It’s odd to think that Microsoft was one of the first majors companies to really get behind the indie game movement. It’s always been such a monolithic corporation - one of the shining diamonds on the crown of the tech industry. But in 2004, Microsoft announced XNA, a game development tool for students and independent studios – downloadable for free. It would be released to the community in 2006 and by 2008, would have a full suite of creative options that would allow users to sell their games on Xbox Live. The intention was to build a space where people would feel free to experiment with a career in gaming; to level the playing field, so that even those without much experience could have their game played by thousands’ of people.
It was a grand idea, perhaps too grand.
The “Indie” section of Xbox Live goes unnoticed by a multitude of gamers, but there is really no better place to find small, quirky games by young and talented designers. I’ve always promised myself that one day I would dive headlong into the pile of content it provides, if only to see if Microsoft’s gamble was worthwhile. I happen to have 800 Microsoft points in my account, so I’m challenging myself to play ten games in ten days. I’ve done my research and found the cream of the crop of what XBLIG has to offer. Time to go down the rabbit hole…
Day One: “Hypership: Out of Control”
Stop. Stop reading this article and do as I say. Go to Xbox Live, find Hypership: Out of Control, download it and play it. There’s nothing that I can write on this field of digital characters that can in any way compare to the pure, adrenaline-rush fun that this game exudes effortlessly. Maybe this is hyperbole, but I don’t think so.
Hypership is reminiscent of classic top-down flight shooters like Galaga, Asteroids, or 1942. You play as a spacecraft, hurdling through space, blasting past obstacles and collecting coins. It seems like a simple enough premise, but the real genius of the gameplay is its gradual increase of speed. As you make your way through each of the ten waves of barriers, your ship picks up in velocity. Each level increases the maximum speed that you can go, while simultaneously introducing more difficult obstacles for you to face. You are quite literally out of control and the only way to slow down is to grab small clock tokens or crash your ship. However, those brief moments of respite don’t last long.
This is a game that you have to play over and over to get right. It’s challenging, but not frustrating. In fact, it’s a joy to play because of the sheer variety packed within its simplistic facade. There are numerous modes to experiment with – from your standard “three lives and than your dead” Galaga approach to a more hardcore, “one life, make the most of it” play through. My favorite was a coin countdown, where you have to manage how many coins you collect as you race through the level, because if they tick down to zero – you’re finished. There are even some aesthetic options that allow you to play the levels in reverse or change the background from a stark black and white, to a wavy, psychedelic color pattern.
Add to this successful formula competitive multiplayer for up to four friends and you’ve got an absolutely winning combination. I haven’t had a chance to sit down with anyone else to play the game, but I have a feeling it would be an absolute blast. There would even be some strategy as players with the star power-up could drastically speed up the action for everyone else without warning.
The production quality is pretty solid for a XBLIG title, sticking with a minimalist NES approach. Pixel Art has made a huge comeback in the last few years, but this game isn’t necessarily following the trend, so much as it is aware of its own graphical limitations. It doesn’t need to be anything but an 8-bit title. The music might be the strongest aspect of Hypership outside of the gameplay: it’s catchy and exciting, propelling you forward as your craft comes closer and closer to oblivion. Each successive wave has a new musical quality and I particularly enjoyed how the tempo changed with the maximum speed of the level.
You really owe it to yourself to play this game. I wish that Microsoft would’ve assisted with a marketing budget and put it on the main XBLA page, because I truly believe that Hypership earn its place amongst the best of that service. It’s a funny, challenging, hair-raising experience that everyone deserves to get their hands on.
Tomorrow: Loot Quest II
Day Two: “Loot Quest II”
The thought of playing any game besides Hypership today is rather daunting. Truthfully, all I care about in the world at this moment is collecting as many “awardments” as possible and getting past the fifth wave. It’s that good people. Buy it.
But alas, the name of this column is “10 Games, 10 Days” and Loot Quest II has been sitting on my hard drive for roughly a week. It was actually the impetus for the idea. I was intrigued by the fact that it gave off the same visual vibe as 3D Dot Game Heroes – an experience I enjoyed from top to bottom. I wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to hate this game.
Let’s address my biases up front.
