Home

Hugh Likes Video Games: The Solitaire Conspiracy

Leave a comment

The Solitaire Conspiracy: A Mike Bithell Short
Developed by Bithell Games
Published by Ant Workshop
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: A tense, techno-espionage thrill built from a deck of cards.
Mike Bithell has some brilliant thoughts on game design and post/transhumanism. He’s also known for his tight, compact game design, compressing his point-of-view into tiny games. He made his mark with indie storytelling platformer Thomas Was Alone and cemented it with the robot detective game Subsurface Circular. His recent project The Solitaire Conspiracy mixes intense spy thriller action with an unlikely gameplay mechanic: a game of solitaire.
 Players fill the shoes of Spymaster, an analyst candidate tapped to save a shadowy spy network when a supervillain locks them out of their coordination software, C.A.R.D.S. Working with the last remaining analyst, it’s your job to coordinate scattered spy crews and get everything up and running, but in the world of spycraft, nobody can be trusted. 
 As you play through missions and rank up, you gain access to colorful crews of operatives, each with their own suit and special abilities. Face cards represent not only the faction but individual members of the team, and placing active cards uses their team power. This can be things like shuffling a stack or redistributing a suit or moving a card of a specific value or suit around. They are powerful twists on the game, but in fitting the theme, they can hinder you as much as help.
 The UX is where the game really shines, with the board appearing as a virtual space lit in the slick blacks and scintillating neon of a cyberpunk wonderland. The design made it a bit difficult to read at times, especially playing in handheld mode on the Switch. Fortunately, there is a zoom feature that makes everything a bit bigger and easier to see. The cool sci-fi colors, along with the pounding, synth-filled soundtrack, lends a tension to the game that traditional solitaire lacks. Missions add both flavor and drama to the gameplay. I frequently found myself playing just one more mission to reach the next rank and advance the story, or get the report on a thrilling mission.
 The Solitaire Conspiracy is a masterclass in design and proves that engaging storytelling and slick aesthetics can spice up even the most mundane gameplay mechanics. Like most Bithell games, there are only a few hours of the main story here, but they’re a thrill ride. The Solitaire Conspiracy is available for download from Steam, the Nintendo eShop, and the Xbox game store.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Eastward

Leave a comment

Eastward
Developed by Pixpil
Published by Chucklefish
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: An on-rails sci-fi story presented with a gorgeous pixelated aesthetic
Eastward is a beautifully rendered action RPG in pixelated graphics that doesn’t quite follow through on what it promises but is still a lot of fun. The game follows John and Sam, two refugees from a post-apocalyptic underground village as they travel by train on a quest to save the world and uncover the secrets of Sam’s burgeoning psychic powers. As they steam along, they fight their way through a series of linear, puzzle-filled dungeons and meet a huge cast of charming and wacky characters, but the chapter-based structure and frantic pace made the game feel a bit cramped and rushed.
 The game is broken into chapters, with the duo arriving in a new town, meeting the locals, and solving some dungeons before the plot pushes them back aboard their train to a new locale. The towns are probably the game’s best feature, with creatively designed and gorgeously rendered locations like a city built into the side of a dam and a film studio on rails filled with uplifted apes. Each is depicted with HD pixels in loving detail. The world is filled with faded advertisements and overgrown ruins. It is a testament to environmental design. I just wish I got to spend more time in each area before being pushed ahead. Towns are crammed full of mini-games, sidequests, and unique NPCs to talk to, and I always felt like I didn’t get enough time before being pushed ahead.
 The one mini-game that is always available is Earthborn, an in-world game that is a mix of turn-based RPG and rogue-like presented in a Gameboy aesthetic. It’s charming, and intersects with the story in interesting ways, but is ridiculously difficult.
 Dungeons are more linear than the sprawling towns and feature a mix of puzzle and combat. John has a variety of weapons that he gains over the adventure, starting with his trusty melee frying pan. Sam wields psychic energy to stun enemies or heal, but she can’t attack directly. Combat involves constantly switching between the two to keep hordes of enemies back in order to stay alive. Combat, which uses a Zelda-like formula, is clever, but fighting doesn’t feel as good as the puzzles.
 Eastward is a joy to look at and listen to, even if the gameplay isn’t quite as fun as the production. Still, it is well worth your time. You can pick up a digital copy via Steam or the Nintendo Switch eShop.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Toem

