Roar (Movie, 1981)

A friend of mine recommended I watch “Roar”. It’s a 1981 film about a guy who opens up a wild animal (mostly lions) rescue and lives with the animals. They guy who wrote and directed the movie also starred in it. Essentially the actors simply moved into a house filled with dozens of wild (not trained or tamed) lions and let the cameras roll.

Here are some of the trivia facts listed for Roar on IMDB:

During filming in 1977, Melanie Griffith was mauled by a lion and required plastic surgery. Griffith reportedly received fifty stitches to her face.

Cinematographer Jan de Bont was mauled and scalped by a lion on the set. de Bont required over 120 stitches to sew his scalp back from where a lion had bitten his head. After medical treatment, de Bont actually returned to the production to complete his D.O.P. duties.

During production, director/star Noel Marshall was attacked and severely injured by one of the lions in the film. He was hospitalized and it took him several years to completely recover from his injuries.

Assistant Director Doron Kauper was attacked and mauled by a lion during production filming of this picture. Kauper’s throat was bitten open from whereupon the lion proceeded to bite his jaw and attempted to rip an ear off. Reportedly, this attack on Kauper almost cost him his life.

Tippi Hedren fractured a leg during production when an elephant bucked her off its back when she was riding on top. Moreover, also during production, Hedren was bitten on the back of her head by a lioness called Sheri. Hedren received thirty-eight stitches to the open wound. The incident can be seen in the finished picture. Hedren is hanging to the branch of a tree when thirty-four lions run across her. The thirty-fifth lion bites at her head. Hedren’s screams and the blood seen are real. Hedren once said of being bitten by a lion: “Let me tell you, it hurts when you’re bitten by a lion. It’s not only that you may have an open, gaping wound, plus shock, but the pressure of those enormous jaws is so strong that it hurts”.

In 1978, a flood from a dam break killed many lions in the film, washed away the set and destroyed nearly all of the movie, including sets, completed film footage and three key lions including Robbie, the movie’s lion king. The picture was set back several years and the damaged done amounted to approximately US $4 million.

John Marshall was bitten by a lion during production filming of this picture and required fifty-six stitches.

Deputy Sheriffs had to shoot three lions during the flooding of the Marshall ranch. One of these lions was Robbie, the lion king of the picture. Robbie was a unique black-maned Rhodesian lion.

During the promotion of this picture, Tippi Hedren categorically stated that there would never be a ‘Roar 2’ sequel.

I like that last one the most.

Roar is a horrible, horrible movie with a terrible plot and worse acting, and yet you find yourself watching every second because these ain’t no CGI lions. Every second that unfolds you’re just waiting for the lions to attack another actor or crew member or each other, and it happens pretty often.

Horrible. Terrible. Highly recommended.

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Mischief Maker’s Mini-Review Roundup, Autumn 2021

Been a while since I did one of these, but I bought a few games recently. So thoughts:


Wonderful strategy/puzzle hybrid based on the “early game” of a space 4X that sees you peacefully colonizing an infinite galaxy by colonizing planets then building faster than light gates between them to satisfy trade demands, with the goal being to create the most prosperous civilization you can within 25 years.

I can’t say enough good things about this game. It has a zillion overlays to clearly communicate what can be built where and for what at a glance (protip: the Alt key is your friend!) and the whole drag-to-link interface will see you creating a galaxy-spanning trade empire in minutes. Add to that a whole science research system that unlocks crazy new ways to connect and exploit (and occasionally explode) the planets of the galaxy. And unless you scan new planets, you can undo every move in case you colonize yourself into a corner by mistake.

I honestly can’t come up with any complaints about this delightful game, it’s my top contender for 2021 Game of the Year. Highly, highly recommended!

(More games after the break!)
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Halloween (Movie, 2018)

Halloween is one of the most convoluted movie series of all time. As of the release of Halloween (2018), there are now five separate timelines in the franchise. There’s the original, which consists of Halloween (1978), Halloween II (1981), Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995). (That’s films 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6.) Then there’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which refers to the first two movies as fictional films. Next is the Halloween (1978), Halloween II (1981), Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) and Halloween: Resurrection (2002) timeline (films 1, 2, 7, and 8), in which Halloween H20 jumped over movies 3-6 and picked up where #2 left off. There’s also Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009), Rob Zombie’s reboots.

The latest trilogy, beginning with Halloween (2018), is a direct sequel to the first film, leaping over everything after that. It is also, somewhat confusingly, the third film in the franchise to be simply named “Halloween”.

In Halloween (2018) we find a 61-year-old Michael Myers, who has been in captivity since the murders of 1978. During those same 40 years, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been preparing for the return of Michael Myers. Strode is almost a carbon copy of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 as she has spent decades building a fortress and learning how to handle weapons, preparing for an adversary that no one else believes will come. Because of her fears she has been diagnosed as mentally ill and shunned by her daughter’s family, who thinks she needs help.

Don’t worry, most of the people who doubt Laurie Strode end up dying gruesome deaths.

