Thoughts: Spelunky 2

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Spelunky 2 poses a problem rarely encountered by videogame developers: how do you follow up a game that’s already perfect?

Note that by “perfect” I do not necessarily mean “the best”. Art is subjective, and not everyone likes Spelunky, and that’s fine. However, I struggle to think of a game that hits all of its design goals with the unerring accuracy that Spelunky does. Everything in Spelunky meshes together so well to create an endlessly replayable dungeon-delving platformer roguelike, and there’s no wasted effort on extraneous, unnecessary features that bloat the game and don’t contribute anything to those design goals. Doing the usual sequel thing of adding new levels, items and features is going to be like adding a fifth wheel to a car, while taking anything out to make room for those new features is just going to create the dreaded Reliant Robin of games.

Having to make a sequel to a perfect (or almost-perfect) game is not something that happens often; of the few examples that do exist, the one I’d point to is when Nintendo had to follow up Super Mario 64 with a launch Mario title for the Gamecube. Mario Sunshine was a decent game which tried some new and interesting things with its water-spraying mechanics but which, ultimately, did not come together anywhere near as elegantly as the dead simple 3D platforming mechanics in 64. That’s fine. You can’t make every game a classic, and Mario Sunshine is still a lot of fun to play and a very worthwhile experience even if it ended up standing in the shadow of its predecessor. I think I would have understood if Spelunky 2 had ended up being the Spelunky series’ Mario Sunshine; I would have been a little disappointed, sure, but I would have respected the attempt and probably, eventually, enjoyed the game for what it was, just like I did Mario Sunshine.

Instead, what Derek Yu has made here is essentially Kaizo Mario 64. It’s the same game as before, but with all of the dials turned up to 11, and then turned all the way around again until the dial breaks. It’s Spelunky 1 for streamers and speedrunners; it’s Spelunky 1 if it were squarely targeted at the 1% of players who think Hell runs are too easy. It’s Asshole Spelunky. And I do not like it.

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Thoughts: Hades

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The impossible finally happened: Supergiant Games have made something that I unambiguously like.

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Thoughts: A Monster’s Expedition

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A Monster’s Expedition is a charming little puzzle game about pushing logs.

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Thoughts: Wasteland 3

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I’m not sure if it’s the current state of the world or simply my getting older, but I find my perception of time is starting to unravel a bit. For example, my first reaction upon learning Wasteland 3 had been released was something along the lines of “Wow, it wasn’t that long ago that I reviewed Wasteland 2!” only to then realise that that was back in 2014 and that developers inXile have had time to put out two more RPGs in the intervening six years – Torment: Tides of Numenera and Bard’s Tale IV — both of which I have also played and reviewed and then immediately forgotten. While all of these games have been heavily flawed they have, at least, demonstrated that inXile are on a generally upward trajectory; there’s been a noticeable process of slow improvement with each one as they gradually figure out how to best put together writing, structure and systems design to create a compelling RPG. So my general expectation for Wasteland 3 was that it was going to be okay, even if my previous experience with inXile’s games has also taught me to expect bugs and combat balance issues and entirely missing chunks of game. I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be more than that, and probably wouldn’t have bothered if I’d actually had to buy the thing for fifty quid instead of getting it as part of my £4-a-month GamePass subscription.

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Thoughts: Death Stranding

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The first time the words “A Hideo Kojima Production” popped up during the opening credits of Death Stranding, I merely greeted it with a raised eyebrow. It’s always struck me as a particularly pretentious thing to try and put your own name front and centre on a game that’s been produced by a team of hundreds, but it’s also par for the course from Kojima at this point. I let it go.

The second time the words “A Hideo Kojima Production” popped up during the opening credits of Death Stranding, I did a bit of a comical double-take. Hadn’t he already told me this was A Hideo Kojima Production? Maybe it was a bug. Surely the man’s ego couldn’t be large enough that he’d put his name on it twice1.