Leave a comment

Toem
Developed by Something We Made
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: A delightful little adventure about photography and community
Toem is a little gem of an indie adventure game about photography and perspective. This comforting little puzzle box is full of puzzles to solve, characters to help, and tiny locations to visit.
 Created by Swedish indie studio Something We Made, Toem only takes a few hours to play but is all about relaxation and comfort. Designed to be played in short bursts, it is the perfect game to wind down with at the end of the day or de-stress to over a coffee break as you take missions tracking down singing goats and finding the perfect spot to photograph a forest hotel.
 The game sets you in the shoes of a young photographer on an adventure to find the Toem, with no further explanation given. The tools at your disposal are your trusty camera and a very unusual public transit system that rewards public service with free rides. The game is divided into five zones, and at the start of each one, you’re given a public service card. As you explore a forest, a city, a seaside resort, and a mountain, you are given puzzles to solve in the form of requests of each area’s inhabitants. These can range from the simple, such as taking a photo of a requested subject, to the obtuse, such as recovering lost items or even restoring a power plant. After each puzzle, you are rewarded with a stamp on your card. Collect the requisite number of stamps, and you’re free to move along to the next area. But completionists will still have plenty of challenges to complete, animals to photograph, and hidden secrets to uncover beyond the game’s forgiving requirements.
 With one notable exception, Toem is presented in a charming black and white art style, and the small, isometric levels have a diorama-like quality. The characters are quirky, and a few of the puzzles are fiendishly clever, but I never felt stuck.
 Toem is a short and cozy experience that is perfect for unwinding by a roaring fire or relaxing with a hot cup of cocoa. If you’re looking for something to chill with at the end of the year, give this game a shot. Toem is available on PC from Steam and Epic, Nintendo Switch, and PS5.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Metroid Dread

Leave a comment

Metroid Dread
Developed by Mercury Steam
Published by Nintendo
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: Samus Aran is back, baby!

My life-long love of the Metroid series began with Metroid II on the clunky, grayscale Game Boy. It was the first video game I bought with my own money, or close enough. I had won a gift card to the mall in a school raffle. I’ve had a soft spot for the taciturn and mysterious bounty hunter ever since. But after the series pivoted into Metroid Prime, I had all but given up hope of seeing a brand-new 2D Metroid. I expected the four games in the series to remain relics of the past, fondly remembered and imitated by indie devs, but a part of history.
I was pleasantly surprised by the announcement of Metroid Dread if a little skeptical. I needn’t have worried, and perhaps should have seen it coming. Created by Mercury Steam, the studio which created the 2017 remake Metroid II: Samus Returns, the fifth game in the series is a return to form.
The gameplay feels much more modern, but still in line with older games. Samus moves with more fluidity and grace than her previous entries, the melee counter returns in a much more satisfying form, and her new slide move is fun to use. She has an agility that feels more akin to her movement in Smash Bros. than Super Metroid. But it works, and it makes exploring this huge new planet a delight. That momentum is also very important for the game’s other new enhancement: Stealth sequences!
Metroid Fusion toyed with the idea of stealth by introducing SA-X, a powerful enemy with all of Samus’s abilities that the player must avoid and hide from in scripted sequences. In Dread, Samus faces off against the E.M.M.I, nigh-indestructible scientific robots out of Boston Dynamics’ worst nightmares. They each have a specific area they patrol, and Samus must avoid and run from them until she can find a way to stop them. Overall, these sequences are a lot of fun but require a level of precision that leads to frustration at times.
This demand for precision also extends to the boss encounters. Bosses are varied and wonderfully gross in their designs. An early encounter has you fighting a big mutant scorpion thing standing on jutting rib bones. Each encounter requires not only precise timing but a keen eye. Each boss has patterns and weaknesses more akin to Zelda’s bosses than Metroid, and each has a melee vulnerability that leads to a sort of quick-time event where they are vulnerable. While these sequences are cool and surprising, the bosses are very tough, and by the time I was facing them over and over again, I was sick of them. It is frustrating when you’re running through a boss for the fifth time because you haven’t fought it in the exact steps the game demands. Earlier game bosses were more tests of the player’s ability to explore and find hidden resources like missiles and energy tanks. Metroid Dread has a much softer focus on exploration.
The game’s zones are wonderfully designed, but the game is filled with one-way doors, drops that Samus can’t go back through without late-game upgrades and hidden pits. I felt a bit herded at times, and discouraged from really exploring at my own pace. While this preserves the game’s momentum and ensures you don’t get too lost, it loses the thrill of exploration for a more guided experience, and this lack of options extends to the game’s controls.
While Metroid Dread gives players a lot of tools to work with, there’s no way to adjust or experiment with your layout. Y shoots, ZL slides, and holding in the left joystick activates the speed boost. When it works, such as with the slide, movement and combat feel fluid and dynamic. When it doesn’t, and with the speed booster in particular, movement becomes a frustrating, emersion-breaking chore. Allowing players to map their buttons, or implementing any sort of accessibility options would have gone a long way to improving the game. The graphics were also gorgeous but occasionally a stumbling block for me. Metroid Dread looks fantastic, but it was designed with the OLED Switch in mind. I played it in handheld mode on my original Switch, and while it still looked great, there were a few sections where I wasn’t quite sure what was a foreground element and what was part of the background. I ran into a few literal walls that way, which is just embarrassing for a bounty hunter of Samus’s caliber. 
 Overall, Metroid Dread is a glorious return to 2D form for the series. It still innovates in all the right ways and brings back enough of the classic feel that it gets my hearty recommendation. While I wish it would get out of its own way at some points, it’s Samus’s biggest 2D adventure yet. While it doesn’t quite replace Super Metroid in my heart, this is still a brilliant entry in a series that doesn’t get enough love from Nintendo. This game is a Switch essential.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Dragon Quest II

