time or patience to get the shit kicked out of me for hours without end. Social situations, review games, work, a significant other, and the huge backlog of games still wrapped in plastic are obstacles, distractions, and obligations I didn't have when I was eight and could hack away at Karnov of Mega Man 4 every day of the week. These days, if a game repeatedly kicks me when I'm down I would much rather get up and go somewhere else than kick it back.
Super Meat Boy, in true gateway drug fashion, didn't seem so bad at first. It still beat me down like your favorite unpublishable metaphor, but simultaneously offered a latent sense of encouragement. The brevity of the levels helps, most are under fifteen seconds and nothing is over a minute, but the lack of loading and the instant ability to push a button and hop right into the next level excelled at pushing me forward. Most importantly, the restart after a mistake was instantaneous; not even the music skipped a beat before I was back where I started and ready to go. Pacing is a severely underrated aspect of modern game design and, with the exception of warp zones that seemed deliberately stunted, Super Meat Boy never flat lined on providing motivation.
Also paramount to Super Meat Boy's success was the progression of its challenge. The first few levels served as tutorials for jumping and wall sliding, but it wasn't long before the game seemed to be bending me over and doing something uncomfortable. I remember 1-14x took me forever to beat, and I was so proud of my accomplishment that I saved the replay. Having now played the game to completion, I look back on that reply and can't believe I ever considered that level difficult. I mean, I could probably do that shit with my eyes closed at this point. And yet, that's what makes Super Meat Boy so endearing. Nearly every level makes the player feel as if he or she has just accomplished something previously considered impossible. You'll take one look at spinning saw blades, giant lasers, or savage monsters and think, "no ****ing way" and with varying degrees of both luck and skill you'll almost always get the goal.
310 or so levels was a lot, but kudos to Team Meat for going out of their way to somehow endow Super Meat Boy with a perfect progression of challenging levels. It's a tough line to walk, making every level feel ever so slightly more impossible to complete probably wasn't easy, but Team Meat did all of that all the while managing a structured set of rules and themes. When razorblades got tired you got lasers, when lasers were exhausted you got gravity toys, and when gravity toys got old you got a few flavors of insane monsters. It came to a close with a two-part face off against Dr. Fetus (a fight in which I was so entrenched I refused to shut the console off when I had to leave), and then, just when you beat the game and seemingly surmount the challenge of challenges, you're issued another forty levels in the form of Cotton Alley - complete with soft, soothing music to compliment it's even crazier challenge. I was victorious but defeated, heartbroken but impressed, angry yet appreciative, and, most importantly, astounded that Team Meat had the balls to actually do that to the player. Laughing at the player and tossing out forty more levels could have gone horribly wrong, but, strangely, it ended up being the best part of the game.
The sense of achievement that arrives with finally completing a level could have been the end-game, but the game's community features quickly take control and repurpose the player's goals. Suddenly, completion seems overly simple and gives way to efficiency, a transition that's effectively managed through smart leader boards. I have never (at least that I can remember) cared about global rankings or seeing how I stack up against random strangers, but talking some of my friends into Super Meat Boy was a surprise catalyst for wanting to be the best person on the planet at that particular level. It didn't hurt that leader boards were a quick, load-free button press away and the filter options were fantastic, and I used those tools to decide whether or not my score was good enough to stand or if I had to replay a level before I could move on. That stuff got even crazier when my friend Spiderman and I went back and forth in real time trying to one-up each other on 3-2. Going back and forth was addicting, and I wish I had enough friends with the time (and talent) to do that on every single level.
After 30 or so hours I noticed I was starting to develop some form of muscle memory in regard to button input. I would play a level so many times that I wouldn't even have to think about moving my thumbs anymore. With my brain conducting the order of operations independent from conscious thought, input became automatic. This became particularly scary when I'd screw something up and my hands would continue punching in the previously memorized order of operations, as if I was in some terrible horror film where my arm had gone rogue and was actively trying to kill me. It wasn't actually scary, but was an experience unique to Super Meat Boy; I hadn't ever played a game, especially such a brief segment of a game, enough to encourage instinctive timing. Worse, I had been gripping the controller so tightly for so long that my filthy hands had left an outline created by sweat. Remember, it's not disgusting - it's dedication.
