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The Adventures of Shuggy - XBLA (June 2011), Windows (June 2012)

by John Szczepaniak - May 3, 2013

XBLA Splash Image

There have been numerous platformers released on XBLA. Many implement some kind of experimental new mechanic or idea, and many are hugely successful. We've all heard of them: Braid, Super Meat Boy, Fez, PB Winterbottom, Limbo, and so on. The popularity and publicity of these games is obvious - what is less obvious is why some platformers which adhere to the exact same levels of mechanical and aesthetic excellence remain unknown. Shuggy is a superb title, created by a tiny team, that was sadly overlooked. The tragic saga of its failure was recalled by its head creator, David Johnston, on Gamasutra.

The single goal of every level in Shuggy is gems. Collect the gems to finish the level, move on to the next. Despite this simplicity most levels have wildly diverse conditions and actions, all facilitated via directional controls, jump, and a single context-sensitive "action" button. In some stages there are multiple Shuggy characters to switch between, each working in tandem. Alternatively you may need to rotate the entire stage in 90 degree increments, shrink or enlarge Shuggy to fit through gaps, swing via ropes like Indiana Jones, or in the most bizarre setting, guide tiny Shmu creatures to frozen gems to release them. It's a Quality Street style of design where each stage is slightly different. Despite its eclectic nature, Shuggy still manages to remain coherent, gradually introducing new elements. What's impressive is that many of the ideas could alone warrant an entire game - indeed, the timed levels with Time Cop style avoidance of past selves was seen in Johnston's earlier game, TimeSlip. The rope-swinging levels are also fantastic, with simple but tactile physics underlying them.

The Adventures of Shuggy (X360)

There are five themed worlds, lovingly wrapped up in a story about the eponymous Shuggy (a bat-like creature) inheriting a dilapidated, haunted mansion, and having to return it to functionality. Overlaying this is a rather jazzy soundtrack, like something from a 1930s matinee, perfectly in keeping with the horror motif of the story. Some levels are brutally difficult, others merely tutorials. The level of difficulty varies within each of the five worlds however, allowing for an ingenious style of progression. Levels are represented by locked doors, and completing a level unlocks any adjacent ones, with the goal being to reach the Boss Door in each area. Imagine almost a free-form board game with an indeterminate route to the end. It's a clever system which allows you to work around overly difficult levels, skipping them entirely in favour of easier adjacent ones. It also gives you an incentive to tackle tough levels, since it allows a quicker route to the boss.

There's also local and online multiplayer, offering head-to-head and co-operative challenges. The fact that players can sit around the same TV and play is nice, given the reliance on online multiplayer these days.

Shuggy is a fun puzzle platformer, with an "everything goes" sense of design. There's also a demo available.

Homepage

The Adventures of Shuggy (X360)

Quick Info:

Developer:

Smudged Cat Games

Genre:

Platformer

Type:

Commercial


The Adventures of Shuggy (XBLA)

The Adventures of Shuggy (XBLA)

The Adventures of Shuggy (XBLA)

The Adventures of Shuggy (XBLA)

The Adventures of Shuggy (XBLA)

The Adventures of Shuggy (XBLA)


Dear Esther - Windows, Macintosh (February 14, 2012)

by Sam Derboo - May 10, 2013

Logo

When approached as a game, Dear Esther is bundled frustration. A game all wandering around an abandoned island sounds like a great premise for exploration and wonder, but that's not what Dear Esther is about. The first-person experience begins in front of a light house, with the adjacent hut's door wide open. I walked up to the building burning with anticipation of ascending the tower and enjoying the view, but was soon disappointed by a broken staircase and no means around that obstacle.

But Dear Esther is rarely even that subtle: Before long, one approaches a shipwreck at the beach, the game teasing with the words: "There must be a hole at the bottom of the boat," but approaching it from the water is made impossible by a wall of ankle-high rocks. Dear Esther is not like a stroll over an island, it is like a guided museum tour of some historic site, no touching allowed (there are no means of interaction, no jumping and no climbing) and the most intriguing areas off limits to the public. You can go into the water, but if you try to get anywhere by swimming, the game pretends to drown you and just puts you back at the shore.