Leave a comment

Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line
Published by Square Enix
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny – A flawed but still-fun classic

Last week, Dragon Quest celebrated its 35th-anniversary last week, and I have been playing through the second entry in the venerable series to celebrate. While the game has a lot of rough edges, the Switch port still largely holds up.
Originally released in 1987 in Japan and 1990 in North America, Dragon Quest II is a continuation and expansion of the original Japanese role-playing game. In the first adventure, a lone knight, who is the descendant of a great hero, saves a kingdom from an evil wizard, who is also a dragon. The sequel picks up the story a century later, with three of that hero’s descendants picking up the family trade and taking out Hargon, a malevolent priest bringing about the end of the world. While this is still a primitive example of a console RPG, it does mark some notable firsts for the genre. The player starts out controlling a single hero, but picks up two companions along the way, making it the first JRPG with a party. Your party doesn’t quite have defined classes per sei, but each character plays a little different, with the Prince of Midenhall playing the role of a warrior with high attack and defense, but no access to magic, while the Princess of Moonbrook can cast powerful spells but can’t wield swords or wear heavy armor. The Prince of Cannock is a bit in the middle, with some access to both.
You also get a boat to explore a wider world, which includes a simplified and smaller version of the world map from Dragon Quest! While there is a pretty big (for the time) world to explore full of towns to visit and dungeons to delve into, the story isn’t very complex by today’s standards. There are plenty of clever secrets and things to uncover, such as a hidden slot machine minigame, but the plot is your basic quest to go find the big bad and put your sword through him.
The Switch port carries on from a long line of ports and remakes that have incrementally improved the game over the years, from the Super Famicom to Game Boy to Wii and up through mobile phones. This is definitely a game that is in no danger of ever going ‘out of print.’ Naturally, the graphics and sound have been upgraded, and the game looks fabulous, with highly detailed and colorful sprites, although there isn’t much animation in the game, with battle scenes still being fought against still images. But even if they don’t animate, Akira Toriyama’s designs really pop in HD. And Koichi Sugiyama’s orchestral score sounds great.
The gameplay is pretty relaxing, with turn-based combat and simple puzzles that are usually resolved by finding the right NPC or using the correct item based on their clues. You don’t always have full control over actions in battle, as enemies appear in groups and you can’t select individual monsters if they’re in a crowd. But the AI has been improved over the years, and the game tends to deal out damage in an optimal way for the player. While the monsters are fun to look at, combat can get pretty repetitive, though. Developers hadn’t quite worked out the curve for adding bosses, and you won’t see very many until the last castle.
The only thing that hasn’t been improved from the original, and is still the biggest drawback, are the dungeons. The towers and caves in the game are long and very maze-like, with lots of frustrating traps that just serve to prolong the game without being much fun. The cave that leads to the final dungeon, in particular, has a set of very nasty trap floors that force you to begin again from the entrance, with random encounters hitting you every few steps. It’s not the most engaging design, and I had to put the game down a couple of times and play something else.
With those drawbacks aside, Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line is a classic that further defined an emerging genre. Plus, it is on sale right now as a part of Dragon Quest’s anniversary, so curious gamers can experience this historic gem for cheap on the Nintendo Switch eshop or IOS and Android app stores.

Hugh Likes Video Games: The Legend of Zelda – Link’s Awakening

Leave a comment

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
Published by Nintendo
Developed by GREZZO
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny – This reoccurring Zelda classic still plays like a dream.

