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“Heaven is Furnished by IKEA:” A Look Inside Indie Dev Mecca Spelkollektivet

In the Swedish countryside lies a tranquil place where indie game developers can leave life’s worries behind to work on their games. Now Spelkollektivet has the Scholarship Program to host developers for free.

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Spelkollektivet exterior

In the Swedish countryside lies the sleepy town of Väckelsång, just a few miles from one of the country’s many lakes. Located in the middle of the woods and with a population of only about 900, life there is peaceful. Thanks to Spelkollektivet and its Scholarship Program, it’s also joyous. This initiative grants three teams of indie developers a free two-month stay at an indie game commune designed to give devs a place to relax and work on their games.

Beginning in late 2019 with open submissions that led to a selection process, it was the fans who ultimately voted for the three winners. This monumental step for Spelkollektivet marked the first time they were able to open their doors to residents for a free extended stay. However, the history of the Swedish commune stretches back further than this program.

What is Spelkollektivet?

Spelkollektivet (meaning “Game Collective”) is a co-working and co-living habitat for indie game developers. There, they can work on their games together in peace without having to worry about a high cost-of-living. Anyone wanting to stay pays around 450€ per month (about $489) or around 112€ per week (about $121). That gets devs a furnished bedroom, utilities, three meals a day, unlimited internet access, a workstation, TV rooms for chilling out, a place to do the laundry, and even a gym. Developers only have to pay for travel and bring their own equipment.

“The first ideas were written down in 2014. We moved into the first house Q1 2017 but officially we started on the 1st of September 2017,” James Newnorth, founder of the commune told us.

James Newnorth, founder of Spelkollektivet
James Newnorth teaching a class at Spelkollektivet.

Newnorth, New Ideas

In an industry full of interesting individuals, you won’t find many like James. He got their start as an indie developer at the age of 11, working on small games during their spare time. “I released an MMO back in 2002, but professionally I mainly worked with software development,” Newnorth said. The MMO, called Magnatorm, performed well for its time. But after the server went down when his computer died, there are few traces of it left on the internet.

The passion for game development never left James, though, even as he worked in software. As he grew older, he gradually made friends in the Swedish indie games scene. A lot of them were having the same problem, and they told Newnorth about it. That’s what led to Spelkollektivet.

“I had a lot of friends trying to make it as indie developers, and one by one they went insane or gave up due to financial pressure. We were all living in a big city, alone, with a bigger apartment than we actually needed. We could have saved a lot of money by joining up together in one apartment.”

Turning an Idea Into Reality

It’s a simple idea: Friends with common interests and goals work together to further their dreams and save a few bucks. Yet, it’s not an idea that’s easy to achieve. This isn’t necessarily the communist utopia or cult some may think it is. Nonetheless, in a video on Spelkollektivet’s YouTube channel, former resident and developer Simone Mändl said many indie developers she spoke to think “This is a cult!” when they first hear of it.

450€ a month isn’t a lot of money to run an apartment complex, so Newnorth needs other sources of income. “We receive a lot of help from the municipality, but no money or any other support from the upper government,” Newnorth says. “Right now a lot of the funding is based upon me doing consultancy work on the side.”

But that’s not the only source of Spelkollektivet’s income.

Spelkollektivet the Publisher

In the past, Spelkollektivet helped produce games like Croco Baby Transmission, Ord, and Gekraxel, the latter of which was the first published officially by Spelkollektivet, and co-developed by Newnorth. But lately, Spelkollektivet and Newnorth have been getting into the publishing game.

Exterior of Spelkollektivet
Spelkollektivet.

Publishing games is both another source of income for the commune and another way to help developers. Those who sign up for the publisher program get “free accommodation during the development plus extra for support after release, and hands-on help with programming, graphics, etc.” Developers also get marketing support and a 50/50 split without recoup (so from day 1 they get money from their sales, something most publishers don’t do). And if another publisher offers a better deal, Newnorth would be willing to be bought out or give up a majority of his split.

An Idea Blossoming to Life

According to Newnorth, Spelkollektivet was a success out of the gate. Convincing a bunch of game developers to come and live in a small schoolhouse in the Swedish countryside might sound like a big ask, but that hasn’t been the case. Within two days of opening their doors, they had enough bookings to last two years.

It says a lot about how far the idea has come that Newnorth could start the Spelkollektivet Scholarship Program, where three teams of indie developers get to spend two months there free while receiving the same benefits as everyone else. The winners only need to pay for travel and bring their own computer equipment.

One of those winners, is the team at Blueprint Games, a small studio working on musical 3D platformer Billie Bust Up. “I first learned of their scholarship program through a promotional tweet. I got extremely excited at the opportunity of living and spending time with other developers,” says Katie Nelson, creator of Billie Bust Up. “Spelkollektivet seemed like the solution to the repetitive grind I have been experiencing for the past 4 years after graduation.”

