Game Review Drabbles
~ Exactly 100 Words Each ~
Super Metroid – 5
The original Metroid was lonesome, oppressive, alien. This sequel is atmospheric but friendlier, familiar. It’s less a hostile world and more a videogame space, domesticated by map rooms, recharge stations, and save points. This Metroid cares.
The player is guided through seemingly open environments at a steady clip, but without the threat of loss, without real risk, it’s just the same old metroidvania story: empowerment articulated through space. A world fit exactly to your need.
It’s a fine game, a thoughtful sequel, but a lesser experience. This may still be many players’ idea of great game design. It’s not mine.
(January 2014, Wii U Virtual Console)
Flappy Bird – 7
It’s in the weight of your bird. In the heavy dives and saves. The rhythms of maintaining your position amidst a monotony of pipes.
The pleasures of Flappy Bird are modest, but they’re enough. This is a game that doesn’t flatter or reward you. It doesn’t even bother with increasing difficulty. It just sits there, exactly itself. It doesn’t care about you.
It becomes a test of endurance. How long can you stay aloft? Each attempt’s a brief vigil, each player a steward of flappery. You’ll fail most often by flying too high. A mistake this game does not make.
(February 2014, iPad)
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze – 3
A gorgeous game, and that’s the problem. It dazzles with debris and clutters the screen until you confuse garnish with ground and die. It follows the Rayman school of just-in-time platforming with contortions so flashy and desperate to entertain that they exhaust rather than delight. And the elaborate boss sequences, they repeat until you simply go apeshit.
All this graphical fuss distracts from what is really just a safe, unfocused sequel. It’s Donkey Kong: World Tour (now with more Kongs), not the strange frozen tropics promised by its title.
This is ultimately a game with no good reason to exist.
(February 2014, Wii U)
To the Moon – 4
I wanted to like To the Moon. It is earnest and sweet but also tedious and maudlin. It tells its convoluted story with the heaviest of hands, signaling exactly how to feel with every note of its score, begging for laughter with endless banter.
Its central premise – wish fulfillment via cutting-edge technology – echoes the function of many videogames, but here the game doesn’t dwell. When the tearjerking finale comes, you are meant to ignore how treacherous this technology is, how it betrays the truth of the central female character, and just bask in all the feels of a wish fulfilled.
(February 2014, Mac)
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – 4
So let’s have them explore, but first let’s catalog and label the world. Let’s number even the secrets.
Let’s add fast travel so no one needs to deal with all that open sea. Let’s keep ‘the adventure’ seamless.
A ship is unwieldy and that’s what satisfies. But let’s still make it easy to be cool on foot. Awesome should never be more than one button away.
Let’s add some metafiction that admits we’re order-loving Templars at heart. Self-awareness is our best defense.
Add some terrific sea shanties too. Make them surprisingly moving.
“Haul away your anchor!” Well, maybe next time.
(March 2014, PS3)
The Swapper – 6
What an evocative game, full of sublime moments of quiet and reflection, with a fascinating conceit – the creation of clones and the transfer of agency between them. Among recent titles that explore controlling multiple avatars at once (Mario 3D Land, Badlands, Brothers), this is one of the most thoughtful and resonant. Losing yourself amidst your own clones is an existential crisis and a delight.
What a shame, then, that The Swapper is also just a collection of nonsensical puzzle rooms. Stop everything, stare at the screen, and forget once again that it’s movement that makes our onscreen selves come alive.
(March 2014, Mac)
Threes! – 4
It comes down to this: I don’t want to keep playing. Threes! pleases move-to-move but doesn’t grip me. It’s slick, but I don’t care. A single game’s too long, and I’m never sure how I’m doing until it’s too late. Luck matters too much, or not enough, and after a few hours, I’m done.
Threes! feels incomplete. The idea of collapsing units into smaller spaces is interesting, but score-chasing doesn’t feel like the right focus. I wonder whether its many clones suggest not only that the core idea is compelling but that something’s also missing. Not that they know what.