I was an English minor in college. I discovered this purely because I was taking so many writing classes and ignoring much of the work for my major. As such, I’m a bit of a stickler for grammar. (Yes, I’m aware that mine isn’t always perfect, but I’m an artist, damn it.) If you’re building a game that relies heavily on text-based conversations, it might be a good idea to include the occasional period or comma. Exclamation points (!!!!!!) aren’t the only way to end a sentence. It also might be prescient to spell check the game before you release it to the general public. There’s no excuse for “Granpa”. Shhh…there isn’t.
Aesthetically, the game does have a lot in common with 3d Dot Game Heroes, but it’s a bit watered-down compared to its ancestor. Still, some of the character designs are interesting, particularly the higher level monsters. However, it was difficult for me to separate the art design from the constant pop-in that plagued this build of the game. I’m not asking for a perfect technical experience from an indie, but when the trees directly in front of me take a few seconds to load, it’s a bit distracting. The HUD is also a source of visual issues, because much of it is just too small. Even on a 47” TV screen, I couldn’t really see my inventory. This is exacerbated by the fact that most of your menus – as well as the dialogue – are placed on the upper left hand corner of the screen. It’s a rather unusual choice that only serves to frustrate the player. I also couldn’t get over the use of fonts: Comic Sans in a video game? I’m sure I saw it in there somewhere.
Under the hood, Loot Quest II isn’t much better. While the basic Zelda-like mechanics work fine, they aren’t particularly fun. Enemies have an annoying tendency to swarm the player, overwhelming my character even early in the game. They also had the common trait of attacking me at the worst possible time: I’m all for open-world freedom, but don’t let the boar kill me while I’m trying to talk to my “Granpa” about a fetch quest. That’s just fucking rude. I have to be honest in saying that I didn’t dig deep enough into the game to find better weaponry or loot. Perhaps that would’ve changed my perception, but honestly, I just couldn’t get over the rudimentary spelling and grammar errors.
Loot Quest literally feels like it was made by a crazed kindergartener; and not in “Hey, that kids’ got a great imagination!” kind of way. It’s unfortunate, because in the hands’ of someone with a bit more ambition and a strong sense of detail, it could have had a lot of potential. As it is, I’ll stick with Hypership.
Wave 8, motherfuckers! High score!
Tomorrow: Escape Goat
Day Three: Escape Goat
Much like my days of playing sports’ games, my XBLIG experiment has had a strike out and a home run – one after the other. Loot Quest made me rethink the whole idea, practically eliminating all of the good will that Hypership had so fervently built. Luckily, Escape Goat came along to ease my worries.
It’s difficult to admit, but for me, a lot of any piece of media’s appeal is contained in its title. I came to most of my favorite movies and songs because I was intrigued by what they were called, they spoke to me. Despite being hailed my many journalists as the pinnacle of Xbox’s indie experience, Escape Goat just never captured my imagination. I can’t help but wonder if that’s what has kept it from garnering more mainstream acclaim, because the game is certainly worthy of it. It could easily have been one of the “Summer of Arcade” titles during its release year.
It’s a game of that high quality, a game that could’ve been right at home as a classic of the NES era. And yet, it’s difficult to describe and even more difficult to sell to those with a less than open mind. I’ve tried, but I’ll try again.
At its core, Escape Goat is a clever combination of 2d platformer and puzzler. You are cast as a dark blue goat, locked inside of an enormous prison and tasked with escaping its cavalcade of barriers and traps. The initial concept is simple enough: trigger switches to manipulate the level layout and discover the path to the door to the next room. Quickly, new elements are added: exploding barrels, fast-moving conveyor belts, fire-spewing reapers. It surely sounds like average platforming fare, but these devices are implemented in ways you wouldn’t expect and the ever-shifting environment leads to surprises around every corner. Escape Goat requires a careful, experimental approach and encourages persistence, even in its most challenging sequences.
You aren’t alone in your quest and what could be considered a subtle addition to gameplay is also Goat’s most interesting mechanic. Early in the game, you meet a mouse who quickly becomes your constant compatriot. He’s small enough to squeeze through passageways you couldn’t otherwise access and can be tossed into the air to move along high ceilings. But the mouse’s most flashy trick comes in the select rooms where he finds a suave magic hat that allows him to teleport and switch places with the goat. This was such a smooth, fascinating mechanic, that I found myself wishing that there were more occasions for me to use it. You could build an entire game around this one press of a button; but in Escape Goat, it’s just one of many ways to solve the puzzle.
