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Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Years ago I dated a girl who loved Animal Crossing. Her friends loved Animal Crossing too. That’s not surprising…it was a massively popular game. I had nothing against it; I’d just never played it.

They booted it up one day and passed me a controller and helped me start a new character. I had no control over what my character would look like, and as soon as the game started I was responsible for paying off a home loan and making pointless deliveries to animal-people I didn’t know or care about.

That was the game. Also I had to be extra nice all the time to the animal-people or they’d move out and then, I guess, I’d feel bad about it.

Animal Crossing: New LeafIt didn’t click with me. I got nothing out of it. Again, it was a hugely popular game so I figured I just wasn’t cut out for it. There was no appeal. As Mario I could rescue a princess and as Link I could swordfight and as Olimar I could command armies…but Animal Crossing just gave me a dead-end job in a virtual town and that didn’t feel like enough of an escape from my dead-end job in my real town.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago, however, and I got Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I love it. Genuinely, truly, I think it’s a brilliant game. Even though, from what I can remember at least, it’s very similar to the game that left me cold so long ago.

Things change. Contexts shift. The world spins underneath you and if you’re not paying attention you end up in a different place altogether.

I’m in a different place altogether.

And Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a perfect — I’m not using that word lightly — little Zen garden.

It’s what I need.

The game doesn’t just give you a virtual town full of virtual trees to shake and virtual clothes to wear and virtual bees to chase you around.

Animal Crossing: New LeafIt gives you a place to breathe.

Does it sound sad that someone — anyone — would have to turn to a video game in order to find a place to catch their breath? I don’t think so.

We all need to find a place like that.

Usually, for me, it’s in a book.

Other times it’s in a particularly insightful film.

Sometimes it’s in a conversation over a cup of coffee with somebody I care about deeply and may never see again.

This time, it’s digital. And it’s a world wherein I can rely on things.

Sure, I can hurt the feelings of the animal-people…but why would I? If I’m asked to deliver a package from the frog to the ostrich, I could keep it for myself…or I could follow through and get words of grateful excitement from her. The characters in Animal Crossing appreciate everything you do. They may only be characters…but that kind of appreciation always feels good.

Which is what impressed me about the game most of all. When I first started playing New Leaf I thought I’d go into it with ironic detachment. Why not? A silly little isolated village with its sunshine and rainbows and friendliness? Come on. So I named it Narcisso in tribute to the complex, layered deviousness of the central city in The Crying of Lot 49 and posted silly things on the town message board.

But…that didn’t last.

Animal Crossing: New LeafBecause, without ever censoring me or pleading with me or forcing me to change my attitude…Animal Crossing changed my attitude. It disarmed me…

Sure. I could post mean things. And I could anger my villagers. And I could chop down all the trees.

Go for it, the game said.

But while you do that…the rest of the characters will be over here. Enjoying themselves. And appreciating each other. And, well, being happy.

A lot of games struggle to keep players interested in doing good. They funnel you on a path toward the villain. They prevent you from sending profanity to friends. They oppressively lower your gun if you aim at a friendly character.

Animal Crossing simply makes good behavior preferable.

Want to piss off the aardvark in your neighborhood? Good. You can. But if you’re doing that…why are you doing that?

Wouldn’t you rather share a moment with that aardvark on the beach at sunset? Wouldn’t you want to be her penpal when she reaches out to you because she’s lonely? Wouldn’t you want to make her day by changing into that t-shirt she was so excited to give you just because you’re you and she appreciates that?

It’s addictively, disarmingly, sweet.

It’s a virtual town, as silly and pointless as that virtual, silly, pointless town I tried to enjoy years ago.

But I’m in a different place now…and the value of having a place to breathe — a town that will always have a place for me, no matter what — is immediately apparent to me in a way that it never was before.

We can play a war game because, in reality, we’d never be able to survive a war. We can play a game about a post-apocalyptic wasteland because, in reality, we’d never want to see one. With Animal Crossing we can play a game about making others happy…because we know, in reality, it’s never that easy.

It’s no substitute for the real thing.

Animal Crossing: New LeafNothing ever is.

But it’s nice, sometimes, to visit a world in which comfort and appreciation are reliable aspects of daily life.

The sky is blue, the water is clear, and the dog plays guitar for you on Saturday nights.

It’s your world.

Because, in reality, it’s not.

And as long as it’s yours, you might as well make it a great place to be.

