For years, I managed to stand by my “don’t buy any mobile games” policy, but when I saw several Android games appear on many people’s game of the year lists a month ago, I had to drop twenty-five smackers on a Google Play gift card and swallow my pride like the engorged mass of organic matter I am. These aren’t entire reviews of these games; I’m not sure I could manage a full review of most of these. Think of these as blurbs, intended to support or degrade people’s positive consensuses. It’s time to get crazy.
Fez is an independently released piece of video game software. In Fez, the player controls a slow-moving white character solving a variety of mind-bending puzzles that force him or her to manipulate their perspective of a level to advance. The player rotates the world across the x- and y-axes to accomplish this. The game utilizes ascetic lines and a minimalist soundtrack as its aesthetic. It was released to mostly positive reviews in 2012.
Monument Valley is an independently released piece of video game software. In Monument Valley, the player controls a slow-moving character solving a variety of mind-bending puzzles that force him or her to manipulate their perspective of a level to advance. The player rotates the world across the x- and y-axes to accomplish this. The game utilizes ascetic lines and a minimalist soundtrack as its aesthetic. It was released to mostly positive reviews in 2014.
I stated previously that I hated Fez, and I still do. It’s boring. Whenever you get stuck, the solution to a puzzle tends to be shifting the world to one of three different angles. This means every puzzle can be solved in, at most, three moves. You moved too slow, so the game had a tendency to drag, too. There were too many moments where platforming was punished by making you walk halfway through the level you’re in again. It’s a bad sign when a game thinks that an appropriate consequence for failure is making you endure more from it.
Monument Valley was released 2 years after Fez. It is also a much worse game.
A lot of people pretended that Monument Valley was the apex of originality. It isn’t. I just wrote two paragraphs about how unoriginal it is. When it isn’t directly copying Fez‘s notes, it’s inadvertently doing things the game did anyway. Everything in Monument Valley, from the art style to the gameplay to the puzzles to the core mechanics to the music to the cutscenes harkens to Fez. This isn’t the peak of creativity; this is, fittingly, the bottom of the valley.
Puzzle solving in Monument Valley is a chore, just as it is in Fez. The only challenge is seeing how long you can put up with the game. Almost every puzzle in the game can be solved almost immediately. Most are matters of following a path to its eventual conclusion and tapping that spot. It’s like those puzzles where you have to see which squiggly line will lead the mouse to the cheese, or the cops to the robbers, or the who to the soever; except if you only had one line to trace.
The only puzzles in Monument Valley that you’ll get stuck on are ones where you don’t realize that you can twirl something or lower a platform. It’s a game that tricks with your perspective in the wrong ways. You’ll spend five minutes at a time trying to work through a solution, only to realize there was an out-of-the-way lever you missed the whole time. This is entirely the wrong way to do puzzles. A good puzzle makes you go “I got it!” Monument Valley‘s make you go “Oh, I didn’t see that there. I probably… uh… I wish I’d… mmph.” The only time you’re lost is when you’re not informed of the puzzle itself. You can’t be difficult through misinformation. It’s like trying to solve a fifty-piece puzzle with all the pieces cardboard side up. And, of course, when I finally did see the bit of the level that I’d been missing, I deduced the solution almost immediately. I guarantee you could do the same.
The game sports one type of enemy, which is fine, since the only way to keep puzzles interesting here without being dumb is directly impeding your progression. What is bad is when those enemies squawk every time they get close to you. It’s one of the single most obnoxious things I’ve ever heard in a video game.
Your movement in Monument Valley is unbearably slow. You move at roughly the speed a Belmont would, if that Belmont had his legs shackled together. This makes puzzles that are less “interact-and-do-things” and more “tap-one-part-of-the-screen” tedious, and it’s why I said the game tests your stamina more than your wits. These are just fucking waiting, and they’re so common. The game finds interesting ways to exploit Escher geometries and make it look like you’re doing something difficult or interesting or… anything!… but you’re just sitting there. You don’t even need to hold forward or anything. This really is the biggest problem with Monument Valley. It’s the exact same deal as with Galaxy 2, except on a grander scale. In Galaxy 2, there was at least a fairly sound mechanical framework underneath the fun-to-look-at, not-to-play levels. In Monument Valley, the art is the selling point. This is literally an entire game built around making you look at the pretty scenery they drew around an over-glorified forward path.
