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A Tribute to Retro Gaming

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The entertainment industry is a race. In an ever-evolving world of technology, developers and designers all want to be the first to release an evolutionary idea. The good news is that the successes are innumerable! Plenty of new introductions have become springboards for the next generation of consoles, genres, and franchises. But do today’s releases draw players farther and farther away from their origins? If that’s the case, why should we be worried when games nowadays are so much more advanced than before? Depending on who’s being asked, the answer to these questions can be staggeringly different. While innovative tech and newer gameplay mechanics are always exciting, it never hurts to remember that change isn’t always progress. That isn’t to say we should avoid change, of course. But with the release of special editions, HD remasters, and single-disc anthologies, it’s easy to see the industry’s reliance on its roots.

A huge example of that is the longevity of several classic franchises. These series boast video game characters with longer lifespans than many of the players who control them—Mario, Link, Samus, Kirby, all big names that kids today will recognize just as well as the 40-year-olds who played them on the NES. But here’s the real kicker: the newest games involving those characters are far from the most popular. No video game developer actively tries to create a game inferior to an older one, and yet it happens pretty often. That isn’t to depreciate their efforts of course; it’s just the reality of the field. There’s an immense difficulty that comes with taking a renowned game and recreating its strengths in a next-gen package that’s also different enough to feel new. This is arguably an even greater feat than creating something from scratch, but so many video game studios take this route because the payoff is equally significant, catering to an existing fan base while improving upon an already-successful formula. It’s kind of a risky move. They have a responsibility to maintain tradition alongside the new ideas that provide the game an adherence to the expectations of today. All things considered, the market is absolutely littered with sequels, some successful and some disappointing. I can think of one example that falls into both categories, successful in its execution but disappointing because of its nonexistent third iteration (I’m talking to you, Valve). But the continued fixation on existing franchises is proof that even one of the most rapidly evolving industries in the world knows there’s a time to stick with the old school.

double-dragon-4-logo-attack-of-the-fanboy

That time, however, is not always. The importance of innovation cannot be overstated in the video game world and sometimes we just have to move on. Holding onto the past can undoubtedly be detrimental (as evidenced by the release of Double Dragon IV last month), but it’s worth mentioning that progress in video games has one key difference from other areas of study. The general ideas behind advancement revolve around effectiveness and efficiency. A breakthrough is made when the end result is accomplished with a more effective and/or efficient method than before. But players and developers alike realize that effectiveness and efficiency aren’t what define a good game when it comes to the experience itself. In fact, some would argue that the exact opposite is true. From Borderlands to Dishonored, there are plenty of franchises out there that reward getting distracted by exploration. Powering straight through to the end credits isn’t nearly as satisfying as taking the inefficient route, engaging in activities that do nothing to advance the story. Video games don’t evolve by making conflict resolution more efficient, but rather more engaging, and there’s no concrete formula for doing so. Sure, there are fundamentals to abide by. Coherent storytelling, diverse gameplay, and smooth animations never hurt. But executing them in a complementary way is easier said than done, especially when staying true to components that already exist.

The idea here is that the words “newer” and “better” are almost never used interchangeably, and this is exactly how it should be. The video game industry amazes millions of consumers worldwide with its growing complexity and innovation. But what’s even more impressive is its ability to be one of the most rapidly changing markets in the world while maintaining a foothold in the outdated, but still remarkably enjoyable remnants of the past. What other product niche has the ability to repurpose a piece of tech from the ‘80s and sell it next to today’s merchandise? I’m not the only one reliving childhood memories with the NES Classic Edition and it’s a great reminder that retro gaming is still just as fun as it was three decades ago. Everyone should look to the future, but that doesn’t mean forgetting the past. Lucky for us, the gaming community is easily capable of doing so.

Andrew has always been a pretty avid conversationalist. Talkative as a child and even more so as an adult, he's always sharing his experiences and indulging in the stories of others. His favorite conversations are about worlds far more interesting than his own, so he plays video games and watches television series to step into as many as he can.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’

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PAX South

This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.

Tunic

Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.

Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.

All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.

Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.

Foregone

Foregone

These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”

Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.

If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.

And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.

The Artful Escape

Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.

As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.

It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.

This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.

For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.

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PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love

A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

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Boyfriend Dungeon

In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.

Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.

There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.

“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

Boyfriend Dungeon

My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.

“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.

The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Boyfriend Dungeon

I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”

Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”

After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.  

Boyfriend Dungeon

Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”

Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.

An arcade environment

“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice, they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”

The overarching story and general experience remain relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”

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‘Sayonara Wild Hearts’ is the Rhythm Game of a Lifetime

Few Rhythm games can boast the sheer strength and variety of gameplay and stellar soundtrack that Sayonara Wild Hearts offers the player.

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Sayonara Wild Hearts

Rhythm games can sometimes be a dicy prospect. As well populated as the genre is, the possible variety in musical style, required skill set and game length can make it hard to parse whether a rhythm game will be a good fit for an individual player. With that in mind, few rhythm games nail all of these attributes as perfectly as Sayonara Wild Hearts does.

A neon-drenched fever dream of a game, Sayonara Wild Hearts tasks the player with driving, flying and sailing through an increasingly elaborate world of giant robots, sword battles and laser fights. In this ethereal plain you battle other wild hearts as you seek solace from a broken heart and navigate around the obstacles of each course.

Though this may already sound very gnarly, or even radical, if you will, what really makes Sayonara Wild Hearts work so well is the diversity of of its levels. Some stages will see you weaving in and out of traffic while dodging oncoming street cars and the like, while others will see you navigating a ship across storm drenched waters or working your way through a retro inspired shooter. There’s even a first person level that calls to mind old school PC classics like Descent

Sayonara Wild Hearts

It’s really something to see so much variety packed into a game that it nearly defies classification as a result. Few games can offer the depth and breadth of gameplay that Sayonara Wild Hearts does, and that’s part of its enduring charm.

Of course, a rhythm game is only as good as its soundtrack. Luckily Sayonara Wild Hearts soars in this regard as well. The soundtrack contains pulse-pounding beats by Daniel Olsén and Jonathan Eng, with dreamy pop vocals by Linnea Olsson. Inspired by the likes of Sia and Chvrches, the killer soundscape of the game will keep you powering through time and again in hopes of attaining the ever elusive perfect run. A rank system and collectibles keep things interesting as well.

The unique look of the game is another feather in its cap. Pulsing neon lights pump to the beat while pinks, purples and blues color the world around you in a unique 1980’s dance club aesthetic. All of the elements coalesce together to make a game that looks and feels like nothing else you’ve ever played.

Sayonara Wild Hearts

As mentioned at the top, sometimes rhythm games live or die based on their difficulty and accessibility. Fortunately Sayonara Wild Hearts manages to nail this aspect of gaming too. All you need to do to pass a level is get a Bronze ranking, which is attainable even for those of low skill sets. My 5 and 6 year old daughters were able to beat several of the levels, even some of the harder ones. Better still, less skilled players can skip the more challenging areas of the later levels with a prompt that comes up automatically when a player fails three times in a row.

With a stellar attention to all of the aspects that make for a successful rhythm game, Sayonara Wild Hearts is the rhythm game of a lifetime. Destined to be listed among the best games of 2019, and in the company of the best rhythm games of all time, Sayonara Wild Hearts is revolutionary entry into the genre and one of the best indies to come along in years.

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