Quick Review: Tiny Thief

A new iOS game by 5Ants has come out today, published by Rovio Stars (apparently the Angry Birds makers are doing publishing deals a la Chillingo). It's a fun mix of point-and-click puzzle solving with mastery (3 stars per level). It's nice because it has a narrative, but presents it in a level-by-level story without all of that unneeded backtracking that plagues standard point-and-click adventure games.

I've only played a few levels, but I'm enjoying it thus far. Also, the guy has a ferret! So adorable.

Mister Goh - Disney Universe

Mister Goh 308 - Disney Universe
I picked up Disney Universe and have played through one world twice now. That's nine stages x2, so 18 stages with three different characters. I have to say that I'm enjoying it quite a lot, but it's very possible I'm enjoying this specific game because I've been on this Gauntlet type kick lately.

You basically control an avatar wearing a Disney costume and have to eradicate viruses plaguing the Disney Universe system (which is some fictional MMO). The gameplay itself isn't any more difficult than a Lego Star Wars game and it's equally as forgiving. For example, dying simply respawns you at the closest respawn point and you only lose coins. The puzzles are intuitive enough and the levels are small enough that you don't frustrated or lost.

I'll have to admit that the selling point of this game really is the Disney component. Seeing so many classic and modern characters (even as costumes) in worlds that were carefully crafted to fully represent the essence of their movie counterparts is a joy to see. They even go as far as including bit characters as costumes, but bit characters that make you say, "Oh! Ha ha! That's a funny costume. I'm going to be that one." One example is Hal, the pet cockroach from the movie WALL-E.

The game also shines brightest when played in multiplayer. It has a The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords style where while you're trying to work together to reach the goal, you're also trying to make sure you score the most coins and treasure and level up points since the game rates all players at the end of every three stage block. So you'll see yourself, sometimes, throwing your buddies into a nearby pit or transferring a curse set upon you to them ("The Blue Jester is now IT.").

All in all a simple 3rd person action game that's perfect for the little ones and anyone who has an ounce of childhood left in their cold, soulless husk of a body.

I also figured that nobody needed another review of Battlefield 3.

Related Link: Disney Universe (XBOX360)

Related Link: Mister Goh #308 - Disney Universe

Review: Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure

If you want the quick answer/review, here it is: if you love figurines (regardless of points of articulation), fun and quirky character design, new technology, a decent 3rd-person brawler and the grind, then you should buy this game this very moment.

The Gimmick
There's always got to be a gimmick when you try to charge more than the "standard price of admission" for any game. In this case, the $69.99 you spend nets you the PORTAL OF POWER and three Skylander figurines. What this is used for is essentially your real-time character change. When you place a Skylander on the Portal of Power, the game recognizes this and swaps your character to the one you places on the portal. The really neat part is that it saves that individual character's stats (current level, stats, upgrades and hat). That means it's basically it's own proprietary memory card. I think Toys for Bob and Activision did a good job executing this new integration of figurines with video games.

I also like the way it's integrated as it's compatible across the board. This means if you bring your figures to a friend's house who owns a different system than you, you can still join the fight with your characters. There's even an online portal that allows you to access the Skylanders Universe with your figures, storing a separate chunk of data (web vs. console).

To be completely honest, I'd rather have DLC presented this way than your standard $4.99 download from XBL or PSN. At least you have something physical to show for it, versus virtual goods in general, which is something so many folks (see: your parents) have a hard time understanding.

The Game
The actual game is your standard 3rd person action brawler. You basically have three different characters to choose from (the initial three that come in the starter) and you just spend the rest of your time running through a linear map, fighting bad guys, leveling up and buying upgrades while seeking out hidden treasures that contain hats (which also give you buffs).

It's definitely not a bad game as it really is presented quite well. I think my first inclination would be to compare it to Gauntlet. You can even break open barrels to obtain food items because your figure is likely hungry.

The visuals aren't anything to write home about as they definitely aren't pushing the system's capabilities nor is the writing in the story. It's definitely geared toward the younger crowd, but I think that's completely okay. It's a great way to really integrate the game playing experience with the family.

Speaking of family, Joe from Family Guy (the neighbor in the wheelchair) voices one of the characters in the game. I'm just waiting for him to ask Bonnie for something.

Should You Buy It?
Yes. Like I mentioned earlier, if you're really love figures, new technology and well executed 3rd person action brawler games with a decent grind, this is for you.

Related Link: Skylander's Spyro's Adventure Starter Pack

Review: Ready Player One

This book is essentially a masturbatory dream for those of us who grew up in the 80s, love classic video games, cartoons, Kaiju films and anything else you can geek out on. It's essentially the equivalent of a new breed of Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder version, mind you).

The story takes place in the near-ish future where the world is dilapidated at best. There is an online system that spans the globe called the Oasis, which is essentially a gigantic MMO that has essentially taken over as the general means to interact within society (think Summer Wars). The whole MMO turns into a giant treasure hunt when the original creator of the Oasis dies, revealing that whoever finds the Easter Egg will be granted majority holdings in the company that created Oasis as well as $220 billion. That's where our intrepid hero steps in, Wade Watts, solo Gunter, hunter of the egg.

