Dinosaur Beach (1971)

dinosaurbeach

A few years ago I was convinced that I didn’t like time-travel stories much, until I read some of the very few good ones, those that really go crazy with the concept and explore all of the weird stuff you can do with it. Dinosaur Beach by Laumer is pretty much in that vain: An agent of the 4th generation of time travelers who has to clean up after previous generations (those who tried to solve problems raised by the first time travelers; and those who had to clean up after them), finds himself side-tracked into a closed, looping timeline and has to find out who is after him and why.

It’s a true tour de force from start to the beginning: Every few pages a new concept is introduced, the story twists into unexpected directions and you wonder how all this will hold together, as it seems Laumer is spinning a yarn by the thinnest of threads. It’s easy to poke holes into most time travel stories, but if a book fully embraces paradoxes and inconsistencies, makes them even part of the overall story, it’s hard not to applaud the author.

There are some weak spots here, especially the hard shift toward the end away from the save-the-romantic-love-interest angle toward something entirely else, but it’s kind of understandable why Laumer did it, and it works (well, depending on where you draw the line on how often an author is allowed to deploy a deus ex machina to get his character out of any situation). Its not just an enjoyable read, but despite being more or less mostly an action-adventure, all the ideas it contain makes it feel much cleverer and smarter.

Crystal Catacombs (2014)

cccover ccombs

Roguelike-like platformer (random levels, harsh difficulty) with a few nods towards metroidvania’s (mostly stuff like unlockable skills like double jump and dash or sticking to walls). Was kickstarted in 2012 and published in 2014. Despite lots of feedback during the beta-phase that jumping and the controls in general were terrible to downright broken, the game creator (foremost a graphic designer) insisted people just had to adapt to its different control scheme and everything was right.

The game got published, the public reaction was decidedly mixed (again mentioning the terrible controls and lots of other stuff like badly designed boss fights) and still nothing had changed. I recently played through it, hoping that the most recent patches had alleviated the worst flaws of the game. Sadly, its just as bad as it has ever been. Wall sliding and jumping are terrible, the main attack is too weak for most enemies even on the lowest difficulty and you can’t hit downward, which is a necessity in lots of situations (which means you have to get hit to move on or search for a time-consuming alternate route).

Also, for an exploration-based platformer (verbatim kickstarter pitch), its either downright hostile towards its audience or just plain stupid to include a timer. This worked in Spelunky (and even there I disliked it), but Crystal Catacombs level design and gameplay is far less sophisticated. Whereupon in Spelunky it forced you to choose between cautious movements and risky actions, in Crystal Catacombs it just forces you to search for the exit as fast as possible and then kill as many critters as possible to get the key for the exit.

Another big problem are the boss fights, which sports lots of one-hit kill attacks and some unexpected one-touch-insta-kill moments from some bosses, which seems rather unsporting in a game that is designed with a HP bar. Games with a one-hit-kill system have to be designed with that in mind, which is different from games where your character is expected to survive a few hits. Changing that approach between levels and boss fights is rather stupid or asshole-ish (take your pick). Also one-hit-kills that come out of nowhere, I think I nearly threw my controller against the wall when the final boss killed me with a unavoidable beam-attack from outside the screen, which just shows had badly the game is designed, though this was probably the worst of those.

The strange thing is, the game looks good, even great on screenshots, even in videos (though when you play the graphics often make it hard to parse what is scenery, deathtrap or enemy). It’s really hard to believe how badly it plays, but be warned, it’s really damn terrible.

Tomorrowland (2015)

tland

Tomorrowland has plot stupidity galore, comes from a place of crass commercialism and yet manages to channel retrograde, old-fashioned future-optimism of the Gernsback-Campbell variant as if it were a current thing and not a dream of the past that has been buried by successive generations of creators with widely disparate visions of how the future would look like.

The Machine (2013)

machine

Slightly smarter looking than most of its competition despite its tiny budget, The Machine sports one of the two AI stories most movies about the subject tell, in this case that of the friendly AI used for nefarious purposes by evil humans (and how the AI discovers its humanity). I like it as a story, but it doesn’t do much interesting beyond using an updated, smarter sounding lingo to spin its yarn.

