Thirty Flights Of Loving is a story about criminals. It’s not a story of a crime, but of people—of their simple pleasures, friendly relationships, and, okay, also their epic getaways. To say any more would ruin it. Look, it’s only 15 minutes long.
The key word here is “story.” There’s not much to play here, just paths to walk down and scenes to watch. But what little is there was carefully chosen. In this softly glowing world of box people, you can pick up bullets you’ll never fire. You can remember when your friend was a best man. Most importantly, you can eat all the oranges you like.
There are a few rough edges, particularly in the way some things look, but they’re not distracting so much as they are reminders that this is a crafted, artisanal work largely by a single person. That man, Brandon Chung, even cops to some of these issues in the included developer’s commentary. If you’ve ever wondered how much thought goes into even the smallest aspects of storytelling games, you should consider this not an added bonus, but essential reading.
It’s a hand-carved ivory bauble, then, and one that’s nice enough to be worth stealing in a daring heist. Enjoy it first; study it later.
The more games we play, the more lives we get to live. We’ve all lived countless times as brave space marines, ruthless criminals, and heroic plumbers. Now Kudzundheit finally puts us in the shoes—and more importantly, the jetpack—of a trailer-dwelling, beer-swilling redneck gardener.
You read that right: you’re a jetpack-wearing redneck gardener. Oh, and you’re fighting an invasion of killer alien kudzu that threatens to engulf your trailer. Wacky premise aside, Kudzundheit looks and feels like a long-lost Atari game. This crude but addictive game gets difficult fast. Fly around the level with your sweet jetpack, aim and fire your weedkiller with the mouse, and kill the kudzu hearts. All your poison and fumigation bombs are deployed to protect your trailer all costs. If the kudzu reaches it, your precious home is destroyed.
As the difficulty increases, Kudzundheit becomes more of a puzzle. Figuring out the right order in which to tackle the ever-growing kudzu tendrils, or when and where to deploy your bombs, is crucial to success. It can be frustrating, but no one ever said the life of a flying redneck weed whacker was going to be easy.
The first moment of Erie finds you submerged in a sewer, dank and drenched. It’s dark. You can barely see what’s in front of you. But off in the distance, a baby cries. Well, not just cries: wails. With just that noise, overpowering the rest of the scenery, the mood is set. Erie is full of scary sounds of all stripes: the blaring screech of an alarm, the creaking of a door slowly opening, the growl of a mutated beast as it hunts for prey. There’s an ambient whirring sound, too, likely the power coursing through the abandoned hospital/test facility you mysteriously stumble upon. As you venture forward, collecting clues to the accident that caused all the destruction, the mood can change suddenly as you round a corner, or slowly as you venture down a clouded hallway.
The mood of Erie is focused entirely in the moment, caring little for reflection on past mistakes. If one of those mutated beasts catches up with you, it silently gnaws at your corpse as the scene fades to black, shooting you back to the last checkpoint. The horror has arrived, but there’s no sense in scaring unnecessarily. There’s plenty more to come.
Adult Swim has cultivated a reputation for a certain inscrutability. When it comes to their style of late-night stoner comedy, you either get it or you don’t, and you get the sense the creators could give a shit which way you fall. This vibe carries over to Adult Swim’s games catalog, which boasts an archive of games that are both immensely polished and aggressively off-putting.
I’ll admit that I pretty much had no idea what was happening the entire time I played Super Monsters Ate My Condo. The psychedelic game presents you with a precarious tower of apartment blocks and asks you to sort them by color by swiping residential units out of the stack. That much I got. Once the power-ups and special blocks began appearing, I quit trying to make sense of it and just let the weirdness wash over me. The game itself is so chaotic that trying to develop a particular strategy seems beside the point; my scores would ping-pong between a few thousand points and several hundred million points, with no real understanding of what precisely made one attempt more successful than another. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, though. I certainly enjoyed having my brain melted by Super Monsters Ate My Condo, and I walked away from it satisfied that I had experienced…well, that I had experienced something, anyway.
In his 1993 book Out Of Order, political scientist Thomas E. Patterson argues that the news media’s perspective on campaigns has changed the way presidential bids are run. It’s shifted the focus from consequential issues to a view in which the campaign is a game, placing strategy and polls above all else and turning candidates into tacticians.
Strategery 2012 is the campaign-game incarnate. It faithfully apes Nintendo’s Advance Wars series of cartoonish military strategy games, transcribing the battlefront into the realm of American politics. You must guide Mitt Romney to a victory in the Republican primary, commanding his army of staffers, press secretaries, and rapid responders against the identical-except-for-color troops of other lovingly rendered pixel-art Republicans. A state’s delegates are won by demolishing the credibility of your opponents’ staff or being the first to reach a set number of votes, which are gained by “capturing” cities. Instead of shooting each other to death, your campaign workers trade explosive political insults like, “If Gingrich is elected, it would be an October surprise a day.”
