Level Design: Kid Icarus

I have been playing some games lately and I have noticed that a lot of observations I tend to do on aspects like level design often cannot find space in a reasonably sized “review”. Since I do not have anything particularly better to do and I found the button on the emulator that allows me to take screenshots, I have decided that from time to time I will write some long form-article-thingy where I go through random observations about a game’s level design.

Kid Icarus (Hikari Shinwa: Parutena no Kagami in Japan) is a platform game directed by Satoru Okada (Metroid, Super Mario Land). It was released in 1986 for the Famicom Disc System and later in the 1987 for the western NES. Its core gameplay mainly consists in controlling the young angel Pit in a 2D environment, jumping from platform to platform while avoiding and killing enemies with a bow and arrow (which have a relatively short range but are not tied to any kind of ammo resource). Killing enemies will grant Pit two kind of resources: points (which are assigned at the end of each level) and hearts (which are picked up and stay on screen for a limited amount of time), the former will be used to upgrade Pit’s health (the starting health allows him to take seven hits before dying), while the latter can be used to buy items in a series of in-game shops.

The most interesting part of the game is how the vertical scrolling is used as a way to keep a constant level of difficulty. As the player moves upwards the screen will follow him and therefore move lower platforms out of view. As the screen will never scroll downwards, falling below the screen will result in immediate death, regardless of what platform was in the “out of view” part of the screen. While there is some frustration in the fact that falling will immediately kill the player, regardless of his health level, this is a quite elegant way to build reasonably “full” and traversable level, while still keeping a good degree of platforming challenge.


Don't Buy Metal Gear Solid V. Play a Game Instead

Metal Gear Solid V, the latest instalment in a franchise that between spinoffs, remakes and prequels counts about 927 games*, has finally been released. Do you know how do I know that it has been released? Because no one on the internet will shut the fuck up about it.

To be honest, this piece is not really about Metal Gear Solid V. Let’s face it, this annoying wave of media hype happens every month, to a degree that I will assume no one is even surprised about it anymore.


Darkest Dungeon

Set in a fantasy rendition of the Lovecraftian mythos, Darkest Dungeon is yet another Kickstarter game to finally hit Steam in its “Early Access” form. As I already mentioned in a previous post, approaching a game published under Steam’s “Early Access” program is something that inevitably ends up feeling a bit awkward. While changes between the “Early Access” product and the final release rarely alter the design in particularly deep ways, the implication that what we are playing is still a “draft”, a work in progress, is enough to muddle any critical way the game could be approached through. That’s why, while writing about Darkest Dungeon, I take a bit of solace in this passage from the early access “warning” on the Steam page for the game

“How is the full version planned to differ from the Early Access version? For the full release, we are planning to add more dungeon environments (one of which is the Darkest Dungeon), more character classes, story mode completion, additional monsters, items, quirks, narration, and dialogue. We also have reserved some time to add other new features and make changes based upon player feedback!”

While the concept of “player feedback changes” is still looming up there, the Early Access seems to be focusing just on adding content, meaning that I can safely write about anything that’s not “lack of content” while being reasonably sure that what I write won’t become outdated in two weeks (which I admit, is also a bit hypocritical on my part, "I really hope this game I didn't quite like doesn't get reworked into something that I can appreciate more, so that my shitty writing about it can remain relevant").


The 10 Best Games I Have Played In 2014

As the existence of this post proves, the obsessive side of my personality always drove me to have a soft spot for the acts of cataloguing and making lists. That's exactly why, when the end of the years gets near, I give up everything productive that I could be doing and instead start playing all the games that I missed during the rest of the year. The goal is simple: being able to list all my favourite games of the year in an orderly and popularly accepted matter, meaning a yearly top ten.

This year I surprisingly ended up playing almost everything that has been released, missing only Wolfenstein: The New Order and Assassin's Creed Unity amongst the major releases (and while I hear great things of the former, I doubt I would have ever appreciated the latter, having been bored with the franchise since Assassin's Creed 2), and having played basically every indie with lots of "buzz" around (plus a handful of hidden gems). Naturally "playing everything" is a utopian concept, but this year I feel pretty satisfied with my "playing habits".

Talking about things I feel satisfied with, this year has actually been pretty cool for games (and I'm wilfully ignoring all the toxicity stemming from stuff like gamergate, because, putting it bluntly, fuck them). We had a bunch of pretty decent "triple A" games like Alien: Isolation and Dragon Age: Inquisition, some flawed works that show lots of potential like Shovel Knight and Gods Will Be Watching, and generally a lot of really good stuff. I'd say that it was a year with lots of "pretty good" games, but without any kind of "excellence", but then there's my "game of the year" that disproves that claim in any kind of way. So... yeah, lots of good games.

Now before we start, some ground rules (because, as games teach us, rules are FUN):
  •  I use European release dates to determine what came out in 2014
  •  I don't consider portings and "HD editions" as new releases (Ryse, for example, is still a 2013 game for me, despite coming on PC in 2014)
  • I consider episodic game to come out in the year in which their last episode is released (And that's why Kentucky Route Zero is not on the list)
  • No early access games (apart from Crypt of the Necrodancer, but I have reasons! I swear!)