I’ll provide a few examples of how easy the puzzles are and how little the player has to do to solve them.
With all that said, this game does have one half-good level. The sixth chapter, The Labyrinth, starts off slow, but eventually becomes pretty engaging. The final few puzzles in this chapter were the only times I really felt like my mind was melded in an appropriate, fair way. It’s also nice that the Totem actually needs to be moved with your finger. This removes the infuriating sections of watching your character peter along. It’s the closest the game comes to being good, and I actually found myself wishing for more when it was over. If the entire game was like that, I wouldn’t have been so hard on it.
I’d be in remiss if I didn’t compliment the art. As much of a hindrance as it is to the game as a whole, it’s apparent that a lot of effort went into it. I guess I’m glad it wound up going somewhere. The use of gradients vs. hard colors, perfectly-laid changes in shade, and contrasting lines are really gorgeous to look at. The things actually being drawn are bland at times – most of it is just the kind of things you’d see in a book of optical illusions – but there are a few detailed architectures strewn about here, and they look phenomenal.
I guess maybe you’ll like this game if you ignore the unbearable gameplay as you might a really, really slow slideshow of artwork. Myself, I’d prefer to play a game with great art that doesn’t oft make me twiddle my thumbs for upwards of ten seconds at a time, thanks.
As I said in the Freedom Planet review, though, there’s one saving grave of Fez‘s that makes me excuse some of its shortcomings (other than not ripping off successful games). Fez had heart. It was Phil Fish’s soul, in a way. He said so. I saw Indie Game. Monument Valley has… um… a presentation people usually act gung ho about to feel smarter about themselves. You kind of get it if you look at it for half a second, so nobody needs to think that hard about it. It asks nothing of the consumer, yet allows the consumer to seem cultured and tasteful. In fact, the one positive thing about Monument Valley – that I’m able to play it whenever I’m too bored to do anything else on my phone – probably just exists as a way to tap into a market Fez hasn’t touched. It’s actually really problematic that this kind of game can find widespread praise. If this somehow built upon Fez, I could see it being worthwhile, but as it stands, this is just stealing.
The story is pretentious nonsense. I played through almost all this game in one sitting, so I know I didn’t miss or forget anything. This just doesn’t mean anything.
I guess this is probably symbolism for transcendence, but it’s not like it’s saying anything. What is it supposed to mean? That if you solve a bunch of puzzles you and your enemies become birds and you become their princess? That if you spend enough time appreciating Escher geometries you can save everybody else from… something? That if you complete a long journey and put a flower onto a tomb, everybody else forgives you? Do you appreciate how none of this means anything? The game is merely an hour and a half long, but not because it ran out of ideas or thoroughly explored its mechanics in a short time or some such nonsense. It’s just because its developers wanted to sell another half of the game for an added cost, and more people will buy a game for three dollars than they will for six.
It doesn’t even have a difficulty curve. The first three or so levels are easiest, I guess, but it never rises above “simpleton” levels of simplicity.
Monument Valley received near-universal praise, somehow, and that makes me sad. It shows that anything that presents itself as a legitimate game on a mobile platform or which superficially appears to have some depth will get reamed with awards. That’s asinine. If this had been released through any other outlet, it’d have gotten flak or being a mediocre rip-off of Fez, and it deserves the same flak on Google Play. Even if Fez had never existed, the perspective changes here would have been cute for a minute, and then nobody would talk about it again.
FINAL SCORE: 3.5/10
Mo’ Valley, mo’ problems.
Ridiculous Fishing is satiating. My experience with Vlambeer before playing this game has mostly been one of disappointment, in the way one gets disappointed then they unsuccessfully prop a door open using their foot and slam it in some old lady’s face. It’s frustrating when you can’t get your foot in the door. My first experience with Vlambeer was Vlambeer Clone Tycoon, which, despite being a joke game, was still formative. It got me to understand the creator’s senses of humor and style, and I recommend it to anyone. But it wasn’t the juicy, nuanced, balls-to-the-wall video game I’d heard whispers of I’d craved from the developer. Onward I pressed toward Super Crate Box, which, for all its streamlined interface and phenomenal kinaesthetics, couldn’t work around its randomization. You get a point every time you pick up a crate, so the objective of the game is to get as many crates as possible. The problem is that the game randomly switches whatever weapon you’re carrying to a different one. You have no way around this, so there’s no real way to keep scoring competitive. More importantly, it’s not fun to play. A lot of the weapons are really boring to use, and others are upsetting to lose. You could get the minigun. You could get the double pistols. You could get the disc gun.