Billie Bust Up, a musical 3D Platformer
Billie Bust Up, currently under development at Spelkollektivet by Katie Nelson and Blueprint Games.

Placeholder Games – the team working on the soon-to-release Death and Taxes – is another winner. “I thought that it was an exciting opportunity and a bit ‘too good to be true,’ but at that time I was still a student and didn’t have any money so I put off the idea of moving here on the side for some time,” Leene Künnap of Placeholder Games said.

His teammate, Ott “Oak” Madis, agrees. “It was definitely a surprise that we got it, because we basically entered at the last minute. It was also a very tight race and, admittedly, we did put a lot of time into it after we entered the application.”

Life at Spelkollektivet

The beginnings of Spelkollektivet were much humbler than they are now. The first iteration of Spelkollektivet wasn’t at Väckelsång, nor was it a large, beautiful home. “It was located in Fridafors; an even smaller town located 30 minutes from the new house. It was a wooden school building built in 1910 something; and it was unfortunately too small. With only 700sqm we could only fit up to 12 people there.”

Newnorth enjoys their new location, saying “It’s amazing. The neighbours are amazing, [and there are] a lot of non-profit activities happening all the time to keep people active and happy.”

“It felt like home and we knew right away that we wanted to stay for longer and started thinking about how to manage it so that we could make our stay longer than [the three] months that we first booked,” says Madis, describing the feeling of first arriving. What’s so special about Spelkollektivet that would make a team of developers want to completely change their plan to stay longer?

“The people, the food, the nature here… amazing. Really happy about how the bedrooms look, too. Really minimalistic black and white furniture. Heaven is furnished by IKEA.”

Katie Nelson has similar thoughts. “It was a bit overwhelming at first!” she admits. When she first arrived, the commune was holding one of its many game jams, allowing extra people to stay (some for free) while they hurried to complete their work. “However, I got a strong sense of how wonderful everyone in this house truly is. I sat down in the dining room and was instantly approached by several developers eager to introduce themselves and chat. After the game jam ended, it started to calm down and I felt a lot more relaxed and instantly at home with everyone.”

A Sense of Community

A sense of community was the biggest takeaway from these interviews. Developers who resided at Spelkollektivet for any amount of time feel lucky they could go, not just for the low cost-of-living, but for the friends they made while there. “On top of the games stuff it was just very fun living there,” says Annika Maar, who lived at Spelkollektivet in 2019 while she worked on School Wars!!, a comedic RPG set in a high school where the rich kids and underdogs are at war. “Having a lot of creative like-minded people around is just amazing – and you always have enough friends around for karaoke or playing games.”

And should any guests misbehave or not do their work? “We talk to them to make sure it won’t happen again,” says Newnorth, “…and if it does we cancel the contract and they must leave.”

Spelkollektivet’s Impact on the Games

Packing up your belongings and moving to Sweden for an extended period is something only the most dedicated indie developers would do. Chances are, they’re also the most experienced, and being around those who have been around the block awhile is always a valuable thing.

“I got a lot of feedback for the art and game design from the super talented people that were staying at the time,” Marr says. “I also learned a lot about the business side of games and without this I wouldn’t be applying for funding and trying to find investors now.”

Aside from feedback, Annika Maar found even more at Spelkollektivet. During her time there in 2019, she picked up a new team member in Joni Levinkind, who she met at Spelkollektivet. “We hit it off right away and became close friends super quickly,” Maar said. “He’s insanely talented and very passionate about the project and I’m 100% confident that together we can deliver an awesome game.” Levinkind would later join the School Wars!! team as a programmer.

Nowhere Prophet is a deck-building strategy game, partially developed at Spelkollektivet.

Another attendant in 2019 was Martin Nerurkar, creative director on last year’s Nowhere Prophet. Nerurkar was in a very different and difficult place from Annika Maar when he arrived at Spelkollektivet.

“Initially I thought I’d be done with Nowhere Prophet by [the time I got to Spelkollektivet] so that this would be a calmer time where I could do some aftercare on the game. However that didn’t quite pan out that way,” Nerurkar lamented. “Nowhere Prophet was delayed into July and so instead of having a lot of time to chill out I was still working on the game.”

It was Nerurkar’s time at Spelkollektivet that allowed him to settle down and try new things. He felt the game was in a solid place, so it was the perfect time to innovate–specifically with the game’s crucial equipment system. “It was always okay, but I wanted to see if it could get better and so the idea for Powers was prototyped and implemented. That didn’t make it less stressful, but it was super valuable to have other devs close by to give it a look and to provide feedback.”

That kind of communal feedback and interaction isn’t something a lone developer or team can get on their own.

