Oh Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, why do you make me hate you when I really want to love you.

Maybe hate it too strong. But your hacking minigame… why do you penalize me for success?

See, here’s the thing. You tell me all the time how much you love me to get those chains, those wonderful times when you match up multiple colors in multiple directions… tiles slide around, novas go off… it’s all so wonderful and exciting and a key to winning any combat encounter.

But when hacking, it’s a bad thing. See, I have no problem with you timing me while hacking. It adds a bit of extra thrill, a little spice. But you keep the timer going while those chains are going off, which penalizes me for actually being good. And if you need to get, say, a purple match and the next is blue, you toss out the blue one if it happens simultaneously with the purple one.

Lord knows I can’t quit you. But that little bit of impatience, that inability to occasionally stop time for me… you’re really starting to piss me off.

Ooh, pretty

I’ve been using my PS3 a lot lately, and not just as a very nice DVD player.

Like everyone else, I like Flower quite a bit. I suppose I should wax poetically about its agency, or its silent narrative, or whatever pseudo-academic buzzwords people are trying to impose on “the way we talk about games” so we can all feel smarter about our favorite button-mashing wish-fulfillment fantasies. Instead, I’ll just say it’s a game that fills me with much joy.

And that’s largely due to the sense of flight. Playing it, I was instantly reminded of how enjoyable the pure act of flying around pretty environments is, and how that’s been lost over the years as we all became bald space marines fighting for humanity and legal steroids on terra brown. Flight simulators became so complex that the mere act of taking off was a chore; getting to a point where you could just enjoy the virtual sensation of swooping around was nearly impossible.

I was also reminded of how many hardcore gamers missed out on Myst, because it was much cooler to hate it than to play it. Flower is a lot like Myst, at least in terms of presenting a sadly beautiful world with machinery. It has puzzles, in the sense of “Do X to trigger Y, then advance.”

And of course the final level of mind-blowingly wonderful, and a perfect example of something I really dig about games: visibly changing the world through your actions. Fable II has this, on a slightly smaller level, and so does Flower. (Da Blob is an even better example; I’ve not played the Wii version, but I played the student demo a lot on the PC.)

So I guess Flower is Myst meets Flight Unlimited, only with extra hot plant-on-plant action. The only negative: I wish it didn’t have a score, or at least it was used more sparingly and just gave you the sounds of the wind and the grass. Instead, the entire game sounds like a Yoga video. Maybe John Tesh can score the sequel.

Now Noby Noby Boy, or is it Nobi Nobi Boy? I have no clue what the fuck that is. I played it for a couple of hours, at least I think I played it. I walked around, pooped out a few sheep, grew to impossibly large sizes, ate my own ass, and made some futile attempt to read menus that were scrolling off the top of the screen.

It's so Fabley

There were plenty of terrific games in 2008, and since I no longer get them for free, I was only able to sample a tiny sliver of them. Bah.

But first, some notes: I didn’t play that many shooters this year. For some inexplicable reason, I picked up “Quantum of Solace” (yikes), but never bothered with “Call of Duty: World at War.”

For the most part, I’ve stopped playing MMOs. “Age of Conan” was a dud for the month I bashed my way through it. I bought “Warhammer,” plus a three-month pass, but haven’t even opened the box (if anyone wants to buy it, let me know), and I totally skipped “Wrath of the Lich King.”

Finally, there were some other games that fell into the “close, but no cigar” category: Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution (360); Age of Booty (360); Tomb Raider: Underworld (PC); and Lego Indiana Jones (360)

So, without further ado:

I'm the Prince of Emo

I’m easily annoyed, so don’t read too much into what’s included on this list. I “finished” only one of these games, so feel free to dismiss my views by that criteria too.

Also to keep in mind: These aren’t the worst of the year by any measure as I don’t play nearly as many bad games as I used to. (Oddly enough, I miss the terrible, terrible games.)

I was tempted to put “Spore” on this list, but it wasn’t that annoying. Or interesting, for that matter. And I loved the Creature Creator too much to dismiss it outright.

So, here goes:

As some people who followed the Computer Games Magazine saga are aware, we finished our May 2007 issue in the first week of March, sent it to the printers, and were then told it wouldn’t be printed and were all laid off. (And by “all of us,” it was mainly myself and our art guy at that point. Other people stayed around longer to shut things down.)

Anyway, our featured review that month was of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, the oh-so-controversial big MMO of early 2007. We had a tag-team, three-man review of the game, by myself, Tom Chick, and Kelly Wand.

I was rummaging through some files and found the text. I think it was a lot of fun to read. (It was especially fun to do; at least it was when Kelly wasn’t getting me killed.)

So, here it is (hah hah, Tom Chick gave it 4 stars):

Top 10OK, a few ground rules: I don’t own a Nintendo DS. I haven’t played Mass Effect or The Witcher. And I probably didn’t play your favorite game, or I didn’t like it. So there.

Notable games that didn’t make the cut: Crysis and Call of Duty 4. The former made the latter’s linearity and heavily scripted gameplay feel very, very tired, and I’ve already documented how much Crysis ultimately disappointed me.

So, here’s the list.

Call of Duty 4

It’s hard for me to gauge my feelings on this game because I played it in its entirety after I’d started Crysis (but hadn’t reached its sucking bits). Its linear, heavily scripted gameplay—even when implemented with as much skill as Infinity Ward delivers here—feels tired and dull compared to the open-endedness of Crysis. Yeah, all of those in-engine scripted scenes are amazing. But we all get the same amazing scenes, and we all play it the same way. (I didn’t try multiplayer, and I’m told it’s fantastic. I also played it on the 360 instead of the PC, only because I borrowed it rather than bought it.)