This was getting out of hand. I loved Vlambeer, conceptually. Its two developers seem like really nice guys. Their philosophies are smart and relatable, but never overbearing. Most vitally, they’re funny, and their comedy and heart and passion is really apparent in their games. Most most vitally, their fucking logo is a bear on fire.
I’d tried all the free games I could. It became apparent that I was going to have to try something drastic: spend money on a video game. I coughed up the cash and bought Ridiculous Fishing. I played it nonstop for about a day after. It was liberating. This was the Vlambeer game I’d been searching for for so long.
I guess I should probably stress now that I actually think this game is a little overrated. It has a lot of problems, and those should come to light here. Too many people are treating it like it perfect, but I stipulate they only think that because it’s a phone game. On the plus side, no one is forcing this game down my throat, and it isn’t hurting the industry in any tangible way,
so I’m willing to forgive most of its sins. What’s important here is that it’s one of the most addictive, endlessly satisfying games you’ll ever play.
This is one of those games that’s best criticized through description. That means that I’m going to blabber on about how everything in this game works and pretend that counts as a review. If you’ve played the game, please don’t feel patronized. You start each round of the game by casting your line. From here, the game is essentially Caverns of Mars, or, if you think more conceptually, it’s a bullet hell where you can’t shoot anything. Your goal at this point is to avoid fish. If you touch one, you start reeling in again. Now, the goal is to touch as many fish as possible to catch them. When you reach the surface, all the first you’ve caught are flung into the air, and you have to shoot all of them… except jellyfish, those are Satan’s brothers in tentacles. Shooting fish earns you money (but jellies deduct it). Earning money lets you buy upgrades. Upgrades give you more firepower, or longer lines, or toasters and hairdryers to take extra hits. The more upgrades you have, the more money you can make. In this way, these three totally different styles of gameplay are interwoven to create a system that reels you in before you take notice.
The main allure of Ridiculous Fishing – I promise, that’s the last one – is the descent. Tilting back and forth feels a little wobbly, but it works better than screen taps or some other typical control scheme. Using tilts makes the control more memorable and gives the game a little bit more challenge. It’s responsive enough here, though, to feel like it isn’t hurting how well you do at the game. In the end, that’s all a control scheme really needs to do.
As you start to play, there’s a great sense of discovery as you delve further down and see different kinds of fish. The game gives lots of incentive to finding new ones. You need to catch a certain number to unlock each of the game’s areas, and you need to collect them all if you’re a completionist.
It’s fun seeing all the different creatures they designed, and you get a little blurb about them that tends to be pretty funny. Sure, it might not be the most deeply visceral or mechanically complex thing in a game, but it’s nice in the same way as visiting a new route in a Pokemon game. This is also where I think the game screams “Vlambeer” the loudest.
When you reach the bottom of the first three areas, you’ll encounter a boss fish. Ooh, mysterious. I won’t spoil what they are, though I will divulge that the last one you find deserves special praise. The game also knows exactly when to give you new tools for finding new creatures. Just getting better at the game is enough to find more and more fish at first, but you also get a flashlight that lets you see at the deepest depths, and each area you unlock offers a huge variety of new fish to collect.
As you advance in the game, you’ll unlock a few upgrades that make the gameplay a little more interesting. I recommend getting the chainsaw first, which allows you to speed up as you’re traveling downward and plow through almost every fish. It demands an extra amount of skill from you to know when you speed up and stay safe or just avoid a fish outright. When fully upgraded, it also allows you to slow your ascent. You can also unlock a toaster and a hair dryer, which both let you sustain an extra hit. Considering the game’s high difficulty without them, you’ll want to get these quickly as well.