Easing the Burden

Making indie games is both easier and harder than ever. It’s easier because there are more tools to make games – tools that are themselves easier to use – and more places to release games. There are also more opportunities to market games thanks to social media and popular influencers on YouTube and Twitch. And if the self-publishing route isn’t for you, there are a bevy of indie-focused publishers out there now too like Devolver Digital or Chucklefish.

A typical, single bed room at Spelkollektivet
A standard, single bed room at Spelkollektivet.

But it’s also more difficult for those same reasons. The accessibility of indie game development means more developers, which in turn means more competition. More and more video games come out every year, and storefronts like Steam and Itch.io are flooded with mediocre titles. With that kind of quantity, trying to stand out can be like screaming in a crowded room.

It’s difficult to quantify the benefit of a place like Spelkollektivet for indie developers, but the anecdotal evidence speaks for itself. Those who spent any time there insist it helped, growing them as developers and improving their games. Networks are also being formed, which is an essential part of game development on any level.

The Spelkollektivet Scholarship Program

Conceived by Newnorth, the program is a way to open Spelkollektivet’s doors to more creators.

“We thought we would have a very low amount of residents in February-March, and since people is the best part about Spelkollektivet, we figured we should give out some free spots here during those months,” says Newnorth. “This would help people who otherwise might not afford to come here, and it would help us keep the house warm and nice. We did however have a lot more bookings than expected, so now we’re more or less fully booked.”

Developers at Spelkollektivet hard at work
Spelkollektivet indie developers hard at work.

Beginning in late 2019, the application process was as simple as filling out a form. Hopeful developers had to email Newnorth with what they wanted to achieve during their stay. From there, applicants went through an interview process and were asked about their goals and what they were working on. This led to a group of nine finalists, where a public vote would decide the three winners.

The vote took place in late November and early December. After tallying over 1,000 votes, the three winners were announced on December 2nd: Blueprint Games, Placeholder Games, and Twisted Ramble Games (currently working on 2D puzzle platformer Duru). They began their two-month stay in the Swedish countryside on February 1st, and their final day will be March 31st.

“I was shaking when I heard we got through,” says Nelson. Before departing, she shared her feelings of optimism and nervousness. “I had gotten quite excited after hearing we’d made the first round and naturally the more I heard about Spelkollektivet the more I wanted to go. Although I’m quite nervous about leaving my family for two months, I think it will be worth it!”

The Past and Future of Spelkollektivet

Annika Maar says her team is currently looking to secure funding for School Wars!! “It’s looking really good and I can’t believe I’m so close to living the dream of working on this full time!”

Developers at Spelkollektivet enjoying a meal together
Developers at Spelkollektivet enjoying a meal together.

As for Martin Nerurkar, who spent five years working on Nowhere Prophet, he’s ready for a change. He plans on starting a travel project called Way Lost later this year. He’ll give up his apartment and travel the world in 2020, staying with friends, making new ones along the way, and creating new games when he can. “Spelkollektivet was definitely part of the decision-making [process] for that,” Nerurkar says. “In fact, after coming back from Spelkollektivet I felt energized – so much so that I decided to spend a month in Vienna last year, working from there!”

Both plan on going back to Spelkollektivet soon, if not this year. And that’s why the future of the little commune in the middle of the woods looks a lot like its past. So many former and current residents want to go back, and when they get there, they don’t want to leave. Newnorth tells us they’ve got residents who have been there for two years now.

What’s Next for the Scholarship Winners?

Like Annika Maar and Martin Nerurkar, Blueprint and Placeholder have different reasons for attending. Death and Taxes releases February 20th, and Placeholder Games is focusing on putting on the finishing touches and laying the groundwork for their next game. Blueprint Games, meanwhile, is still early in the development of Billie Bust Up. They expect to finish pre-production and have a vertical slice ready for a Kickstarter campaign down the line.

Speaking of Death and Taxes, Newnorth is excited for the game, as it’s one he personally helped get the ball rolling for. “I was on the team for a game jam, in which we won quite a bit of funding…I’m not part of the team developing the game now, but they are staying in the house making the game.”

Exterior view of Spelkollektivet

For now, the teams at Placeholder and Blueprint (as well as Twisted Ramble) are settling in. Ahead of them, they have the arduous task of making a video game to look forward to. But the opportunity and excitement are not lost on them.

“Everything about it felt right,” says Oak Madis. “Took about a week to settle in, and after that it was smooth sailing. It’s full of like-minded people who are approachable and friendly, and anything we needed help with – it wasn’t a problem. It’s… home.”

“It was more magical than I could have ever imagined, I was expecting it to be good but not THAT good,” says Katie Nelson. “They started a bonfire and we roasted marshmallows as fellow homies jammed together on the guitar and recorder, playing multiple songs from famous games. It almost felt like I’d known these people my whole life, and I belonged.”