The story is filled with so much teen angst, classism, 80s trivia, retro video games, imaginative worlds and every little piece of the spectrum that it's hard to place what I loved and hated about it. Overall the story is decent. There aren't really any twists and turns that make you drop to your knees in utter bewilderment or anything, but that's okay. I enjoyed the pacing and relatively straight-forward, albeit a little predictable, storyline. In the end, I enjoyed myself, which is the most important part.

If you're like me and like the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket type premise with references to all that retro nerd stuff, then you'll thoroughly like this book.

Go Buy It, Damnit: Ready Player One

Review: Grand Prix Story

Before I begin I must say that this review is heavily biased because I have a strong affinity toward Kairosoft/Kairo Park games. I think their brand of "stat building" games are so well executed that it would have to take an utter disaster to break me off the series.

Gameplay: The gameplay is very similar to the other games of the same genre. You have something(s) that require stats to be boosted and through a few keystrokes and "tests to see if the boosting happens", you'll see if your something(s) get better. Then you take those something(s) as a whole and put them in a test to see if they beat other people's (computer controlled) something(s). In this game it's race cars and you have to see if the parts you upgrade, research and implement create better race cars than your opponents.

The Appeal: Where the game strikes a chord with me is kind of like a "God sim" game where you essentially have the power to bestow upon your minions (race cars, in this case) powers and abilities and then place them in a test to see how they do. It's like raising a virtual pet in a way. You hope that all the gifts you have bestowed upon your people are not wasted and that they can achieve everything to their highest potential. That's where the appeal lies. I found myself clicking away, watching progress bars fill and stats increase for hours on end. And all for what? For the sake of seeing if they can get first place on a racetrack in some random country.

There's something very fulfilling seeing these race cars make their way to first place. It's even more fulfilling knowing that you can't directly control the race cars (which seems counterintuitive). It's not up to how good you are a gamer per se, what with your fancy joysticks and inverted y-axis and finger dexterity. It's about your planning! Were your stats good enough? If not, it's time to go back to the drawing board. That in itself is what makes it so enjoyable. You really do find yourself spending so much time without even knowing it.

Compared to the Others: Outside of Game Dev Story, only because I'm a big gamer, I think this is my next favorite one. I think the main reason is that it was much easier to get into than Pocket Academy and you felt like you made a lot more progress with fewer clicks than Mega Mall Story. And even though all of the games in the series utilize computer controlled something(s), this one made it feel like you actually had more control since you were actually tuning/editing the race cars themselves. The games you made in Game Dev Story were really at the mercy of your development team and you never could really control where the students or people were going in Pocket Academy or Mega Mall Story. And while the race cars stats are still at the mercy of your mechanics, you still have options of swapping out parts (as said earlier) which can really affect the outcome of your next race.

It's also 25% off right now for a limited time! That's $2.99 for those in the states.

Conclusion: Is this game worth brown bagging your lunch for one day instead of buying that Big Mac meal? You bet your greasy fingers it is. Go buy it and I'll see you on the racetrack. I'll be in the pink Prototype car, slamming wildly into tires on the side of the racetrack.

Purchase: Grand Prix Story - Kairosoft Co.,Ltd on iTunes

Thoughts on a 100-Point Review System

I'm not sure if it's because I was raised in the American education system, but I always fine myself breaking down a review score that's not a 5-point system into a 5-point system. Specifically, anytime I see a review score system that uses 100 points as its base and essentially converting that score into the A/B/C/D/F grading scale sans the pluses and minuses.

I had this thought cross my mind the other day when I was reading a Yelp review about a German restaurant in the area (sounds delicious, by the way). The reviewer prefaced her review with the statement that she's grading the restaurant on a 100-point scale, using several different factors to influence that score (though she left out which sections were weighted more, if any). She gave the restaurant a score of 72.

When I saw the 72, I immediately converted it to a "C", which is considered average. It's like that whole point scale of 70 to 79 falls into a single bucket--an average bucket. I understand that there is a difference between a 72 and a 73, for example one is higher by a point, but what really designates that difference? I feel that humans are incapable of understanding grading to that kind of granularity. What makes a 73 point house salad better than a 72 point house salad? An extra sunflower seed? A half teaspoon more of olive oil on the side? Less flies around the entrance?

I then see myself thinking the same thing for even a 10-point rating system. Surely our brains can comprehend a measly 10 points, right? I'm saying, "Hm. Not really...?" and this is where I point the finger, in a non-threatening manner, at the American education system.

As soon as I see a score on even a 10-point scale, I still break it down into the A/B/C/D/F 5-point system. When I see a 7, I automatically think "C" again. If it's an 8? That's a "B" right there. 9 or 10? It's an "A", my friend. You may ask, "But Alex, see how you can clearly break it down now? You have a much better understanding and ability to distinguish those grades. You know the different between, let's say, the 7 and the 8." Sure, I agree. However, what about everything listed as 5 and below? That's half the system right there.