One subtlety I really like in the game is the way you slowly turn around when you hook a fish and start your ascent. This little moment has been calculated to be so slow that you have just enough time to, perhaps, catch one more fish. You have even more of a window when you fully upgrade the chainsaw, but it’s never so wide as to seem forgiving. This has lead to screeches so high-pitched, I didn’t know I was capable of them. Some of the most valuable fish I’ve caught and lost were thanks to this instance.
Your ascent more or less inverts the first half of the gameplay. The jellyfish give you enough opposition to keep the game feeling difficult, and there are only more of them the further down you go, so you’re faced with more opposition the better you get at the game. Unfortunately, until you finish your ascent, you can’t actually tell how much a fish is worth, which leads to some confusion. The fish that make you go faster upward, for example, don’t have any extra value, even though they can potentially screw you over and demand more of your reflexes. Goldfish, which are rare and harder to catch, aren’t worth much at all. But it’s not a matter of size; some larger fish of comparable rarity are pretty equal in value. There’s too little rhyme to fish’s cash values, so it’s kind of a crap shoot until you figure everything out. I know I said I liked the discovery of this game, but I don’t want it in Rogue-like form.
Fittingly, the one part of the game that isn’t about traveling as far down into the ocean as possible has the least depth to it. (I promise, that’s the last one for today.) It’s my least favorite part, to the point that it almost made me think I disliked the game. It’s mediocre. The only ways to win are scribbling away on your screen with your finger or tapping like a madman until all the fishes are dead. You need neither rhyme nor reason when you’re shooting. It’s the E. E. Cummings poem of shooting minigames.
There’s some pseudo-depth, but it doesn’t add much. You’re supposed to avoid shooting jellyfish, but there’s not much sense in doing so. You tend to lose more avoiding them, since fish tend to pass over top of one another in an orgy of the scale. Lots of fish behind a jellyfish are worth more than the amount the jelly deducts. It’s like leaving a melanoma in your skin just to avoid a scar. It’s not worth it in the long run.
There are pufferfish you can shoot, which explode and kill other fish, but their blast isn’t strong enough to be that viable as an attack, so they’re really there for nothing. They just sort of appear in the air without you catching them, too, so they feel like they aren’t your catch. It degrades the value of an earnest reel.
The only things that give the shooting any true complexity are the bulkier enemies and the clone jellyfish. The clone jellyfish are my favorite, because they’re unbearably annoying, and they actually give you something to fear. When you shoot them, they don’t die; instead they spawn immortal copies of themselves. They’re nightmarish, and I guarantee you’ll have at least one cast ruined because you didn’t realize what they did and filled up the entire screen with the things. Crabs, starfish, gold pike, and the like are terrific as well. They take a ton of hits, so you’re forced to keep them in aerial purgatory until you deal with smaller fry. It’s like trying to keep a balloon in the air for as long as you can while juggling. They also tend to be some of the most valuable fish in the ocean, so they’re really great. The shooting improves when you get to later seas, so if you’re dissatisfied with it, know that it at least gets tolerable. The best gun in the game is the magnum. There are other weapons that are are more powerful or shoot faster or both, but the magnum is more frantic to use and requires at least a little bit of aiming. Use it if you want to have fun. Just remember that you can use both fingers with the magnum.
So, to recap, Ridiculous Fishing has a great downward section, a good upward section, and an O. K. shooting one Averaging just those together, the game gets a “good” rating, but thanks to all the small details on Vlambeer’s part, the game’s total score is easily bumped into “very good” territory. There are a lot of “well, of course” moments that are only fully appreciated when compared to the mistakes other games make. The menu is sleek and can be totally ignored until you need to buy something or want to read something funny or head to a different location. You can actually pause when you’re underwater, which is more surprising than it should be. As with Super Crate Box, if you can say nothing else of Ridiculous Fishing, you can say that it’s sensible.
The game is strangely kind of beautiful, for a game where you kill fish with toasters and handcannons. The visuals are jagged and darkly outlined, but the art style works to the tone’s advantage. There are some placid moments that are really serene that stand out more because of the game’s drastic art direction. The music is pretty, too. It’s an excellent game to use to unwind.
