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PixPen’s Best of 2013

What can I say? I’ve had a lot of games to choose from that I almost struggled to fit them into a top ten list. DmC: Devil May Cry, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Guacamelee, Gunpoint, The Stanley Parable, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Bravely Default, are all brilliant games that came out this year, and they aren’t in the list of the ten best below. I’m choosing not to number them, as I consider all of the games in this list worth checking out.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (360/PS3/PC)

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A ridiculous character action game that just goes a long way in making you feel powerful. Not just through it’s use of scale, but the game’s lack of a far-reaching dodge move means that you have to stay up close to fight, and block the attacks yourself. It just makes you feel that much more proud of winning.

Persona 4 Arena (360/PS3)

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Forget Divekick, I found that game’s over-abundance of in-jokes and characters with all kinds of differing moves betrayed it’s premise of simplicity. As a fighting game novice, this I felt did a better job of helping me get more into fighting games. Also it contains more story in the Persona universe, and while that story is inelegantly told through long visual novel-style cutscenes, it still is a great ride.

Cart Life (PC)

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It sounds boring, a game where you run a newspaper or coffee stand. But really it’s great, it managed to make me stress and worry over it’s characters, and purely through it’s use of game mechanics.

Papers Please (PC)

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Similarly to Cart Life, I was emotionally invested in the characters, but not as strongly. That said it’s still a great game, and at times can feel more “fun” than Cart Life.

Gone Home (PC)

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This and a few other in the list have really proved that games don’t have to be about crazy escapist fantasy to be brilliant. In this you play someone returning to their family’s home after a long absence. You find the house empty and search it to find out what happened in the lives of the family. It’s as grounded as game stories come, but it’s still incredibly compelling.

Grand Theft Auto V (360/PS3)

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I just liked driving around the big open world this game had. Sure the game’s story is a bit of fun (though a bit flawed), but I found more joy in grabbing a car or motorcycle and creating my own mayhem. Though I suppose that’s like any other Grand Theft Auto game.

Depression Quest (PC)

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Most blockbuster games would be focused on escapism, being the bad-ass, this small browser-based game made me think about myself and others. While it has a simple choice based interface, I made those choices based on my own views, and felt I really came to understand myself a little better.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)

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This was certainly a big surprise for me, especially after Skyward Sword being such a terribly controlling, badly paced game. At least with this one it feels like it controls perfectly, with the sword seemingly swinging one-to-one with as fast as you can press the B button. They’ve made it a much leaner adventure, and with the polish that you should expect from a Nintendo game it absolutely shines.

Rayman Legends (VITA/360/PS3/PC/WII U)

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It feels as though people at Ubisoft got into a room and asked each other “What else can we do with a platformer?” While it feels easier that the previous game Rayman Origins, it really makes up for it in sheer joy and variety. It also contains the entirety of Rayman Origins as unlockable levels, so it does offer better value.

Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)

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I’ve never gotten into turn-based strategy games before. The only games of Civilization I’ve won are because I cheated, and I found one of the first few levels in Final Fantasy Tactics much too overwhelming. I picked up this game assured that it would be great for newcomers to the genre, and it really is great. It’s integration of character relationships is just fantastic too.

Symphony Saturday – Dragon Quest: The Journey of the Cursed King

Traditional is what you could call most Dragon Quest games. There’s not a lot that changes between the games, only small things, the mechanics change a tiny bit, the stories differ. That said they are fun, and in a way like comfort food, the kind of thing you want to stay consistant each time you have it. The music is consistantly good too.

This track was not in the original version of the game, this one was. In my personal opinion Koichi Sugiyama, composer of the Dragon Quest games, is better suited to working with an orchestra. Yet in all initial releases of Dragon Quest games are put out with music sounding like it comes from someone’s keyboard. The music is still nice, since it’s still all the same good songs, but it doesn’t sound as good as it could be.

That’s why I applaud the localization team that worked on this game for switching the keyboard-tunes for a fully orchastrated soundtrack that just lends this big fantasy RPG an epic feel. An orchestra can just do that, make something feel just bigger. I don’t think films like Star Wars would have the same impact if it was filled with cheesy pop music. Orchestras can feel like a powerful thing in music, and if used effectively can be brilliant.