“It’s Not For Everyone”

James hopes to make Spelkollektivet free to every developer someday in the future. But they also have bigger plans. Their ultimate goal is “To make [Spelkollektivet] a place where people can consider living the rest of their lives, and start a family.”

“It’s not for everyone,” Newnorth closes, “but it’s great for those who want it just like this.”

Josh Griffiths is a video game journalist and critic, video producer, and writer hailing from the gaming wasteland of South Carolina. He has a passion for indie games, dogs, and David Hayter. You can find him on his personal YouTube channel, Triple Eye.

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Games

‘Oracle of Seasons’: A Game Boy Color Classic

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Oracle of Seasons

“It is an endless cycle of life… the changing seasons!”

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages & Oracle of Seasons are very much two halves of the same grand adventure, but they’re both worth examining on their own merits. Seasons in particular brings with it quite an interesting history. The game that would eventually become Oracle of Seasons began life as a remake of the original Legend of Zelda. This remake would be accompanied by five other games– a remake of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and four original titles– all developed for the Game Boy Color. These games would not be developed by Nintendo themselves, but by Flagship– a subsidiary of Capcom that was also funded in part by Nintendo and Sega.

These six games would eventually be trimmed into a trilogy slated to release in the summer, autumn, & winter of 2000, before settling as a duology that would launch simultaneously in 2001. Where Oracle of Ages was the sole survivor of the four original games, Oracle of Seasons was a brand new game morphed out of the Zelda 1 remake. Considering director Hidemaro Fujibayashi’s own reflection on Flagship’s Zelda proposal, much of what would define Seasons was always present;

 “The core of the game was pretty much decided. That is to say, the fact that it would be on the Game Boy Color, the use of the four seasons, and the decision to retain the feel of the 2D Zelda games. It was also decided that it would be a series.”

Not only was this remake never intended to be a standalone entry, it would kick start its own sub-series while featuring seasons at the forefront of the gameplay. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto likewise asked Fujibayashi to pen a new story for the original Legend of Zelda, suggesting a fairly comprehensive remake as the end goal. With so many inherent changes, however, The Hyrule Fantasy ended up leaving the region altogether. 

“I believe the Zelda series really only started to have scenarios after the hardware specifications improved. The original Zelda was a pure action-RPG and didn’t have much of a story to begin with. I wanted to combine both those aspects (action-RPG and an actual scenario) this time around. At first, we’d only planned on creating a game one-tenth the size of the final version. But it just kept growing as development progressed and gradually turned into an original game.” 
– Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Director/Planner/Scenario Writer

Oracle of Seasons takes after Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask by setting itself away from Hyrule– the kingdom only ever shown during the opening cinematic. Holodrum has one of the densest worlds in a 2D Zelda game, if not the densest after A Link to the Past & A Link Between Worlds. A kingdom geographically similar to Hyrule as seen in the original Legend of Zelda, Holodrum has its own northern mountainside, a final dungeon in the northwest corner, and dozens of old men hidden amongst the land. This all makes sense since Seasons is rooted in a remake of the first game, but it isn’t as if Holodrum is without its novelties. 

Holodrum is distinct from Hyrule where it counts. The kingdom itself is quite large, sprawling when compared directly to Koholint Island. Progression often feels like a puzzle, especially when working around roadblocks early on. Holodrum’s four seasons are out of order, with the weather changing on the fly between regions. Link has to work around snow banks, overgrown trees, flooded fields, and petrified flora to overcome Holodrum’s chaos. As easy as it is to get side tracked in the vast kingdom, it’s only because there always tends to be something around the corner. Getting lost isn’t a problem when the overworld is so secret heavy. 

Old men are frequently found hiding under trees, actually giving players a reason to burn them on sight now, but new systems are in place to make exploration even more rewarding. Link will come across patches of soft soil throughout Holodrum where he can plant Gasha Seeds. Owing their name to gashapon– Japanese capsule toys not too dissimilar to blind bag toys– Gasha Seeds grow into Gasha Trees which bear Gasha Nuts after Link has defeated 40 enemies. Gasha Nut contents are randomized, but they incentivize players to return to previously explored areas. 

Not everything a Gasha Nut drops is worth the effort of chopping down 40 enemies– the worst being five regular hearts and a sole fairy– but the best rewards make it all worthwhile. While the Heart Piece tied to the Nut is probably the best overall get, Gasha Seeds naturally feed into the Ring system. Rings add an inherent RPG layer to the Oracle duology’s gameplay, offering the earliest instance of genuine player customization in the Zelda franchise. Rings, like Gasha Nuts, are completely random. Link will find many in his travels, but he needs to appraise them at Vasu’s ring shop in Horon Village before they can be used. Except in a few rare instances, Vasu’s appraisals are randomized.

