art, games

Nelson Tethers – Puzzle Agent Bits

Nelson Tether Puzzle Agent1 Nelson Tethers – Puzzle Agent Bits

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent cribs quite liberally from Professor Layton, and relies heavily on its art style, but it’s still my favourite of Telltale’s episodic games to date.

The bits:

— Obviously the most noticeable thing about Puzzle Agent is its offbeat, crayon-drawn art style. What’s interesting here is that the game relies on stop-motion like animations reminiscent of old, low-budget cartoons. The effect is actually quite good and and the choppy movements are consistently utilized even when smooth animations could have easily replaced them  (e.g., a snowmobile driving in a straight line).

The system made me wonder if other art styles not conducive to animation could successfully adopt a similar approach.

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Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is quite a cinematic game that uses lots of different framing techniques for both its interactive and non-interactive sequences.

— Aside from the visual style itself, PA is a very atmospheric title in the vein of the old LucasArts adventure games. The characters are bizarre and expressive, the Fargo-esque setting is unique (at least for a videogame), and the great music and voice acting enrich the overall experience.

— PA was clearly designed with the iPhone/iPad in mind. The player never walks his avatar around the screen, and clicking most places sends out a helper-shockwave. As this shockwave expands, it highlights any points of interest that can be clicked on to initiate conversations, puzzles, scene transitions, etc.

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These icons briefly pop-up whenever the player clicks on any close-by, non-interactive areas.

— The actual puzzles in PA are a bit of a letdown. This is due to two main reasons: lack of instructions, and the inability to jot down notes in-game.

A lot of the puzzles are quite obtuse, sometimes to the point where a hint needs to be purchased just to figure out what the game wants the player to do. Unfortunately this seems like a concession to the game’s hint system (all puzzles must contain 3 individual hints) as some cases actually contains an additional screen that explains the controls and the goals of the minigame.

The secondary complaint deals with the nature of the puzzles themselves. Many of them are common math/logic problems that are meant to be solved in a series of steps. However, the player is often forced to visualize and work through them without any in-game aids. This artificially inflates their difficulty, especially when compared to the visual jigsaw puzzles.

These points certainly don’t ruin the game, but do I hope the various minigames are improved in future episodes.

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Unfortunately most of the other puzzles are not described in nearly as much detail.

- Many puzzles are completely optional and make exploring the world feel more like a non-linear, interactive experience.

- The actual hint system is quite clever. The game starts off with the protagonist trying to solve a crossword, and, having some problems with it, eventually reaching over for some gum to help him concentrate. As we soon learn, the town he visits is experiencing a gum shortage. This forces the player to pick up old, discarded pieces of gum to aid Agent Tethers in his puzzle solving endeavours. Yes, it’s quite gross, but perfectly fits the mood of the game and gives the designers a great excuse to sprinkle virtually all parts of the environment with a useful collectible.

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Agent Tethers comes face-to-face with Mike "The Lobster" Lobb.

Old gum also seems to be a reusable resource, reappearing in new spots as the Agent Tethers travels around town. This provides the player with an unlimited source of hints and prevents him from getting stuck on any one puzzle.

- As a nice little touch, the time of day on the title screen changes up periodically while the camera slowly scrolls around the Scoggins eraser factory.

- The UI of the game is very flashy but intuitive, with lots of animating widgets composed of labels and icons. The unskipable puzzle submission is a tad long, but the overall interface is a joy to use (especially when compared to many other adventure games).

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My favourite scene with the creepy gnomes had one of them invade my puzzle in the middle of me trying to solve it! The sequence worked very well since the puzzles (at least up to that point) were a separate, uninterruptible segment only exposed to the player.

- Agent Tethers uses a tape recorder throughout the game to narrate his experiences. This provides extra personality and context while clearly outlining what must be done going forward.

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art, games

Dungeons & Dragons – Tower of Doom Bits

Dungeons Dragons Tower of Doom header  Dungeons & Dragons – Tower of Doom Bits

In the 90′s, Capcom produced a plethora of side-scrolling beat-’em-ups. They were all pretty fun, but my favourite was an unlikely-branded D&D title, Tower of Doom.

