Mischief Maker’s Top 10 Games of 2020

Mischief Maker’s Top 10 games of the year 2020.

10. Jet Lancer

A wildly fast modern arcade game that plays like the souped-up lovechild of Time Pilot and Lunar Lander. With fast WASD and mouseaim controls, fly your superjet with modular weapons through a 30+ mission story campaign. Shoot down hundreds of enemy fighters, boats, tanks, and giant mecha bosses in a combat system that rewards perfectly-timed invincibility rolls with temporarily powered-up attacks. There’s also an aftergame endless mode. An absolutely thrilling game to play, my only complaint is the vague scoring system can be extremely frustrating on certain missions when trying for that perfect “Ace” rating.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Making of Prince of Persia (Journals 1985-1993) by Jordan Mechner

The second (of two) books Jordan Mechner self-published is another set of his own hand-written journals, this time covering the development of Prince of Persia and its sequel, Prince of Persia 2.

The journal begins as Karateka has become the #1 best selling game on the Apple II. Not only does Mechner make 15% royalty off every copy sold for the Apple II, but a slightly lesser royalty (7.5%-10%) on ports for other systems. It’s enough money to cover his expenses for the next few years, but eventually he’ll either need to make another game, sell one of his film manuscripts, or (gulp) get a day job. After graduating tom Yale in 1985, Mechner makes the trip from NYC back to California to begin work on a new, Persian-styled game that is instantly dubbed “Prince of Persia” around the office.

The Broderbund Mechner returns to is not the one he left. Games like Choplifter aren’t selling like they used to. The company’s new best seller is Print Shop.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Making of Karateka (Journals 1982-1985) by Jordan Mechner

Reading a non-fiction book and knowing things about the author that haven’t happened yet is an interesting experience.

The Making of Karateka is a collection of hand-written journals captured by Jordan Mechner that span from 1982-1985. The first few entries set the scene of Mechner’s life. In the beginning of the journal, Mechner is a 17-year-old Yale freshman with many interests. He loves music and films, but has also been busy programming games on his Apple II computer. Mechner has been shopping around his first game (an Asteroids clone) to publishers without much success, and has placed all his hopes on a new game he’s developing called Deathbounce, which is an Asteroids-like game with some original twists.

As the journal moves through Mechner’s freshman year we read about the typical struggles of a college freshman. Sometimes he focuses on his programming, sometimes he dreams of becoming a novelist or screenwriter, and often, he sleeps through his classes and wonders how he’ll pull out passing grades. During these entries, Mechner works out what he believes are the principles of fun games, and continues to inspire himself. He finds a little success with some of his programs, but not the huge success he dreams of.

 

Read the rest of this entry »

Mischief Maker’s Top 10 Unique Games

One of the biggest joys of indie gaming is the creative freedom bedroom programmers have to try crazy new ideas or genre-blends that no AAA developer would dare gamble their multi-million-dollar operations on. Here’s a list of some of the more unique games of recent years that offer something you probably haven’t experienced before.

1. Battle Chef Brigade

A silly mix of the brawler, platformer, and match-3 gem puzzler genres in a fantasy version of Iron Chef Japan.

Judges challenge you and your opponent to cook up a dish made from a certain monster and heavily emphasizing some combination of flavor. Then you rush from the kitchen into a monster-infested platforming arena where you must find and slay creatures whose randomly-dropped body parts have the flavor profile you seek. Then you dash back to the kitchen where the ingredients are converted into patterns of gems, whose color correspond to a different flavor, and you mix them in a pan by stirring them (rotating 4 gems in a square area) into lines of 3 gems that combine to a higher grade of gem. Get the highest total score from number and quality of gems in the dish while emphasizing the Judge’s requested flavor and you win!

As the game goes on things get more complicated. Monsters need to be fed in the field so they produce special ingredients, some ingredients have fragile gems that break if stirred too much, some monsters have poison gems that explode from stirring but can be neutralized and provide a free gem promotion if you manage to match 3 fast enough. To counter the challenge, you accumulate equipment to even the odds like weapons that improve your special moves, spices and sauces to tilt the match-3 in your favor, cutting boards to remove unwanted gems, and ovens that slowly process ingredients on their own while you’re out fighting in the field.

The game also has a unique graphic style; the animations have a relatively low number of frames, but the sprites are extremely detailed. This can be a problem for timing your dodges with certain monsters (dragons). The music is orchestral with a chipper feel, and the cutscenes are fully and competently voice-acted.

You get a story mode and plenty of aftergame content like custom matches, daily challenges, and a roguelite survival mode. While the main game is played almost entirely by the ninja-style Chinese food chef, the aftergame modes can also be played by the berserker-style Mexican food chef, and the necromancer-style junk food chef.

2. Seven: The Days Long Gone

Bummed that Cyberpunk 2077’s been delayed again? Check out Seven: The Days Long Gone for the taste of a CD Projekt Red-esque action RPG set in an open-world sci-fi dystopia, crossed with the game Assassin’s Creed SHOULD have been. In other words, lots and lots of parkour Benny Hill chases in a morally ambiguous open world where NPCs use curse words all the FOOKING time.

In a post-AI-rebellion-apocalypse world, you play a cyborg thief who during a routine burglary has his bionic eye hijacked by an ancient AI, then wakes up in chains on a Zeppelin being shipped to the prison island/archaeological gold rush of “Peh” for what the AI tells you is a secret mission for THE EMPRAH. Developer Fool’s Theory is made up of several Witcher devs, so the controls are very similar to Witcher 3, albeit fixed in an overhead isometric perspective. Like Assassin’s Creed you can freely leap, climb, and rappel through the surprisingly vertical environments of Peh, but unlike AC you have to actually aim and time your jumps instead of just holding down the “play the game for me” button. Your bionic eye allows you to enter detective mode at will, highlighting hiding spots, uncovering hidden treasures when moused-over, revealing the vision cone of a particular guard, and best of all, something that should be in ALL stealth games, you can fast forward time while waiting for a guard to turn their back.

As a prison island, Peh is an unpleasant and restrictive place with security gates everywhere. Graphics are cel-shaded, but with much more detailed textures than that usually implies. Music varies between twangy guitar in the populated areas and mysterious ambient in the ruins. The color pallette is your standard post-apocalyptic brown, and future tech is indicated by concrete structures with pulsing light leaking out through the seams that reminds me of Old Man Murray’s Marvin-from-the-future talking about working a construction job laying a futuristic type of drywall.

But all this aesthetic ugliness works to the game’s advantage because it accentuates the game’s experience of saying, “fuck the quarantine rules, I go where I want.” While you CAN legally buy visas for all the island’s security checkpoints, the absurd prices make it clear buying them’s a chump’s game when you can just as easily climb and sneak your way past for free. Likewise, just like Monty Cantsin said in his Morrowind review that Elder Scrolls-type open world games give you the irresistible urge to barge into people’s houses and steal everything not nailed down, Seven rewards that urge with its extensive crafting system, where even a broken lightbulb can be turned into a generic “tech component” to help craft a kickass techno-crossbow (protip: only break down items the game makes clear are busted or rotten, you’re gonna need those metal rivets and polymer forms for certain recipes). The game doesn’t have an XP system, instead rewarding exploration with caches of cyber-chips to install and higher-grade levels of equipment. While ostensibly you’re playing a thief, by late game with the right cyberware and weapons you can be a melee powerhouse doing aerial ninja throws.

A thoroughly enjoyable anti-authoritarian experience!

3. Thea 2: The Shattering

Somewhere between “King of Dragon Pass,” the strategy portion of “XCom,” and the early game of “Civilization” lies Thea 2, a story-heavy kinda-4X kinda-RPG game taking place in a fantasy world heavily based off Slavic mythology.

It’s not necessary to play Thea 1, this game does a good job filling in the story gaps, and I wouldn’t recommend part 1 anyway because of several gameplay flaws part 2 fixes. Suffice to say after a fantasy apocalypse that drenched the world in darkness, the heroes of the first game restored the world tree and put the world on the slow path to recovery. But in Thea 2 an apocalyptic explosion of light from underground has shattered the world into separate continents, scrambled the pantheon of gods, and threatens to tear the world of Thea apart. You play one of the new pantheon of gods, with your own particular blessings and story events, leading a tribe of survivors lead by your chosen prophet on a grand quest to survive in this dangerous world and put a stop to this cancerous light.

The game controls very much like a 4X game, with the world broken up into hexes, and your people only able to move a certain number of hexes per turn. In between turns you have the option of setting up camp where you can heal wounds, craft equipment, and gather nearby resources. Your people have classes, attributes, open skill trees, and a “paper doll” equipment system. Both on the world map and the resting phase, you’ll run into various story encounters with multiple paths to take “choose your own adventure”-style. When it’s time for a skill check, you play a 3-dimensional card battle game (2D board, with time as the 3rd dimension indicated by an action initiative bar on the side). Depending on the type of encounter, the skills and attack power of characters change; a heavily armored warrior may be a powerhouse in combat, but utterly useless in a negotiation, yet vice-versa for a bookish sage. Thea 2 allows you to play a character multiple times in a combat round at the cost of fewer actions, a big improvement over Thea 1 because it rewards specializing your characters. Like X-Com, you’re constantly fighting to get your teammates equipped with the best equipment to keep pace as the difficulty of world encounters increases over time. Also like X-Com your characters can get killed or cursed or otherwise screwed up by the Random Number Generator, but the game is designed to fill in team gaps with new characters as needed to keep the story going, and sometimes a bad encounter can turn into an unexpected boon as per the trailer.