There are 64 rings altogether between Seasons and Ages, all with varying effects. Which rings Link obtains can influence how players go about their game. RNG also ensures that each new playthrough is unique from the last. While this poses an obvious frustration for any completionists, it’s a fantastic way of adding another layer of replay value to an already fairly replayable experience. The Expert’s Ring allows Link to punch enemies if he unequips his weapons, the Charge Ring speeds up the Spin Attack, and the Protection Ring makes it so Link always takes one Heart of damage when attacked.

With so many rings to choose from, the gameplay is kept in balance by Link’s Ring Box. Once appraised, Link can equip his rings into his box. While he can only equip one initially, players can find a Box upgrade on Goron Mountain. With RNG already influencing which rings Link has access to, it’s unlikely two players will have the exact same experience in Oracle of Seasons– rings offering more personalization than is still usual for Zelda. Besides Gasha Nuts, Rings can be found in the overworld and dropped by Maple, a young witch who makes further use of RNG. 

Maple is Syrup’s apprentice, the recurring witch who runs the potion shop in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening. Riding in on her broomstick, Maple will appear after Link has killed 30 enemies. Should players bump into her, both Link & Maple will drop their treasures, prompting Maple to race the player for them. It’s almost always worthwhile to focus on what Maple’s dropped rather than what Link lost. Not only does Maple drop her own unique set of rings, she’s a convenient way of getting potions early on and will eventually drop a Heart Piece. Maple also gets progressively faster, upgrading her flying broomstick to a vacuum after enough altercations.

So much RNG can be off-putting, but Holodrum is such an extensive overworld that randomness isn’t much of an issue. Gasha Seeds drive exploration and Maple’s appearances reward it. These systems also encourage players to fight enemies head-on rather than avoid them when it’s convenient. If gameplay ever feels more involved in Oracle of Seasons than the average Zelda game, that’s because it is. This goes double when taking the very seasons into account. 

The four seasons influence overworld progression significantly and most non-dungeon puzzles center on Link using the Rod of Seasons to restore seasonal order to whatever region he’s in. Most of these puzzles solve themselves since seasons can only be changed on stumps, but concessions need to be made when an overworld features four unique versions of every region. Incredible use of the Game Boy Color’s hardware helps in this regard as well. The handheld was designed with making in-game colors pop and Oracle of Seasons– as an extremely late-life GBC game– stands out as one of the most vibrant titles in the system’s library. 

Each season has its own defining color palette– blue for winter, red for summer, green for spring, yellow for autumn– but there is always a wide range of colors on-screen. Winter matches its light blue with shades of white & gray; spring features an almost pastel color tone where gold & pink flowers bloom against soft shades of green; summer deepens most colors for a bolder effect; and autumn offsets its yellow with orange, red, and in some instances purple. Oracle of Seasons might very well have the best atmosphere on the Game Boy Color, each season stylized & recognizable with their own distinct tones. It’s a phenomenal presentation that outdoes OoS’ contemporaries. Seasons outright has better art direction than most early GBA games. 

The fact Oracle of Seasons commits to its premise in such a large overworld as strictly as it does is praiseworthy, but it’s even more impressive that there’s another world lurking underneath Holodrum. Subrosia is a bizarre underworld, easily the most eclectic setting in the franchise other than Termina (and in many respects more so.) Subrosians are culturally impolite, bathe in lava, and deal in Ore instead of Rupees. The Subrosian Market undersells a Heart Piece, volcanic eruptions are a welcome norm, and Link will be moving between Holodrum & Subrosia multiple times over the course of his journey. Players can even go on a date with a Subrosian girl, Rosa, that’s a clear play on his date with Marin from Link’s Awakening. Subrosia is so alien that it’s hard not to love every moment beneath Holodrum.

Beyond the four seasons and the dichotomy between Holodrum & Subrosia, what differentiates Oracle of Seasons most from Oracle of Ages is its focus on action. Seasons is a puzzle heavy game, but it lets combat drive the gameplay more often than not with a very action-centric tool kit. The Slingshot makes its 2D debut, replacing the Bow in the process, but its 250 seed capacity outdoes any of Link’s quivers. Its upgraded version, the Hyper Slingshot, even fires in three directions at once. The Roc’s Feather returns from Link’s Awakening to once again make jumping an important part of Link’s mobility. Not only is platforming far more frequent this time around– with the Ancient Ruins featuring quite a bit of jumping for a 2D dungeon– it upgrades into the Roc’s Cape which allows Link to glide.

The Boomerang now upgrades into a guided Magical Boomerang which players can control themselves; the Magnetic Gloves are ostensibly a better version of the Hookshot which can pull Link to & from magnetic sources, along with magnetizing certain baddies; and most enemies are designed with a combination of the sword & shield in mind. Oracle of Ages has its fair share of action as well, but not with quite the same focus as Oracle of Seasons.