Hello everybody! It’s been ages since I posted anything so how about I post something! I’m kind of in the middle of a move and sorting some other things out so hopefully we can get things cleared up and I’ll be back to posting partially-informed horseshit again, or maybe I’ll finally do those Venture Bros. reviews I promised…but until then, why not unwind with a game so cheap, you can buy it with two quarters and get change? (You can’t really, because your payment has to be made digitally.)

As always, click pictures to enlargenate.

Bad Rats:  The Rats' Revenge

Yes, it’s Bad Rats: The Rats’ Revenge, the game so nice they named it twice! …but then only used one of the names anywhere in the game. Seriously, I never saw “The Rats’ Revenge” anywhere but the page from which I bought the game. I guess they realized at some point that it wasn’t technically revenge if the animal they spend all their time killing never did anything to them in the first place but WHAT DO I KNOW.

The game opens with a series of spotlights on computer generated mice (or rats, I guess) as they gear up independently to murder a cat. The cat in question stands on his hind legs and moves his head back and forth in the universal gesture for “fretfulness.” It looks like something I could have put together in 1997 on that stupid 3D rendering program that came with my computer, and it makes the “Money For Nothing” music video look like Wall-E.

Bad Rats:  The Rats' Revenge

Then we get a menu screen where all of the choices are inconveniently written in illegible graffiti, I guess in order to appeal to all the gang members who really want to play an animal-based physics puzzler, but just wouldn’t otherwise feel like it relates to them.

The little rat in the cannon keeps firing himself at the cat in the cage, and the cat is just south of shitting himself in fear. Already this is like Tom and Jerry Go to Gitmo.

I start the game and Jesus goodness does this look horrible.

Bad Rats:  The Rats' Revenge

Of course that’s nothing compared to how it sounds. I start the tutorial, because that’s what’s being recommended to me as a new player, and I really want to properly understand how to insert bamboo shoots underneath the cat’s fingernails. A level begins…with a narrator talking to me.

Only it’s not a narrator. Not a human one anyway.

It’s one of those auto-generated Microsoft voices, with the oddly clipped speech and improper stressing of syllables. They couldn’t even pay an intern $20 to record an introduction? This is cheapness in a way that I’ve never actually seen in a game before, and for some reason this robo-narrator leaves out articles, so that he says things like, “Your objective is to hit ball into vault.”

Or whatever he said.

I couldn’t catch it because I was baffled by why they’d program a grammatically stunted autobot into game to serve as narrator when surely they could have at least asked a friend or family member to read the instructions like…well…a human being.

The game invites me to press the “play” button, and I do. This results in time unfreezing. A ball falls pointlessly out of the air and the cat chained up in the corner starts realizing how wasted its life has been.

Bad Rats:  The Rats' Revenge

The narrator brokenly instructs me to pause the game so that I can place other things on the screen, which will affect the ball and, with luck, will ultimately result in a chained and defenseless animal being disemboweled. I didn’t write down exactly what the narrator said, but I am comfortable assuming it was “Now to be using an pause buttons result for object placing.”

So I place a little rat with a baseball bat underneath the ball. He swats the ball against the wall a few times and then loses interest even faster than I do. That is to say pretty fuckin’ fast.

Bad Rats: The Rats' Revenge

Time to try again, I guess. This time I pile up a bunch of garbage so that the rat can hit the ball up the plywood board or something, which should knock the safe down onto the cat who totally deserves this, but it doesn’t work. The ball bounces out of reach but the rat keeps swinging his bat for no reason as neither he nor the game realizes the ball’s stopped completely.

For a tutorial this is pretty difficult. I don’t mean it’s overbearingly hard or anything, but the point of a tutorial, I thought, was to tell you what to do. Otherwise it’s not a tutorial; it’s just a level with robo-Borat bleating at you for a few seconds.

I try to place the rat next to the cat so that he can just blindly pummel him to death with the baseball bat, but it doesn’t work.

Bad Rats: The Rats' Revenge

I move every item around in every possible configuration, but nothing makes the rat hit the ball into the safe. This is probably because the physics in this game are fucking terrible. The board, for example, can be used as a slope, but when you’re moving it around it might or might not actually adjust its angle, which means you have to keep trying again and again, doing the same thing every time, for it to finally decide to rest properly against something rather than just hover at an impossible slope.

That rat is floating in the air because I moved him there to get him out of the way, and I pressed “play” accidentally before moving him back. He fell onto the concrete and blood came out of him.

Hilarious.