Aesthetically the 3D map is unremarkable, but the hand-drawn art for character portraits and encounters is beautiful and detailed. All the text in the game is voice-narrated. While it follows the same story beats every play through, most long exposition events give you a dialog option to skip the story and get to the point. The music is a cross between Slavic folk songs and epic marches.

At turns unexpectedly interesting and funny, with an abstract but deep combat system, and an absorbing sense of escalating power with both planned and procedural story moments in equal measure. Thea 2 is not just an unusual blend of genres, it’s its own beast and I love it.

4. Kromaia

Despite owning the game for years and the developer coming to the forum to try to explain it to me, I still don’t feel like I fully “get” this game’s loop, but it’s definitely a unique experience so I’ll give it my best try.

Kromaia is like a cross between a Descent-style 6 degrees of freedom shooter, the classic rail-shooter/marital-aid “Rez,” and the procedurally evolving freeware shmup Warning Forever. It takes place in an abstract Tron-esque world of zero gravity polygons. You are a spirit flying a star fighter through this world at the behest of an imprisoned god, bringing vengeance upon her four rivals.

There are four different types of fighter (plus an unlockable fifth type) with different weapon systems and background music/color, and slightly different handling. Each story level is a maze of vaguely Mayan ruins, techno forests, particle colliders, and other bizarre locations populated by increasingly frenzied swarms of enemies as you explore for collectibles, pick up keys, and ultimately fight a screen-filling 3D boss with individual parts that must be shot off before the core is vulnerable. But the part of the game I prefer to story is the “Extra” mode where you fly at high speed through an enormous asteroid-choked arena through gate after gate while hounded by enemy swarms whose composition and tactics are procedurally adapting to your play style the whole time.

I’d describe the game’s aesthetic as an oversized Atari 800 game. From the abstract cuboid shapes of the enemies and arenas to the sound samples in the soundtrack, it’s all very evocative of a particular moment in 80s gaming at its trippiest. Between the ambient electronic droning, the enormous bloom-soaked floating arenas, and the incomprehensible story, it’s a dreamlike experience.

The odd thing about this game that distinguishes it from a regular Descent clone is how regular enemies move and attack. Even though you have free movement, they only attack from the front and will follow your turns with incredible speed to slide into your front view, making this free-roaming game nevertheless play like a rail-shooter. There’s also an odd wrinkle with mouse controls that I don’t know if it’s a bug or a feature (because the ship handling in this game is done via physics simulation but ships turn way faster with tiny mouse movements than rapid moves. Some bosses do the whole “stay in front” movement, but others tend to envelop you like they’re a level unto themselves. (Protip: the F1-F3 keys switch between camera zooms, and some are better for certain ships than others).

It’s weird, I don’t know if I’m playing it right, but it’s definitely cool, especially if you have a soft spot for the Atari 800.

5. Steamworld Heist

An entire subgenre of gaming has been created in the wake of Firaxis’ remake of X-Com, especially learning to deal with getting F’ed by the random number generator when your 92% chance shot misses at the worst possible time. But what would the tactical combat of X-Com be like if you replaced the simulated dice with a test of the player’s skill and reflexes instead?

It’s the distant future of the 1890s, Earth has been exploded and the resulting debris field is populated by sentient steampunk robots, fighting over sources of water to keep their boilers functional. You play a thief-with-a-heart-of-gold pirate captain whose buccaneering ways gets her and her crew wrapped up in a three way war for control of the shattered earth. All while following the insterstellar tour of the real-life steambot indie band who wrote and perform the OST. This game is indie squared!

Missions take place on randomly-generated side-scrolling multi-platform stages. Units have 2 action points and automatically duck behind cover. However unlike X-Com, there are no dice involved. You manually aim the barrel of your robot’s gun (with some slight wobble) ala. “Bust-a-Move” and the bullet moves as a physical projectile in the direction you pointed. If it hits a piece of cover it’s blocked, if you manage to fire at just the right moment to hit the corner of your enemy’s sprite poking out from behind the barrel they’re crouching behind, you hit. Head shots have a 50% chance to do extra damage. Sniper-class robots have laser sights and ricocheting bullets, allowing them to pull off ridiculous bouncing trick shots if you time your firing just right. It’s X-Com meets snooker!

Unlike X-Com, none of your robots suffer permadeath and any mission can be replayed at will, though the layout of the level will change. As your robots level up (max level 10) they gain secondary skills that change their battle roles considerably. Ivansky the Heavy becomes a near-invincible tank, drawing enemy fire away from his comrades before counter-attacking with a cover-destroying grenade then walloping survivors with his supercharged close combat attacks, while Beatrice the Heavy becomes a stationary artillery monster, pounding enemies to paste with bazooka fire. Note that New Game+ gives you all the previously unlocked robots from the very start at level 1, so if you already have a team of four who you like, you don’t need to feel obligated to grind levels for the new blood.

Note that this game was originally made for the 3DS and the console-friendly controls lean way more heavily on keyboard control than mouse, which could be a positive or negative for you. The aesthetic is crisp cartoonish robots with vaguely-western vaguely-sci-fi music playing in the background by the aforementioned indie band “Steam Powered Giraffe.” Very Firefly.

Looking for X-Com esque tactical combat in bite-sized chunks where you don’t have a Random Number Generator to mess you up/blame for your own bad aim? Steamworld Heist is an easy recommend.

6. Desktop Dungeons

Speaking of bite-sized chunks, Desktop Dungeons is a minesweeper-esque puzzle game that delivers the experience of leveling and fighting your way from novice to defeating the mightiest Foozle, all in the span of a single coffee break.

Just as Seven is a game built around the inevitable kleptomania players develop in open world games, Desktop Dungeons celebrates the act of playing RPGs at its most min-maxing stat-whoring rules-lawyering munchkin level. The level is divided into a square grid covered in fog of war and each tile you uncover restores a little health and mana for both you and any injured enemies in the area. Gameplay is entirely turn-based, enemies do no act except in retaliation to your actions, and combat results are mostly determinative with no RNG. You’ll quickly find that brainlessly slaying monsters of equal level to you wears out your HP and Mana faster than you can recover it by exploring. If you want to level up quick and efficiently enough to be able to take on the big boss, you’ll need to make crafty use of spells and equipment to punch above your weight against higer level enemies for an XP boost. As later dungeons increase the challenge level, you’ll start to use counter-intuitive techniques, like leaving behind low-level “popcorn” enemies who can be harmlessly killed off later for an easy levelup (which fully refills health and mana) mid-boss-battle. Even later you’ll unlock the ability to worship temperamental gods who grant powerful blessings but place severe restrictions on your actions, then learn the technique of building up generic “faith points” with one god, then switching religions mid-dungeon to do the previously forbidden actions and instantly unlock the most powerful blessings of your new god. It’s meta-riffic!

(Here’s a link to the wiki. You’ll need it).

Aside from a couple animated particle effects, Desktop Dungeons is a still image affair, with large expressive portraits for your character and all the monsters. It can easily run in a window on your desktop like a game of minesweeper. The music is a rousing orchestral march. One thing I personally don’t like with the aesthetics is this game comes from the “golden age” of indies, and there was an obnoxious amount of cross-promotion in games of this time, so one of the most common monsters in the early game is literally Super Meat Boy.

It’s short and sweet and tiny, but it can also be brain-bustingly difficult. Makes for a hell of a coffee break.

7. Space Pirates and Zombies 2

I never understood the success of the original Space Pirates and Zombies, there are so many games that did asteroids-style Newtonian physics combat with customized spaceships so much better. But Space Pirates and Zombies 2 came along and it’s a bigger, more ambitious, and massively improved game with most of the tedium removed or made optional, and the fanbase hated it.

SPAZ 2 is a spaceship customizing action RPG taking place in a living world galaxy coming under attack by a biomechanical zombie plague similar to The Beast from Homeworld Cataclysm. You start out the lowliest captain in the galaxy with a barely functional ship made from junk, but by the end of the game you’ll be the leader of a mighty faction with dozens of captains under your banner, flying a monstrously deadly dreadnought of your own design. But unlike other space games where you go from pauper to Emprah, SPAZ2 never shifts genres into a management game or an RTS; all that galactic conquest is directly in service to the core loop of grabbing the best quality parts, building a spaceship with it piece-by-piece, then bringing it into battle.