The Evil Within

Shinji Mikami’s directorial path in the last couple of decades has been an interesting one. What most people remember him for is the original Resident Evil, a game that arguably influenced pretty much every horror game released afterwards. He then passed years obsessively trying to make a new and improved version of that original game (Dino Crisis, Resident Evil’s remake), just to then finally embrace its naiveties with the huge b-movie self-parody that was Resident Evil 4. Now, four years since his last game (the completely insane action-shooter Vanquish) he now comes back to the scene with The Evil Within (Psychobreak in Japan), which he states will be his last game as director.


Dinner Date: Subverting The Tropes of Mainstream Videogame Interaction

Dinner Date Start

This is an essay I wrote a couple of years ago for the Game Design course I'm attending at Brunel University.

Dinner Date, developed by Stout Games (the company founded and headed by game designer Jeroen D. Stout), is an IGF nominated short game that tries to approach the video game medium from a different standpoint, with a structure that has more in common with play-writing that with most mainstream games (Stout, 2011a). The game was released in 2010 through digital distribution channels (although it arrived on Steam only in 2011) and received mixed reaction from audience and critics alike (Metacritic, 2013), with most criticism focusing on the extremely uncommon interactive formula used by Stout's work. Quoting from gamezone.com:
“As an intellectual experiment, Dinner Date is interesting and even profound. [...] As a game, it barely qualifies.”(GameZone, 2011)
Naturally we're not here to argue such a line of thought, that seems a constant through most of the "critics" that approached Dinner Date. Instead my goal here is to analyse the game's meticulous subversion of the formal and ludic elements common in mainstream video games that caused such a reaction.



This is an essay I wrote a couple of years ago for the Game Design course I'm attending at Brunel University.

Windosill is a short game released in 2009 through digital distribution channels by web-artist and painter Patrick Smith (usually known as Vectorpark). Windosill's aim is to inspire in the player a child-like wonder and sense of discovery (Smith, 2009), presenting him with an interactive world made by a series of rooms that can be progressed by resolving very simple point-and-click puzzles. However, those puzzle, while being the core element of the "gameplay", are not Windosill's main interactive focus. In fact the game is much more oriented on immersing the player in its abstract world. This aim is reflected by the puzzle design that, if on one hand is very simplistic, on the other forces the player to explore the environments and to interact with every element that he can see, since the abstract nature of the game makes it practically impossible to quickly resolve the puzzles on the first try. The absence of the need for complex reasoning is also another element that helps the player focusing on enjoying the world and the experience (Juul, 2007).


Gods Will Be Watching

Gods Will Be Watching Logo

A remake of the homonymous game developed by Deconstructeam for Ludum Dare 26, Gods Will Be Watching is director Jordi Del Paco’s first attempt at a “full” release (his ludography with Deconstructeam previously consisted only of small freeware projects). The game was funded through a successful indeGoGo campaign, which grossed more than 20.000 euros, and found a distribution partner in Devolver Digital, carrier of most of the “high-profile” indie games released in the last couple of years.

Gods Will Be Watching is at its basic a sci-fi thriller that borrows heavily from the more “conceptual” kind of sci-fi of the sixties and seventies (Philip K. Dick is the first comparison that comes to mind). Just like that kind of literary science fiction the game is short, minimalistic and extremely to the point, not losing itself in too many “cinematic” deviations and building its mood and narrative prevalently through its interactive architecture.


Divinity: Original Sin

Divinity Original Sin Logo Title

In the last year the rise of Kickstarter brought to us what I could only define as an “Isometric rpg renaissance”, if not in quality (which is hard to define since most of the games are still in development) at least in quantity. Thanks to the huge quantity of “old school gamers” attracted by the promise of re-living the games of their youth, projects like Wasteland 2 and Pillars of Eternity were able to be funded with impressive budgets. It’s exactly from this wave of crowfunded nostalgia that Divinity: Original Sin, the latest game by counter-culture rpg director Swen Vincke, comes from.

While Vincke’s love for classic isometric rpg has never been a secret, Divinity: Original Sin is his first attempt at a “pure” example in the genre. Where Divine Divinity was more akin to a Diablo-style hack and slash and Divinity II took an action-oriented, almost Gothic-esque, route, Divinity: Original Sin’s inspiration comes quite clearly from the Ultima series, particularly, as stated by the same Vincke in his blog, from Ultima VII.


On Early Access and Criticism

What is Steam Early Access

A couple of days ago the rhythm-based custom music-driven action roguelike Crypt of the Necrodancer was released in its alpha state on Steam Early Access. I usually don’t pay much attention to early access releases (I have my share of problems with the type of development that it implies), but Crypt of the Necrodancer had a concept behind that was interesting enough to make me really want to try it.

The game is, in fact, quite good, even in its alpha state. The core mechanic of rhythm-driven grid combat is fun andall of the content is elegantly designed to work with it (unlike games like The Binding of Isaac, whose content is purposefully designed to heavily twist the core gameplay). Even when played with custom music their import algorithm seems to do a decent job in detecting the beat of the tracks.