In general, Seasons is a focused video game in the best ways possible. OoS always gives players a general direction to go in, but otherwise leaves Link to his own devices. There are little to no interruptions, and the gameplay loop emphasizes freedom in spite of the game’s linearity. There’s always something to do and you’re always making progress, whether that be narratively or checking in on some Gasha Nuts. The pace is perfectly suited for handheld gaming and quick burst play sessions. Only have a few minutes to play? Kill some enemies to trigger Maple. Got some time? Scope out the next dungeon and work towards saving Holodrum. 

There are also a number of side quests to round off gameplay. The main trading sequence ends with Link finding the Noble Sword in Holodrum’s Lost Woods; players can forge an Iron Shield in Subrosia by smelting red and blue ore together & bringing the refined ore to the Subrosian smithy; and Golden Beasts roam Holodrum, each appearing during a different season & in a set region. Once all four are defeated, Link can find an old man north of Horon Village who will give him the Red Ring– a ring which doubles the Sword’s attack at no expense to the player. 

All these side quests are worthwhile, especially since Oracle of Seasons is a bit on the tougher side when it comes to difficulty. Dungeons are very fast-paced, full of puzzles that are often deceptively simple. Dungeon items are used in increasingly clever ways, from traversing over bottomless pits with strategic use of the Magnetic Gloves to using the Hyper Slingshot to activate three statues at once. Notably, most bosses in Seasons are actually remixes of boss fights from the first Legend of Zelda

Aquamentus, Dodongo, Gohma, Digdogger, Manhandla, and Gleeok all return with a vengeance. Gleeok in particular puts up a serious fight, forcing Link on the offensive. Not only do players need to be quick enough to slice off Gleeok’s two heads before they can attack themselves back on, the dragon will persist as a skeleton for round 2. Explorer’s Crypt is a difficult enough dungeon where getting to the boss room with full health isn’t a guarantee, so Gleeok offers a surprising but welcome challenge as a result. 

Oracle of Seasons deserves a bit of credit for having one of the harder final bosses in the series, as well. Onox doesn’t have much in the way of personality, but he’s a tough boss to put down. His second form requires Link to use the Spin Attack to deal damage while making sure he doesn’t hit Din in the process, and Onox’s dragon form is a gauntlet of dodging, jumping, & surviving long enough to finally kill the General of Darkness. Players are bound to die once or twice, but the final dungeon is short enough where getting back to Onox takes no time at all. 

If Oracle of Seasons has one glaring flaw, however, it’s the story. The script reads like a massive step back coming off the heels of Link’s Awakening, Ocarina of Time, and especially Majora’s Mask. Link is summoned to aid the Oracle Din, already a seasoned hero and implied to be the same Link from A Link to the Past, but very little time is spent fleshing out Din as a character & giving players a reason to care about her. Her role is more akin to Zelda in A Link to the Past than Marin in Link’s Awakening. Similarly, Onox is an undercooked villain who shows up to kidnap Din and does nothing for the rest of the story. Of course, this light story stems from Seasons’ origin as a remake of The Legend of Zelda

Early press of the game– when it was still going by the name Acorn of the Tree of Mystery– indicates that the story was originally set in Hyrule and the seasons went out of order when Ganon kidnapped Princess Zelda, the guardian of both the Triforce of Power & the four seasons. Hyrule was changed to Holodrum, Ganon became Onox, Zelda turned to Din, and the eight fragments of the Triforce presumably became the eight Essences of Nature. While underwhelming, the plot’s structure if nothing else makes sense. 

It’s worth pointing out that Oracle of Seasons seems to recognize that story is its weakness and lets the gameplay drive the experience. Unlike Oracle of Ages which takes its plot seriously and has a clear thematic arc, Seasons really is just a remix of Zelda 1’s plot. Which is perfect for the kind of game OoS ultimately is: a fast-paced, action-packed adventure through an ever-changing world. When played as a precursor to Ages instead of its ending, Seasons’ story comes off comparatively better. The stakes aren’t that high or defined, but that’s more than okay for the first half of an adventure that spans two full-length games. 

In a departure for the franchise, Oracle of Seasons actually features a proper post-game, marking the first time any Zelda acknowledges that the main threat is over. NPCs will comment on how they haven’t seen Link in a while, the weather has stabilized as spring has set in Holodrum, and you’re free to wrap up any side quests left unfinished. This is especially noteworthy because players can link their progress from Seasons over into Ages and transfer any rings they have on hand. 

An epilogue makes for a charming send-off to one of the most charming games on the Game Boy Color. Oracle of Seasons underwent a strange development, intended to be little more than a suped-up remake of the original Legend of Zelda. Instead, Flagship ended up developing one of the finest games on the GBC– a vibrant adventure filled with personality and some of the best action on the handheld. Oracle of Seasons isn’t just one half of a greater game; it’s a classic Zelda in its own right.