The strength of Super Meat Boy's gameplay could have excused a phoned-in presentation, but its reasonably insane approach to a theme turned out to be one of its best assets. The game is obviously difficult, but whereas other titles might try to massage the player's ego or offer some tangible form of encouragement, Super Meat Boy literally gives you the middle finger; quit out of anything and Dr. Fetus is right there to greet the player with a one finger salute. Speaking of which, holy shit at Dr. Fetus. The sheer concept of a fetus stuffed in a jar atop a tuxedo consumed with the constant abduction of Bandage Girl might have seemed too far off the grid for a mainstream audience, but that was part of Super Meat Boy's appeal. The game felt like it was made for a very specific audience, and while that might have limited its financial potential, it strengthened the resolve of the interested few to play until they couldn't. Those who pressed on were rewarded with story sequences, level names, and gameplay mechanics that paid homage to countless references going from Mega Man II to Steve Weibe.
Super Meat Boy didn't need a dozen hidden characters, 300+ carefully constructed levels, countless homages, actual humor, functional leader boards, and perfect control to succeed. Other releases, downloadable or retail, have taught us that fudging a few areas or flat-out not finishing others are acceptable caveats of the development cycle. People are content to pay $15 for map packs or "three hours" of bonus content, or games that are so bad they require a patch six months later that rewires the entire game. Hell, they're even willing to pay a similar price flawed games with a precious few shining moments (Comic Jumper and Shank come to mind). Super Meat Boy offered the full, nearly flawless package the day it came out. Any future downloadable content would have felt justified, truly a bonus worth paying for, but they're even giving that away. In addition to the bonus levels stealthily introduced through Teh Internets, forty more just dropped last week. Twenty fan made, and twenty that remixed already impossible levels. Like everything else, Team Meat didn't have to do that - but they did, and the player wins every time.
P.S. The last level of Cotton Alley is called, “Bragging Rights.” Here are mine:
Written by Eric Layman
Category: News and Other Musings
Published: 17 December 2010
Previous Top Tens: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009
After a reasonable amount of thought I whipped up a list of my favorite ten games of 2010. Obviously I didn’t get to play everything so I couldn’t included what I didn’t completely experience, but I still got a good number of titles under my belt. So, in no order…
Nier doesn't have the most inviting premise. It usually looks like an up-res'd PlayStation 2 game, features dozens of ancillary fetch quests, and seems overly simple to the untrained eye. Those observations are valid, but ultimately cast aside as trivial annoyances in light of what Nier actually gets right. Numerous stabs at switching up the gameplay (everything from a text adventure to a shoot 'em up make an appearance), my personal favorite soundtrack of the year (listen as vocals seamlessly slide in an out of the themes), and ambitious, gargantuan boss battles struck a chord, but the real draw of Nier was its narrative. At 27, I find it hard to connect with a story, especially through archetype-heavy Japanese games. With a wild, winding tale and some of the best original characters seen this generation, there wasn’t anything else offering what Nier presented. Completing the tale was a risk that came with playing through the game (with moderate carry-over) four different times, but following each thread to its end proved worth the effort. There will never be another character like Kaine or Emil, just as there will never be another game like Nier. Time will never be kind to graphics, but great gameplay and good stories will never be forgotten, and it that regard Nier is going to end up as one of those "hidden gems" you always wish you would have played. Quite a shame for such a great game. Eric’s Review: 8.4
Heavy Rain wasn't the second coming painted by my impressions at CES and E3, but it was still (like most else on this list) an experience wildly divergent from any other release. The characters, Ethan and Madison specifically, bordered on both cliché and implausibility, but their struggles were entirely relatable. Ethan's segments, in particular, created a level of tension unrivaled by anything else in 2010. I was yanking the SIXAXIS back and forth to avoid cars like my life depended on it, and my decisions on his other "tests" required a significant amount of careful thought, rather than my usual do-it-see-what-happens approach to choice in videogames. Sure, Heavy Rain became significantly less impressive once the curtain was pulled back, but the illusion the first time through felt real enough to me. It'll only work once, but it's a hell of a show. Eric’s Review: 9.4