Bad Rats: The Rats' Revenge

By trying the same thing I’ve already tried fifteen times, the rat hits the ball into the safe and the cat’s dead, with its guts and gore splashing all over everything because that’s funny.

To someone.

I assume.

I mean, hey, I’m all for violence as comedy…but isn’t there more to it than dropping something heavy onto somebody WHO THEN DIES?

Bad Rats: The Rats' Revenge

Level 2 begins with a text window explaining that I need to hit the ball into the bomb this time, in order to blow up the cat. Why couldn’t they have just done that with the previous level? Or do they think tutorials by definition have to include a robot haltingly piecing together its first English sentence?

Somehow I don’t think I’m going to be sticking with this game very long, but as long as I’m here I guess I might as well fucking blow up somebody’s beloved pet, huh?

Bad Rats: The Rats' Revenge

I don’t know what the hell to do so I place some rats and a trampoline and some balloons, and one of the rats explodes on the ground and his head comes off, spinning around with the spinal column flailing behind it and what, in all seriousness, the fuck, is this shit.

Bad Rats: The Rats' Revenge

Fun fact: if you take too long to blow the cat into a shower of scorched fur and bone fragments, it will begin to pray for mercy.

HAHAHAHA!! That dumb cat!!!!! He’s so desperate for any kind of comfort at all that he’ll try anything!!!! Anyway, time to kill him!!!!

Or, you know what? Fuck this game.

As a much better game put it, a man chooses…a slave obeys.

I don’t care if the objective is to kill this cat and enjoy the blood geyser. Bad Rats: The Rats’ Sadistic Bloodfuck isn’t convincing me that this needs to be my objective.

This game is crap. It looks and controls like garbage. The endlessly looping soundtrack is that kind of generic guitar music they’d play on sitcoms in the 90s to suggest that those kids with their crazy tunes and their slap bracelets are just so different!

Bad Rats: The Rats' Revenge

It’s a physics puzzler without reliable physics. I’ve played through one and a half stages, and sometimes the same exact setup works in vastly different ways. I have a feeling I was supposed to solve the first puzzle with something more clever than “pile all the shit on top of all the other shit,” but it worked so fuck it.

The game design is more offensive to me than the concept, even if that concept does involve gutting helpless creatures as they plead for their lives. But as long as that is the concept?

I’d rather not, thanks. I’ve got better things to do with my day than indulge this deranged fantasy. It’s the kind of thing somebody in your eighth grade math class was doodling every day in his notebook.

If you’ll remember, you sat as far away from that kid as possible.

Bad Rats: The Rats’ Revenge
Released: July 20, 2009
Price on Steam: $0.49
Regular Price on Steam: $4.99
Price It Should Be on Steam: The market value of one severed rat-head trailing its spinal column.

Turtle Tale name contest

Friend of the website Tony Miller got in touch with me to let me know about a contest he’s organized with Saturnine Games. You can read the whole thing here, but the short version is that their upcoming 3DS eShop game, Turtle Tale, stars a hero that still doesn’t have a name. But you can fix that:

From now until May 31st you can submit name ideas through a number of various outlets. You can go to Twitter and tweet your ideas to @SaturnineGames and @Nintendo_Okie. Be sure to include #nametheturtle in your post. You can send an email to nametheturtle@nintendo-okie.com. If you’ve got a Facebook account you can go to the Saturnine Games page or the Nintendo Okie Facebook Group and submit your ideas there. Entries can be submitted through all of the various means, but please don’t spam the same name to them all, be creative.

Anyone can enter, but if you live in North America and happen to be one of their favorite entries, you’ll also get a free download code for their excellent game Antipole. And I’m not just saying that…when I got the chance to curate my own shelf in the 3DS eShop last summer, this was one of my selections. Here’s why, if you don’t remember. It’s pretty awesome.

Anyway, that’s all…just wanted to pass on the information. Now get turtle namin’!

Lego City UndercoverI think video games sometimes forget that their job, at heart, is to be fun. Too many of them, especially those churned out by the largest developers, feel as though they’ve been designed by committee. They attempt to do so much and yet end up appealing to nobody. Those seeking a challenge are turned off by how easy they are, and those seeking escape are turned off by how complicated they are.

Games want to be bigger, louder, and more complex. But we don’t play games because they’re big and loud and intimidating…we play them because we want to enjoy ourselves.

I love Lego City Undercover, because “fun” seems to have been its guiding virtue during development. It positively pulses with charm and possibility. It creates a world that’s an absolute joy to explore. And that’s all it does.