Combat in SPAZ 2 takes place in 3rd person on a 2D plane like Rebel Galaxy, but with much smarter AI turret logic. Your fleet consists of your customizable mothership and an escort of up to four strike craft (which includes every ship type from SPAZ 1), and the ability to switch to direct control over any ship in your fleet. What really makes SPAZ 2 unique is instead of slotting weapon systems into an existing ship model, your ship is built piece-by-piece like a Lego creation. Cubic squares form the innards of the ship and provide its base stats while outer edge parts provide the weaponry. The handling of your ship is based on the physics of its shape, with the “bridge” cube acting as center of mass. You really need a plan of attack when you build your ship, a “jack of all trades” design does not survive in the late game. But the cool thing is with these ships made of individual parts, ramming maneuvers are the most satisfying of any space game. While battlefleet gothic just has your ship awkwardly bump into the enemy for a couple seconds until the enemy suddenly explodes, a well-aimed ramming in SPAZ 2 can literally rip the enemy’s ship in half.

Unfortunately all this modularity does not make for the prettiest spaceships. At best you could say a SPAZ 2 mothership looks like the Cygnus from Disney’s The Black Hole if all the mirror-faced cyborgs were throwing a ship-wide rave with Maximilian as DJ. The developers lean into the game’s absurd visuals with all other space captains looking like characters from a sci-fi edition of the Garbage Pail Kids, with insane voice acting to match. The bombastic orchestral soundtrack seems misplaced next to all that intentional silliness. On a personal note, I find the voice actor for Carl your mad scientist hilarious.

At its core SPAZ 2 is just as much the game about grinding as SPAZ 1, but the loop is way less repetitive. Boring mining missions are present but totally optional, it’s mostly going to be combat. But the type of combat evolves as you go up in power level, from scavenging leftovers when assisting stronger ships in battles against bandits, to taking down bandit bases yourself, to fighting enemy factions so you can expand your empire and improve the type and quality of parts manufactured on your bases, to taking the fight to the zombie alpha directly. Slow and steady wins the race in SPAZ 2, but steady doesn’t mean samey.

There’s not another space game that gives you this amount of control over the design of your ship, and this amount of focus in its other systems all leading back to the building of your custom ship.

8. Yoku’s Island Express

I know I already mentioned this game in my earlier Chill Games List, but the all-powerful algorithm likes top 10 lists, and this certainly fits the bill as a unique game. A pinball metroidvania!

You play a dung beetle tethered to a giant pinball who arrives at a magical tropical island to be its new postmaster, only to arrive at the exact moment a horrible ancient evil called the “godslayer” critically wounds the island’s patron god. The island’s leader tasks you with tracking down all the island’s elders to perform a magic ritual to heal the injured god, but you can’t help but feel like the godslayer is watching you the whole time.

Yoku rolls his ball around with the arrow keys for normal movement, but throughout the game world are color-coded flippers (blue for left, orange for right) that you activate with the shift keys, sending the ball flying with the virtually weightless beetle dangling behind. Not only are flippers used for faster travel in the world map, but the major puzzles and boss battles in the game take place in complete unique pinball tables. I remember a time when a full-price pinball game gave you at most 3 tables. There isn’t a scoring system per se, but bumpers spit out fruits in bubbles that act as the island’s currency. In true Metroidvania fashion, throughout the game you pick up new tools that let you do things like blow up obstructions, swim underwater, and grapple-swing to access new areas.

The game is presented in vividly colorful sprites with a fun jazzy soundtrack, but there’s some seriously contextually enhanced creepiness with the godslayer as you suddenly encounters nests of murdered infant bunnies and see the jagged mark left on its victims by the godslayer’s horrible claws.

If you like pinball, you’ll like this game. I’ve 100%’ed it several times but it’s as fun to replay as a favorite pinball table.

9. The Last Federation

AI War is the game Arcen Games is most known for, but I’m not very good at it and it has imitators (Infested Planet, Sorcerer King, etc.) so instead I’ll talk about their second most successful title.

In the middle of a massively complex Crusader Kings-esque 4X simulation between 7 alien factions out to kill each other, you play the last survivor of a higher race of aliens dipping in and interfering with their development for the purpose of bringing the entire star system under the lasting peace of a unified multi-species federation. So essentially you’re Merlin the Magician uniting Britain IN SPACE!

On one hand the 4X is playing itself so you only need to pay attention to a few of the moving parts at a time, on the other hand once you wrap your head around the complexities, the amount of options for you become staggering. One race is being attacked and losing the battle, how do you intervene and save them? You could take the direct route and fight off the attacking fleet directly with your superior combat skillz (more on that later), but that would majorly piss off the attacking side and leave them vulnerable to a counterattack by a third party. OR you could use your influence to massively speed up fleet production for the side under attack, angering nobody, making money for yourself, endearing yourself to the besieged side, and when the conflict ends in a stalemate you get to clean up the battle debris, one of the most profitable activities in the game! You only have to dive into the complexity as much as you want, but the more you dig in, the more Machiavellian the options get.

And you’re gonna need to be Machiavellian because the alien races are the most uncooperative bickering pain-in-the-asses. Each race has their own personality and governmental structure. Say you want to the Boaraines to start a trade route with the Skylaxians to passively improve their relations over time, that’s not gonna happen if the current Boaraine regent is an isolationist who won’t even consider the option. Dare you risk an assassination? The communist Peltians have no interest in your cash bribes and will only follow your suggestions if you spend lots of time directly helping their development, then turn around and use the advantage you gave them with all those good deeds to start a carpet-bombing campaign against the Evucks. And the savage Burlusts are constantly going to war, spreading hate, and generally being destructive assholes, but if you patiently cultivate your relations with them they can instantly start a 3-way Federation between some of the strongest factions in the system. And then once you have the start of a federation, anti-federation groups pop up to mess with your plans! And if you put off the Federation for too long, there are super-weapons waiting at the apex of each species’ tech tree that will cause absolute havok.

Combat is another unique aspect of the game. The best way to describe it is, “turn-based bullet hell.” You drag a line for your ship’s intended path, then pick which of your 3 weapon systems will fire and which target, kinda like Battlestar Galactica Deadlock or Critical Mass. But enemy ships don’t directly fire back in kind, they shoot danmaku-esque patterns of bullets, like cross shapes and splitting bullets and so on. It’s impossible to avoid all bullets and your shield can absorb a few, but blunder into the thickest part of an enemy bullet pattern and you’re gonna be hurting. It doesn’t sound like it would work but it actually works really well, even in high-speed dogfights.

Aesthetically I think the music’s great, but that’s about it. The presentation is mostly still images of planets with rows and rows of choose your own adventure buttons across them. Also for a game so dependent on it’s story and the personality of its factions, the in-game lore is shockingly sparse. You need to watch the story video I linked for this article because for some reason the in-game lore barely explains any of this.

This game is the most fun I’ve ever had in any game that promised me Machiavellian maneuvering. If you can get past the production values you’ll find there’s a reason this is such a sleeper hit.

10. Speed Brawl

Like Kromaia, this was a game that baffled me when I first played it, but unlike that game I now understand Speed Brawl. It’s entirely the developers’ fault, though. As they admitted to me, in their rush to generate social media buzz in the fighting game community with “hidden techniques” they went overboard and left out core game mechanics. So this is going to be as much a beginner’s guide as a mini-review.

The premise is you’re a participant in a pit-fighting tournament in a steampunk Victorian England in the aftermath of a war against cartoon versions of the bugs from Starship Troopers. Speed Brawl is the new sensation where fighters must punch their way through a swarm of corralled bugs and reach the finish line in time. You’re a spunky pair of fighters looking to prove their worth in the arena, cue typical sports management storyline with over-the-top Saturday morning cartoon villains.

It’s a 2D side-scrolling brawler where you get locked by invisible walls at several points in the track and have to kill all the bugs who stand in your way as quickly as possible. While SB controls like a typical brawler, it plays totally differently. Shoulder slams from hitting the dash button do equivalent damage to a punch, but when you hold down the dash button for half a second, your character flashes yellow for a big damage boost, and if you keep holding for another split second you’ll flash red for a massive damage boost, far more time-efficient than comboing an enemy with regular attacks from a standstill. This is the game’s momentum system. But if you dash by kicking off a wall (and invisible walls at the arena’s edge count), or spinning from a pole, you instantly yellow flash and can reach red in half the time. What this results in is a Tony-Hawk-esque experience of finding the perfect “lines” through stage layouts to pinball your fighter around and do the most damage in the least amount of time. You also have stamina-fueled special attacks that do consistent damage regardless of your momentum, so they can be used to keep your line going through empty portions of the map. Once I figured out the arena-exploiting nature of the combat, it quickly became one of my favorite brawlers.

There are 6 player characters in total you unlock over the course of the game, 3 light 3 heavy, and you bring 2 into every match with the ability to tag-team at will. Light fighters move the fastest and their special moves and ultimates are devoted to crowd control of weaklings, but heavies start slow but get faster and faster the higher the combo goes and their special moves tend to focus fire on a narrow area for heavier damage against a single target. Between matches there’s an equipment system whose console-friendly controls unfortunately requires 2-3 more button presses just to equip a goddamn pair of boots then necessary. The game has an elemental damage system that’s way more complicated than necessary, but in practice it’s just a passive way to nudge the player into using characters other than your two favorites (instead of taking your poison-based main character into this stage of just poison enemies, why not give the new fire-based guy a try?)