Usually my year-end lists are dominated by downloadable titles, but Limbo seemed to eat everything else's lunch in 2010. Certain aspects are simplistic on the surface, but utterly essential in context; the start-and-go approach was unnatural, but entirely essential to the sense of danger and discovery. Much like the kid in Limbo, you don't know where you’re going and have only the slightest idea of what you're doing there. Of equal importance was the marriage between gameplay and presentation; nearly every puzzle was potentially lethal, but each one rarely required the same skill set. Creating a sense of danger, especially one attached to the frailty and fearfulness of youth, created an experience not found elsewhere. It was short, but length was irrelevant alongside an experience as valuable and unique as the one offered in Limbo. Steve Schardein’s Review: 8.4 / Eric’s Impressions
Dead Rising 2
Like Just Cause 2, Dead Rising 2 was firmly aware of its ridiculous circumstance. It wasn’t concerned with reality, and it allowed the player to celebrate every senseless moment of it. Amidst the preposterous selection of weapon combinations lied a true old-school approach to game design. With its counting clock and limited save files, Dead Rising 2, much like its predecessor, wasn’t intended to be played through once or even twice. Much like games of eras past, its punitive nature was a means to force the player into perfection. To some that meant a quick reason to exit stage, but others, most notably those of us who grew up playing games in the 80’s, it was a means to appreciate a tangible sense of consequence. Modern gaming culture and design has conditioned players to accept a mediocrity and poor performance as minor setbacks instead of absolute failure, and there’s a certain pleasure in a game that plays for keeps. Eric’s Review: 9.0
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 accomplished what I previously didn't assume was possible; it made the original Mass Effect feel small. Hits were taken when the overarching narrative fell to the extended sessions of character development associated with assembling your team of badasses, but such a sacrifice felt like a more intelligent route for the middle entry in the series. More importantly, the additions to the gameplay expanded Mass Effect from repeat-heavy, content-light affair into diverse journey for each member of your squad. Combat was greatly improved, and each member of my squad was outfitted with invaluable abilities, each of which could be considered indispensable. It would have been easy to choose had they not been characters of interest, but, in classic Bioware form, each was fleshed out with a ton of back story and exceptional dialogue. Great voice work, exceptional (and controversial) gunplay and combat, fantastic art direction, awesome post-release content, and mastery of Unreal Engine 3 second only to Epic all helped establish Mass Effect 2 as the highest game I scored this year. 11 months later, it's hard to disagree with myself. Eric’s Review: 10.0
I usually don't put much stock in scores, but Bayonetta made a statement when it joined Ocarina of Time as the only game to receive an ace from both Edge and Famitsu, two magazines notoriously stingy with perfect scores. Bayonetta is the fulfilled vision of a sole entity. It is a product untainted by focus group research, marketing interference, or poisonous publisher oversight. Hideki Kamiya made the game he wanted to make and, in the process, authenticated his work with an incredible sense of purity. This is manifested in the combat engine, which is currently the pinnacle of the character action genre. From a pure control standpoint, Bayonetta is faster than Kratos, less restrictive than Dante, and more cohesive than Ryu and her perfect sense of control is woven into the fabric of the gameplay. Best of all, I never, ever got discouraged while playing it. Few games transform trial and error from a penalty into a legitimate learning experience, insuring you'll learn and build a skill set to overcome the ridiculous difficulty. There's plenty of garbage in Bayonetta that flat out doesn't work, but it's fundamentally unrelated to the gameplay. In terms of content, gameplay, and presentation Bayonetta is a sort of focused insanity. Games like this don't normally get made, and it's important to take the time to appreciate them when they do. Other Impressions
Vanquish and Bayonetta largely accomplish the same goals for different genres, but one area where they diverge is presentation. If Bayonetta is an abstract of performance art, Vanquish offers a mainline injection of teeth gritting splendor. Shinji Mikami’s answer to cover based shooting is an understatement, as Vanquish offered more than enough tools to transcend into the upper echelon of third person shooters. Sam Gideon's ridiculous suit is responsible for most the conscious and all around impressive technical and visual feats of 2010. Vanquish is a game that begs to be repeatedly destroyed instead of casually beaten, and offers a path to such through unparalleled control and dedication to precision. The lack of upgrades to movement bring an old school sense of progression, one where a novice and expert can accomplish remarkably different feats under an identical set of rules. Best of all, any way you spin it Vanquish is a wildly impressive visual spectacle. It's not as all around perfect as Bayonetta, but remained an indispensible experience to celebrate the return of skill-based gaming. Eric and Steven McGehee’s Review: 9.1
Persona 3 Portable