The only other nitpick I have about the game is that it’s too short. You can buy all the useful upgrades really quickly, so the “oohs” and “aahs” of discovery early on simmer down too quickly. The game is so fun regardless, though, that I know I’ll be playing on its endless stage for a long time to come.
Oh, and the shopkeeper only sells gasoline. This is a total missed opportunity to instead have a chainsaw that runs on Fin Diesel, which would, of course, give this game an official ranking of Chronicles of Riddick–ulous Fishing. As it stands, the game meekly stands at…
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
Ridiculous. No “k.”
Yay, Threes! A game so happy, you literally have to shout its title. There’s no way to get out of it. Let’s give it a look.
We really can’t talk about Threes! without talking about 2048. It’s disheartening, of course, that such an obvious copy can wind up being more popular than its progenitor, but I actually see a lot of optimism in the whole scenario. If you haven’t heard, the gist is this: Threes! was made over quite some time, while 2048, an obvious clone, was churned out in a weekend. That’s undoubtedly sad. I posted a .gif of 2048 below so you can compare just how obviously comparable the two games are. It’s easy to get upset that 2048 became a massive success while Threes! has remained comparatively more obscure. 2048 was an absolute phenomenon. It was completely unavoidable for months, and danced about the spotlight like it was Flappy Bird or Trivia Crack. At the same time, however, I’m not as upset as I should be. Threes! has generated quite an audience in its own right. It might not have been immensely successful, but it ranked highly on Google Play and the App Store, and it won just about every award for mobile game design that didn’t go to Monument Valley. More importantly, it’s sustained an audience longer. People have all but forgotten 2048 completely, but I don’t think you can stop playing Threes! once you’ve started. It’s proof positive that, with enough love and heart and depth and luck, you can make something successful.
Threes! is way better than 2048 anyway. For one, it’s mostly free of 2048’s glaring dominant strategy. You can’t keep pushing down and right until you get a big enough number in Threes!. You actually have to try and think and plan ahead. This is because of Threes!’s superior mechanical design. Two can only ever go with one, so you need to plan in such a way that a one and a two are bound to go together sometime. This is in contrast to 2048, in which you have to push two buttons, and in which 2 is, by far, the most common number. Winning in Threes! isn’t completely luck-based, either. Cards will only spawn from corners, so you have to predict accordingly. And the coup de gras of Threes! is that, the longer you play, the higher the number of cards that appear is. 1 and 2 never go away, but you start to see threes and sixes and so on once you last long enough in a game. Eventually you just have a ton of huge numbers to play with. You can also see what the next number to appear is, so there’s just the right enough amount of guesswork to keep things unpredictable, but fair.
One subtle problem with 2048 is that you have a very apparent goal. Now, here’s the thing. Games are partly narrative. Even a game like Tetris, which has literally no story, has a narrative component rooted in the “story” of your specific playthrough. In a particular run, you might have a string of fantastic Tetrises, you might have a close brush with a misplaced Z-block, and you will nudge just one block one space too far left and see your ten-minute efforts come crumbling down in seconds. And, as with any story, providing a goal in 2048 to work towards focuses its progression. Your human mind is able to do a better job of keeping track of how close you are to the end of the story, so you can direct your attention to other matters. The problem is that 2048 is only as good as its goal. It’s a game that’s supposed to be endlessly replayable, like Tetris, but you never will endlessly replay it. Once you’ve gotten the 2048 card, you’re done. You’ll uninstall it within the week. Everyone does. It’s why so many people’s interests in the game have waned entirely. This is because the game just isn’t very fun. There’s a reason the game immediately tells you “get to 2048!” It’s not because that’s an instruction that needs to be asserted or that the number 2048 is an especially good indicator of skill. The game is scored, so you have something to work toward and a way to confirm how good you are at the game. It isn’t even a matter of the game ending at 2048. Powers of 2 don’t end at eleven, last time I checked. It’s that the game isn’t very fun, so nobody, hypothetically, would want to play it for very long. They needed this arbitrary goal to grab your animal parts quickly. The dumb, easily-addicted part of you that’s prone to getting hooked on games sees the direction as a challenge. Once you plop your ass down and start sliding tiles, you’re done for. This is why the game became a fad.