Graphics are hand-drawn 2D sprites, and music is Saturday morning cartoon rock. I don’t like the protagonist’s default “Goku with tits” look, but later patches added an alternate costume that makes her look like a roller-derby lesbian, the most bad ass combatant imaginable.

It’s a game that requires you to abandon most of your fighting game muscle memory to do it right, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a bone-crunching good time!

Comments? Join us on the forum.

Mischief Maker

A Look at the Commodore 64 Mini

If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, the greatest trick marketing executives ever pulled was convincing consumers to purchase the same things over and over. For example, in my lifetime I’ve purchased five copies of AC/DC’s Back in Black — once on vinyl, once on cassette, once on CD, once on iTunes, and, most recently, again on vinyl. Ten years from now if they figure out a way to beam music directly into our brains, I’m sure I’ll buy a sixth copy. Hells Bells, baby.

I’m not sure there’s a form of entertainment that milks their customer base harder than the video game industry. Year after year and decade after decade, gaming heavyweights like Nintendo, Sega, and Sony continue to sell us virtual versions of the exact same games we purchased (in some cases) more than three decades ago. None of us who owned a Nintendo back in the 1980s could have predicted that the hottest holiday gift thirty years later would be the Nintendo Classic — a miniature version of the NES that plays the exact same games we grew up with.

But before I owned my first NES (and long after I sold it) I owned a Commodore 64, a machine I have fond memories of to this day. It was the computer I discovered BBSes on, wrote programs on, and of course, played a never ending stream of games on. By the time 16-bit computers and consoles hit the market many Commodore 64 games felt and looked dated, but nostalgia is a powerful drug. Even though I still own the Commodore 64 I grew up with (and an SX-64, and a Commodore 128, and a couple of spares, and a bevy of devices that can accurately emulate the Commodore 64’s innards including a MiST FPGA, a Raspberry Pi, tablets, and laptops), when I saw the C64 Mini, I ordered one anyway.

Like all of the “mini” consoles that have been released to date, including the Atari Flashback, Nintendo’s NES and SNES miniature consoles, and Sony’s PlayStation Classic, the C64 Mini is, if nothing else, cute. The machine is approximately half as deep and half as wide as the original; even as the largest of the current wave of mini consoles, it’s still adorable. The case’s unique dual brown tones, even if they aren’t 100% accurate, clearly identify the machine as a descendant of the original 64. A closer inspection of the case reveals a few of the system’s upgrades: RCA video has been replaced with HDMI, the two 9-pin joystick ports have been replaced with USB ports, and power, once supplied by an inefficient black brick, is now provided through a micro-USB port. For anyone unsure, the system’s keyboard is a single non-functional piece of plastic.

Read the rest of this entry »

Mischief Maker’s Chill Game List

Like the title says. Games to help you chill out, maaaaan.

Trine 2: The Complete Story

To this day one of the most beautiful games ever created, and yes that is also in comparison to Trine 3 and 4.

Trine 2 is a side scrolling puzzler with a heavy emphasis on its physics engine and strongly influenced by The Lost Vikings. The player controls 3 characters with varied skills who can body-switch in a blink, and fight their way through armies of nefarious goblins and mind-boggling witch’s portal-traps to solve the mystery of the talking flower. Along the way they’ll pick up hundreds of magic potions that unlock new powers in their extensive skill trees, providing new ways to fight and new tools to solve puzzles.

All of this happens in one of the most gorgeously rendered storybook-come-to-life worlds I’ve ever seen realized in video game form. I’ve long since solved the game’s puzzles, but playing it over and over is still a delight to this day, it’s that pretty.

Aven Colony

A “lite” city builder that tasks you with creating mankind’s first space colony on the nearly Earth-like moon of the gas giant Aven Prime using TNG-esque levels of technology.

It’s not all juggling power levels with food income and entertainment infrastructure. Aven Prime is teeming with life, much of it unfriendly, like giant sand worms, or floating plague spores, or more intelligent foes who need to be fought off with plasma turrets. The moon’s environment itself constantly throws curve balls, changing seasons from summer to winter in a single day and frequently having lightning and hailstorms. But despite all this the game remains imminently accessible, maybe holding your hand a little too much with constnat tutorial mini-quests that give substantial resource rewards (sandbox mode lets you play without these tutorials).

While a game like Surviving Mars shows what a claustrophobic nightmare being trapped on an Elon Musk-style Mars colony would be, I would love to live on Aven Colony. Building an entertainment center and gaining the ability to explore your creation in a 3rd person chase cam behind a hover cab is an experience that feels hopeful and optimistic in a way Star Trek hasn’t been for decades. It doesn’t hurt that the graphics really show off the Unreal Engine 4 at its absolute best.

Shadowhand

Solitaire is a chill game, but gets kinda boring. Shadowhand is solitaire mixed with a Puzzle-Quest-style battle system and all tied around an extensive story of a young 18th century noblewoman who by chance is forced to take on the disguise of a busty highwayman and go on an alarmingly murderous rampage to save her friend and uncover a vast conspiracy. So significantly less boring.

The solitaire game is fairly simple at its core. Cards are fanned out in various piles on the table, and your job is to remove them by picking a card one point higher or lower than the current card in your hand, replacing your hand card with the one removed, keeping it going in as long a combo as you can before having to draw a new card. Longer combos give larger rewards. The combat scenarios have you and the enemy making matches from the same table of cards, with combos charging up your weapons, and longer chains add to a damage multiplier. Weapon attacks end your turn. Sometimes the card piles are locked until you find a key item buried in another pile, sometimes you and your enemy are racing to be the one to grab the healing potion buried under some piles. The game has a surprisingly deep equipment system, allowing you to see the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent and change outfits before every match to maximize your advantage while gradually dressing your protagonist into some kind of lunatic clown pimp.

The one detail that might harsh your chill is this is solitaire at the end of the day, and a bad shuffle is a bad shuffle, even in verses battles. But the game does give you several active powers to turn the odds back in your favor, including a titular Shadowhand ability the re-scrambles the entire table. Do you want the very best Solitaire game ever made? This is it.

Tokyo 42

An isometric overhead GTA-clone taking place in an idealized sci fi Tokyo at a “Where’s Waldo?” level of zoom. In the future, death has been cured by nano-drugs that restitch people’s bodies back together in seconds, making assassination a much less despised profession. Forced into becoming a freelance hitman to get the underworld contacts necessary to clear your name of a crime you didn’t commit, Tokyo 42 is the chillest game about murder and mayhem I’ve ever played.

You move with WASD and aim with the mouse. Bullets are rendered as 3D objects and need to be lined up vertically as well as horizontally, but this game is much more forgiving than Brigador with the aiming mechanics. At any time you can rotate the camera 45 degrees to get a better angle on your target or reveal new routes to travel in. Occasionally you will get a warning that there’s a rival assassin in the crowd and you need to figure out which random passerby is about to attack. If you go on a rampage, the game has a full GTA-style star system where you’re at first attacked by cops in hover cars, later by “Ghost in-the-Shell spider tanks.

The aesthetic of the game is like Mirror’s Edge if that bright dystopia was much livelier and more inviting. The music is wonderfully immersive and very, very chill. Note that the Smaceshi’s Castles downloadable content is just a series of short puzzle missions a la the VR Missions from Metal Gear Solid on an entirely different map.

Driftland: The Magic Revival

A real time 4X game in the vein of Sins of a Solar Empire taking place on a shattered fantasy world made up of floating islands. You and your opponents are the first wizards born in a generation powerful enough to bring the floating shards together and bridge them, setting off a war to see who will be the first to rebuild and subsequently rule the world.

In addition to Sins, Driftland is influenced by the Majesty games. Your army is made up of individual hero units who you don’t control directly, but rather influence their actions by placing reward flags throughout the world. The economy is nothing like Majesty, though, none of the heroes have their own money, you’re instead balancing the limited housing each shard can support with the land-hungry farming necessary to feed them so your citizens can be put to work extracting resources used to equip your heroes with various skills to make them more potent fighters against hostile barbarians and rival kingdoms. The most powerful floating islands you can capture have nests on them where heroes can tame a flying mount ranging from a giant raven to an actual dragon (Dwarves don’t tame, they build their own flying machines). Obviously in a world of floating islands, heroes who can fly have a huge advantage.

Another game that shows off the Unreal Engine 4 at its best. Gorgeous glowing spell effects, close zoom levels that let you see a dizzying horizon of stars above the exposed planet’s core. And each of the 4 factions has their own separate musical score that changes dynamically with the action. I personally love the African Tribal sound they chose for the wood elves’ OST, reminiscent of Civilization 4. Note that there’s a big balance overhaul/expansion coming in June so aspects of this mini review may be out of date very soon.

Yoku’s Island Express

A pinball Metroidvania! You play a dung beetle tied to a huge pinball who has just been given a job as the postmaster on a magical tropical island, but just as you arrive an ancient evil called the Godslayer has critically injured the Lovecraftian deity who sustains the island. So it’s up to you to gather the island’s scattered elders to heal the deity while delivering everyone’s long-overdue letters and packages.