Ori and the Blind Forest (2015)

ori0 ori1

OatBF is pretty much one of the best surprises for metroidvania-fans in recent years. A highly polished game that seemingly came out of nowhere and that does nearly everything right (nearly, because the PC-versions went unpatched for 2 months, which stopped me and probably a lot of other people from actually playing the game). Gameplay-wise, a lot of reviews agree that it is one of the most refined variations of the genre, even if it doesn’t do anything original.

Not sure I agree there, as the game has some stuff that you won’t find in any other metroidvania or platformer, from the setting (reminiscent of Miyazaki movies) with its entirely nature-derived levels and mostly tech-free mechanisms, the overall feel of the gameplay that allows you to make incredible long and intricate jumps and makes it seem easy (I’m not sure I ever played a game that evokes the same feeling). While at its core a metroidvania, the game has taken some notes from cinematic platformers, especially the highly fluid movement animations. An excellent make-your-own save point system (never seen something like that in any other game) I would like to see crop in other games too.

All that together with a clever progression system where you can upgrade a three-pronged ability tree and also skills you get from various items that allow you to proceed beyond some of the hard-locked areas typical for a metroidvania. Basically the game has some unique new stuff while also following most of the conventions of the genre, all together in a highly polished package that is just a pure joy to play. I wasn’t a big fan of the story per se, but it didn’t bother me much and the core gameplay is just so good that I didn’t mind seeing the occasional superfluous plot-scene.

One thing the game doesn’t have are any real boss fights, you have some minor and easily defeated sub bosses, but nothing major that puts a big obstacle in your way. Instead the game has three slightly more difficult sequences where you’re forced along a certain path without the ability to save. It requires mastery of all the skills acquired up to that point and can be a bit annoying, as finishing these requires a bit of trial and error and memorization of the entire sequence.

It does go against the spirit of metroidvania’s in general, but on the other hand these sequences are never unfair if you’ve learned to use all the abilities to some degree and one you’ve beaten them it gives a high the game rarely offers (which you usually get in much more demanding games, overall Ori is pretty easy). Depending on the player it varies which of these sequences is more difficult, I managed the first two in 2 or 3 tries, but had a problem with the last (because I forgot to use one ability), but overall they should be doable after a few tries for most players.

Cave Story+ (2011)

cs+1 cs+2

I remember playing the original Cave Story when the fan-translation by Aeon Genesis hit the net and it’s easy to see why it became such a hit in the indie space before that was even a thing. A pretty big, highly polished platformer with a big, semi-continuous world , charming visuals and all the compelling rest.

These days I mostly get annoyed when another Top-10-Metroidvania-Games-List lists Cave Story among them, as the game in theory has one large, open world ready to explore, but the narrative effectively forces you along a very linear, highly gated part that doesn’t allow much freedom to explore. More or less some tiny adventure elements grafted onto an excellent platformer, but no way in hell, by any definition (exception is if you’re either stupid or ignorant) a metroidvania game.

That said, I never get annoyed at the game itself and replaying the commercial plus-version brought home just why. The distinct upgrade mechanic for weapons, the enemy design and the excellent boss fight, the overall great level design, the cute characters and engaging story, the difficulty that slowly ramps up from easy to average to hard to hell no. The game has it all and then some.

The added gameplay modes for the plus-version and the various technical improvements (higher resolution, optional soundtracks) are nice-to-haves, but if all you want to do is play the game, the free option is still available and has exactly the same brilliant gameplay as the game you pay for. Overall, whatever version, it’s a great game.

Black Hole Mass Evolution (2014)

blackholemass

I’ve never tried out much grindcore, but if more of the stuff would be like this, then I could definitely see the appeal of the genre, though admittedly I’m not even sure if this is proper grindcore or if it’s just some fusion of various genres, and this mix is what makes Under the Pledge of Secrecy’s first album so appealing. The best analogy for the sound I have is that of an unrelenting, crushing wall of sound (though the sound of their first EP is even more unrelenting), which is pretty great all around. They are on bandcamp, so you can test the album to your hearts content

Blekinge (2010)

blekinge

pretty cool melodic black metal debut album from Istapp, creates a bit of cognitive dissonance between the themes and the very melodic approach (I would have expected more grit and gloom considering the themes)

Sproggiwood (2015)

sproggiwood

First, there were the original roguelikes, a genre of harcore rpgs that build on the foundations of Rogue and its predecessors, using (most of the time) ASCII-graphics and which increasingly grew in complexity until they surpassed every other RPG on the market. Yet only a tiny part of the already diminished rpg-player base actually played and appreciated these games, which were as far away from the commercial markets as possible.