(March 2014, iPad)
Monument Valley – 3
What’s the difference between delicate indie beauty and the louder aesthetics of the AAA blockbuster? To love a videogame for either is to love the video more than the game.
Monument Valley exists to be admired more than played. It is lovely and hollow, a contraption that says: touch me once, then watch the wonders unfold. It doesn’t even seem to understand the appeal of the isometric, of moving through two dimensions as if three, not just staring at them.
It might make for a beautiful set of posters. It certainly makes for an empty game. Play Crystal Castles instead.
(April 2014, iPad)
Left Behind (The Last of Us DLC) – 8
My favorite videogame moment so far this year focuses on the face of a teenage girl – freckled, flushed, screen-lit. She’s playing a broken arcade machine with her eyes closed, listening to her best friend narrate a Street Fighter fantasy. It’s an act of trust, of shared imagination. And in this moment, Ellie is seen.
Left Behind repurposes its AAA mechanics – the shooting (of waterguns), the lobbing (of bricks at cars), the quick-time-event (her face) – not for domination or survival but connection. It left me longing for entire games of altered verbs. Of fumbling connections. Games of seeing and being seen.
(April 2014, PS3)
Dark Souls 2 – 5
How many times can you have a profound videogame experience? Which ones can be repeated? Before it all goes hollow.
Here’s Anor Londo, drowned. Here’s the Palace of Boletaria, overgrown. The sequel as remix. Except shallower, to be toured rather than inhabited, built by level designers instead of architects.
Here are more bosses, here is more death. The sequel as more. More environments, segmented by more bonfires, cluttered with more enemies at once. And less memorable. With less character. Less soul.
Dark Souls 2 is a decent enough sequel. And I do not accept the premise of the videogame sequel.
(April 2014, PS3)
A Dark Room – 7
Minimalism and expansion are the twin principles here. Minimalism that drip-feeds your complicit imagination; expansion that is not about accumulation but level-shifting. Together they twist your expectations – just as you master one rhythm, the music changes. If A Dark Room doesn’t deepen much upon replay, there’s still nothing like your first time.
So the less said, the better. But if you want more, you’ve been warned.
Why so rapacious? Why explore a system, a world anyway? Where does it end? For when wonder yields to hunger, unsatisfied, unsatisfiable, we end up alone, in rooms, playing endless games in the dark.
(May 2014, iPad)
Super Time Force – 7
Most videogames are time-travel comedies. With enough can-do spirit and plenty of failed timelines, the army of me prevails.
Super Time Force resurrects the ghosts of our less-winning selves to create a playable palimpsest. By collapsing time and making legible every past informing your present, the ordinary, everyday videogame experience is revealed. The gaming mind becomes temporarily visible to itself. Time the flat circle indeed.
I don’t love its chunky pixel art or endlessly referential humor, but I admire its gusto. We get a meta-videogame without the hand-wringing, one that embraces all that’s silly and profound in a beloved genre.
(May 2014, Xbox 360)
Wolfenstein: The New Order – 7
This is how you take your schlock seriously. Not with fake guilt or thematic cleverness applied to familiar mechanics. But with big-ass guns to shoot Nazis who’ve taken over the world.
And what a world it is. The New Order commits to its fiction through its spaces. Levels expand beyond mere shooting galleries and offer relief from the usual mayhem by articulating a monstrous alternate history. Perhaps most surprising, the women in its world are strikingly diverse, believable, even adult.
This is not a game that transcends its genre – it fulfills it. This Wolfenstein knows itself, and its confidence shows.
(May 2014, Xbox 360)
Where Is My Heart? – 6
The core idea is simple and fantastic: fractured windows on a contiguous world. A gentle puzzle-platformer that is all parts, no whole. Your characters traverse cohesive spaces; your eyeballs do not. A return to wholeness may be the thematic arc of the game, but it’s also what’s required of your mind to navigate each level.