Each candidate has a special power. Romney, for example, can build up a voter suppression attack, removing a city from play and preventing his opponent from capturing its votes. As this happens, Romney proclaims, “I love Voter ID laws, by the way.” This is one of the many lines of dialogue taken directly from the campaign trail, a fact that, along with the its literal interpretation of politics-as-game, makes Strategery a winning satire. The creator promises that Romney’s campaign is just the beginning, with a future update adding a Romney vs. Obama. That sounded appealing at first, but then I realized that no general-election smackdown is going to match the delight of dismantling Rick Santorum.
Playing Ozzie Mercado’s Twelve O feels a lot like being trapped in a Type A achiever’s brain. You are constantly considering and reconsidering how to manipulate the clock to make sure everything is done at the right time. It’s simple management: The clock’s hands need to point to the titular hour. Clicking the clock lets you move the yellow minute hand toward your goal, but alas, any clock connected to the one you’re manipulating moves its hand as well. Like a haphazard day planner, the clocks rarely match up, so you have to plan your time-shifting deliberately.
The first 12 levels, clean screens of red, black, and yellow—looking like an Alexander Calder tribute to Germany—are simple, with the clocks sharing a one-to-one relationship. Even if the spatial logic is frustrating at first, some flailing experimentation will get you through. The next tier of levels, the game’s blue period—where clocks on a white background move in reverse to those in blue—is trickier, but still lends itself to fudging. The final green stages, though, are hair pullers. Big clocks rotate in smaller increments than small clocks, and more planning and preparation are needed to succeed.
They’re well considered puzzles, and there’s just enough to serve as a brief diversion, but the controls are questionable. Mere twitches of the mouse are enough to knock your precious alignment out of order, breaking your concentration in the process. Then again, broken concentration is the go-to excuse for all poor planners.
The component parts of Turnament ring familiar to most games. A hero. Monsters. Treasure. Puzzles. A mighty soundtrack fit for an adventuring hero. Turnament employs these traits, and little else, in its bare bones crypt crawl. And when I say “bare bones,” I mean the hero himself doesn’t even have a body. He’s a disembodied, pixilated head that kills equally simplistic monsters by running into them (or, more precisely, through the power of his heroic headbutts).
Although the game has relatively few moving parts, it uses them in a way that presents increasingly formidable challenges. This bizarre skull creature, for instance, mirrors your every move with one of its own. There’s no obvious way to escape or kill it. Per my gaming calling card, I only progressed through dumb luck, but it turns out that the game is loosely turn-based—hence the name—and this dictates who wins the headbutting contests between you and adjacent monsters. Each level is scored by how many steps it takes to clear.
For all its hideous brain trauma and challenging puzzles, Turnament’s music—a haunting anthem that recalls the best in adventurous musical accompaniment—is what you’ll remember long after the game is finished, tying its disparate elements together. Now if I could only find some way to get this track onto my iPhone for my epic sojourns to the mailbox…
Cool Pizza is not, as you might expect, an offhand remark uttered after entering a room and finding a large pie with mushrooms on it. But it does capture the essence of that chill commentary. The iPhone is a sleek machine, and Cool Pizza feels like an extension of the device itself: clean, aggressive, and hip.
Calling back to arcade games like Space Harrier that have you endlessly rushing towards the horizon, you control what looks like the ghost of Aubrey Plaza riding a skateboard. Tilting the phone right or left steers your board, and lining up with a flashing ramp sends you up on the air. There are a mess of tentacled-eyeballs and bomb-dropping coffins trying to harsh your mellow ride, so, naturally, you bash their brains in. Tapping the screen while airborne swings your skateboard like a cudgel, and the satisfying crack it makes connecting with the white and pink beasts is motivation to do it all again.
The real trick is staying airborne. Killing a monster gives you a little boost, so you want to keep slamming them, upping your score as you rack up kills and unlock new powers, like an extra jump or a screen-clearing bomb. They add a few choices to an otherwise free-form existence.
Cool Pizza is fast gaming. Getting a higher score isn’t much of a motivator, but the push to discover new creatures and extend your sweet ride is enough of a driving force to keep your cool.
Coral recreates the feeling of falling in a dream. You don’t know how you started falling, and you don’t know when the fall’s going to end. Maybe part of you remembers the urban legend that if you die in a dream, you die in real life. But another, more immediate part thinks, “Whoa, I can fly!” So you try to control it, to soar in the nebulous void of your subconscious. Only, try as you might, you can’t. You just keep on falling.
There’s a lot that spins through your mind in that moment (it’s not called lethargic eye movement, after all), and Coral is just as cognitively sticky. Using the middle row of letter keys on your keyboard, you navigate brushstroke bubbles up or down until they align with an empty space. The rub, though, is that many of these bubbles rise and fall simultaneously, requiring different combinations of letters and often moving at different speeds. So holding the A and G keys might cause one to rise, but G and L forces another down, and managing these different forces inflicts pain on the part of your brain that learned typing skills in seventh grade.