The TSR/Capcom partnership actually spawned two individual games, but here are the notable bits for the first one:

— The most famous feature of ToD is the branching path structure. Periodically, the player is presented with 2-3 options of how to proceed, with each choice leading to a different area and boss. All these paths converge fairly quickly, but the extra choices are a nice feature and encourage multiple playthroughs.

Dungeons Dragons Tower of Doom 1  Dungeons & Dragons – Tower of Doom Bits

Options, options...

— ToD’s overall structure is very similar to a typical beat-’em-up, but the game also contains lots of streamlined D&D/P&P RPG elements. Characters gain experience and grow stronger by leveling up, keys (or a thief character) are needed to open some chests, traps are virtually everywhere, there’s lots of treasure to collect, etc. There’s even a troll boss that needs to be burned once his health is depleted or he’ll simply regenerate.

— There are very few health-recovery items in the levels themselves, but the player can heal by collecting loot and purchasing health potions in shops. The shops appear in between levels and also allow the player to restock on usable items such as daggers and arrows.

— ToD contains lots of nice, little touches: the characters start the levels with their weapons sheathed (and the player can walk around unarmed until he presses the attack button), enemies can be damaged by traps, an extra victory animation accompanies a boss’ defeat, and all major stages and events are framed using unique illustrations. The game even contains some unique “Game Over” pop-ups that — if triggered during a boss fight — have the player’s enemy openly mocking him.

Dungeons Dragons Tower of Doom 3  Dungeons & Dragons – Tower of Doom Bits

Upholding the D&D tradition, Cloudkill is useless against the undead.

— Magic spells execute a flashy animation while pausing the gameplay, and their effects occasionally carry on once the game has been unpaused. This works fine for the most part, but due to the rule of only-one-spell-at-a-time, it’s occasionally possible to not be able to cast a spell while walking around without having a clear idea as to why it’s not working.

— Like many other beat-’em-ups, ToD’s attacks are accompanied by hit-flashes that indicate successful hits and mask collision issues. However, unlike most other titles in the genre, the player can attack downed enemies, but can’t actually grab or throw them.

— If timed properly, it’s possible to slash projectiles out of the air with a basic attack.

Dungeons Dragons Tower of Doom 4  Dungeons & Dragons – Tower of Doom Bits

How could they break -- the Beholder isn't even touching them?!

— Non-usable/equipable items are fairly rare, but they do provide passive bonuses such as extra attack and defense boosts. These items don’t usually last very long, though, as they get “broken” or “lost” if the player gets hit a couple of times.

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art, games

Sub-Terrania Bits

sub terrania header Sub Terrania Bits

Sub-Terrania is a physics based, side-view shooter in vein of such titles as Thurst and Gravity Force. It was developed by Zyrinx, a studio composed of demo scene veterans, and was a difficult but enjoyable Genesis title.


  • Sub-Terrania has something of a photo-realistic aesthetic that’s also reflected in its gameplay. The physics require pin-point thrusts due to limited fuel supplies, gravity drags down projectiles, momentum dictates collision damage, attachable items add extra weight and inertia, etc.

    subterrania 034 Sub Terrania Bits

    Sub-Terrania doesn't wait too long before throwing large bosses at the player.

  • Although there are only 3 tile-sets for all the maps, each level contains unique puzzles and visuals. These can vary anywhere from a laser-reflecting mirror to a giant hopping robot. Although the functionality of these elements is reused, none of the assets ever appear twice, and even the enemies and environmental objects are changed up pretty frequently.

    All these concepts make for a very nice, non-repetitive experience where the player knows something new is lurking around every turn.