I didn’t get a chance to try it yet, but Escape Goat also expands its value by including a tool to create your own levels. With the sheer variety of obstacles throughout the game, there are probably plenty of ideas the developers left on the cutting room floor and giving the player the opportunity to add to the experience is pretty wonderful. It reminded me of the wonder that overcame me as a kid when I discovered the customization features in Excite Bike. The only complaint I have is that it doesn’t appear to have any Live functionality, which means there’s no way to share your work with the world. It might be a bit time consuming to build a puzzle that only you’ll ever be able to play.
I’m glad that Escape Goat came along to brighten my mood. It’s a cerebral, intellectual game that keeps the mind sharp and really manages to turn many of gaming’s most common tropes on their head. If only I could get over the name…
Tomorrow: Cthulu Saves the World
Day Four: Cthulu Saves the World
This one has to be my fault. I just felt like Cthulu Saves the World was kind of…meh.
It probably has something to do with the fact that I have absolutely no nostalgic connection to classic RPGs. It just wasn’t a genre that entered my gaming consciousness as a kid, primarily because I never owned a SNES or a Playstation. I was perfectly happy with platformers and adventure games. The closest frame of reference I have is the Pokemon series; which still feels like it’s probably distinctly different from games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger.
(No fanboys and girls, I won’t be playing Chrono Trigger any time soon. I know this is sacrilege.)
This doesn’t make Cthulu Saves the World a bad game; it just means that I’m probably not the audience that they’re catering to. Still, I bought the game on concept alone: all-mighty Cthulu rises from his oceanic slumber to rule the world, but a pesky wizard strips him of all his powers. In order to enact his destiny of destruction and domination, Cthulu must become a hero. It’s a hilarious premise and while the plot isn’t particularly deep, it does maintain this satirical tone. Make no bones about it; this game is making fun of JRPGs as much as it is celebrating them. Cthulu sets off on a quest that finds him saving dogs from a ninja phantom, climbing a labyrinthine tower filled with orcs and ghost knights, and defeating a stereotypical D&D party by out-heroing them. This isn’t the Great American novel, but the story does provide some genuinely laugh out loud moments.
The bulk of the gameplay isn’t particularly innovative. It stays true to its roots: a relatively large over-world map with more detailed sections to explore as you come across them. Randomized battles occur as you traipse across the 8-bit landscape and its within these battle-screens that you find some of Cthulu’s strongest and weakest elements. The monsters in the game are a mixed bag of familiar RPG faces: punk rockers, snakes, and aberrant starfish, purposefully bland to emphasize just how insane a gamers’ opponents can be within this particular genre. There’s never a point where the monsters feel particularly threatening, especially because Cthulu seems to level up every fifteen-to-twenty minutes or so. The combat graphics are rather dull and uninspired; and the players’ party remains conspicuously off-screen, leaving these moments of violence feeling anti-climactic.
However, I was impressed with the sheer speed of the turn-based combat. It never felt overly complex. Potions heal all of your hit points. Tech attacks deal more damage than regular attacks. Enemies’ stats are on the screen for you to be able to see your own progress. The fast pace of the combat was really what kept my attention throughout and I honestly believe that Japanese developers could learn a few things from the Cthulu team. Fluidity and ease of use are key tenants in the turn-based world and this game has them in spares. I guess I just wish that the attacks had a bit more of a visual impact on my opponents.
I really can’t dissuade anyone from playing Cthulu Saves the World, because it really is a hysterical tribute to a style of game that millions of people love. You might adore it and I can understand the appeal, because I found myself doing spit takes on my couch at the ridiculous nature of it all. The premise alone is worth the buy, but I guess I don’t have any place in my heart for JRPGs.
It’s a sad realization, but I’ll push through it. I still haven’t gotten passed Wave 8 in Hypership.
Tomorrow: Apple Jack
Day Five: Apple Jack
I’m not sure what these poor pandas did to deserve this. Or the washing machines for that matter.