Symphony Saturday – Mass Effect

Now to turn to a personal favourite franchise, and also a franchise in which I think the music does a very good job of setting the tone. The music calls to mind Vangelis, composer of Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire and more. You could argue that electronic music is just effective short-hand to say “it’s science fiction”, however I think that’s selling this music a bit short.

To quote Douglas Adams “Space is big. Really big.” In Mass Effect, that big space is there to be explored. Humans are newcomers in the game’s galactic society filled with all sorts of aliens, they still have a lot to learn, a lot to discover. Of course there’s danger out there too, and you’ve got to save the galaxy from it, because it’s a videogame.

And I think with just this piece of music, it already plants that idea in your head. Why not re-read that last paragraph while playing the music to see if it fits? Why not read it aloud with a dramatic voice-over? Why not close your eyes and think of space while the music’s on? Maybe that’s getting a little too into it but you can see what I mean right?

Symphony Saturday – Sonic the Hedgehog 3

Since this piece is going up between Christmas and New Year, I thought I would do something to maybe keep in the theme. I thought about it and it basically came down to “it’s cold now so I’m picking an ice level.”

Sonic 3 is probably my favourite Sonic game, it’s not usually most people’s preferred choice, but I enjoy it a lot. I wasn’t that great at it, so I’d mess around with cheat-codes to switch on debug mode to turn myself into a ring and fly through the stage. I intend to get back to it some point soon and try to finish it legitimately, but I’ve told myself that about so many games now.

Now to talk about the music. I’m a big fan of the Mega Drive’s music capabilities, it’s too low fidelity to create anything realistic, so people just got creative with it. There’s a lot on the system I’d love to feature here but right now we have this cool dance-ish track to listen to.

For those of you that didn’t know, there have been several claims by people that Michael Jackson worked on the music for this game, if you compare a some of the game’s tracks it can seem fairly obvious.

Even MJ collaborator Brad Buxley stated he was involved, speaking to the french magazine “Black & White”:

“I’ve never played the game so I do not know what tracks on which Michael and I have worked the developers have kept, but we did compose music for the game. Michael called me at the time for help on this project, and that’s what I did. And if he is not credited for composing the music, it’s because he was not happy with the sound coming out of the console. At the time, game consoles did not allow an optimal sound reproduction, and Michael found it frustrating. He did not want to be associated with a product that devalued his music.”

If anything, this piece of music sounds fairly similar to another piece of music Brad Buxley worked on.

And now for something MAGiKal…

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Recently I got the chance to talk with Tom Elliot, Technical Director at MAGiK ArtS. They’re a fairly small company that make apps for mobile initially starting with client work, and have recently just put out their first game SquareFlip.

PixPen: What’s the company ethos then? What does MAGiK ARtS Represent?

Tom: Our take on the market is you get a lot of indie studios, especially at Teesside, coming out rough and ready, “lets do some retro games”, “lets do some hardcore games”. They have a very clear audience, that’s great. They’re some of my favourite kinds of companies, the kind of companies I play games from.

But with MAGiK ARtS we went out and thought “what’s the niche that people aren’t doing at Teesside?”, “what these new business aren’t doing that we can do?”. And we found especially in our first client apps that we could use a very clean elegant, almost minimalistic style.

That resonates well with the more middle aged, the more middle class, the Steve Jobs kind of people of the world. So we aim for clean elegant apps, which are built for functionality and for your need first, for that kind of age range.

PixPen: MAGiK ARtS is a fairly small company at this point. How many people have you got?

Tom: A grand total of two (laughs).

PixPen: What does that bring to the company then?

Tom: Well for starters we can only focus on one given project at a time. Which has its downsides and its benefits. Its downsides are we can’t produce as many projects at a time as we could. The upside is we have excellent communication speed.

So turnover time for iterations is very speedy, and the best part of it we found is that with only having two of us, it’s really easy to set up contact with a client, with testers, with those kind of people, because there are no gears, no cogs.

Some clients we’ve had, we’ve had some really huge people, we’ve talked to big companies, and I can’t say their names unfortunately as those projects are still in development.

But the amount of time it takes to establish communications with these people, because you have to go through their front-line PR, to their local director, then to their managing director, then back down again to get authorisation, and then back up again. It’s ridiculous!

We’re a two-man company and if someone comes and asks a question, a few days we can turn around and say, “okay done!”