  • All the destructible elements are man/alien made, and are composed of dozens of tiny tiles. Each one of these tiles has its own collision box and health value, adding granularity and creating a very gradual and satisfying sense to the destruction.
  • The overall game can be quite unforgiving. The ship’s shields are drained whenever it comes in contact with anything on the map (except when landing on flat surfaces which provide a much needed respite), the player’s shots can destroy precious powerups, and — unfortunately — the level maps only are only shown in between stages.

    subterrania 111 Sub Terrania Bits

    This installation will go down one tiny brick at a time.

  • Whenever the player’s ship explodes, it releases a shower of particles. Each one of these obeys collision checks and plays a sound effect whenever it comes in contact with the environment, putting a cacophonous exclamation point on the player’s death.
  • If the player runs out of fuel, his ship begins to billow out smoke and proceeds to plummet to its demise (all the while accounting for its previous trajectory). In this state, the ship blows up as soon as it touches anything, which can happen mercifully quick or last quite a few seconds.

    The small touch creates a dreadful but aesthetically pleasing game death effect.

  • Some of the enemies’ physical attacks carry a tremendous force that can send the player rocketing across the map (often to an almost-instant death). These moments can be quite surprising considering the somewhat plodding pace of the game, and add a menacing touch to the numerous adversaries.
  • As the player journeys further and further underground, satellite data becomes increasingly sparse. At first, key locations on the map stop being pinpointed, but soon the mission-goals themselves become garbled up, and eventually the briefings disappear altogether. Rather organically, this creates a feeling of foreboding and also reinforces a sense of progression.

    subterrania 218 Sub Terrania Bits

    Although pretty, the increased gravity and the underwater sections make the last few levels the most difficult in the game.

  • The last levels of the game increase the pull of gravity, but also introduce underwater areas that constantly drag the player’s buoyant ship to the surface. Although the player can obtain an item that — when manually used — pressurizes the ship and temporarily inverts its underwater handling, it’s only of small aid (especially when the water is eventually replaced by hazardous pools of acid).
  • Early on in the 9th and final stage, the player can obtain an item that grants him unlimited fuel. This is an extremely helpful and empowering upgrade, especially considering the game-wide scarcity of the resource.
  • In something of a twist on punishing the player, the end-game boss battle is not restarted if the player dies. Instead, if there are any lives left, the ship simply respawns right in the middle of the fight.

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art, games

Heroes of Might & Magic II Bits

heroesiiheader Heroes of Might & Magic II Bits It’s difficult listing all the notable parts of HoMM II as it’s a game that hearkens back to a design philosophy that’s rarely found these days: depth through complexity. It’s also not considered the best entry in the series — that vote usually goes to HoMM III — but that’s partly why I wanted to give the second game a quick overview.

The bits:

  • HoMM II is a turn-based strategy game with 6 distinct factions. Each faction has its own town/castle type with a unique set of structures. Most of these serve the same purpose, namely purchasing creatures, but some buildings are unique to each faction.

    snap0071 Heroes of Might & Magic II Bits

    Virtually every corner of every map is filled with lush scenery and useful hotspots.

  • Gold and 6 different resources (wood, ore, mercury, sulfur, gems and crystals) are necessary to purchase and upgrade the various buildings and creatures.
  • Heroes are recruited in towns/castles and are required to explore the overworld map and lead creatures into battle. Each hero starts off with a handful of creatures and the specializations of his faction, e.g., barbarians begin with a high attack rating and the pathfinding skill.
  • Heroes can gain levels increasing their 4 basic stats, equip artifacts, learn magic spells, gain temporary bonuses and learn and master passive skills. Some of these can carry over through the game’s campaign(s), but even on small maps all these elements provide a steady stream of upgrades.
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    The branching paths of the main campaign.

  • Overworld maps contain a fog-of-war mechanic, come in a variety of sizes, and include an absolute plethora of objects. Some of these are purely aesthetic or used as collidable scenery, but others are integral to the gameplay.