Dear Esther (Windows)

Sure, linearity makes sense in the narrative: After all, the protagonist is a broken, dying and potentially insane man, determined on his last pilgrimage, reciting notes from his journals and letters to Esther, which vaguely hint at the tragedy of his life as he goes along. The work does have merit as a media-enhanced epistolary narrative, which is skillfully told despite a somewhat cliché plot underneath, complemented by stunning environments and a dense acoustic atmosphere. Especially the stalactite caves are one of the most beautiful locations ever seen in any video game.

There is one other advantage those caves have above the other areas: The space here is believably and naturally confined, without any of the annoying fake blockades that plague the rest of the island. The lack of traces of civilization also avoids frustrated inquiries like "What's this document I just found in this inconspicuous location?" or "I wish I could have a look in that briefcase the tide has washed onto the island."

Ironically, the game's technical difficulties ultimately showed me the best way to "play" it: Towards the end, my still unbroken explorer spirit got me stuck in between some rocks. The game is supposed to allow restarting at any of the four chapters once they've been reached, but that simply didn't work, so I watched the last fifteen minutes on Youtube. The fact is somewhat depressing, but this non-interactive consumption actually made the experience more enjoyable, without bumping into frustrating obstacles and the tediously slow backtracking from dead ends, which only emphasized that even the greatest audiovisual presentation cannot hide how crucial a role the smell of salty air, the feeling of the breeze and the texture of the ground underneath the feet play in making a walk on a lonely beach an inspiring experience to begin with.

Dear Esther (Windows)

Homepage

Quick Info:

Developer:

thechineseroom

Designer:

Dan Pinchbeck
Robert Briscoe

Genre:

Interactive Novel
Recreation

Theme:

Contemporary: Travel
Immersive Simulation

Type:

Commercial


Dear Esther (Windows)

Dear Esther (Windows)

Dear Esther (Windows)

Dear Esther (Windows)


Of Light & Shadow - Windows, Macintosh (June 11, 2012)

by Gendo Ikari - May 17, 2013

Logo

Dr. Shadow and Mr. Light, while good neighbours, couldn't be more different. When an artificial sun goes awry, however, they have to collaborate in order to ensure their survival. At least that's what one deduces from the cutscenes, which have no dialogue at all: no related material explains what happens exactly. What matters is that they are thrown into a 2.5D platformer with a few puzzle elements.

After two introductory stages to familiarize with each character, you are given the ability to switch between the two. Light is a more typical platform game hero, he's fast and can jump, and needs to be inside light sources to survive. Shadow, piloting a small robot, can stick to any surface and manipulate some objects, and is incinerated by light. Of course, the abilities of both are needed to overcome obstacles, coupled with quick reflexes sometimes you may need to perform a quick switch during the few instants of survival inside the opposite environment. To complicate matters, moving platforms can also make light sources variable, and some lights are intermittent.

The asymmetry of the characters works, thanks to some good level design that valorizes both of them. The heroes have first to traverse the surface of a very hostile planet, joining forces when a bizarre machine tries to eat them, then they enter inside the artificial sun, to finally reach the core and overcome a final challenge to reset it to normal. Of note is the penultimate level: it fits into a single screen, with ant-size characters, but a zoom on the player is shown in the center of the screen.

Of Light & Shadow shows that you don't need many polygons and hyper-detailed textures for a game to look great: some textures do in fact look blurry but give a pictorial look to the whole. Each level feels unique and has some details that stand out, like the gigantic frog-like creature near the end of the second level. The foreground and platforms are three-dimensional while backgrounds are made with several 2D layers; the characters are small but stand out thanks to their cel-shaded look. Last but not least, there are a lot of great lighting effects, a given since they are so important to the gameplay. The end result is so good that by looking at the screenshots, or even staying still while playing, you may think it's a purely 2D game.