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Games

PAX Online: ’30XX’ and ‘Cris Tales’

Our coverage of PAX Online continues with a Mega Man-inspired roguelike and a charming, time-hopping RPG adventure.

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30XX and Cris Tales

Our coverage of PAX Online continues with a Mega Man-inspired roguelike and a charming, time-hopping RPG adventure.

30XX

30XX

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and Steam
Release: TBA

I’ve already given some of my thoughts on 30XX back when I took it for a spin at PAX East. To catch those who didn’t see that report up to speed, 30XX is a 2D side-scrolling roguelike with a hi-bit art style and gameplay reminiscent of many Mega Man games. It’s generally more forgiving than Mega Man in the sense that there’s a distinct lack of instant-death spikes and pits, but the tradeoff is that when you do die that’s the end and you have to start the whole game over from the start. Classic roguelike rules for ya.

This PAX Online demo was very similar to the one I played at East. I chose between the blaster Nina or swordsman Ace then I went on my merry way throughout the two levels. One key difference is that I did not start out with any specials this time around and my maximum health was much lower. This is probably in-line with what it would be like to start a new game completely fresh as opposed to some upgrades as the East demo had. As a result, I actually failed my first attempt at this demo.

That’s where the first additional aspect of this build came into play, though, in the form of global character progression. Beating bosses in 30XX not only grants you a new weapon ability but also a currency called Memoria. Memoria can be spent at a shop in-between playthroughs to obtain permanent upgrades for Nina and Ace for every subsequent attempt. The pickings were rather slim for the demo, such as increased health and energy, but a wider variety is promised for the full release, and if anything it’s exceptionally clear how useful they’ll be to fully clear the game’s ten planned stages in one go. I also await the inevitable “no upgrade” runs that will assuredly come out of this, though.

30XX

The other neat addition to this demo is Entropy conditions, which are essentially modifiers. You can make it to where shop items cost more Nut currency to purchase per run, impose a time limit, and/or increase the amount of HP enemies have. Enabling these options also increases rewards gained from runs, adding a nice risk vs. reward factor that will probably keep things engaging even after you master the game’s earlier stages. More Entropy conditions are promised to be added into the full game that will allow you to fine-tune your experience even further.

The one concern I have for 30XX at this point is the number of dead ends I encountered with no reward to show for it. This is probably a result of the procedurally generated nature of the game, but the number of times I thought I was so clever for platforming up to a hard-to-reach area only to be greeted by a wall was more than I cared for. This is the “30XX Very Pre-Alpha Demo”, though, so it’s a flaw that can still be fixed in future development and with everything else that is being done right so far — the tight platforming, varied progression, and delightful aesthetics — it’s not hard to be hopeful for 30XX‘s future.

Cris Tales

Cris Tales

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Steam, and Stadia
Release: Nov 17th, 2020

I went into the Cris Tales demo after hearing nothing but its name in passing here and there. After finishing the demo, I’d recommend you do the same. If you’re a fan of turn-based RPG’s just download the demo and see it for yourself.

Cris Tales managed to constantly surprise and delight me throughout the entirety of its 45-minute long demo, firstly being the visuals. Playing through the game is like watching stained-glass art come to life with its hyper-stylized character designs that emphasize general shapes rather than specific details and environments chock-full of geometrical sharp edges. I was in awe from the word “Go”.

The story follows Crisbell, a chipper young orphan girl who spends her time happily doing chores for the orphanage and her dearest Mother Superior. After chasing a dapper young frog to a church, Crisbell inadvertently awakens the powers of Time Crystals hosed there and gains the power to see both the past and future at the same time. This manifests as the screen fractures into thirds with the left side showing the past, the middle the present, and the right the future at all times.

It was a trick that took a minute or two to register with me, but once it did I immediately set about traipsing all about the town I had just chased the frog through in order to see how it has and will change. It was a positively fascinating experience that put a big stupid grin on my face the entire time.

Crisbell can use this knowledge of that past and future to make decisions in the present such as locating a missing potion label or creating a concoction that will prevent wood from rotting and leading to dilapidated houses. Choosing which house to restore is also an irreversible choice that will lead to different outcomes depending.

Cris Tales

Time manipulation also plays a major part in Cris Tales‘ turn-based combat in extremely novel and creative ways. Enemies attack Crisbell and co from both the left and the right, and you can attack them with your standard RPG basic attacks and skills. Enemies on the left side, however, can be forcibly sent to the past while enemies on the right to the future by expending Crystal Points. This means reverting a big brawny goblin into a harmless little child or aging it into an elder that can barely move.