On any given day Persona 3 might be my favorite PlayStation 2 game. A relentless fascination with Japanese culture and a slavish addiction to the Shin Megami Tensei games lead to a predictable result, but that didn't make it any less deserving or qualified. A better testament to P3P's quality would be that I had little issue with playing through an 80 hour game a third time in as many years. A better refinement than even FES, P3P offered the biggest game changer of all; the ability to play as a female main character. With it arrived several expected differences, but also significant changes to the game's structure. Combined with the streamlined day-to-day operations exceptional new music, it wasn't hard to stroll through another round of Persona 3. What truly sent it over the top was also quite obvious; I could take a massive, epic RPG with me anywhere I went. It's commonplace in the handheld landscape, but still an ace in my book. Eric’s Review: 9.4
Just Cause 2
Just Cause 2 is a better test ground for insanity than it is a videogame. The traditional challenge of a game, visible in Just Cause 2 through fairly routine open world missions and aimless bouts of destruction, isn't as special as the ridiculous opportunities that surround and support it. Concept alone lends itself to an array of performances made possible through an absurd physics engine, magic grappling hook, and infinite parachute. Riding a tuk-tuk down a mountain, attempting to exit and re-enter then helicopter you just jumped out of, and sky jacking passing planes were just a few of the random challenges I made for myself. Just Cause 2's wonderfully silly toolbox is a gift for players hell bent on jumping outside the lines and creating their own fun. Not many games have such a self aware sense of absurdity and ever fewer afford the player countless opportunities to exploit them. In a way it was just like the first time I played Grand Theft Auto III; I didn't care what was supposed to be happening, I just wanted to get lost with experimenting in the world (which the game facilitated; please see my videos uploading using Just Cause 2’s YouTube connectivity) Plane Exit | Stunt Turns Violent Death | Gunner Scream | Runway + Car + Airplane | Helicopter + Mountain + Car | Exit Helicopter -> Skydive -> Reacquire and Re-enter Helicopter - - Eric’s Review: 9.0
Super Mario Galaxy 2
What Mario lost in the stagnancy of a sequel was corrected in a fresh approach to nearly all of Galaxy’s mechanics. Tokyo EAD came up with hundreds of great ideas and then tossed them out like candy. Whereas other developers are content to squeeze every last drop out of a concept, Tokyo EAD refined each idea to a single instance of perfection before quickly moving onto the next great sequence. It's a drastically risky approach, but one that ultimately worked in Galaxy 2's favor. Coupled with a perfect sense of control (who would expect any less?) and the mastery therein required to grab all 242 stars, and you're left with one of the best gameplay-focused experiences of 2010. Steve Schardein’s Review: 10.0
Other games I highly enjoyed:
Undead Nightmare – A perfect expansion. Undead Nightmare fundamentally altered Red Dead Redemption’s mechanics and applied them to a conscious selection of insane circumstances. Utterly delightful and a steal at $10. Nathan Steven’s Review: 9.0
Final Fantasy XIII – Had an absolute blast when I played it and I still maintain combat as the current pinnacle of active time battle, but time hasn’t been kind to my thoughts of XIII. Still a great game, but ultimately hollow and plodding when separated from conflict. Eric’s Review: 9.0
Red Dead Redemption – John Marston and his insistence on not giving a shit about anything other than his family turned him into my one of my favorite characters of the year. The world was impressive in scope and technical prowess, but ultimately buckled under repetitive mission design. Still, a must-play. Nathan Steven’s Review: 9.8
New Vegas - A worthwhile dive back into Fallout savaged by the worst technical presentation I have ever seen in a high profile release. Nathan Steven’s Review: 7.6
Gran Turismo 5 – The best racing simulation to ever grace a console granted Gran Turismo 5 a certain amount of confidence, but its poor interface and occasional backwards approach to design kept it out of my top ten. A phenomenal game, but I couldn’t push any other game out in its place. Eric’s Review: 9.0
Enslaved – Enslaved’s rich presentation is ultimately limited by its rather conventional design. A great example of storytelling, but I wish Ninja Theory could have wrapped a better game around it. Steven McGehee’s Review: 9.2
Pac Man Championship Edition DX – Along with Super Mario Galaxy 2 Pac Man CE DX is probably one of the best pure-gameplay performances of the year, but, despite dumping over a dozen hours, the lack of friends playing this game has limited its potential. Grabbing my own high scores is fine, but it would have been more interesting had a few more people on my friends list participated.
Yakuza 3 – Yakuza 3 (and its prequels) is one of the few games from Japan that actually makes the player feel like they’re in Japan. Not what everyone’s looking for, but incredibly valuable to those who can appreciate it. Not a bad brawler/RPG either, but the content removed from the North American release was a bummer.