You can roll your ball across flat stretches dung beetle-style with the arrow keys, but the island is dotted with color-coded flippers everywhere that flip automatically when you hit the corresponding shift key, sending the ball flying with your effectively weightless beetle dangling behind it. Your primary mode of travel will be bouncing your way through ramps and other obstacles behind your ball. The entire island is basically a giant pinball table!

The game is rendered in bright colors with a peppy soundtrack as you bounce and slide your way through its delightful environs. Unfortunately most of the distinct “tables” in the game are solved by shattering their targets, not leaving much room for repeat play in a single session. But this is a game I’ve 100%’ed many times, and replaying it doesn’t get any more old than replaying a favorite pinball cabinet. (Protips: some flippers are hidden in the background and only revealed when you flip them, and the noise maker can explode nearby slugs. You’ll thank me later!)

Comments? Join us on the forum.

Mischief Maker

Recent Cyberpunk Games for the PC



#1 is still Satellite Reign. A modern re-imagining of Syndicate that nails the rain-soaked Blade Runner vibe. My one complaint about the game is all the action takes place in corporate parking lots, you won’t get into any firefights on the gorgeous streets unless you seriously fuck up.



#2 is Ruiner. If you want the combination of cyberpunk and horror promised by Observer’s trailer, Ruiner delivers, albeit in a way that’s more anime + Suspiria (original) than Blade Runner + Jacob’s Ladder. It’s a modern day belt-scroller (ala. Final Fight) with heavy gunplay and lots and lots of zwee-fighting that’s a fast-paced disorienting blast to play. The main downside is the game’s “everything plus the kitchen sink” approach to abilities leaves the action a little unfocused and holds the gameplay back to “pretty good.”



#3 is Brigador. A vehicle-based isometric tactical shooter ala. those Urban Strike games from the 90s with a PHENOMENAL OST. The vibe is distinctly more John Carpenter than Ridley Scott. Main downside is an assload of unlock cancer.

Honorable Mentions:

Black Future ’88 is a side-scrolling Abuse clone rogue-lite that desperately wants to be the sci fi version of Dead Cells. The cyberpunk aesthetic and especially the soundtrack are epic. The gameplay is shockingly sedate, but that might be a good thing for some players.

Shadow Warrior 2 is a kickass FPS, superior to Doom 2016 in my book. And about a third of the missions take place in a cyberpunk city with you fighting everything from mechs to robot geishas armed with razor fans. Main downside is the crappy inventory screen, but you can totally beat the game on normal without slotting a single upgrade.

Comments? Join us on the forum.

Mischief Maker

Mischief Maker’s Top 10 Quarantine Games List!

Going stir crazy from being stuck inside all the time? Want to eat the lotus of videogames, but want only the finest curated lotus? Here’s 10 excellent games you may not have heard of, in no particular order, to take your minds off Captain Trips:

Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark



For years I’ve wanted a proper clone of Final Fantasy Tactics, but everybody always fucks it up, even the official sequels! But FINALLY, 20 years after the fact, someone made a proper clone with all the mechanics and job system intact, and none of the garbage filler like FFTA’s “laws.”

Graphically it’s unimpressive but not ugly, and the maps are 2D instead of rotatable 3D, but other than that it’s everything I could want out of a modern FFT. You have a selection of 20 jobs to choose from, and the starting jobs have all the basic skills you’d want right away (like standard counterattack). Despite the 2D terrain, battles have all kinds of “Into the Breach” style unit repositioning abilities that let you do things like push an enemy who can’t swim into a water tile for an instakill.

Random battles for grinding are purely an opt-in affair, yet available on-demand, with a preview of the level of enemies you’d be facing at that particular location. Also everyone on your team gets “vicarious” job points from other characters’ experience and start racking up skills in classes they never played (and every class you master awards a permanent stat boost). And if you’re a real FFT min-maxing lunatic, they even implemented a (purely optional and actively discouraged) option to drop a character back to level 1 but keep your skills so you can grind them up in the class of your choice and get exactly the stats you wanted. This is a game that wants to be enjoyed by its players.

Grab it, grind your balls off, create the ultimate team, then raise the difficulty too high and get murdered. Great way to wait out the Apocalypse.

Assault Android Cactus



A cheerfully intense twin-stick/mouse WASD overhead arena shooter with transforming stages. The twist is you’re playing an android on limited battery charge and every once in a while enemies drop a battery pickup that obligates you to wade through the crowd of baddies and grab it or risk letting your power run out before you beat the stage.

There are several different androids to pick from, each with their own unique primary attack pattern and powerful secondary attack limited by an overheat meter. (My favorite is Peanut, whose secondary attack is to fly through the crowd behind a pneumatic drill, rapidly destroying the first strong enemy she hits.) The graphics are a soft and colorful contrast to all the carnage surrounding you, and the music is fun and peppy.

I forgot who said it, but the best description I heard for AAC’s gameplay was, “In other arena shooters, it’s you among the robots. In Assault Android Cactus, it’s the robots among YOU.”

Age of Wonders: Planetfall



A tactical hex-based combat-heavy sci-fi 4X game (set on the surface of a single planet) whose gameplay is heavily based off the classic fantasy 4X “Master of Magic.” The major hook to MoM was finding synergies between the inherent strengths of the fantasy race who made up your followers, and the school of magic your wizard-king specializes in. Planetfall takes that formula and slaps sci-fi terms over all the fantasy talk (“school of magic” becomes “secret tech,” “spells” become “operations,” and the “dwarves” become the “dvar”) but takes full advantage of the sci fi setting to give units tons of interesting new abilities that wouldn’t work in a Tolkien world. As a long-time fan of the Age of Wonders series it’s difficult not to gush about all the gameplay improvements without turning this little blurb into a 30-page essay.

The setting is kind of odd, as it feels more like someone digging through their old toy box from the 80s and waging battles between action figures from wildly different settings (like He-Man vs GI Joe vs Dino-Riders) rather than a cohesive world of its own. Likewise the aesthetics evoke the look and soundtrack of those 80s toy-hawking shows in a way that all the sythwave games miss. A lot of games lately try to “be” 80s, Planetfall feels like something “from” the 80s, all the way down to the 80s hairdo, sunglasses, and Tom Selleck mustache I can give my custom commander.

But come at the game from the standpoint that you are sitting on your bedroom floor playing with mismatched action figures and it’s an absolute blast. Even the lowliest unit now has multiple attacks and support abilities to use in tactical combat, from tossing grenades to overwatch fire. Every unit can slot (and replace) up to 3 upgrades from electric bullets to phase devices that let them walk through walls. Hell, commanders can opt to equip an attack chopper in lieu of a weapon and gain all the abilities of that vehicle boosted by all the skills of the commander. Not being limited to the 4 elements, the secret techs bring all sorts of interesting possibilities that were only hinted at in the fantasy AoW games, like the Xenoplague tech where you outfit your troops with horrifying slimy alien parasites sticking out their backs for super strength and the ability to infect enemies and turn them into tiny facehugger-style monsters which can eventually mutate into giant clawed monstrosities.

Maybe… maybe focusing on the plague powers wasn’t the best thing to focus on right now. There are other secret techs based on wormholes, psychic powers, AI singularities, and more!

The only thing about this game that’s a letdown from Age of Wonders 3 is the strategic map. Instead of the hex-by-hex, what-you-see-is-what-you-get method of territory capture AoW 3 used, Planetfall uses a more abstract system of annexing entire provinces at once, but you can only extract one of the resources located there in an “exploitation” system the tutorial does a crap job explaining. (Note that most reviews of this game are obsolete because it recently had a massive balance and interface update that addressed most of the old complaints. I didn’t buy the game until post-update so I can’t comment on the changes.)

Waste hours constructing your ultimate Amazon warrior riding a T-Rex with lasers attached to its head, then take her to battle against the Strogg from Quake 2. I love this fucking game!

Fight’n Rage



Put simply, the best belt-scroller brawler of all time, at least that I’ve played.

Taking all the best from Final Fight, Streets of Rage, The Punisher, Aliens vs Predator, and mixing them all together into a simple-to-learn difficult to master game. You’ve got Gal, the speedster with an emphasis on aerial combat, Ricardo, the “What if Mike Haggar was a Cow?” heavy hitter, and F. Norris, the technical Ninja with physics defying moves. The sheer depth to this game’s combat mechanics approach Devil May Cry-level combo potential, but all that air-juggling is entirely optional and you can muddle through on basic moves alone without being overwhelmed. (In fact the game has secret moves that need to looked up on the internet, but you can still win without ever touching them).

This probably isn’t a game you want your wife or girlfriend to see you playing, especially with the ridiculous tit-bouncing animation for Gal’s sprite.

In terms of actual gameplay, I would say the one weakness of the game is the one shared by its genre, brawler fatigue, but the fact of the matter is Fight’n Rage saves your progress if you quit mid-game! Greatest. Belt-scroller. EVER!

Battlestar Galactica – Deadlock



Speaking of games whose reviews at release are now totally obsolete, Battlestar Galactica Deadlock is a turn-based tactical naval sim in 3D space that started out mediocre, but thanks to many, many heroic patches and DLCs became something special.