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Psychonauts 2 (PC)


Controls in 2 are much MUCH better and more refined, which is to be expected. In 1 I’m constantly fighting the camera (pro-tip: if you decide to replay it, turn off smart camera) to some degree, the lock-on targeting is clumsier, and so are certain interactions with the environment like rail grinding and climbing poles. In 2 you “snap on” to climbable objects much better. In 2 you can also jump up climbable objects to move up faster, whereas in 1 it just dismounts you.


This is one of those labor of love games. Production is top-notch. Everything retains that Tim Schafer / Tim Burton-esque weird cartoon design aesthetic from the first one. Animation is great and characters animate with actual personality instead of being generic, indistinguishable mo-cap. All of the acting so far is excellent, except for Sasha Nein who sounds really wooden for some reason. I checked and it’s the same actor, so I don’t know what the deal is. Based on the first level, it looks like the level design and the little details are going to be just as inspired as the first game.

The introduction / first level cuts right to the chase which is GOOD. There’s an intro movie on launch and then a brief level introduction when you start the game, but then you get to play through a level right away and get into the weirdness of a mind invasion. The way the level transitions between parts of the level and in-game cutscenes to hide the fact they’re teleporting you around is really well done and doesn’t feel like it’s obnoxiously pulling you out of the action.

So far, it’s pretty much the same style of action-platforming as Psychonauts 1. You also get about 6 powers right at the start as well, so you get several abilities to play with as opposed to a slow trickle of doling out one thing at a time over 6 hours until you FINALLY have enough abilities for things to start to get interesting. There’s still unlockable powers, as well as the ability to level up powers.

Some of the enemies actually have weaknesses to certain abilities, so the combat looks like it’s a bit more than “you have different abilities but they all do interchangeable damage.” I can’t remember the depth of combat in the first game, so I don’t remember if that’s standard.

All of the collectibles are back (figments, baggage tags, etc). I’m not sure how I feel about the figments. I guess if they do a good job of scattering them around and making it fun to navigate around and collect them it’ll be fine, otherwise it’ll just be a chore.

Initially I found that the writing is good. It retains the subtler, drier humor of the first game, in contrast to something more over-the-top like Portal. Characters all feel like they have unique personalities and aren’t just one-note joke machines you find in other shittier games trying to be funny.

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Galactic Civilizations III: Crusade Expansion Notes!

The official wiki hasn’t updated, unless there’s a special Crusade wiki somewhere, so let me help you with the almost entirely new rules (as compared to the game in 2016).

The teaser trailer for the expansion!

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Infinite Space III: Sea of Stars (PC)

Infinite Space III: Sea of Stars

I’ll admit my bias right off the bat, the original Strange Adventures in Infinite Space was the title that started my love of indie gaming. A Star Trek inspired coffee break game that had you illegally exploring the cloud nebula as its first human representative, (for better or often worse), grabbing everything not nailed down then delivering it all to your mob boss patron for fame and fortune. The sequel Weird Worlds was more of the same but better, yet retaining many flaws from the original. Then FTL came out and was a worldwide sensation. Years later this third iteration was finally released to middling response in a post-FTL market.

Which is a damn shame because not only is the third the best of the series, its innovations elevate it to the point of… I’ll put it this way, what King’s Bounty is to the Heroes of Might and Magic games, Infinite Space III is to the Sword of the Stars games (The 4X originals).

The game takes place on a 3D map of space where you have 25 years to explore all the star systems of the cloud nebula by moving in straight lines from star-to-star, avoiding nebula clouds that will slow (most) star drives to a crawl, and grabbing as much loot as possible before the time limit… and maybe saving humanity from certain destruction along the way. All finished in 30 minutes or less! Some veterans of the series complained about the switch to 3D, but I love it; you no longer get trapped in a corner by nebula clouds like you could in the 2D games, and navigating a single fleet in 3D is a piece of cake compared to ordering around an entire 3D space empire in SotS.

Your ship is fully modular, letting your replace your weapons, shield, FTL drive, impulse drive, and many other systems with higher-tech alien equipment you find on your journey. On the way you might pick up or hire alien ships to add to your fleet, including fighter-craft. Unlike the earlier games, the world is alive in IS3. Alien fleets move from star-to-star and if you arrive in a system when two enemy fleets are there, you have the option of allying with one to team up against the other. As time goes on in your 25 year mission, the technology level of the nebula increases (indicated by announcements from home of a new ship class available) and if you reach an alien homeworld with a ship of that species in your flotilla, you can upgrade it to a higher class with more weapon hardpoints and potentially new abilities (like upgrading to a Garthan light carrier with its unlimited hangar of disposable fighter-craft). PROTIP: You only need one corvette or survey-class ship in your fleet to get the full cargo space bonus.

Combat in this game happens in pauseable realtime in a 2D circular combat arena whose size is based on the number of fleets taking part and their respective weapon ranges. Unlike earlier games, you can warp in individual ships where you want when you want, so Urluquai-style pincer maneuvers are totally doable for the player at last. Once on the map, ships autofire their weapons at whatever is in range, each hardpoint having a different visible firing arc, and you can maneuver them by dragging a path. Fighter-craft make strafing runs based on their own AI, but you can specify their target ship. And its worth noting that while capital ships suffer permadeath, if you win a battle any fightercraft of yours that died can be recovered and repaired afterward.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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!

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Mischief Maker