Month: February 2019

Hundreds

Hundreds

Hundreds is probably the best mobile game I’ve played, which is absurd, because I played the Android version, whose final 2014 update caused unavoidable crashing beyond level 60-something (out of 100). I could list the exact ramifications and internal arguments that inform my overall opinion, but the gist is that, prior to that cut-off point (and presumably after it on iOS), this game was wall-to-wall quality, and I regret nothing about its purchase.

Realized through stunning minimalism, Hundreds is built, like many classic puzzle games, on a strangely compelling mechanic that doesn’t really click until you get it in your hands. Pressing numbered circles to inflate their total size to 100 without overlapping doesn’t sound special, but when those circles bounce around amid a variety of clever patterns and objects, it becomes completely engrossing. These tools and obstacles include sawblades, object-freezing snowflakes, and circles featuring pause buttons, negative numbers, and tethers, among other things. All of these mechanics work together with excellent use of a multitouch interface to create a stimulating experience for both sides of the brain. Touches and time used to complete each level are recorded, which seems like a missed opportunity for some kind of challenge mode, and there’s a small cryptology subgame that’s totally pointless, but those are my only complaints – crashing issues aside.

Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge is the best type of game – one that uses a solid template as a jumping-off point for a host of crazy ideas. The template in this case is Metroid, and the crazy ideas include weaponizing in-universe glitches, phasing through walls, and exploring caves with a rifle-mounted drill. It should be an amazing nostalgic love letter, but seemingly everything that makes it awesome has a caveat attached to it. There are over a dozen weapons, but none of them are remotely balanced. The aesthetics are a nearly flawless NES recreation, but that means the environments are a pixelated jumble and the audio is unbearably screechy. The controls are excellent, except for the later movement abilities, which all handle terribly.

Much has been made of Thomas Happ’s one-man development effort, and with good reason: he clearly knows what makes this genre tick. Between the setting and the enemies, I haven’t seen a game world feel so completely alien since the last Metroid Prime. Between that and the meaty challenge (excepting some uneven boss fights), this 8-bit side-scroller can be uncommonly frightening. The one sector where Happ should definitely do some outsourcing is storytelling, however. After an intriguing first half, the plot abruptly implodes, with nonsensical twists involving every imaginable sci-fi cliché. It’s possible this was meant as another layer of homage, because it’s the kind of stream-of-consciousness schlock that informed 80s video games. In that case, mission accomplished, unfortunately.

Kirby’s Dream Course

Kirby’s Dream Course

A contender for most underappreciated game ever, Kirby’s Dream Course is usually described as a Kirby golf game, but it’s more accurate to call it a full Kirby game that happens to incorporate golf mechanics. That’s an important distinction, because it makes Dream Course a complete, rewarding, and original title instead of a branded reskin of an existing product. A variety of terrain effects and unusual takes on the protagonist’s copy abilities make the single-player content here an unexpected treat. The level design in particular is sublime; the copy abilities that often ruin the structure of these games are deliberately laid out here to allow the execution of satisfying chain reactions.

Remarkably, Dream Course would be perfectly serviceable even if it was just a straight golf title. The presentation is clean, the audio is enjoyable, and the physics are far more manageable than the more complex 3D systems of today. This makes it possible to consistently pull off impressive shots but leaves enough unpredictability to prevent mechanical repetition. There’s also a surprisingly full-featured two-player mode that adds power- and point-stealing mechanics, inviting the kind of wacky fun you don’t normally get from turn-based gameplay. The controls can be a little confusing (it’s an isometric SNES game after all), and the lone boss fight at the finale is pathetic, but overall, this experiment paid off handsomely.

Night in the Woods

Night in the Woods

I want to like Night in the Woods a lot more than I do. It’s basically Persona with all the anime sucked out, which should be the bee’s knees. Its story and characters are exceptionally well-written and memorable, not to mention unexpectedly topical (cosmic horror elements notwithstanding). It’s frequently hilarious, but it also understands when to get serious in order to grab our attention or make a point. It’s got a unique atmosphere that sways between pleasantly familiar, wistfully reminiscent, and decidedly creepy. Even its aimless, minimal gameplay avoids the trap of feeling token and instead reinforces the slice-of-life tone.

The problem is how inaccessible a lot of this quality is. Navigating the setting feels like a chore in every sense of the word. Slow player movement and inconvenient level design provide an inherently boring baseline, and an incredibly arbitrary distinction between foreground and background sprinkle a touch of frustration on top. Most problematically, the game’s system of missable daily character events demands the development of rigorous travel patterns, turning most of the experience into a veiled checklist. There’s definitely something special to Night in the Woods, but it’s going to make you work to appreciate it.