I usually don't think to capture a screenshot when deeply immersed in a game. From time to time, however, something strikes me enough and I hit that capture button. Here's just a few of my favorites.
Do you enjoy video game reviews but hate to read? I have you covered with these quick snippets. Enjoy.
Want more? Check out the previous sets of rapid reviews:
Rapid reviews is where I write quick snippets on games I've recently played, and use the word "rapid" as an excuse to justify bad writing. Also check out parts 1-5.
Check out parts I-IV for more rapid reviews.
Quick reviews of games. Short and sweet.
Too many games, not enough time. Let’s be brief.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)
The best of Zelda with a unique, new mechanic, and all within the revamped familiar world of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Pure joy.
RE 2 DLC (PS4)
The remake to Resident Evil 2 proved how a remake should be done. Everything about it just felt right; It’s a near perfect game. The first DLC, on the other hand, is sloppy and unnecessarily difficult.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS4)
Spells, morphing, gothic music, library cards, and a game after a game. It’s glorious.
Just Breed (Famicom)
When I discovered that a game like Shining Force had existed in Japan for the Famicom I jumped on the opportunity to play. What has the bones to be a great tactical RPG is ruined by exhausting battles that are drawn out by two primary factors: 1) enemy respawn hubs and 2) a movement limitation on your army to always stay in a nearby cluster.
Rolling Thunder (Micro Player)
Rolling Thunder has a special, nostalgic place in my heart. While the micro version isn’t quite the arcade experience, both in terms of physical size and graphical quality, it’s close enough to pull me back to that place in time. This mini machine delivers on one of Namco’s best.
Beautifully designed, smooth animations, enjoyable story arch, and enthralling music. The extreme difficulty feels right since each section is so short. A died a lot on my way to the top and loved every minute of it.
Hollow Knight (PS4)
Brutally difficult to the point of massive frustration at times. The pleasure derived from a successfully slain boss mostly stems from knowing that the moment is finally done, rather than a delight one normally feels in a moment of accomplishment from a more moderate level of difficulty.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA)
A short yet enjoyable addition to the Castlevania series.
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS)
Dawn picks up where Aria left off, adding additional depth to the story, characters, and mechanics.
Final Fantasy Tactics: Advance (GBA)
There’s so much to dislike about FFTA: a new judgement system that slows the pace of battle and travel with a layer of complexity that never should have made it beyond a brainstorm meeting, a laborious equipment UX, and a “game within a game” story that cheapens the experience.
Metroid: Fusion (GBA)
It's mostly great. There’s an Alien like atmospheres complete with an enemy to run away from. There’s environments that change over time. And tons of secret areas to discover. The ability to jump as a ball and easily jump upright and grab into a tunnel is a nice touch. Save points feel appropriately spread out, the music and animations are great, and there’s some solid music throughout.
On the negative side, it feels rather linear and you are constantly told what to do. That plus the combination of the DS Lite hardware and the shooting mechanics makes for frustrating boss battles. For example, my giant hands struggled to hold R for missiles + L to aim at an angle + down to aim downward + press B to shoot.
Metroid: Zero Mission (GBA)
Metroid: Zero Mission exceeded and blew away my expectations. I came into this anticipating a simple remake with a few minor improvements and was so pleasantly surprised to discover a completely reimagined experience. ZM is drenched in polish, intrigue, and joy.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GBA)
It fits the typical mold of the games that followed LttP, in a good way, with just enough differences and fresh elements to keep it fun. The only real negative is that my hat friend is rather irritating, playing the part of the tutorial I never needed and never seems to end.
I particularly enjoyed the fusing of stones as a way to get you to return to previously explored areas (both to do more fusing and to collect rewards). Simple yet pleasurable.
I was a little shocked that there wasn’t that moment near the end where you realize Ganon was involved all along. Nope, no Ganon. And that’s perfectly OK.
My favorite “dungeon” was actually Hyrule Town. From the moment you step foot in the town you are teased with hints of secrets at every turn.
Chrono Trigger (DS)
Back in the mid-90s I had rented Chrono Trigger from a local video store, and never had the chance to complete it. With the DS version finally in my hands I was not only able to complete it a few different ways, I was also able to jump into the new content which added some extra depth.
Mother 3 (GBA)
I’m really torn on this one. The story is interesting at times, with curious oddities and strange conversations, and then other times the story just seem so predictable, the mood is juvenile, and the gameplay can be so utterly banal. On the gameplay front, there is an annoying, repeating formula: go to a location, grind in boring “dungeon”, listen to a boss ramble, fight, read a wall of text, and hope you grinded just enough so that you don’t have to grind some more. There’s some cute animations and characters, however, overall, I’m simply not a fan of the art style.