Then the genre was sort of re-discovered by the wider public and simplified (core mechanics) and yet enhanced (graphics) roguelikes like Dungeons of Dredmor showed that these games could attract a bigger player base and “worse”, could actually sell. Then games that were clearly not roguelikes were more and more labelled as such, because, you know, randomness, permadeath, retrographics and so on.

On of these was Rogue Legacy, that managed to have permadeath and yet allowed for character progression (big innovation for me at last, haven’t seen it been done before like that). Instead of XP, you grind for money, with which you buy skills and other enhancements for the overall character template from which your characters are derived, sort of a meta-gaming progression path. Which was okay, I actually loved that game, because the initial difficulty could be alleviated by platformer skills and there was a lot of stuff that could be unlocked by grinding money.

But if you happen to not like the coreplay, then the addictive quality of the game including the endless repition of castle-visits became your typical, boring grind. All that is a roundabout-way of explaining why I disliked Sproggiwood. It actually looks and feels more like a typical 2nd generation roguelike (simplified and with nice graphics), but adapts the meta-gaming component of Rogue Legacy. And while I initially liked the core gameplay, I realized after a few hours with the game, that it lacks Rogue Legacy’s varied enhancements to unlock, which makes progression decidedly less interesting.

Besides a few basic character template updates (more HP, faster EXP gain), most of the outside-of-character progression is based on finding and buying better equipment (which again isn’t all that varied). There’s actually an old-school EXP progression during dungeon trips, but this is reset each time you finish one, which just adds insult to injury, with the limited progression outside of them (and which makes each dungeon visit feel even more grindy).

But the biggest problem is that combat feels more like a puzzle game than typical RPG combat. Enemies hit for the nearly the same amount of damage every time, so the game becomes about avoiding their hits and getting in a position where you strike first most of the time. Second, they always have the same set of movement patterns and once you know them, its all about maneuvering. Which is fun for enemies the first few times you meet them, but after some time, its become grindy fast.

Which is not to say the game can’t be fun for a few hours, but after that I wished either for the meta-gaming progression complexity of Rogue Legacy or for the more-oldschool (if heavily simplified) character progression and build-variety of Dungeons of Dredmor. Instead we get a game that after a certain point has decidedly outstayed its welcome and all you want to do is finish the main story. Unlocking all the other stuff and playing through each dungeon with all characters (who despite some skill differences in their in-dungeon progression paths feel very samey) seems more like a chore than anything else.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

ageofultron

I wasn’t a big fan of the first Avengers movie and the reviews that came out for the newest one seemed to indicate a nice spectacle that overreaches and goes on slightly too long. I’m happy to say that instead of seeing the movie falter, A:AoU improves upon any of the weaknesses of the predecessor and manages to be superior even to the stuff that worked.

The movie has a better villain with a much better motivation (Stark-derived megalomanical AI that shares some of its creators hubris), tight pacing that delivers slow and fast scenes at exactly the right moment, from a strong prologue starting with Hydra and ending with a fight in a small city somewhere in Europe (albeit with mass-scale destruction, the fate of the world in the balance, lots of great fight scenes and the Avengers managing to save most of the people, exactly how you wished heroes would act) and best of all, the interaction of the Avengers themselves comes of as more relaxed and natural than in the first movie, not counting the rising attraction between Banner and Natasha, which was really nicely done.

Overall, unlike the first movie which felt like an overblown epilogue for the first wave of Marvel movies, but didn’t stand all that well on its own and relied on the other movies to provides all the heavy lifting in terms of characterization and content cues, A:AoU characters and content arcs feel more natural and complete and are just more fun to watch in general. And if you’re comic-reader, it’s great to finally see Ultron and Vision (thought I’m not sure I’m a big fan of the Vision’s design, Ultron’s is impeccable).