The third time the words “A Hideo Kojima Production” popped up during the opening credits of Death Stranding, my eyes rolled back so far in my head I think I caught a glimpse of my brain.

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  1. Well, three times, considering the dev studio also has his name on it.
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Thoughts: Age Of Empires 2 Definitive Edition

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First, an apology to Hidden Path. Back in 2013 I slated the first remaster of AoE 2, Age Of Empires 2 HD, as being little more than a widescreen upgrade for the game. Granted it did have Steamworks integration for multiplayer, but on launch the game was plagued with bugs and desyncs and so at the time I didn’t see the long-term value of an AoE 2 with a modern multiplayer backend. Hidden Path kept at it, however, fixing those bugs and shoring up the game and providing a base for another studio, Forgotten Empires, to release their own campaigns and civilization packs. A couple of years back I discovered that Age Of Empires 2 now has a thriving esports community with some of the highest viewer counts on Twitch during major tournaments; I have enjoyed watching many of those matches myself, and that’s something that probably wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of Hidden Path and Forgotten Empires1. However, while Age Of Empires 2 has certainly aged more gracefully than several of its contemporaries, there was no getting around the fact that the HD Edition was just that – it upped the resolution while doing nothing to update the underlying look of game, and that’s been a bit of a problem as the modern obsession with 4K displays and 144Hz refresh rates intensifies. Given that Microsoft is going through one of its more consumer-friendly phases at the moment, and given that there’s a proven audience for Age Of Empires out there, it’s not that surprising that they’ve taken a stab at a full remaster with Age Of Empires 2: Definitive Edition.

What is a little surprising, though, is just how outstandingly good this remaster is.

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  1. I will be honest and say that I’m having difficulty figuring out who exactly is responsible for what. Hidden Path did the base HD Edition and Forgotten Empires were involved in the new expansion campaigns, but there’s also a third studio credited on all of the releases, Skybox Labs, who are part of Microsoft Game Studios and who appear to do support work for a lot of Microsoft games. If I had to guess I’d say Skybox took over responsibility for maintaining the HD Edition from Hidden Path at some point while Forgotten Empires developed the new content.
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Thoughts: Blood Bowl 2

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In this age of Steam shovelware and low-effort mobile ports it’s difficult to remember a time when we weren’t awash in terrible adaptations of various Games Workshop properties. These days you can’t throw a rock without hitting a digital version of one of their Specialist Games from the ‘90s – Space Hulk, Mordheim, Adeptus Titanicus, Man O’ War, Battlefleet Gothic and so on — and with the notable exception of Battlefleet Gothic all of them have ranged in quality from “sub-par” to “indescribably awful”. Years before the floodgates opened, however, there was Cyanide’s 2009 adaptation of the classic American-Football-but-with-Orcs punch ‘em up Blood Bowl, which was a game that got a headstart on everyone else through a surprising application of copyright infringement1. Unlike the many games that followed it Blood Bowl didn’t piss about trying to figure out how to convert the board game into something more appropriate for a videogame, and instead just ported the board game rules across on a 1:1 basis. This proved to be an unusually successful approach, for two very good reasons that I’m surprised the later GW adaptations (including some of Cyanide’s own) didn’t pick up on. One is that while it was far from perfect Cyanide had managed to balance automating away most of the cruft that slows down a physical game of Blood Bowl while still preserving the board game feeling with stuff like highly visible digital dice rolls. The other is that people liked the old Specialist Games for a reason, and Blood Bowl is the best of the lot. You don’t need to go tinkering with the gameplay to make it work. It already does.

As long as you have somebody else to play it with, anyway.

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  1. Cyanide had released Chaos League a few years earlier, which was an extremely poorly-disguised ripoff of Blood Bowl. Games Workshop noticed, sued, and part of the eventual settlement was that Cyanide would be allowed to make an officially licensed Blood Bowl game. I still don’t understand how they managed to swing that.
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