That’s not all, though. Douse an armored enemy in water then send them to the future to cause it to rust and shatter their defense. Poison an enemy that has already been sent to the past then brings them back to the present to force them to take all that poison damage at once. Plant a damaging mandragora that would normally take a few turns to sprout then send it to the future to cause it to sprout instantly. These are the examples demonstrated in the demo but it’s abundantly clear that this is only the tip of the creative iceberg. It’s genuinely thrilling to imagine all the possibilities such a system is capable of. The best part is that we won’t have to wait long to find out as Cris Tales launches on all major platforms in just two months.

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Game Reviews

‘AVICII Invector Encore Edition’ Review: Rhythm and Melancholy

‘AVICII Invector: Encore Edition’ is a music and rhythm game perfect for newcomers and fans of the genre.

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AVICII Invector Encore Edition Review

Developer: Hello There Games | Publisher: Wired Productions | Genre:  Rhythm | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch


In terms of a pure adrenaline rush, nothing tops a well-designed rhythm game. Good rhythm games let players feel a euphoric sense of flow and even excitement. But the best the genre has to offer taps into the heart of music itself. AVICII Invector Encore Edition is a rhythm game perfect for newcomers to the genre but also works as a moving tribute.

I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start

Whether it’s tapping buttons in time with the beat, smashing feet on a dance pad, or moving an entire body in front of an IR camera, rhythm and music games have always been popular. AVICII Invector Encore Edition takes inspiration from music games that came before it but stands firmly on its own. It’s wonderfully accessible, truly a music game for anyone. From diehard fans of the rhythm game genre to people who are simply AVICII fans who also have a console, Invector checks a lot of boxes.

Levels across AVICII Invector play largely the same. The player picks a track and a difficulty level, and is off to the races. They control a slick spaceship moving forward along a track, and must tap or hold buttons as the ship passes over them. This “falling jewel” style has been popular from the Guitar Hero franchise and beyond, but Invector finds ways to make it feel unique. The art direction is breathtakingly stellar, taking players on far-out trips through cyberpunk-esque cities and crumbling pathways. There are even portions of each level where the player can steer their spaceship Star Fox-style through rings and around pillars to keep their point multiplier up.

Invector feels like it’s trying to affect as many sensory inputs as it can. Though Encore Edition is fully playable on handheld mode on Switch, Invector shines brightest on a big screen with a thumping sound system. The neighbors might get annoyed, but who would hear them complaining?

Tracks are divided up by worlds, with four to five tracks each. Worlds must be cleared sequentially, by scoring at least seventy-five percent on each level in that world. While this may sound initially restrictive, Encore Edition gives players access to two extra worlds with five tracks each right out of the gate, so players have plenty to play with at the start.

There are three difficulties available, and each mode offers a different experience. For players who just want to experience AVICII’s music in a low-stress way while enjoying amazing visuals and ambiance, Easy mode is the way to play. Anything above that amps the difficulty up significantly, with Hard mode escalating the required precision to an unbelievable degree. Building up a competitive high score can only be achieved by hitting multipliers and keeping a streak going. At higher difficulties, Invector feels challenging but exhilarating. Scoring above ninety percent on any difficulty mode above Easy feels extremely good, and the online leaderboards are the perfect place to boast about that achievement. During high level play, earning a high score feels transcendent.

Worlds and levels are strung together with brief, lightly-animated cutscenes. It’s a slim justification for a rhythm game, but they’re better than nothing and provide just enough context to keep things interesting. AVICII Invector is both visually and aurally pleasing, but even if the player isn’t a diehard fan of EDM or House music, there is plenty to love.

This world can seem cold and grey
But you and I are here today
And we won’t fade into darkness

AVICII Invector is a truly fantastic rhythm game. But it’s also more than that. It is impossible to play Invector and not feel a twinge of melancholy. The game is a tribute to a hard-working perfectionist, but the man behind the music had his demons. Though the visuals are enticing and the gameplay electric, it is difficult not to feel sad from the opening credits. It is to Invector‘s credit that all throughout, the game feels like a joyful celebration of Tim Bergling’s music. It is a worthy tribute to a man who revitalized and reinvigorated the EDM and House music scene.

At the end of the day, almost every aspect of AVICII Invector reflects a desire to connect. For players connected to the internet, global leaderboards are a great opportunity to share high scores. Invector is much more forgiving than Thumper or Rez or even anything in the Hatsune Miku catalog. Players can cruise through this game on Easy mode if they want, and they won’t be punished. The Encore Edition even includes a split-screen multiplayer, which is fantastically fun.

In his music, Bergling worked across genres to expand what pop music could look like. With Invector, music lovers and players of nearly any skill level can have a pleasing experience. In video games, that’s rare, and it should be celebrated.

According to publisher Wired Productions’ website, all music royalties from AVICII Invector Encore Edition will support suicide awareness through the Tim Bergling Foundation.

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