Apple Jack is a fucking weird game. It also happens to be a fucking good game; a pretty unique slice of the XBLIG pie. Just when you thought that a goat escaping from prison was the most bizarre thing in the marketplace, you meet Jack – the apple headed sprite that bounces his way across dozens of surreal stages named after English towns. That’s the idea.
I’m not really sure.
But it’s awesome.
It’s polished from the very beginning. I’m not one to fall for a fancy start screen, but man, I was taken from the moment the game booted up. There’s an irreverent silliness that makes Apple Jack feel like playing a Monty Python sketch. It’s idiosyncratic in a way that never alienated me as a player, but instead drew me in. The art style feels straight out of an educational game from the mid-90’s (Math Blaster is written all over this sucker), it’s bright and colorful and welcoming. Apple Jack kept my attention because it was a joy to explore and revel in its atmospheric, calming environment. I’ve been really excited by meditative game experiences like Fez lately, so this was right in my wheelhouse; at least for a while.
There is a distinct moment where when the game becomes almost brutally difficult. It’s a matching game at its core, choosing two similar enemies and tossing them at each other to make them explode. They might be pandas or astronauts or spiked pillars and sometimes they’re surrounded by colorful bubbles that have to be matched as well. Once you’ve cleared a stage of all the matching elements, you continue on to the next. It sounds simple enough, but eventually there are stages where you are flooded with enemies and you have to navigate through them without touching them – which results in a rather loud and taunting “DEAD” plastered across the screen. You have to be incredibly precise with your movements and sometimes I found myself wondering if Jack was dying so much because I was a terrible player or because the game wasn’t quite tweaked to perfection. Still, the level design is pretty phenomenal and while my frustration was palpable, it wasn’t enough for me to quit playing outright. It was like hunting for all of the interesting things the developer could do with such a straightforward mechanic; and I was impressed by the range of experiences Apple Jack had to offer.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the games’ brilliant sound design. Audio is a common downfall of indie games, because often they’ll slap on a haphazard chiptune and use sound effects that mimic pre-established norms. Apple Jack feels familiar, but the creators’ are as playful with the soundscape as they are with the gameplay. It’s rare that a mellow guitar tune is the backdrop for any game and here it really helps build upon the pervasive light-hearted mood at the heart of Apple Jack. Even during its most frustrating moments, the soft strums are there to provide you respite and keep you from flying off the rails. The subtle whispering of the word “Go…” at the beginning of each stage is also a clever touch, providing encouragement to the weary player who has managed to kill Jack one too many times.
Apple Jack is far from perfect, but the only criteria I require for an indie experience is genuine fun. I really fell in love with the strange world and unusual characters. I only wish that I didn’t die just before finishing so many stages. But a few minor irritations is a small price to pay for a game this good. Apparently there’s a sequel and I’ll probably pick it up as soon as I’m done writing this sentence.
Day Six: Dark
By the time I finish writing this article, you could’ve finished Dark. This is going to be a brief one, folks.
Dark is a phenomenal experiment, but I’m not sure I’m willing to call it a great game. It’s certainly the ancestor of more complete experiences like Limbo, using dynamic lighting effects to immerse the player in a dark, almost monotone world. The title says it all, Dark has a black and white color palette and often, the only white you can see is the eyes of your amorphous avatar. Beams of light are typically off in the distance and cast wide shadows that distort the environment. It can be disorienting and even confusing at first, but after a bit of trial and error, each stage is self-explanatory. The soft piano progressions and ambient drones only deepen the mystery. The verisimilitude is palpable.
Dark really does stir some emotions, but its over so fast that it’s hard to say what those emotions are. This isn’t necessarily a strike against the experience, because they advertise it as a short piece of media, but I did find myself wanting more. There’s a moment towards the end of the game that’s really exciting; it feels as though it’s building to something much larger, much more meaningful. Absolutely beautiful colors start to slowly make their way into the background. Grand machinery is built. The game really starts to breathe. And then the credits rolls.
It’s a damn shame too, because there’s a production value to Dark that’s rare amongst its XBLIG peers. It feels honest and could’ve grown to be an amazing abstract narrative along the lines of Braid – it has those same personal touches – but instead comes across as a glorified tech demo. A little more ambition could have gone a long way.
For my purposes, it was a well spent twenty minutes that then allowed me to get a head start on tomorrow’s game, Dead Pixels, which I can already tell is going to be one of the best of the bunch. I also needed to finish up Costume Quest, but that’s a story for another day.