    There are collectible goods (artifacts and resources), single-use locations (witch’s huts that teach passive skills and tombs that can be plundered), mines (gold/mineral dispensers that provide a set amount of goods in each turn), multi-use locations (teleporters and marketplaces where minerals can be traded), reusable locations (wells that refill magic points and special hotspots that grant a boost to luck/morale for the next battle), and re-fillable locations (creature recruitment centers and mills that can provide random resources every 7 turns).

    On top of these, terrain types also affect hero movement, and special-purpose locations such as password-protected gateways serve additional gameplay functions. All these objects provide an incentive for the player to explore as much land as possible, but — and maybe more importantly — also give him something to do in the areas he has already conquered.

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    Ah, the Necromancer's castle. One of my favourite tactics is to send out a scout with expert necromancy and a group of missile-throwing liches, and watch the defeated armies rise up as my new skeleton minions.

  • Obelisks that are scattered around the maps reveal a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Once fully exposed, this image shows the location of a secret and powerful artifact that can be dug out from the ground.
  • Every 7 turns, towns/castles and creature dispensers get new recruits. However, once in a while a plague will strike and no new recruits will become available (worse yet, creatures that were previously available but were not purchased will shrink in numbers). Conversely, specific creatures can randomly experience a growth spurt. Whenever this happens, their base recruitment numbers will double, and stacks of these creatures will randomly appear on the overworld map.
  • As a CD-based game, HoMM II includes a CD-Audio soundtrack, with an option to use a midi one. A third alternative also exists which uses the CD-Audio with operatic vocals layered on top, giving the game a very distinct score.

    snap0101 Heroes of Might & Magic II Bits

    Those bone dragons are going down!

  • The actual combat of HoMM II is also turn based, with each creature taking its turn based on its speed statistic. The heroes don’t attack directly (aside from casting spells), but their statistics are also appended to those of the creatures, effectively boosting their performance. A lot of the creatures also have unique abilities such as infinite counterattacks, recharging hit points, a chance to cancel magical attacks, etc. Unlike the sequels, HoMM II doesn’t clearly inform the player of these abilities and it takes a lot of practice to get familiar with them.
  • Magic plays a crucial part in the overall gameplay, both in combat and on the overworld map. Being able to scout ahead and teleport around the playing field, or boosting your strongest units while damaging entrenched archers, is vital to the player’s success.

HoMM II has a very steep learning curve that’s practically unimaginable these days, but in many ways it’s this barrier and that makes it such an entertaining title. It might not be impeccably balanced for competitive play, but the sheer amount of variables that must be juggled at any given moment create an experience where the player is constantly adapting and strategizing.

With each move, an overabundance of options need to be weighed; immediate tactics have to be balanced with long term plans. The economy, map control, build orders, hero progression, proper use of units, etc., are all vital to coming out on the winning side, and each turn is different from the last.

The micromanagement of HoMM II gives Civilization a run for its money, but the upside to all these elements is that the game is practically filled with “emergent” gameplay. Creating map chokepoints, playing keepaway with AI heroes, slowly wearing down the opposition through superior use of resources, etc., all fall into a metagame that’s not immediately obvious — or even consciously designed — but one that’s created simply as a result of having so many ingredients in the pot.

It’s a methodology that’s largely avoided these days, but its end results are unique and very addictive.
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art, games

Secret of Evermore Bits

SoEheader Secret of Evermore Bits

Secret of Evermore came out close to the end of the SNES era and was the first and only game to be developed by Squaresoft USA. It tried to piggy-back on the relative success of Secret of Mana, retaining that game’s ring-menu system and part of its title, but it was not well received by the fans. The main reason for this is that it wasn’t Secret of Mana 2.

SoEsplash Secret of Evermore Bits

The defeat of the iconic Thraxx, one of the earlier bosses in the game.

Anime was really taking off at the time, but SoE had its own aesthetic style. Its setting also had nothing to do with Mana, and the two games played quite a bit differently. Adding insult to injury, various magazines previewed Seiken Densetsu 3, the real sequel to SoM, and hinted at the game not coming out in the West because of SoE.

Despite all the fan outrage, though, Evermore was a quality game and I personally prefer it to Mana.
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