If you’ve heard anything about Cuphead, you’ve probably heard that it’s hard. And this is very much true. It’s a couple of hours of content that took me ten hours to beat – and that was without obsessing over the end-of-level rankings, which slap an exam-style grade on your performance. (Mine were mostly B+, which I guess would constitute a pass.) There are two difficulty settings available from the start: “Simple” and “Regular”. The former doesn’t make the game any easier; it just removes bits from it. The latter is the intended experience, and seems designed to break people’s spirits and controllers. There’s certainly nothing regular about it, and you should keep that in mind. Cuphead might not be for you. In fact, it probably won’t be.
All of this is intentional. Cuphead is a fusion of archaic animation and archaic game design. It blends the grainy, rhythmic animation of the 1930s and the simple but exacting demands of 2D side-scrolling shooters. It’s supposed to be hard; as a game comprised almost entirely of boss fights, it wouldn’t be worth playing if it wasn’t. But – and this is crucial – it’s almost always fair. Aside from a couple of late-game encounters that are crippled by an unreasonable amount of randomness, this is an experience that promotes learning by ensuring that success is always just there, a little out of reach, but only one more attempt away. Rarely is that true, of course, but the belief is all you need to keep playing.
Continue reading Review – Cuphead
There is no sound more terrifying, more nightmarish, than the countdown that signifies the final five seconds before Sonic the Hedgehog drowns. It has haunted gamers since 1991, when they first found themselves in the depths of the Labyrinth Zone; an underwater maze cleaved into the decaying ruins of an ancient civilisation, where glittering crystal stalactites hung from the ceiling and spears leapt from the stairs. Players loathed this level, still do to this day, which makes one wonder why Sega included such a level in every subsequent 2D Sonic game. The one in Sonic Mania is Hydrocity Zone, from Sonic 3, a better level set in a stone reservoir with an underground waterpark beneath it. But “better” is a relative term. That countdown hasn’t changed.
Since Sonic has become such a laughing stock, it can be difficult to believe that the blue hedgehog once rivalled Mario as the definitive video game mascot. This was in a gentler time, when video games were basically all 2D side-scrolling platformers, and the home console war was between Nintendo and Sega, and both companies only made games. But it was a time I grew up in. It was a time I adored. My childhood was 16-bit; Sonic’s games, as far as I was concerned, were masterpieces. Sonic Mania, then, is a game aimed directly at me, and at people like me, for whom the word “SEGA”, bellowed at a game’s start screen, had roughly the same impact as the words “I finished” might have to a twenty-something. Satisfaction. Pride. Bliss.
Continue reading Review – Sonic Mania
The Finch family home – a bizarre, sprawling estate that has housed several generations of the family which the media once declared America’s “most unfortunate” – is like a lot of video game spaces, in that it’s an interesting place to visit, but you’d never want to live there. The building is a warren of memorials; all its bedrooms, studies, basements and secret passages sealed to preserve the memory of their previous occupants. Its architect, Edie Finch, was playful, and possibly mad. The house loops around and back into itself, builds atop itself, and spirals down within itself. All its odd protrusions and extensions jut from the main building like spidery limbs; a teetering Jenga tower of memories and lives, abandoned and forgotten.
The Finches came to the Pacific Northwest from Norway in 1937, and since then almost all of them have died, most either in or close to the house. So plagued are they by unexpected bereavement that people – including their own kin – believe the family to be cursed. In 2016, Edith, a 17-year-old girl who has recently inherited the property, returns to it six years after its abandonment. Back then, Edith’s mother had believed the curse to be localised, confined to the house itself. She swept up her children and left. Whatever she left behind – the locks, the secrets, the family’s sad past – has been held in stasis ever since, waiting for an intrepid visitor to unravel the tragic mysteries of the Finch family and their clan’s surrealist homestead.
Continue reading Review – What Remains of Edith Finch
The town is Volterra, a sun-dappled rustic swatch of Tuscany. The blue sky is streaked with cottony clouds, and the rolling hills, here the green of a snooker table’s felt, there the amber of a traffic light, they extend to the edge of sight, lost eventually in the shade of gnarled trees that reach and clench from the ground like arthritic hands. At the top of such a hill is Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, a real-life, once understaffed and overcrowded asylum that has fallen into disuse and disrepair. Now it lies abandoned and unoccupied, rusted over and scrawled with graffiti. But it’s once again about to open its doors to a patient.
Her name is Renee. As a young girl she was committed to the asylum shortly before World War II; as an adult she has returned to revisit the now-empty rooms, hung heavy with misery and rot. Many games have been set in asylums, and we’ve been taught what to expect from them. But The Town of Light is not really that sort of game, and so we get something different from it. The beds are still fitted with thick leather straps, and the mangled wheelchairs and gurneys still screech in the quiet, but the ghosts here don’t float along the corridors – they’re suffused into every brick, and the memories of every patient who was committed to a system that, at best, profoundly misunderstood their problems.
Continue reading Review – The Town of Light
Three Fourths Home is an interactive visual novel, which to some people is a fancy way of saying “not a video game” or “pretentious indie nonsense”. And, I suppose, that’s kind of justified. It certainly has very little in the way of traditional gameplay, and what’s there consists of turning things on or off and selecting dialogue options. There’s no challenge, which is the curve on which a lot of people like to grade a game’s worth, and there’s no real depth or complexity, either – at least not in the mechanics. But the pretentious accusation, which I’ve seen bandied around a lot in relation to Three Fourths Home, seems a little unfair. On the contrary, it’s one of the most grounded stories I’ve ever seen in the medium. There’s nothing snooty or condescending about it. That isn’t to say it’s in any way exceptional, or even all that riveting on its own terms, but it’s an honest-to-God tale about people who talk and think like human beings. That’s more than I can say for a lot of games.
Continue reading Completed #9 – Three Fourths Home
I know it hardly matters, but how complex can simplicity really be? Cubot’s subtitle seems to suggest the whole game is an answer to that question, but aren’t we talking about two extremes of the same spectrum here? Aren’t they mutually exclusive? If something’s simple then by definition it can’t be complex, can it? I know, I know – who cares? But Cubot gives off a weirdly pretentious vibe, and that subtitle’s a part of it. Another is the game’s fascination with quotes: every few levels it presents another puzzle-oriented little titbit as though it’s unfurling the Dead Sea Scrolls; like the very act of playing the game is somehow solving the great existential mysteries of life. I’m not convinced. It hardly helps that a handful of the quotes are attributed to Ernő Rubik. Is Rubik’s Cube really still being held aloft as a beacon of ingenuity? They come with instructions. A toddler could solve one.
Continue reading Completed #8 – Cubot: The Complexity of Simplicity
If video games provide a way for players to live vicariously through digital marionettes – to become, for instance, a professional footballer or a heroic soldier – then you have to wonder why anyone would think to create a video game about a blind girl looking for her lost cat.
Not all games are power fantasies, but they’re all fantasies. Who fantasises about being blind?
Continue reading Completed #7 – Beyond Eyes