Instead, Threes! strikes the perfect balance. Both your id and ego have a goal here. You have a number of reasons to want to unlock new multiples of threes. Getting each one is an indicator of your progression, so your narcissism will be glad for that. The game opens with a display of all the cards you’ve collected, and each new card you get fills a slot. This is essentially your way to 100 percent the game. Therefore, filling up a slot also lets you absolve yourself for your inability to slide numbers into one another appropriately. Finally, the cards all have cute personalities. Getting new ones is fun, and the game celebrates your achievement. It’s satisfying as a form of improvement, progression, and positive stimulation. This makes seeing new cards your extrinsic goal.
At the same time, the game places an emphasis on score. Getting it to be as big as possible is your objective in the game. Higher scores not only mean that you’ve done better at the game; they allow you to brag to your friends about how much better you are at it than them. Since your score will increase almost indefinitely, you never really “beat” Threes!. This makes maximizing your score an intrinsic goal. In this way, the game gives you an enticing and satisfying ultimate goal as well as an unlimited goal with a social motivator. It’s a fantastic way to play both sides of the court without manipulating the player. To explain the difference metaphorically: 2048 hands a child a book of riddles and challenges her to answer all the toughest ones. It knows that the kid will try them all out of sheer recklessness. Threes! hands a grown adult an infinite supply of riddles and tells him that answering a lot of them will bring him fame, fortune, and self-confidence.
The aesthetic in Threes! is what really pulls everything together. This has to be one of the straight-up happiest games to look at and hear ever. I’ve read the Threes! design documents (or, at least, part of them), and it’s interesting seeing the cards develop into having the personality and the design they have today. The card’s personalities is where a lot of this game’s character stems from. They’re adorable, leave something to be discovered, and, thanks to calculated deployment of sound effects, create a rich sonic variety that never gets irritating.
It’s amazing just how much charm this game manages to squeeze out, and it’s equally impressive how little seems forced. The branding of this entire venture is genius, seriously. They made statistics feel cozy. How do you manage that!?
The music, composed by Jimmy Hinson, is catchy and upbeat, but subdued, and never distracting. Koji Kondo once said he tested the quality of his music by seeing how long it took for it to get on his nerves; if we apply his test to Hinson’s score, it passes with flying colors. Threes! might be simple, but it’s one of the best games to hear and look at from 2014.
I love Threes! way more than I expected to. It’s well-made, it has smart options and menus, it reflects the personalities of the people who made it, and I can pick up and play it any time. It’s everything I enjoy in a video game. I figured it’d just be as boring as 2048 after twenty minutes, but it’s far better. You need foresight and planning, and trying the 2048 strategy will actually screw you over severely. I take ten-minute Threes! breaks hourly anymore. It’s amazing game, but I’d like to mention that you shouldn’t buy it as an apology for spending a ridiculous amount of time playing its clones. You should buy it so that you can enjoy an excellent video game.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
If 2-048 is company bilge regurgitated into an Italian programmer, then Threes! is a crowd of fun and love.
There’s a certain genre that games like Tetris fit into that’s very much distinct from other games. I don’t just mean falling-block puzzlers in its same vein (Columns, Puyo Puyo, Dr. Mario); I mean games like Threes! and Accelerator and Pac-Man and other play (seemingly) forever-type games. Tetris was not the first of these, but I think it’s the best and most famous example. As such, I’ll call these games “Tetris-likes.” As far as I can tell, they fit all the requirements necessary to branch into their own genre. They have distinct characteristics that distinguish them from other classifications of game, they’ve amassed a large following that prefer games of this sort to those of other kinds, and their nature has evolved over time.
Like any class, Tetris-likes have been merged with other genres, and, as precedent tells us, the result is something that lies on the cusp of two sorts of game. Canabalt is a Tetris-like in many ways, but its mechanics are all taken from platformers, so there’s a debate to be had here. Is Canabalt truly, as Tim Rogers put it, “Super Mario Tetris”? I don’t know, but I can certainly prattle on about it for a few paragraphs.
