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)
*Next: Super Time Force, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Mario Kart 8
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