Is Dark dark? Yes, Dark is dark. It’s solid, but unfinished.
Tomorrow: Dead Pixels
Day Seven: Dead Pixels
Fucking zombies, man. Sometimes I feel like the real apocalypse won’t happen when the dead rise from the grave, but when the media is completely infested with zombie-related content. It’s everywhere; ultra-violence that chomps into the brain like a rabid mind flayer. Do you think George Romero knew what he was starting in 1968, that Night of the Living Dead would lead to such a pop cultural saturation almost half-a-century after its release? I try not to be cynical, because Telltales’ Walking Dead left such a wonderful impression on me, but it can be difficult when I feel surrounded by mediocre zombie games, films, and yes, television.
Dead Pixels is the perfect cure for this kind of pessimism. It certainly has the highest production values of any XBLIG game I’ve played so far, but more importantly it reinvigorates the zombie genre, whilst still sticking to the conventions that make it special.
I think what makes this game so unique is its incredible attention to detail. It’s not the first to use grindhouse effects to engage the player, but I would argue that it uses this aesthetic with the most insightful and thorough approach I’ve seen. The tattered film grain, the furious guitar-based soundtrack, the snack bar intermission at the half-way point of the game; Dead Pixels fuses this b-movie sensibility with a reverence for 8-bit art that really brings out the best of both styles. They compliment each other perfectly, both being remnants of a bygone era that some people still pine for.
But it’s at the microscopic level that these details become even more evident. There are dozens of Easter Eggs waiting to reward dedicated players’: gun brands are named after characters’ from Resident Evil, famous zombie creators like Robert Kirkwood find themselves as playable characters, and bunches of classics like “Big Head Mode” are ready to be unlocked. There is a depth of content outside of gameplay that makes Dead Pixels a delight, but once you get playing, you realize where the true heart of this experience is.
I’m a huge fan of games with simple mechanics that emphasize replayability. Its part of the reason I’ve been so obsessed with Hypership: Out of Control. Dead Pixels is no different. You (and a friend in co-op mode) move through a side-scrolling city, blasting away at zombie hordes until they overwhelm you. There are traders along the way in which you can upgrade your weapons and your character, providing loads of strategies through which to approach the game. Each difficulty level requires that you find safe passage across a certain number of “streets” – ten in easy mode, twenty in normal, etc, etc. The hordes grow is strength and number, and traders become few and far between, so you have to manage your ammo and health efficiently. It’s this fast-paced juggling of simple elements that give Dead Pixels its ultimate charm. The game seduces you to challenge yourself further, to plug along until you’ve found your way to the rest of the survivors. It never manages to feel repetitive or maddening; the fun-level stays consistent.
Moreover, Dead Pixels provides ample options to customize the already riveting gameplay. The three game modes are split into different “films” that are meant to compliment each others’ loose storylines: “Dead Pixels” is the basic version described above, “The Solution” is a hardcore mode that removes all traders, and “The Last Stand” is a time trial and survival mode that encourages the player to test everything they’ve learned over the course of the game. You can really dig as deep as you want, there is hours upon hours of content here. It’s insane that Xbox didn’t pick this up as an Arcade title and charge fifteen bucks for it, but you can reap the benefits by playing it for a dollar.
This might have been the biggest surprise so far; a real total package game at the heart of XBLIG. It’s easy to be skeptical, because there is a lot of total shit that came out of XNA, but Dead Pixels makes it obvious that this was a tool that developers could use to create classics. It’s unfortunate that Microsoft never put its full weight behind the program, because its possible more games of this quality could have seen the light of day. Dead Pixels is really the pinnacle of XNA’s output and I hope I’m wrong, but I think it can only be downhill from here.
Tomorrow: Crossfire II
Day Eight: Crossfire II
Radian Games is probably the highest rated developer on XBLIG and their games are some of the best selling, so I thought that it’d only be appropriate that I dive in to at least one of their titles to see what all the fuss was about. That being said, there are a lot of games on the service that have great sales numbers purely because they’re marketed to the lowest common denominator, so you have to take popularity with a grain of salt. Crossfire II is a fun distraction, but it never quite lives up to some of the other experiences I’ve had in the last few days. I think I might have spoiled myself with higher end material, but Crossfire does its job.