And that brings me to, what I find to be, the most interesting point about this whole system. When something is given a 50 or below (or 5 and below, in the 10-point case), I automatically group it into the "F" grade. I understand that a score of 45 is considerably better than one of 30, and by 15 whole points, but it's still in the "F" grade range and that's how my mind perceives it. I've somehow reserved 50 whole points for a single letter grade when the rest of the grades are within 10 point buckets (60-69, 70-79 and so on). Wouldn't it, in theory, make more sense to break it down into 20-point buckets so those grades are weighted evenly? Why is it that failing equates to half of the entire review scale? And if you break it down into five buckets all worth 20 points, wouldn't that just be a 5-point system?

It's like distinguishing the difference between an epic fail and an okay fail. My brain doesn't do that. They both failed and that's a considerably unbalanced bucket to fall into.

This is why I say it may be due to the American education system. I've spent more than half my life (to date anyway) in it and that A/B/C/D/F system is engrained in my head. "I don't care if it's an 82 or an 83. It's a 'B' and that's all that matters." I'm not familiar with other grading systems in the world, so they may be similar or completely different.

Now, I'm not trying to convince anyone that 100-point systems or any non-5-point system of grading is wrong. I'm just saying that when someone uses it, I automatically just convert it over to something my own brain can interpret properly. And with that I just found it interesting how I review review systems in general... or why I would dedicate this much time just thinking about how I think and interpret review scores.

But maybe it's this unbalanced size and nature of each bucket that makes the 100-point review system so interesting? It's that because it is measured in a more weighted-here-lighter-there way that makes it, I don't know, organic? It's like the review then has some quality that makes it take on a personality of its own.

In the end, it's how your brain interprets this stuff and I think it's worth at least a 72.

Review: Jetpack Joyride

Gameplay: Jetpack Joyride is your standard distance game. High Score = Furthest Distance. The jetpack flying mechanic is similar to the widely available and played Chopper Flash game.

What Makes It Special: There is so much polish and so many "that's clever" moments that this game, as a package, is one amazing and potentially one of the best distance games ever created. The graphics are crisp, clean and cute. The little touches to the graphics are excellent (example: the animation differences from when you're running vs. when you're flying). They also use some kind of physics engine when you don't really need one. What this equates to are fun animations and endings, like your hat flying off your head when you crash or the wall bits blowing apart when you start the round.

Outside of that you have a store that allows you to change jetpacks, use powerups, change your skin and access both Game Center and OpenFeint.

The most important part about this whole experience, that I think they did wonderfully, is that they separated "achievements" and "missions". The last time I saw a distance game do this was in Tiny Wings. You basically provide missions to the player so they have another way to approach the distance game. Getting the furthest distance is no longer the only goal when you incorporate missions, which could be "high five 25 scientists in one round" or "crash through the wall 10 times". Your goals have changed and thus allow you to change how you play the game, which adds challenge and variety.

This is also interesting because of how they distinctly separate this from the "achievements". The achievements in the game are sometimes related to the gameplay, but are presented in a way where you can do them at any time. They're not your current goals to reach the next rank. They're like secondary missions and objectives that you can do in your free time.

It's the way they approached the distance game and packed enough goodies in it that really make this game worth that whopping $0.99. Sure they have in-app purchases, but those things are basically money cheats that give you a bunch of coins without you having to earn them with gameplay time.

Gripes: The only gripes I have with the game are weird pauses you get when the game is trying to connect to Game Center and your phone's reception is shoddy. It stutters the game and while this isn't the fault of Halfbrick per se, it's still annoying. Also, you tap the screen to make the gentleman fly. What happens for me is I use the right thumb to do this and can sometimes obscure incoming obstacles, like the "!" indicating incoming missiles or a fast approach rotating zapper line. Again, slight annoyance, but nothing to sour my experience.

Rating: Highly recommended.

Purchase: Jetpack Joyride on iTunes

Review: All The Better To See You

I've been a fan of the indie game development work of Bento Smile for quite some time. It's always nice to see an entry in a Ludum Dare competition with them in it. I'm always particularly fond of the pixely art style in their visual novel games. I decided to download one of the older titles and give it a go.

All The Better To See You is indeed a tiny visual novel game, probably taking a maximum of five minutes to get through all the different options in the game. What resonates more strongly, however, isn't the length of the game but rather the message within the choices and responses to those choices. Many of the Bento Smile visual novel games do this and they do it quite well. This is no exception to the rule.

It really made me look at the potential mundane acts we perform under constant routine. What seems like limitless potential turns into this cage of "same thing, different day". While I don't feel that way in my current life, it's definitely a theme I see crop up in more places than one in both fiction and reality. I liked the way it was presented in this game and I recommend anyone with a few minutes to experience it for themselves.

Paring it with Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf was also brilliant. Releasing this in time for Valentine's Day this year was also brilliant, in a punch-your-holiday-in-the-face kind of way.

Download: All The Better To See You (PC, Mac and Linux)