The setting is a prequel to the Ronald Moore reboot series. It’s the first war against the Cylons and in this time Battlestars are just the flagships to large and diverse fleets of colonial warships. I really like how this game makes use of models from the original 70s TV series for earlier versions of the ships. Despite being in space, this is a world Moore created in response to years of Star Trek technobabble, so phones come on cords, Viper fighters shoot bullets, and the major thrust of combat is clouds of missiles and torpedoes, sometimes with nuclear warheads in them.

The big thing about this title is it’s more a simulator than an abstract dice-based boardgame. Torpedo swarms are objects moving in 3D space that can be dodged with evasive maneuvers, or blown up in a Battlestar’s flak screen, but only if you’re positioned just right to catch them. Meanwhile those big imposing turrets on top of a Battlestar have a hard time catching fast-moving corvettes and can’t aim at an enemy flying underneath. Add to this deployable mines, fighter and bomber craft, teleporting Cylons, missile-replenishing support craft, and it all turns into a delicate dance of death that’s SO satisfying when you get a perfect firing line and watch the enemy’s ships melt under withering cannon fire.

And then when it’s all over the game has an option to view a replay of the fight and watch your tactics unfold with dynamic shakey-cam to look like a scene out of the show.

Note that this game has a crapload of DLC, but the only ones necessary for a first time player are “Reinforcement Pack” and “Broken Alliance.” The rest are separate campaigns taking place later in the story and you can buy them later.

Dungeons III or War for the Overworld





Dungeons III





War for the Overworld

The Dungeon Keeper series is dead, but there are two excellent, but distinct, spiritual successors: War for the Overworld and Dungeons III. I imagine more people are interested in the differences between the two than a mini review of either one individually so here goes: Dungeons III if you want a singleplayer-focused game based around randomly generated skirmish maps, War for the Overworld if you want a multiplayer-focused game that takes place on hand-crafted maps.

Both games have you playing as a disembodied floating hand of evil who marks blocks of dirt for excavation by your diminutive worker minions, then fills the resulting rooms with amenities to see to the needs of your growing horde of monsters, as well as traps to weaken invading forces of do-gooder heroes looking to slaughter your innocent monstrosities and steal your gold. Both games add a 3-branched tech tree, each suited to a different play style. Both games have a top-shelf voice actor providing narration and occasional commentary, WftO grabs DK’s original Stephen Fitts as a malevolent dark god, while Dungeons III has Kevan Brighting as a storybook narrator whose sing-songey inflection is meant to form a comedic contrast to the carnage and evil you’re wreaking on the world.

War for the Overworld keeps very true to the original game’s formula of keeper-on-keeper battles taking place in underground dungeon structures. Dungeons III is an asymmetrical battle between your underground dungeon which functions like the original game, and the overworld kingdom of good that functions like an RTS. Dungeons III makes the player constantly bounce back and forth between conquering sections of the overworld to harvest evil (for teching up) and destroy hero generators, then returning to the dungeon to fight off hero waves then rearm and rebuild for the next surface foray.

In terms of aesthetics, from the original Dungeon Keeper’s dark comedy tone, War for the Overworld leans more to dark, and Dungeons III leans more to comedy. WftO’s dungeons have more muted colors and much nastier-looking monsters. DIII’s dungeons are by contrast a riot of colors and the actions of your monsters are more cheerful, like the Dr Seussian machine the Orks use to build your traps. Story-wise, War for the Overworld’s campaign is more interesting while Dungeons III’s story is an “Epic Movie” style comedy about nonstop lampshading and references that some people find hilarious but I find odious.

My personal preference is for Dungeons III on gameplay grounds, sticking to the random skirmish maps, but if multiplayer’s your bag, grab War for the Overworld. Note that “Clash of Gods” is the only DLC for Dungeons III that adds any new gameplay mechanics, the rest are all 3-mission mini campaigns and you aren’t missing out on any important story by skipping them.

Redout



Need a little excitement in your quarantine? Redout is a hoverjet racing game in the style of F-Zero. Playing it produces the greatest sensation of speed I ever experienced in all my years of gaming.

The game’s clever trick is that the world is rendered in a low-polygon “stained glass” style that makes it easy on the hardware, then buries it in post processing effects. Since it’s all going to be zooming by in a blur anyway, who cares if it’s low poly? The result is a sense of complex cities screaming past as your hoverjet does stomach-churning roller coaster loop-de-loops.

It’s my favorite racing game. And if you aren’t interested in multiplayer, grab the “solar challenge edition” at GOG that gives you all the DLCs at a massively discounted price at the cost of no multiplayer.

X-Morph Defense



The best “maze-builder” tower defense meets the transforming command ship of Herzog Zwei meets Godzilla-sized boss tanks meets the single greatest building destruction engine in gaming history.

You play a malevolent alien force that’s like a cross between the Borg and the Decepticons invading Earth by dropping vulnerable terraforming cores from space that must be protected from earthling armies by your transforming alien fighter jet and all the defensive turrets and laser fences you can build to herd them to their doom. But the Earthlings won’t go down without a fight and on top of the endless tank convoys and bomber formations they field giant boss vehicles with individually-targetable turrets and other weak points that feel like they’ve been plucked from the Ray force games. On top of all this, buildings crumble and topple in incredibly realistic ways and can land on enemy convoys, crushing tanks underneath and forcing the survivors on the other side to find a new route to your core.

Is it an action game? Is it a strategy game? Is it a puzzle game? Whatever the hell it is, it is GLORIOUS!

Tangledeep



Tangledeep is a genuine roguelike, built from the ground up with a goal toward fun, and a delightful 16-bit SNES aesthetic.

This game draws inspiration from a lot of sources, like the job system from Final Fantasy Tactics, the Item world from Disgaea, and the breezy controller-friendly interface of Shiren the Wanderer, among others. Instead of a hunger mechanic, healing and the stamina and mana to power your skills is in limited supply and must be gathered by exploring. I really like how movement and positioning is such a key component of combat, enemy super attacks mark the targeted squares one round before activating, giving you a chance to escape or risk trying for a finishing blow. You can return to town whenever you like to sell equipment and get new quests.

Even though it’s a real roguelike and will totally murder you for one absentminded move, the smooth interface, charming graphics, and beautiful 16-bit music make for one of the most pleasant gaming experiences of 2020.

Clone Drone in the Danger Zone

Clone Drone in the Danger Zone is a voxel-based third person melee combat roguelite that’s the true successor to the old Lucasarts Jedi Knight games. I know, shame on me for suggesting an early access game. But the game has been fully playable for over a year and the only thing remaining is the final chapter of the story campaign. Endless mode is where it’s at and it’s feature complete at this point.

The premise is you’ve been kidnapped by alien robots and had your consciousness uploaded into a robot body then forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena until you die while being mocked by a robotic Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford. Their weird text-to-speech voices only enhance the dark humor. But maybe if you survive long enough there’ll be a chance for you to escape and possibly save Earth?

Each round you enter a random obstacle course filled with hostile robots all out to kill you. Luckily you’ve been given a lightsaber energy sword that can slice clean through their voxel bodies. Unfortunately their weapons do the same to you and you could find yourself hopping around on one leg (a difficult but not hopeless situation). If you live, you visit Upgrade Bot and buy new powers like a jetpack, or a flaming sword, or a laser bow, or just extra lives. I’m having difficulty putting into words just how satisfying landing the perfect hit is. This is one of the most visceral combat games since Hammerfight and I love every bit of it. Even if the early access came to a sudden halt right now, the game that’s been released to this point is totally worth it.

Be safe, wash your hands, stay inside, then melt your brain with GAMING DOODZ!!!

Comments? Join us on the forum.

Mischief Maker

The Caltrops Top 50 games of 2010-2019: #10-1

Welcome! It was a long time going, but these are the ten best games of the decade, as decided by the Caltrops forum.

Here are links to the other entries in this web series:

Honorable Mentions: Part One
Entries #50 – 40
Entries #39 – 30
Entries #29 – 21
Entries #20 – 11


#10 – FLAPPY BIRD by dotGears (2013)
Original Game Unavailable

Another complete phenomenon, this game took over the world for a little bit in 2013. Dong Nguyen, totally his real name and the developer, took it off the app stores because it was apparently giving him anxiety, although he was reportedly making $50,000 a day with it. There are countless clones, as there were Tetris, which Flappy Bird most reminds me of. There’s an arcade game version that is completely licensed, however, and it has beautiful graphics. Or at least graphics maybe not completely cribbed from Super Mario Bros., haha?



#9 – VVVVVV by Terry Cavanaugh (2010)
Steam Link

Perfect graphics, perfect audio, perfect story – makes you care about the characters in the game within 20 seconds, which most games never do in several hours – and perfect gameplay. I had to go into the game to take a new screenshot because the ones I had taken in 2010 and uploaded to Steam are seemingly all gone, including the 12 pictures I took of the girl in the Playboy bunny suit for Dead Rising 2. Do I go to Gabe directly about that? I just don’t want the resolution to be all weird.

God, look at that screenshot. The player character saying, “I wonder why the ship teleported me here alone?” together with the frown on the PC’s face contains more drama and emotion in a single screenshot than most games contain ever. The VVVVVV characters were Baby Yoda but 10 years earlier. Writing in games is terrible, but it’s been terrible forever, to the point where something simple yet effective like this stands so far apart from its peers.