If Hypership: Out of Control can be compared to Galaga, than this game is more in line with Space Invaders. It’s still your average top-down flight combat game, but your spaceship is fixed to either the bottom or the top of your screen. This is Crossfire’s definitive mechanic: you can switch at will to either side of the level to get passed the shield of the enemy vessels. As you bounce back and forth you can collect power-ups that slow down time, fill your super-weapon with ammo, and make you invulnerable. It’s pretty standard fare, but the kinetic pace of the action and the bright, neon art-style are enough to make Crossfire stand out from the crowd. At least until you realize that it’s basically Geometry Wars.
There are sixty total waves of enemies to defeat over the course of the game and as you progress, you upgrade your ship’s speed, power, health, and weaponry. While there is a degree of thought necessary to be successful in early stages, there comes a point when you become so egregiously dominant that the threat the alien attackers pose is laughable at best. I managed to defeat all sixty waves of enemies in my first try, without any previous experience and while I enjoyed toying with the methods to retool my spacecraft, none of it felt particularly significant. Ultimately, I was left with little reason to pick up the game again other than the time trial mode.
(Note to prospective developers: I don’t know anyone who is an adamant fan of time trials. Just leave them out.)
Crossfire II is great for casual players, who need a quick gaming fix before returning to their lives. However, it is light years away from the quality of the games that inspired it. I whizzed through Crossfire in about fifteen minutes and have very little desire to play it again, so with that in mind, I can’t really recommend it.
Let this be a lesson to you; in order to find the best of what XBLIG has to offer, you have to steer clear of the “Most Popular” screen. Do your research and you’ll find the greats.
Day Nine: Miasma
Most of the games that I’ve come to love on XBLIG are tight and focused experiences. Like a good haiku, the simplicity of the game is complicit to its beauty or effectiveness. Ambition is typically an admirable quality; but when working on this scale, the more a game tries to do, the less attention each aspect of the game receives. Miasma is the perfect example this. It’s filled to the brim with wonderful ideas; but because of the scope of the games’ budget, these ideas go largely unfulfilled.
I purchased Miasma - a turn-based strategy game by ESP Games – as an indie alternative to X-Com: Enemy Unknown. Tactics games are a difficult commodity to come by these days and my eyes were drawn to the aspirational graphics. Due to the limitations of the XNA software, most XBLIG developers choose to design their games around pixel art or other simplistic two-dimensional styles. Miasma takes place in a fully rendered 3D world, leading to some pretty seductive screenshots and gameplay videos. Visually, it stands heads-and-shoulders above most of the rest of the games in the Xbox Indie library. The character modeling and backgrounds are quite suitable given the resources of the developers, but the effect quickly wears thin. There’s no real cohesive detail or design to the world of Miasma. Nothing stands out. The graphical fidelity is merely a mask for a lack of artistic ideas and quickly the game’s visuals go stale.
The story is equally bland. Ripped from any number of cyberpunk tropes, a massive corporation known as Vilhelm Industries has grown so large that it has taken over every government on Earth. Everyone works for and buys from Vilhelm. As usual, a small group of rebels has woken up from their haze of their enslavement and you are the only one who can save the world from this extreme capitalist threat. It’s a bit silly and overdone, but the story does intersect well with the gameplay and provide ample enough of a reason to be shooting evil dudes in the face. It hovers in the background, not particularly threatening…or interesting. But for a buck, what else do you want?
Miasma’s saving grace is it’s tightly wound and simplistic game mechanics. The player is placed in command of a number of troops for the rebellion. Dropped onto a map, each character is given a movement and an action to complete; usually with the aim of getting to a certain point in the map without dying. Other goals and win conditions are prevalent as well, with the occasional boss fight and fetch quest filling out the game. After every character has taken their actions, a new round begins. This isn’t exactly innovative, but Miasma’s level design is clever enough to offer up a satisfying strategic experience. The animation is stiff, but the underlying gameplay is quite fun. Additionally, each character has their own statistics and powers to level up between missions. Number crunchers will have a good time maximizing each of their team members.