I think it’s foolish to say that any endless game automatically qualifies as a Tetris-like, since, hypothetically, you can replay any game indefinitely, and many early “endless” games that are like Tetris (Pac-Man comes to mind first) have eventual killscreens. For the sake of specificity, a starter definition should go like this: “A Tetris-like is any game whose playthroughs are supposed to have no foreseeable end.” This, I think, excludes games that are just plain long
and includes games that end due to technical limitations (which, theoretically, includees all games). But this still isn’t quite good enough. Can you include Minecraft? Can you include No Man’s Sky? Obviously not; but a better question, perhaps, is why is their exclusion so obvious? I think a refinement to the genre should be: “A Tetris-like is in its simplest mechanical form.” A lot of things in Minecraft don’t need to be there. The game doesn’t need differently-colored wools or twelve different kind of armor or a final boss. Conversely, a game like Threes! doesn’t really have anything extra, at least from a systemic level. Sure, you don’t necessarily need cutesy little faces on all the tiles, but you can’t really take away the way cards slide, or the way 1 has to pair with 2, and all higher numbers with 3. Otherwise, you’d wind up with 2048. You can’t take anything away without creating a fundamentally worse game.
Going upon this definition, Canabalt at first seems to fit the genre perfectly. It’s a game where you run forever, and it’s a game that really only has four or five mechanics. You have to work around boxes to manage your speed, jump over gaps, jump through windows, jump from crumbling buildings, and jump over explosive shrapnel. Removing any one of these components would worsen the game at its most basic level. But I think there are a lot of ways Canabalt is distinct from the genre, and I think a lot of that comes through in the game’s Android port, Canabalt HD.
I have to stress this: if we count Canabalt as a Tetris-like, we absolutely cannot count Canabalt HD. HD includes several new obstacles, none of which were necessitated. In all versions of Canabalt, there are these silhouetted giant robots in the far background of the stage. You, as a player, never have any direct interaction with them, and you never got a good look at what they were like… until now. You literally run along their legs, like a platform. This not only kills a piece of the game’s skillfully-crafted ambiguity. This serves as a horrible obstacle. It’s impossible to receive any visual warning before these things slam down in front of you, and their intent is to force you to quickly reassess your jump. The problem is that you can’t change your jump once you’re in mid-air, so if you’ve jumped before you see them, you’re S. O. L. They are a difficult-to-anticipate sudden change from a forgiving to a precise jump that can happen at any time. The only telegraphing they give is a sound effect, which creates two problems. First, as this is a mobile game, I often play this game without sound turned on. If I’m playing without headphones or listening to music, I have no sign that it’s coming. Second, the sound often plays after you’ve already made your jump. Even if you are listening for the noise, you may have literally no opportunity to react to it.
There are several other unnecessary gameplay alterations. You will sometimes encounter billboards and rising steel girders. These are an aesthetic change that makes little impact on the gameplay, but they’re still an issue. They try to “flesh out” the city. The choice to do so is ridiculous to me. Why would you add things to liven a city where the same building is repeated over and over again, each of whose the rooftops of which is at jumping height relative to the previous one? This just confuses your suspension of disbelief a tiny bit. The game was deeply in “excusably unrealistic” territory, where it was easy to write off anything that was impossible. Now, the game has decided to take a step back from that end of the spectrum. What could that possibly accomplish? The girders are particularly frustrating. I have died several times because I jumped from a girder and fell into a gap below me which I could not have seen. It’s nice to be able to react to obstacles, thank you very much. This isn’t a common occurrence, but the fact that it can happen at all is a design flaw that easily could’ve been remedied by, say, porting Canabalt exactly as it was.
This is also irritating because it’s disloyal to what I assume was Adam Saltsman’s original vision for the game. He still “proudly presents” the original version of his game on his personal website, and the version of the game at canabalt.com really only changed how much you can see vertically and subdued the shakeycam. Considering how much HD changed those games, I get the sense these obstacles were added to “improve” it to make it sell to people familiar with the free versions. If Saltsman wanted to make changes to the formula, he should’ve done so when re-releasing Canabalt the first time.