For all the professional quality and polish the only gripe is with the sometimes iffy jump physics of Light - it's unfortunately very short, just seven stages. After you finish, you can replay them in a more difficult version, with an odd purple filter over the visuals, but some passages become more frustrating than challenging.

Made by a sizable team, Of Light & Shadow would deserve a commercial upgrade with more content, provided that they manage to maintain the consistent quality of the levels shown in this release.

Homepage

Quick Info:

Developer:

12 Angry Devs

Designer:

Michael Fuchs
Florian Jindra

Genre:

Platforming
Puzzle

Theme:

Physics

Type:

Free


Of Light and Shadow (Windows)

Of Light and Shadow (Windows)

Of Light and Shadow (Windows)



Sturmwind - Dreamcast (April 24th, 2013)

by Sam Derboo - May 22th, 2013

Cover

Fliparound Cover

There is no shortage of post mortem shoot-'em-ups for the Dreamcast, though few have been in development as long as Sturmwind, and for a while it almost seemed like it had become vaporware. Visually it sure was worth the wait; the combination of pre-rendered sprites and backgrounds with some 3D elements looks gorgeous and definitely makes for the prettiest shmup on the system. There is so much going on in the stages that at first it seems hard to tell which parts of the backgrounds are dangerous, but where that's the case warning signs show up on screen.

After some brutal offerings like Last Hope, Sturmwind is a game everyone can enjoy. Normal Mode allows you to directly select any stages that have been reached once, and the lowest of three difficulty levels is quite moderate. Arcade Mode applies stricter rules, but isn't that hard either.

The weapon system vaguely resembles Thunder Force, but is more streamlined and at the same time more interesting. There are three very unique weapons: The Lichtblitz sends bent beams around the corners of the ship, protecting its top and bottom, but getting rather thin at range; the Nordwest is a pair of guns that swivel back and forth by releasing and pressing the fire button. The most powerful, the Rudel, just shoots straight forward. You lose the current weapon when hit, but the ship is only destroyed after losing its last weapon.

Sturmwind (Dreamcast)

Lots of cool stuff can be done with these weapons: First and foremost, the left trigger switches their direction from front to back; this mechanic is so great it seems baffling why it hasn't been used much more often. Each weapon also has a charged shot, but overheating destroys it. Some enemies drop weapon containers, which start out as a 1000 points bonus. Shooting them cycles through the three weapon types instead, adding a nice incentive for highscore runs. Collecting the same weapon type as the currently selected one upgrades it with one of two drones that add firepower and can also be switched between two positions, but other than in games like Gradius, they're not indestructible. There are a few other bonus items that are rarer: extra lives, smart bombs and 2500 points bonus.

Scoring is mostly determined by enemy waves. After completely obliterating a wave of enemies, the words "Wave Bonus" appear on screen. Shooting down the letters before they disappear is rewarded with a star, which symbolizes a score multiplier. It's not as complex as some other shmups, but it does a good job at adding challenge without making things all too confusing.

Normal Mode almost seems a bit too long for prolonged score play with its 16 stages, Arcade Mode is shortened to seven. Each stage has its own boss, all huge, awesome and fun to fight. Sturmwind strikes a very nice balance between satisfying depth and offering a fun ride for more casual players at the same time; definite recommendation to anyone who still has a Dreamcast around. Music is mostly modern techno, with just a wee bit chiptune goodness thrown in.

Homepage

Quick Info:

Developer:

Duranik

Publisher:

RedSpotGames

Designer:

Roland Graf
Johannes Graf

Genre:

Shoot-'em-Up: Horizontal

Theme:

Space Combat

Type:

Commercial


Sturmwind (Dreamcast)

Sturmwind (Dreamcast)

Sturmwind (Dreamcast)

Sturmwind (Dreamcast)



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