#8 – ELITE: DANGEROUS by Frontier Development (2014)
Steam Link

pinback says, ” I have put in more hours with this boring, empty game already than all of you put together, and now it’s officially released.

I think it’s wonderful. I am astonished by something every time I play, and usually more than once.

Tonight I was reminded about one of my most favorite things about it, and it’s very subtle, but it’s completely excellent. It is:

When you hyperdrive or whatever it is into a new system, you wind up by the star. The star is very bright, and washes out most of the other stars in the sky. What’s amazing is that the starfield background is consistent with the galaxy map — those are actual stars — but let’s move beyond that, because that’s old news.

What makes me giddy every time is that when you fly away from the star, towards one of the distant planets, and get out of the corona of the sun, the background noise in the starfield blacks out, and hundreds and hundreds of stars show up and shine brightly, like driving from the big city to the middle of nowhere.

If you wanted a space game because you like space, I mean… Christ. There will probably be nothing better than this in my lifetime. Well, there probably will be, but this is it for at least the next decade.

HOLY FUCKING SHIT you guys. It’s incredible.”



#7 – THE WITCHER 3: WILD HUNT by CD PROJEKT RED (2015)
Steam Link

Worm says, “It’s Witcher 2 with a more open world, kind of like Dragon Age Inquisition where there are a few open zones but they’re bigger. Maybe the size of a GTA city? I’m not sure. Combat is a lot of fun, very Arkham without being too braindead. Quests have a number of outcomes and generally involve hunting and killing something which is fun too. Generally I think it’s a solid improvement on 2 in every way and a game that really represents how open world games ought to feel. Story doesn’t get in the way, you’re rarely trapped in endless cut scenes, and it feels good to explore.”

That’s not all Worm said, but I wanted to settle you with the first quote first. Worm also said the following, during a discussion about Ciri being kind of a Mary Sue character: “Honestly I always get surprised when people have more hang ups than me. I’m reportedly the guy who wants to club women to death and eat their skin but I didn’t really have an issue playing as Ciri the God-McGuffin. She zwee fights and loves adventure. Also you get to see old lady tits at one point in her story.”

(I don’t think you want to eat their skin, my friend.)



#6 – PORTAL 2 by Valve (2011)
Steam Link

A genuinely funny game, I would like to think that the writing in Portal 2 is the minimum of what we should expect for computer games. My memory is that the original Portal had a bit of a slow burn for comedy. The entire game was sort of slow burn. This probably means that GlaDOS has ten killer lines in the first two boards because my memory is awful. I do recall that Portal 2 is strap-the-fuck-in funny from the start and kept at it throughout my play.



#5 – P.T. by 7780s Studio (2014)
Original Game Unavailable

(I’m letting go of the fact that 20% of the top ten games of the decade are completely unavailable in their original form. This is the only entertainment medium that pulls this shit and it’s so goddamn dumb and immature. And I get that the Flappy Bird guy was going insane, so fine, but this is purely an asshole move by Konami on this one.)

We all found out later that P.T. is an interactive demo for Resident Evil 7, a fine game in its own right. But there was a spooky ghost (the best kind) running around P.T. and the very simple gameplay decision to make exiting the house bring you right back into the house is the horror bit to end all the other horror bits in the game. It’s genuinely creepy, the art direction couldn’t have created a filthier, more disgusting house if they tried. When I played this I thought that something was going to come after me every time I leaned in to look at something (and they kind of do that a lot in the full Resident Evil 7 game). Admittedly, it’s short to where it never wears out its welcome and requiring the Playstation 4 microphone to solve it is a nice throwback to old console games that had that input device nobody knew or cared about, but were useful for like one game.



#4 – FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS by Obsidian Entertainment (2010)
Steam Link

It definitely got better as it was patched and became mostly stable. Not 100%. But a lot more playable than when it was released.

New Vegas is probably the first or second best Fallout game from a role-playing perspective, depending on how you feel about the original. It doesn’t put its best stuff in the first two hours, but beyond that things really get fun. Cass is one of the best companions in any of these games, but before I was able to get her to join me I spent 30 hours with Boone. I didn’t say ten words to him the entire time we were together. He did, after all, murder someone in the head that he believed sold his wife to slavery and then he skipped down, which is pretty bad ass now that I think about it. Well, except for the fact that he sniped his victim in the head from a distance and it was at night and the victim was an old woman and he did it from a fiberglass dinosaur. None of those things are bad ass. If it was any softer he would have killed her with a cement milkshake and then denied that anyone on earth had ever made a cement milkshake, especially him.

Oh, Boone.

I used to wonder if people would actually choose to align with the Caesars, as they seemed like cartoon authoritative bad guys, but what have we learned about game players in the last 10 years? You can’t get your dick sucked enough on Reddit if you’re a shitty moderator, of course hundreds of thousands of players probably played the last half of the game in the fetal position, soaked-through in their own piss, becoming total stans for Caesar. They do it every day when they post about games. Choosing any of the other factions – and I’m glossing over the fact that you can make decisions in New Vegas where you really can’t in Fallout 4 – is the right decision but I guess that’s why the game is so good, as there are interesting decisions to be made.

When the moon is out it’s tough to not think that this is a really gorgeous game, too.

And I wish that in-game someone said that the vocalist for the Big Iron on His Hip song died the day before New Vegas starts, as that could explain why the song is played literally every third track on that one station. It would be like the radio stations becoming Rush tribute ones when Neil Peart died.



#3 – DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION by Eidos
Steam Link

Because the game is so good I want to quote some people regarding the cut-scenes:

FABIO says, “Every…single…one of the cutscenes involving boss encounters is some contrived jRPG Squaresoft horseshit. First my super character lets a 400 lb. metal man sneak up and cold clock him while Boris and Natasha go for their elevator ride and I thought that was the low point. Then fast forward to a Chinese penthouse and it’s SO SOLLY, G.I. I DIDNT MEAN TO I JUST POOR WEAK WOMAN PREASE RET ME FONDLE YOU WHILE I SNEAK BEHIND AND ha sucker. At least the Barret fight left plenty of ammo lying around. I have no idea what you were supposed to do if you were out of ammo without cloak in the penthouse.”

Arbit says, in reply: “Christ, that was bad. Adam Jensen, a guy with 3 foot blades implanted in his arms, is going to let an obviously augmented woman get all touchy-feely with him? I expected him to get gutted and endure another surgery sequence, only this time Sarif chops off his penis and the stupid parts of his brain because really how fucking dumb can you get.”

The game taken as a whole is a worthy successor to the original Deus Ex and Adam Jensen voiced by Elias Toufexis is the best character / voice actor combo in video game history.



#2 – HOTLINE: MIAMI by Dennaton Games
Steam Link

Incomprehensible except when you can actually play, Hotline: Miami is an indie champion. Although the developer had made tons of games before Hotline, so it’s that thing where it only took 40 tries to become an overnight sensation. I’d describe the magic of Hotline: Miami as sort of the ultimate realization of an action figure game that we might have played as little kids, only this time there are all manner of weapons that blow things up nicely. Oh, and when I was playing with toys at age six, the stories I had explaining the violence made more sense. Hotline: Miami is on the right side of frustration versus a feeling of accomplishment. In making me love it over the first five levels and then pissing me off because it was trying to teach me new things about itself, the game sets itself up as an 80s NES throwback – if you’ve solved this game in any fashion with any letter grades in the system, you’ve done something in gaming worthy of respect.



#1 – ROCKET LEAGUE by Psyonix
Steam Link

I think this is the best game of the decade and I feel the posts in our forum also bear this out. The fun parts of this game can only be experienced as a video game, which I feel is important for the game of the decade. The graphics are crisp and colorful, offline/bot mode is just as much fun as multiplayer with real humans and you can play it forever and constantly progress at getting better at Rocket League.

Entropy Stew says, “Initial games are chaos and have shit ball movement, because you are matched with other people who are as bad as you are at the game. Get halfway decent, and you start getting matched with other halfway decent players. Then, the game opens up. A goal can easily be scored across the entire field if the ball is not contested properly, and if the net is not defended. The level of ball control is insane given that it’s just a physics simulation of colliding bodies, and due to level of agility your car has. Don’t even get me started on aerials (which I still suck at – finally scored an aerial goal in a game last week though).

This game isn’t soccer, and it sure as fuck isn’t a soccer video game. Those are ass. It’s some kind of hockey/soccer hybrid without rules, with jetpacks. It’s the action man’s soccer. It’s glorious.”

It is glorious. It was a good decade for games. I mean, hell, they’re all good, but I think the games at least in the top 10 will be played and/or remade forever. It is a tad depressing that what we believe are the two best games had no story (Rocket League) and an incomprehensible one (Hotline: Miami) but there’s plenty of story in the other ones.


There’s one last note. This project was made possible because for 10 years people in the Caltrops forum wrote about games and expressed their opinions and let the site be a sort of archival record on how games were perceived at the time. Caltrops needs your support for such a thing to happen again in ten years. Unlike every scam Kickstarter, by saying we need your help we don’t need money, just your takes. So please feel invited to post about the games you like, the games that you love, the games that frustrate you and all the other video game drama in-between. Join us, won’t you?