Canabalt HD will also make you long for the PC version of Canabalt because of its extra modes. I’ll admit to enjoying the smartly-implemented multiplayer (this is the only time local multiplayer will work on a phone when things aren’t turn-based), but the alternative game modes are all trash. Most of them are almost unplayable. Everything exists in a very specific ratio in Canabalt. It’s so fine-tuned. You have to keep your speed above and below certain thresholds to reliably stay alive, so the number of boxes is high enough to be hard to jump over, but small enough to prevent you from slowing down readily. The Box Tripper mode therefore highlights how idiotic it is when you have to make tight jumps over a plethora of boxes. Windows are a rare obstacle that are fun to jump through in the core game, but being forced to predict the exact speed you need to fall through windows in Defenestration is asinine. These extra modes are amusing for a minute, but I wouldn’t pay any amount of money to have them. Having essentially paid three dollars just for them makes me feel swindled. After playing any of these modes for more than a few seconds, I invariably go back to the main game. Then I die because of a robot’s leg; then I go back to the PC version; then I feel bad for wasting money on the mobile version.
Something overlooked in Canabalt is its attention to tone. The name of the game might be Canabalt, but the name of its story seems to be titled AAH SHIT YOU’RE GETTING CHASED BY SOMETHING BUT YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS. You’re never told what’s chasing you, and you can’t get a good glimpse of what’s off in the distance. This leaves your imagination run wild, and it makes your daring escape all the more daring. It makes the game a little bit scary in that “we-don’t-know-what’s-in-the-shadows” way. Of course, this certainly isn’t a horror game, nor is it remotely scary, but it’s definitely got a thrilling atmosphere that contributes to its “run-for-your-life” gameplay. Everything is made more intense because of the game’s untold backstory.
This is what I think mainly separates Canabalt from Tetris and Pac-Man and Space Invaders and Threes!. None of those games have a story, to my knowledge. If you want to get technical and count Tetris Worlds (please don’t) or cite some oft-forgotten Space Invaders manual, go ahead. But the “stories” in both of those aren’t innate to their games. They’re inherently abstract, and tossing a static narrative onto the game adds nothing and only takes away from what the player’s imagination can produce. The best example of how this is true is Centipede, which has about thirty different versions of a “story.” Sometimes you’re saving the forest, sometimes you’re in space, sometimes you’re an evil garden gnome whose downfall is always inevitable. The actual backstory adds little to nothing to the game. On the other hand, Canabalt uses its passive use of a story to its advantage. The mood of the story blends marvelously with the feel and objective of its gameplay, and that makes its emotional impact much more compelling. It’s subtle and yet adds so much to the game. The game doesn’t need it, but it would be worse without it. Danny Barankowski’s impeccable score to the game is also exhilarating, and the game feels incomplete without “Run!.”
Don’t think I’m nitpicking this game because I hate it or anything. I’ve never been especially fond of Canabalt, but I appreciate that it’s a well-constructed game. I just think that Canabalt HD’s changes glare. When you look at a game this simple, even the most minor problem becomes extremely noticeable. When you port things over, things that are different become even more apparent. It’s like looking under a heavily-magnified microscope. When you have to look at something the size of a dust mite, dust that wasn’t there a moment ago looks huge by comparison.
In conclusion, I don’t think it’s fair to assess Canabalt as a game in the same vein as Tetris, Bejeweled, or Minesweeper. It’s as similar to Tetris as Galaga is to Space Invaders. It has more excess. It entices you more with the way your human mind experiences the game. It wants you to enjoy, respectively, the joys of running along roofs or soaring through space. I think Canabalt is more akin to Berserk than Tetris. From its commanding use of a small library of procedural obstacles to its use of a simple story to emphasize the power of its objective, the games are designed much more similarly. Tetris revels in being abstract. Canabalt would be incomplete without its distinctly human bits.
You might be concerned that I think Canabalt is better than Tetris, or vice versa, but I really can’t say I think either is better. They’re too different to make a satisfying qualitative comparison between. I find myself revisiting each frequently. I’d stay away from Canabalt HD, specifically, though. It’s nice to have on the go, but you’ll never opt to play it if you have a computer available. I consider it to be an incomplete version of the game. I mostly paid for it to support Saltsman and Barankowski, and that’s the only reason I’d recommend you purchase it yourself. If you own one, there’s a PSP version I haven’t tried. Of course, if you’ve never played the game, you can always give it a try here.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
More like Canabalt HD-egradation.
Hmm… uh, you know what? I’m not convinced I can talk about this game in anything less than a full-length review. So, err…
TO BE CONTINUED