Originally released for the Game Boy in 1993, The Legend of Zelda, Link’s Awakening may be the most revisited game in Nintendo’s catalog. But that isn’t without good reason. in 1998 it received an upgrade for the Game Boy Color, with a bonus dungeon and new functionality for the Game Boy Printer peripheral. A little over twenty years later, a new version for the Nintendo Switch has brought it back again with bright and colorful HD graphics. But how does a Game Boy game hold up over twenty-five years later?
 Pretty well, as it turns out. The story and gameplay are nearly untouched, with the only tweak being the inclusion of dedicated buttons for Link’s sword and shield, with two buttons for selectable tools, which makes better use of the Switch’s controls. The combat is familiar and satisfying. This game plays just as well as it did in the original.
A few new items were added to the game, including a set of Amiibo-like collectibles and bottles, which allow the player to recover inside dungeons. There is also an expert difficulty added for returning players which bulks up enemies and removes heart drops from the game. This more than balances out the difficulty, and made the game a nice challenge.
The added GB Printer sections have been removed, which is disappointing because even if the printer wasn’t available, the cutscenes for obtaining them were still fun to discover in the GB Color version. In its place is a new minigame that allows players to make and complete their own dungeons based on chambers in the game. This is a fun little diversion, but without the ability to design chambers yourself, it feels a little insubstantial. The minigames from the original GB release, a fishing minigame, a raft obstacle course, and a UFO catcher, have been expanded and improved. I usually skip the fishing in Zelda games, but this one was a lot of fun.
Link’s Awakening has always been one of the stranger games in the series, with the titular hero washing up on a mysterious island and being thrust into its mysteries. The remake keeps the story intact, while also give a shiny toy-like aesthetic to the graphics. The game preserves the aspect of the original game with the update, which means that the action is a bit more zoomed out, giving a preview of what would be on the next ‘screen’ in the original version. Overall, I feel this is a good choice, and it helps reinforce the new diorama-like feel of the world.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a definitive edition of a stone-cold classic. Switch owners shouldn’t sleep on this bite-sized adventure.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Hyrule Warriors – Age of Calamity

1 Comment

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
Developed by Omega Force
Published by Nintendo
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: Breath of the Wild: The Champions’ Jukebox Musical

The follow-up to 2014’s Hyrule Warrirors, Age of Calamity rejects that game’s franchise-spanning scope to focus on the cataclysmic events that led up to Switch smash-hit The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The result is a story-focused game that refines the mechanics of the first game and delivers a high-stakes epic. While the -Warriors games have become a showcase for various tie-in properties, the series started out as an adaptation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and AoC brings the game back to its mythical epic roots. Also, there’s time travel.
The game is a lot of fun to play, and the smaller roster of characters feels really well tuned. This isn’t a game where you pick your favorite and main them through the whole campaign. Players are encouraged to keep characters leveled, and to play with all of them. And there are very few ‘bad’ characters in the game. Combat is intuitive and fun, and everyone gets their opportunity to smash wave after wave of monsters.
Age of Calamity also does an excellent job of incorporating the engine and mechanics from Breath of the Wild. The music and sound effects bring the world of Hyrule to life, and it was almost comforting to be back in a world of paragliding, hunting for koroks, and dodging and countering giant Lynel sword-swipes again. But this gets into the flaw inherent to these nostalgia-driven -Warriors titles. Evoking a beloved, and in most cases better game makes me want to play that one instead of the one I’m in. Stomping whole armies of moblins in the Divine Beasts is great fun, but I’m getting a real craving to load up Breath of the Wild and sneak up on them with bomb arrows instead. Ultimately, a spin-off is always beholden to its parent property, and unable to surpass it.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is army-destroying fun in a charming, familiar world. While it evokes the spirit of Breath of the Wild without quite delivering on it, it is still a great time. It is available now for the Nintendo Switch.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Kunai

Leave a comment

Kunai
Developed by: TurtleBlaze
Published by: The Arcade Crew
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: Ninja Robot Tablet Action