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PixPen: Your first game, SquareFlip, what is it about?

Tom: It is a memory tile matcher. Designed to help improve your memory and put you in a Zen, relax you. It’s very good for killing time on a lunch time break, that sort of thing, very background, very nice.

PixPen: Why give a relaxing element to it then?

Tom: Our model for SquareFlip was we knew that we couldn’t make the next AAA blockbuster indie title. We gave ourselves a shortened development time, and built specifically for one platform.

So we figured “right, what is within our scope?” Well that’s not really the right question to start with, “lets ask people what they want and then see if we can build something to that scope.” We went out and asked people, we found our demographic of middle aged ladies mostly, although this game applies to everyone. We found that the kind of games they play, Peggle, Bejewelled, Tetris even are all nice Zen, just relax over your break time and we thought “yeah go for it, we could make that.”

PixPen: Do you have plans for future games.

Tom: Yes we do absolutely, I can’t give the full low-down but I can tell you what our immediate plan is project wise. The next app we’re building is a utility app, a car related one, look out for that if you’re the kind of guy who drives a Ferrari. The immediate app after that, we’re hoping to build another game in a similar vein to relax and chill with.

PixPen: Is that the philosophy when you’re designing games for MAGiK ARtS?

Tom: Oh yes, I’ve already spoken about this simple elegant design system that we’re trying to go for and we’ve found the relaxed chilled Zen puzzle games really fit that ethos to a point because they’re all about just being elegant and smooth and feeling nice.

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PixPen: So the platform is all iOS devices then?

Tom: We’re currently focused on iOS devices because when we asked our demographic what kind of games they play, they all play them on iPhones, now we are actually looking to port to Android if enough people call for it, but at the moment we’re focusing on iOS.

PixPen: What other considerations do you have to take when developing for that demographic?

Tom: Technical ones, interface, as in from their perspective. We are two fairly technical people. We’re effectively bringing back bedroom programming but in the new age of the apple market, so we get what we’re building.

For a lot of the time, if you’re building a more high-end indie game, a more focused experience, like a platformer or an RPG, you can assume your users understand how it all works. You can’t assume that when you’re building experiences which are supposed to gel into everyday life, because the less that they have to learn to get into your experience, the better.

One of the biggest challenges we found is just making them learn without realising they’re learning, teaching them these surprisingly technical concepts of game mechanics, while at the same time assuming they have no idea how any of these games works. The most you can have expect them to have played is bejewelled, and even that’s a stretch so definitely understand how much the user gets your mechanics, that’s the biggest challenge I’d say.

PixPen: So the game is out?

Tom: Yes it’s out for free, if you’ve got an iOS device for Xmas, if Santa feels so obliged, it’s immediately available for free on the app store.

Symphony Saturday – Bravely Default

I have a few ideas for some new features on PixPen, this being one of them. It might seem a bit simple, well it is, this is basically “some music wot Samuel likes”. And what’s wrong with that? You might like some of the music I put on here. That said you might not, it’s music, it can be fairly subjective.

For the first track I thought I’d pick a recent game, Bravely Default. I’m not picking a major theme from an emotionally resonant moment, or the main battle theme. I’m picking an optional boss theme, that’s technically a remix of music from another game, Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light.

I haven’t played that game. I’ve had a listen to the original track and I don’t quite like it as much as this version.

What I like about this song is there’s a level of hopefulness and happiness about it, not something you get much of in videogame boss themes. It’s nice to have a positive feeling going into battle, as insane as that just sounds there. But it makes it feel a little more fun, and I like fun, don’t you?

Anyway, I hope I can make this a weekly thing, depending on the music I can find. I am sure there are thousands of tracks in ready supply, I’m not going to be afraid to repeat games if I have to as well.

Ridiculous Fishing is… ridiculous.

RidiculousFishingThis game’s been out for a while on iOS, but Ridiculous Fishing has only just come out on Android. It most certainly lives up to it’s name.

Just look at it, it’s really nice and colourful. Did I mention it’s ridiculous? I’m really having a lot of fun with it though.

There’s not a lot I can say about it, it would be easier for you to go play it yourself, or take a look at the Youtube video below if you’re feeling a bit lazy.

It’s a smartphone game, so it won’t cost you a lot.

 


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