Ninja Cop (GBA)
A ninja that is also a cop...that’s also a ninja. It just works. The only downside is the game ends just as it gets going.
The Messenger (PS4)
A subpar action-adventure platformer that borders on tiresome. If you want to play a far superior throw-back Ninja Gaiden then check out Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (and as a bonus enjoy its Castlevania goodness).
It's hard to find time these days to play all the great games that are out there. It's equally challenging to find time to write about them. So like in part 1, I'll keep this to the point.
Mega Man 11 - PS4
The first hour was frustrating: I'd die getting close to a boss, yet not quite reaching one, and then would try another level, not sure which was the best one to tackle first, and die some more. At that point I collected enough currency to buy a few essential upgrades, and instantly the difficultly swung in the opposite direction as I conquered level after level with little to no problem. The challenge was still there, it just started to feel more fair.
All in all, it was a top tier Mega Man game, with an aesthetic that really appealed to me, fun weapons, and solid level design.
Castlevania: Rondo of Blood - PS4
This is classic Castlevania done properly. Levels are challenging but not to the point of frustration. The playable characters are unique. The music is stellar. The secrets are rewarding when discovered. My only critique of this game is that the dialogue and English voice acting in cutscenes are extremely cringe worthy.
This is a must play for any Castlevania fan.
Dead Cells - PS4
I've never been a big fan of roguelike games. While I appreciate that there are some elements of persistence in Dead Cells, I personally gravitate to those games that are have more continuous forward motion. I played for a few hours and then moved on.
Resident Evil 2 Remake - PS4
Capcom is continuing to head in the right direction with the Biohazard franchise, focusing on what made these games popular in the first place. So much attention to detail went into this game, and great improvements were made when compared back to the original. The environments are richer and more expansive. The story is more refined. It's enhanced in every way.
What stands out the most is the impressive pacing. There is a rhythm to the encounters you face v downtime, the feeling of safety v insecurity, the placement of items that you find v being completely devoid of ammunition. You actually have to be careful when firing at a zombie, as they sways in a way that can be challenging to hit and move at you with extreme aggression. You have to be on your toes when you enter a room, and likewise, ready to search a room quickly when an enemy rattles at the wooden door that is between you, keeping it at bay. Fleeing is a tackle option, and is actually essential in some instances.
The gameplay is utterly satisfying in so many ways. It just feels good to watch as a zombie recoils from a gunshot, followed by the shock of it continuing to push forward quickly after. Zombies lunge at you from around corners, making it so that walking is often not just more immersive but a safer option. You also can never trust a zombie on the ground, keeping you constantly on edge.
I'm currently doing a second play through as Claire, having originally played as Leon (I elected to do the 2nd option that you unlock after the first play through). There are differences between Leon and Claire's runs, though I would say not quite as different as I had hoped. Needless to say I'm obsessed with this game.
Shovel Knight - PS4
This is classic platforming done to perfection. It's a little on the easy side, although I really didn't mind that. I also highly recommend playing the Spector of Torment campaign, which could have been its own standalone game in my opinion.
Red Dead Redemption 2 - PS4
What stands out the most to me with RDR2 is the amount of polish that went into it. It's incredibly detailed in terms of the mechanics, missions, and just the general interactions you have with NPCs and the world. The story and voice acting is topnotch, although I'm in the camp that feels that Dutch did get a little repetitive at times. There's also something that is so satisfying about the freedom you have to explore and decide how you want to interact with the people and places you discover. And the landscapes are drop-dead gorgeous.
Owlboy - PS4
Playing this game made me feel like I was transported back to the days of the SNES. Owlboy succeeds at marrying crisp platforming, beautiful 2D graphics, and a story that perfectly unfolds.
Axiom Verge - PS4
Some say it's the best Castlevania game ever. It's definitely one of the best Metroidvania games of all times. And it's insanely impressive what one human was able to create. There are so many secret areas to discover, incredible music, and tons of fun weapons. Although, I actually feel the amount of weapons was a determent to the game, as it was overwhelming and many felt useless simply due to the overabundance. Overall I really enjoyed this game and would love to see a sequel.
Crystalis - NES
This, as well as the next 3 games, are all classic NES games I never had the opportunity to play during their original days. Crystalis is a solid action-RPG from beginning to end, and I can see why it is regarded so highly. The battle mechanics, namely coming from the unique swords that carry their own special abilities, made for simple yet effective battle strategies, as well as being the means to progressing through locked pathways.
Battle of Olympus - NES
You may remember this game as the knockoff to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It looks, plays, and feels very much like it. The big differences being that it doesn't have the power of the stories and characters from Zelda, and it lacks the overworld element as well. I played this one for a few hours and gave up.