In the distant future, a lone robot awakens to save mankind from the AI Apocalypse. With an energy draining sword and an emoji-displaying tablet for a head, he sets out to save the small band of human resistance fighters, along with the rest of the world.
While its story is a bit thin, Kunai delivers a pleasant and fast-paced Metroidvania experience. In addition to the aforementioned sword, a variety of upgradable guns are also at your disposal as you traverse a variety of technology-infused forests, floating mountains, and futuristic cities. You travel on foot, with the ubiquitous double jumps, and with the games’s eponymous standout feature, the kunai, a pair of grappling hook-like knives that allow you to scale walls and swing along ceilings with ease. The game gives you a huge amount of freedom early in the game, delightfully disrupting the traditional gameplay loop of unreachable ledges and unjumpable pits. The controls are fun and intuitive, letting the player navigate quickly and easily.The game is presented in a faux gameboy pixel art style, with grayscale backgrounds. Enemies are painted red, while Tabby and his allies are blue. While it doesn’t have the flash of Ori and the Blind Forest or Hollow Knight, the sprites are easy to see, and charmingly designed. Backgrounds are surprisingly detailed and cleverly imagined.
The game rarely slows down, except in a few sections which involve navigating courses consisting of hazards like bottomless pits and rooms full of spikes. These parts of the game feel separate, and a bit archaic. Fortunately, they are quite close to save sections, and the game gives a Super Meat Boy try try again feel.
While Kunai doesn’t have the narrative weight or graphical artistry of some of the bigger Metroidvania titles, it is a fun and fast-pace game with plenty of charm, and is well worth your time. It is available on PC from Steam or on the Nintendo Switch from the Nintendo eShop.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Mr. Driller: Drill Land

Leave a comment

Mr.Driller: Drill Land
Published by Bandai Namco Games
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny – Want to feel old? This is what Dig Dug looks like now.

Mr. Driller: Drill Land is an odd little puzzle game originally only released in Japan on the Game Cube in 2002. It received a digital rerelease in North America this year on the Nintendo Swith and PC. A mix of candy-colored puzzle game and old-school arcade style, the Mr. Driller series is a sort of sequel to the arcade hit Dig Dug. Placing the player in control of a little character drilling through colorful rock strata. Blocks of the same color will stick together and disappear once they’ve reached a certain size. The goal of the game is to drill down to a goal depth without getting squashed by destabilized blocks or running out of air, which continually ticks down.
Drill Land introduces further tweaks into the formula, while presenting the five different game modes as different attractions in an underground drilling-themed amusement park. By and large, these different modes are challenging, but clever. One has players attempting to gather treasure and avoid traps in an Indiana Jones pastiche that came out well in advance of Spelunky. Another mode has you fighting ghosts ini a Castlevania-esque Haunted house. There is also a brightly animated story mode that draws heavily on the same Astroboy tropes as Megaman, but doesn’t get too much in the way of the puzzle gameplay.
The game’s visuals are cute with a polished cartoon aesthetic, and being an early 2000’s Namco game, the soundtrack, composed by Go Shiina, is a breezy, jazz-inflected delight. The Switch release features the option to play with the original setting, or a more ‘casual’ difficulty setting. I picked the original, and despite the visuals and story, it is merciless.
Mr. Driller: Drill Land is an overlooked oddity from a venerable game studio. it’s a perfect stress-free puzzle game to chill out to, if you don’t mind a bit of a challenge. It is available for PC via Steam, and for Nintendo Switch via the eshop, where it’s currently on sale.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Super Mario 35

Leave a comment

Super Mario Bros. 35
Published by Nintendo
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: A neat idea, but I hope you like level 1 – 1.

Following on the success of Tetris 99, Super Mario Bros. 35 is a Battle Royale game that pits players against 34 others in a contest to survive the longest on a single life in the original Super Mario Bros. Much like Tetris players simply don’t play simultaneously, but can target other players and send them ‘junk,’ but instead of random lines of blocks, players send defeated enemies into that paths of their rivals.
Players start by voting on a starting level, and can unlock new levels to choose as they progress through the game. But even though there is a vote, every time I’ve played I have started on 1-1. Players get 35 seconds on the timer, and defeating enemies adds more time up to the full 400 seconds in addition to sending them to other players’ screens. Once you finish a level, the game starts you on a new one chosen at random. This isn’t a bad system, but the result is that I have played level 1-1 and 1-2 approximately a hundred times by now, and it’s getting a bit repetitive.
The real magic comes in late in the game, as more and more enemies get traded back and forth between players. 1-1 is old hat, but it is a fun thrill to come out of a warp pipe thinking you’re in a safe place and discover the screen covered in bloopers.
Super Mario Bros. 35 is definitely a new way of looking at a classic, and it encourages tactical thinking rather than just playing to survive or get a high score. It’s available for free from the Nintendo eShop until March, which feels about right to me. It’s a novelty, but worth a few hours of your time to see the game that launched a genre in a new light.

Older Entries