Balancing four bubbles at once is a feat of brainy strength, one that the game asks of you quite often. There’s a high-score leaderboard here, but Coral isn’t about one-upping anonymous players. It’s a game that makes you prove to yourself that if you think hard enough, you can fly.
God Of Blades is an old soul, if you consider the ’70s old. It presents you with a vision of a ghostly king, rushing without rest across a blighted land. A flick of your finger is a slice of his sword, or a downward thrust, or a parry. So you run, and zealots and creatures run towards you, and, well, you have that sword. You do what you have to do to keep running.
The themes are classic prog rock and the sort of violent, pulpy fantasy stories that have decayed under countless waterbeds. But this isn’t lip-service, it’s love. The levels look like album covers. Every level has a rhythm, and every weapon, a cadence, and making these tempos play together can be satisfyingly complex. The text between these levels evokes eternal champions and horrors from the inky void. It is all gloriously overwritten.
Then, like many prog rock songs, it goes on too long for mainstream tastes. It’s also a bit of a weirdo. It won’t give you its best goodies, the swords you need to complete your collection, unless you take it to the library—the actual, physical library, where the books live. You may not understand it, but you have to respect its confidence.
One of Dr. Seuss’s most poignant children’s books was also one of his shortest. At a scant 40 pages (including large illustrations), The Butter Battle Book was an easy-reader parable about arms races. It was published at the height of the Cold War, driving home the ever-present concern that—no matter how big or bad a weapon your army may build—the enemy will just make a bigger, badder weapon, going back and forth until your mutual assured destruction. It was a heady concept for a picture book about buttering a piece of toast.
Hunt ’Em tells a similar precautionary tale, hidden behind the guise of Pac-Man. Your scribble creature runs away from the scary scribble wolves until you collect enough requisite power-ups to become bigger and stronger, at which point you chase the wolves. They get bigger, you get bigger, back and forth—until eventually, one of them kills you, and it’s game over. It’s an emotional seesaw that teeters between “maniacal tyrant crushing ants underfoot” and “terrified virgin halfway through a slasher flick.” There’s never any Bitsy Big-Boy Boomaroo to bring the conflict to a standstill, as there is in Seuss’s tale, but at least Hunt ’Em is a heck of a lot more aesthetically pleasing than watching Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev stare each other down.
With the swine flu epidemic still wreaking havoc and an unprecedented international bacon shortage predicted for 2013, pigs have been getting a bad rep these days. Fortunately, there’s Bad Piggies to restore our faith in porcine-kind. First introduced as the green skinned swine-nemies of the best-selling Angry Birds series, this time out the pigs are front and center, trying to carve out their own little slice of ham-free heaven.
The familiar slingshot mechanic of Angry Birds, however, has been replaced by a physics-based vehicle creation system that’s similar to games such as Fantastic Contraption and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. Your goal is to MacGyver together your very own vehicle using a set number of pieces, including wheels, bottle rockets, fans, and a variety of other gadgets that allow you to race, fly, and shoot your ramshackle creation down a hill and to the finish line.
Like Angry Birds, the game requires both ingenuity and, at times, some deft hand-eye-coordination to get your porky passenger to their destination. It’s a simple premise that also rewards experimentation, as multiple vehicle combinations are often required to win everything a given level has to offer. In addition, four bonus “sandbox” levels allow for both exploration and pure vehicle building, expanding on a premise that’s already surprisingly deep. Bad Piggies should keep me satiated until the inevitable pork-ocalypse hits.
Over the span of human history, civilizations have developed a broad range of techniques for making it rain. Dancing for the gods. Cloud seeding. Throwing a fistful of singles in the air at a strip club. In Kumo Lumo, a mere tap of your finger is all it takes to unleash a torrent.
You are Lumo, a cloud, full to bursting with precious droplets. Below you, forests thirst for water, whales lie dormant in unfilled aquaria, and grinning teacups yearn to be filled—while raygun-wielding foxes threaten to burn it all to the ground. Yeah, Kumo Lumo gets weird fast, but the insanity complements a fun premise that’s derailed at times by imprecise controls. Touching Lumo slides him around the screen. Touching anywhere else rotates the ground beneath you. Too often, I tried to move Lumo into position only to wildly spin the planet below, sending my fluffy friend catapulting through the sky into the black storm clouds that end the game. It’s not a game-breaker, but it does interfere with what’s otherwise an enjoyable experience.
Kumo Lumo oozes cuteness, from its vivid paper cutout graphics to its penchant for giving every single enemy a name. (“You have been evaporated by Steve,” it cheerfully informs you.) And while every “mission” involves dumping rain on one thing or another, at only 36 short levels, the whole thing ends before boredom sets in.