The Caltrops Top 50 Games of 2010-2019: #20-11

We’re counting down the 50 best games of the decade.

Previous entries:

Honorable Mentions: Part One
Entries #50 – 40
Entries #39 – 30
Entries #29 – 21

And now … 20 through 11!



#20 – YAKUZA 0 by Sega (2015)
Steam Link

Worm says, “Yakuza is essentially a game in the spirit of Shenmue but ends up being a lot like River City Ransom as well. The series has always been great and Yakuza 2 might be the best but it’s really hard to say. Essentially it’s a action RPG where you get into random street fights and also you do whatever fucking random shit the developers decided would be fine this includes but isn’t limited to darts, watching porno, karaoke, looking for sparkling shit on the ground, or fighting people. The game is just incredibly dense and really fun and that’s all there is to it. There’s also a pretty good crime drama baked into the space you make to play the main story between playing UFO catchers and fishing. The real tragedy of this series is that it’s a game that everyone should like but Sega has been convinced that it’s for Japanese people and does next to nothing to advertise or hype up the games, beside the first game which was billed as “Japan’s Grand Theft Auto” which is ridiculous since it’s a much better game. Yakuza is a fantastic game that does the kind of shit that every other RPG hybrid tries at and fucking fails and for some reason Sega has just decided that as few people as possible should play it. I don’t think there is a single action RPG that has come out in years that is better than them.”

I am looking forward to future Yakuza titles with more features, like being able to actually quit the game.



#19 – PERSONA 5 by Atlus (2016)
Link to Playstation 4 Store

Worm says, “I liked Persona 3 and Persona 4 but in the end I feel like this is the first game where the framing of the powers actually fits the slice of life style of the game, rather than saving the city or rescuing your friend from a murder plot you’re making the CEO of McDonalds confess to unfair labor practices so you trend more on twitter, and it just works really well.”

(Thanks to Ultra High Def Digest for the screenshot.)



#18 – SUPERHOT by Superhot Team (2016)
Steam Link

Okay, there’s two things people didn’t like about Superhot. It was very short if you just played the single player game through compared to the cost – 2 hours for $25 minutes. Which in computer games is low, but realistically, it was so much fun I had no problem with it. The last thing is that when you do complete the game, the developers ask all the player to meme up some insipid line, word for word, about how great it is. It was so desperate and awkward and off-putting.

None of that matters when you are playing the game. Time (mostly) stops when you are not moving in Superhot. This gives the game tactics not found in any other shooter. It takes full advantage of this premise and explores so many fun situations with it. In fact, the biggest thing I took away from Superhot after finishing it is that reality is disappointing because we can’t throw stuff at people in the real world and get what they are holding. (And shoot them with it.) (No don’t put that part in.)



#17 – DARK SOULS by FROM Software (2011)
Steam Link

They made three of them in the decade, so that skews the numbers a bit, but I think this was the most-referenced franchise. Certainly a good comparison for jokes when people fail at common tasks, like that one guy that couldn’t get past the Cuphead tutorial. But yeah, all the Dark Souls games were mentioned everywhere this decade in our forum and our readers and posters played it a lot. I think it suffers a bit from not getting glowing praise because from what I understand it makes people furious the first few minutes you encounter any new boss.



#16 – CRUSADER KINGS II by Paradox Interactive (2012)
Steam Link

Rey Mysterio Jr. says, “The fun part from CK2 comes from Dwarf Fortress-esque unintended consequences. Think of it like a game with infinite lives for people who can’t keep it in their pants. Every girl you fuck and knock up is another chance at glory.

In one game in southern France I was doing pretty well until my main guy croaked unexpectedly but was lousy in the sack and left me with an 8 year old princess to my name. A real spoiled shit. Well, she went hunting 5 years later and the woodsman shot her through the heart with an arrow so that my asshole brother who had inherited 1/3rd of his father’s kingdom could take over. I immediately switched to another relative and invaded him.”



#15 – RIMWORLD by Ludeon Studios
Steam Link

pinback says, “The biggest knock on Rimworld is that Ludeon Studios bills it, with a straight face, as a “story generator”. First of all, EVERY game is a story generator, and I have the time I saved the last human family for 63 goddamn waves to prove it. Second of all, shut up. Also, don’t call the various difficulty levels “storytellers”. People who play Rimworld on Twitch even say “okay, we’re beginning a new story” as they fire up a new game. Jesus, just writing this I want to pull it from this list. But you can’t. If it’s a story generator, the story is very much like: Firefly crashes on an alien planet, except all of the characters are completely insane. A virtually perfect survival/colony sim, it gets the future-Western vibe just right, and even if the alien planet seems just the tiniest bit too familiar, you’ll never tire of exploring the world and making it your home.

On one of my first playthroughs, my three insane people were busy setting up shop, when a visitor came to us, asking to join us. She was an extremely unpleasant, irritating lady, but we needed the help. Oh, also, she insisted on being nude at all times. The picture of my three original colonists continually bitching to each other about the obnoxious naked lady working in the next room is possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a video game. What a hilarious story– ah shit.”



#14 – PLAYER UNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS by PUBG Corporation (2017)
Steam Link

It’s the only Steam game I have that sometimes doesn’t work. The rest of them do. I recently played a “team” game with my nephew. He operated the Steam gamepad. I was at the keyboard controls and trackball in case I needed to show him something. He ejected last and by the time we got to the ground were were top 75. Many, many idiots – 25%, I guess – play PUBG. I don’t mean that they are bad at games, they are just idiots. Anyway, way out on the ass end of the map we were able to get some loot, but nothing with a scope, which is what has been used to kill me every time except for the time I got run over.

It was his bedtime before the game finished. I took over, got into a car, found a guy and was going to turn the tables and run this dude over. Only he shot me through the car. There is definitely an element of, “no matter what tactic you try you suck, no matter what tactic I try, I rock” to it. Surviving for me is at odds of getting valuable combat experience. And what truly matters is that I build shit all day long – software, good relationships, emotional barriers. I don’t need to build shit like we have to do in Fortnite, which makes PUBG superior in the eyes of Caltrops.



#13 – CUPHEAD by Studio MDHR Entertainment Inc. (2018)
Steam Link

Rafiki says, “I got through the first area (bosses + run and guns) in about an hour, game said I died 19 times, but it didn’t feel like it. The airplane level and the flower boss were the most difficult. The second area is kicking my ass. IT’S SO GOOD THOUGH. The genie level! The background! Little genie lamp shoes! I don’t know why that landed with me the way it did, but I loved it. And I love that they change up the bosses a little when you die so it doesn’t get stale and repetitive. I was a little disappointed when I realized a few months ago the game was mostly just boss fights instead of shooter levels with bosses at the end, but fuck it. Shadow of the Colossus was nothing but boss fights and it was great (side note: I am PUMPED for the HD remake). This game is great. Everything is great. I hope this game makes 100 million dollars.”



#12 – DOOM 2016 by id Software (2016)
Steam Link

pinback says, “If people were as nice to each other in real life as the demons are to you in DOOM 2016, the world would be a continuous, joyous celebration of life, and DOOM games in that world would feature bossfights with Aaron Hernandez and hungover Bojangles customers. DOOM 2016 features the “glory kill” mechanism, in which if you punch the demon’s brains straight out of his head, he gives you health! I was originally put off by what I felt was a “gimmick”, but once it becomes part of the flow of the game, you can’t live without it, and every time you do it you want to say “thanks!” Most games don’t care if you play them, they just want you to know how clever they are. DOOM 2016 desperately wants you to play it. Listen: Killing demons the normal way (shooting, exploding, etc.) does not give you anything, UNLESS you are low on something! Gettin’ a little low on health and bullets? BOOP! There ya go, buddy, have a few on the house! They only ever do that when you are low on stuff. They really, really want you to keep killing them.

Motherfuckers are rooting you on.

That’s why the Cacodemons always look like they’re smiling. They’re just happy to see you doing well, and having fun doing it.



#11 – THARSIS by Choice Provisions (2016)
Steam Link

Tharsis is a brilliant board game that offers a chilling look into what a large number of absolute dipshit morons that don’t understand anything can do to a game. PC Gamer had a horrible review where the author was too dumb to understand the game. Steam has zillions of brain dead idiots that literally just saw dice in the game (dice are depicted in the game) and shouted “YAHTZEE DURRRR RRR!” in their negative reviews and said it was all random numbers.

It isn’t all random numbers. And you know that because you are an intelligent person that comes to Caltrops.

Tharsis is a wonderful implementation of something that could be a crisis-management board game, but it optimized for computers. There are plenty of decisions that can be made at each turn and plenty of disasters that keep each subsequent game fresh.

pinback says, “If you can handle games that actually test you instead of patting you on the back every five minutes, you can’t go wrong.”

Worm says, “Really fun game actually. Reminiscent of Omega Virus to me. You basically play a board game version of stranded space ship where you’re constantly patching the hull to make it to your destination. It’s really great – being overwhelmed feels overwhelming and just hanging on feels like you’re just hanging on.”