Where Is My Heart? never quite follows through on its ideas, though. Only one character has an ability uniquely related to the fragmented landscapes, and the game seems content to follow the usual videogame trajectory of recombining elements towards increasing convolution. Thankfully, it is brief.
(June 2014, PS Vita)
Mario Kart 8 – 5
I get it: it’s beautiful, it’s fun, it’s Mario Kart.
Why is that enough? The perfectly-tuned Nintendo spit-shine only takes us so far. No wonder Luigi’s death stare has dominated discussions. What else is there to talk about?
Antigravity features barely register, and new tracks amount to little more than twisting HD reskins. Its best level ~ Mount Wario ~ is almost a place.
Updated classic tracks lay bare 8’s guiding philosophy: the uninterrupted thrill. Why bother with dynamic traffic in Toad’s Turnpike when you can boost along the walls instead?
Now That’s What I Call Mario Kart! Vol. 8.
(June 2014, Wii U)
Shovel Knight – 4
I have played all its NES precursors. I sure enjoyed them at the time. But why should this be considered a good thing? Why can’t videogames suffer a little more anxiety of influence? Great videogame design is not timeless anyway.
Shovel Knight is merely pastiche. Pastiche with hot colors and killer music and weightless platforming and useless economics and bad deaths. It’s a competent medley, lovingly arranged. It’s not much more.
Shovel Knight and its rapturous reception make me very afraid that most gamers really just want to play the same games, remixed and slightly updated, over and over, forever.
(June 2014, Wii U)
Mountain – 3
The pet rock has gone virtual and proclaimed itself God.
Though an actual pet rock has the good sense to remain silent. When this Mountain-God speaks, it’s just like most videogames: poorly written.
“I am digging this somnolent day.”
“I feel super chill inside this day of days.”
Our Mountain is a mad-lib, minus the mad. It reaches for Eastern wisdom but never makes it past California.
Conspicuous objects crash into it. Days, seasons, weather cycle too quickly. It knows nothing of actual stillness. It’s not boring enough, not empty enough, not strange enough, not mountain enough. Not nearly enough.
(July 2014, Mac)
1001 Spikes – 8
The videogame as machine of death. In which you must become a machine to survive. One so precisely calibrated that flow is not optional. It’s the only way through.
Its difficulty isn’t about triumph or accomplishment. It’s about recognizing the machine for what it is, recognizing the machine that is you. One will adapt to the other. And 1001 Spikes does not adapt.
It is, not coincidently, a game of fathers and sons, of anxiety and repetition. In the end it feels complete, the final word on its own masochism.
The final words of the actual game? ~ Thanks Mom
(July 2014, PS Vita)
A Wolf Among Us – 7
Noir is the genre of stylized rot. How perfect for videogames.
As with The Walking Dead, it’s our moral imagination being provoked here, though this time with a more withering focus on community. Its failures are familiar too: uneven episodes, stale adventure conventions, a terrible villain (Bloody Mary).
But A Wolf Among Us is also about something unseen. Its stylized rot has economic roots. And only in the last moments does it become clear just what the unseen had to do to get our attention.
Look at us.
And what were we doing the whole time? Playing the hero.
(July 2014, Mac)
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes – 1
The woman you rescue has a bomb in her vagina. No spoiler warning? Too bad. Her name is Paz and she suffers rape, forced child rape, and vivisection before she explodes. The bomb in her vagina is merely the final twist. The punch line.
What about the game’s length? Its sandbox of guns and guards? What about the vision of Hideo Kojima?
Ground Zeroes is not the work of a visionary auteur. It’s the work of a man. A man who puts bombs in vaginas.
A review is a response, and this is mine: Mr. Kojima, go fuck yourself.
(July 2014, PS3)
*Next: Half-Life 2, Hohokum, Hyrule Warriors
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