Ultimately, I was disappointed that Miasma never quite managed to execute its obvious vision. It’s middle-of-the-road and mediocre. Blasting away in turn-based combat was enough to get me through the whole experience, but I was constantly aware of the mundane design choices and blatantly average gameplay. Have I used enough “boring” adjectives to get across my point?
There is a sequel that might push some these ideas further, but I couldn’t bring myself to play it. Talent is hidden in this development group; I truly hope they get a budget and some extra resources to let their original concepts shine.
Next Week: Chu’s Dynasty and the Top 10 XBLIG Games
Day Ten: Chu’s Dynasty
It’s always surprised me that more game studios haven’t used the winning formula of Super Smash Bros to inspire new experiences. Smash is one of Nintendo’s most profitable and recognizable properties; a game that streamlines the fighting genre into something more palatable for mainstream audiences. The kinetic energy remains, but gone are the complicated button combinations of Street Fighter or Tekken. Super Smash Bros revels in chaos, simplicity and imagination. These qualities have transformed what was once an experiment into a classic.
Entering in to my final week of my exploration into XBLIG, I wanted to choose a game that would fittingly end this journey. Like any gaming distribution service, XBLIG has been an even blend of mastery and mediocrity; but the finale deserved a “Bang!”
Chu’s Dynasty was one of the few stand-out games left on the service. With a technicolor art-style heavily influenced by Asian themes, Chu’s Dynasty is one of the more brazenly beautiful games made with XNA. But beyond its aesthetic qualities, the game seemed to be reaching into a mechanical territory that few more than Super Smash Bros had tread. This got my attention and wouldn’t let go.
Indeed, it’s impossible to play Chu’s Dynasty without feeling Smash’s inspiration. A multiplayer fighting game for up to four unique players, Chu’s Dynasty is a frenetic departure from some of XBLIG’s lesser titles. There are multiple gameplay options: including a single player campaign, team battles, and standard versus modes. It’s a fully functioning experience that with a little more polish and ambition could’ve probably found itself onto store shelves.
The combat itself doesn’t revolutionize the medium, but each character has a unique set of abilities at their disposal; diverse enough that the game feels different depending on whom you’re playing. Chu’s Dynasty is at its finest when the action on screen becomes almost overwhelming with fists and feet flying in a bright, almost cartoonish environment. Special moves and combinations are flashy, if a bit underwhelming, and do a ton of damage to yours opponents. You achieve victory by emptying an opponent’s health bar or by tossing them off the stage entirely. The parallels with Smash are ever present and while this is a recipe for entertainment; Chu’s Dynasty never manages to escape feeling “chunky”. Movements and animations aren’t always fluid and controller response can be slow at times. This is a minor issue, but it becomes an annoyance when you play the game on harder settings.
However, the game’s most glaring problem is one of choice. I’m not averse to limiting the number of available characters in a fighting game, especially if it means that each individual is given special mechanical attention. But frankly, Chu’s Dynasty isn’t complex enough to warrant such a small cast. You’re only given an option between one of four immortal characters (all of whom have rather indecipherable storylines). Level variety isn’t much better as there are three total stages on which to play. Before you know it, you’ve done everything there is to do; leaving Chu’s Dynasty feeling a bit empty.
But it should be reiterated that this game is cheap and fun, regardless of my criticisms. There aren’t multiplayer party games on the XBLIG service and Chu’s Dynasty could really big hit with groups. It’s just not that great on your lonesome.
For a buck, give it a shot.
The games of XBLIG are very representative of the service itself. There are a few diamonds in the rough that truly impressed me, but most of the experiences had more ambition than quality. I wish that Microsoft had put more energy (and money) into this service, because games like Hypership and Dead Pixels are proof that XNA could produce classics. Alas, it tucked XBLIG into a corner of Live that few seemed to venture and had no system to highlight the good games from the bad. It was largely a failed experiment, that is now defunct; but that doesn’t mean some gleams of greatness didn’t come from it. The following is a rare Top 10 list ranking the experiences I had on XBLIG. The top few are absolutely worth your time and your money.
Try something new, you won’t regret it.
Top 10 XBLIG Games from 10 Weeks, 10 Games, 10 Dollars:
- Hyperspace: Out of Control
- Dead Pixels
- Escape Goat
- Apple Jack
- Chu’s Dynasty
- Crossfire II
- Cthulu Saves the World
- Lootfest II