Still, a few segments stood out. The sniper mission is brilliant, beautifully capturing a feeling of dread and panic that you’ll be detected. (The fact that you and your companion look like Treebeard is a bonus.) The only goofy part is crawling under a parade of cars in the open; in a “real” scenario, you’d probably just go around the soldiers.

The second is an airborne attack, where sit in a plane high above the action coldly launching bombs, rockets, and various other implements of death at little white dots that scurry about. That those dots are people—and the fact your fellow soldiers in the plane are constantly offering accolades when you score a good hit—probably says more about modern war than any Hollywood polemic. And it was so obvious that there’d be collateral damage, though that’s never discussed.

Whether or not Infinity Ward designed it to be unsettling or not (and in the context of a game that’s mostly “rah rah, soldiers are fucking badass!” I’m going to go with “no”), it disturbed me. While the game makes it clear you’re fighting against “very bad people,” it made modern war seem horribly unfair, particularly when contrasted against most games being forced to “balance” the US versus its enemies for gameplay purposes.

With a week off, I figured I’d catch up on my backlog of games. Some old, some new. Some borrowed, some… blah

First up, Crysis.

Oh dear.

I wanted to love it, I really did.

My most anticipated game of the year turns out to be my biggest disappointment. The people that gave it such high reviews must either dig the multiplayer or have stopped playing about mid-way through the game. Because for its first half, it’s the greatest sandbox combat simulator ever, 100% worthy of its 98s and 5-stars, and 10/10 cups of drool.

You can create these amazing stories, like the time I was being chased by a helicopter, cloaked, ran into a building… and then the helicopter started launching rockets into all the buildings, eventually hitting mine, causing it to collapse on my head and kill me. That’s not a scripted scene like you find in Call of Duty 4. (More on that one later.) Another favorite was driving my Hummer into a village, hop out, let it roll into the middle, then shoot out its rather conveniently placed above-bumper-placed gas can and have the vehicle explode into a fiery ball, taking out half the soldiers. I did that twice.

But once it hits the “zero-g” segment, crikey. That entire stretch is a total momentum killer. (And to think I’d signed up a cover story just to reveal this segment; it would have been our June issue, I believe.) Poor controls, vague objectives, confusing and boring layouts. There’s even a stretch where you get to sit around for a few minutes waiting.

And once you emerge from this boring stretch, you’re hit with chaos. And not the good kind of chaos, like you get in a firefight. It’s the kind where you die and have no idea how or why. You also get stretches where your framerate dips into the single digits. You get boss fights that are comically bad. You get a horrible flying segment. You get… oh, forget it. It’s just terrible from start to finish. Some of the gameplay segments appear to be engine showcases more than good design decisions. (“Look, see? We can do that! Sign up our engine today!”)

Why doesn’t Crytek trust the brilliance of its core gameplay? This game could have been escalating military action from start to finish and been “Game of the Year” material. Instead, it’s just another shooter too obsessed with throwing “new stuff” at the player every hour.

Clearly, this game was ahead of its time.

Bill and Saddam

I hate Spring Mario.

There, I said it. I hate something about Super Mario Galaxy.

If I posted this on a forum, I’d be flamed. My opinions on gaming would no longer have any validity. I’d probably be called an anti-Semite racist for good measure too.

It’s amazing how much of a free pass people give Nintendo, especially a Mario game. If anyone else released this exact game, every review would be full of criticisms: Too little health, too much “try and die” gameplay, too linear, etc. Instead, it’s mostly, “Best Game Ever Made!”

Let’s use one example. You have three health, with an occasional red mushroom that doubles it. (These are usually found before a boss battle.) To offset the decrease in health, Galaxy has occasional save points within a galaxy, and there are plenty of ways to get an extra life. (By the end of any session, I’ll typically have twenty or more… of course they reset back to five every time you reload. Bah.)

But let’s say another game does this, say something with space marines or a dude with a gun. People would be screaming that repeatedly killing off the player isn’t gameplay or game design, it’s sadism. Why isn’t it more next-gen? What about letting the player save anywhere? Where’s the open-endedness? Why is there no player choice? Where’s the branching narrative?

None of these are particularly great criticisms of Super Mario Galaxy, but no one would dare raise any of these kinds of issues for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s never had these features. Of course it never was in 3D until Mario 64, so I’m not sure why we don’t expect it to evolve more with the times. Super Mario Galaxy isn’t exactly a re-imagining of the franchise for the Wii—it’s merely a better version of Super Mario Sunshine—but no one would accuse Nintendo of resting on its laurels, of not challenging its players, of not pushing gaming forward.

You don’t dare criticize a big Nintendo game. You would receive so much hate, threats, people saying you hate gaming (and possibly Jesus), and attacks on your overall credibility for daring to offer (possibly legitimate) criticism.

Like Spring Mario. I fucking hate Spring Mario. Yeah, a spring wrapped around Mario. It’s cute. But who thought it was a good idea to take the best thing about a Mario game—running! jumping!—and throwing it out to make the movement horrible, and the jumping even more horrible? And why would you build entire levels around horrible movement and jumping?

So can you love Super Mario Galaxy and hate Spring Mario? Probably not. Clearly I hate gaming. And freedom. The terrorists have won.

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