Oh sure, you can unlock new vehicles, and switch from costume or costume to unlock new parts of the map. You can find hidden items and compete in races and scale the tallest buildings. But that’s just because you can do anything. This isn’t a game…it’s a universe. And it’s brilliant.

I don’t like that games are so terrified of being themselves that they feel like they have to be everything else at once. I like it when some major title manages to buck the trend simply by saying, “Here’s what I am. I hope you like me…but if you don’t, no hard feelings.”

Because all Lego City Undercover had to do was give us a loveable little Lego man to guide around a fantastically impressive plastic metropolis. Maybe we solve some crimes along the way. Maybe we cause trouble. Or maybe we just climb to the top of the tallest sky scraper and admire the view, appreciating the world of possibility that stretches out in every direction.

It’s always a beautiful day in Lego City. The game doesn’t feel the need to go dark, to take itself seriously, or to worry about how it’s going to be received.

No matter how we feel, Lego life goes on. And that’s exactly the kind of confidence that wins me over.

It’s a great game. I still haven’t seen everything it has to offer, and there’s a reason for that: I’m just enjoying my stay.

Metroidvania is not a thing.

It isn’t. Or, at least, it’s not a thing that should have that particular term appended to it.

“Metroidvania” is a classifying term gamers use to refer to video games, usually 2D, that restrict or grant progress based on the items you have. It typically takes place in a large world comprised of smaller sections. As you find items and upgrades for your character, you can explore more and more of that large world, and usually even find additional treasure and passages hidden in previous areas.

If it sounds like I’m describing Metroid here, that’s because I am. And if it doesn’t sound like I’m describing Castlevania here, that’s because I’m not.

The term “Metroidvania” is an obvious portmanteau of those two series. But there’s a problem, because Castlevania has fuckall to do with the formula.

See, when Metroid was released, this sort of gradual progression in all directions was a relatively new navigational approach for video games. Whenever a game was released afterward that followed a similar mechanic, it was usually classified as Metroid-like. Just as games that offered a stage select were often compared to Mega Man, and games that featured you jumping on enemies to kill them were compared to Super Mario Bros.

Castlevania began life as a simple — though very good — side scroller with a Hollywood-Gothic horror theme. The antagonist was typically Dracula, and the protagonist was a vampire hunter (typically of the Belmont lineage) who set out to destroy him. You fought with a whip or similar weapon through linear stages. Sub-weapons were temporary, there was no backtracking, little in the way of alternate paths, and no permanent upgrades of any kind.

In other words, it was nothing at all like Metroid.

Eventually however Konami struck rightful gold with Symphony of the Night, which was a lot like Metroid. The entire game takes place in Dracula’s castle, and you progress by collecting upgrades in the forms of items and abilities. It was, and is, a great game. And thus, “Metroidvania” was born.

Symphony of the Night — along with its similarly-themed quasi-sequels — is about the only time the term “Metroidvania” makes any sense to use. After all, it combined elements of Metroid and Castlevania.

Since then, however, the term has been thrown around to encompass anything even remotely Metroid-like, whether or not it incorporates any elements of Castlevania whatsoever. Somehow these two games — despite one being a series-wide approach and the other being a series exception — got hybridized in the cultural consciousness and had a genre of their own named after them.

But that doesn’t work. Or shouldn’t work. “Metroidvania” only makes sense if the game being described contains elements similar to each of those series, and, really, nearly always, that’s not the case. A game in which you explore a funhouse or something, throwing pies at clowns and gradually opening passages can be like Metroid. It doesn’t sound to me, though, like it could possibly be anything like Castlevania. So why would we call it a “Metroidvania?”

I find it interesting that one singular game could be looked at as Metroid‘s equivalent in defining the genre…and I also find it inaccurate. Symphony of the Night borrowed Metroid‘s approach. It added its own elements, yes, but those are not the elements that define most other games that have since fallen under the classification.

The fact that the term “Metroidvania” exists speaks volumes about how immediately important Symphony of the Night was to gaming. But nearly always, “Metroidvania” is a misnomer.

That game you’re playing where you’re seeking jump upgrades and better bombs to blast open new doors? It’s a lot like Metroid. It’s nothing like Castlevania. It is, I’ll grant you, a lot like Symphony of the Night. But Symphony of the Night was a lot like Metroid, so let’s not complicate things.

It’s Metroid-like. Unless it isn’t.

And it usually, unquestionably, is.

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