Metal Gear - NES
As with Crystalis, I played this one end to end. I will admit I did have to look up one part online in order to progress, which was a hidden wall that you had to punch through. Having played some of the more modern Metal Gear games it was fun to go back and discover that so much of the themes were established from the very start.
For me, like most that had the opportunity, my first experience with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was at a young, impressionable age. Sure, we had an Atari before that, and a couple of games. But it was the NES that had the largest and most lasting impact on me. I was probably about 5 years old when my neighbor, Miles, beckoned me into his home, touting that he had a new game system, with promises of a dragon. Inside I was introduced to Super Marios Bros, and, as I recall the memory, I imagine my jaw remained unhinged for the length of my visit. It wouldn’t be long before an NES reached my home, and many years followed where I would journey, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, through a rich expanse of worlds.
Fast-forward to around 2002 or 2003, during my college years, where I decided to unpack (and dust off) my old NES. It felt like it had just been long enough where coming back to it felt meaningful. By this time, multiple systems had already come and gone, and the NES, for most, had been forgotten, often only surfacing in a garage sale put up by a parent cleaning an attic.
This is also when I learned about the unreliable and degradation of the 72 pin connector. A few dollars and a few weeks later, a replacement arrived from a vendor on eBay. I recall opening up the system with a feeling that was akin to an archaeologist unearthing a sacred grave. In some ways, it felt like an invasion, and in another, it felt like exploring a newly discovered planet.
After getting the NES operational again, I casually played a few games. It wasn’t long until I was back at it with modern games like Grand Theft Auto III: Vice City and Counter-Strike. My NES was quickly forgotten, re-boxed and packed away. Perhaps it was simply too soon.
It’s now 2018, thirty-three years after the North American release of the NES. At work, we have a #retrogames channel in Slack, where we discuss all things related to retro gaming (including the definition of what retro gaming is). It was in this community that the emotions I have deeply ingrained with the NES resurfaced. Quickly I plunged into all things retro gaming. I binged listened to countless episodes of the Retronauts podcast. I grinded through books like I Am Error, Legends of Localization Book 1: The Legend of Zelda, The Anatomy of Castlevania: The NES Trilogy, and NES Works Volume I and II. I played modern takes on 8 and 16 bit style games, such as Axiom Verge and Owlboy. I also found myself back in a place I hadn’t been since the early 2000s: eBay. My collection of original NES carts quickly doubled.
In the last 6 months I learned more about classic gaming than I had ever known. I gained layers of appreciation and understanding that simply didn’t exist prior. While in doing so, some of the charm of my memories may have been tainted, yet overall, my lasting impressions of what retro gaming means to me has been greatly enhanced. It reminded me a bit like my experience in studying film in college, as once I understood what the man behind the curtain was doing I could now love these things deeper, but the man could never be unseen, and thus some of the illusions were forever lost.
As I prepared my original NES for its return performance I came prepared with the knowledge that hooking an NES up to a 4K television was not going to be an ideal experience. However, I couldn’t even get that far, as just like in the previous round through memory lane, my NES failed to load any games. After a deep clean and another new pin connector I was back on track. This time my goal was to experience games I had never played before, or those that I had only a glimpse of in their infancy. I decided to start with Crystalis.
As feared, the combination of the NES on a modern TV was a mess. The colors were off. Any movement on screen was distorted. And I could see the preloaded artifacts on the right side of the screen, which was an area that would have been obscured on a CRT television. I knew this just wasn’t going to work. Thankfully, there are heroes in this world that have produced gems like the AVS, which plays original NES (and Famicom) carts and outputs to HD. I went ahead and ordered one, and felt back on track.
I’ve since played a number of games, and not all to completion. I dabbled in games like The Battle of the Olympus, drawn to the Zelda II: The Adventure of Link style (or to be blunt, it’s a total rip-off). And played a few levels here and there with Batman: The Video Game, Commando, and The Legend of Kage. With so many games brought into my home all at once I had too much to choose from, a luxury that didn’t exist back in the 80s, which resulted in my fickleness. Thus far, at the time of writing this, the only two I have completed end-to-end are Crystalis and Metal Gear (both great).
Playing games as old as these, so many years later, after experiencing games evolve, and having those games be ones I had never played, resulted in a nostalgia-cocktail. It’s an experience that has been rather intoxicating. I often feel transported back in time, as if I just received ones of these games as a gift. Ignoring everything I have learned and experienced since then, however, is sometimes a challenge, and it’s not something that I feel one should even bother to block out. There is enjoyment to be found in comparing these games to those that followed, to feel the evolution and see what inspired the future. Granted, a hidden door in Metal Gear that is part of the critical path made me want to pull my hair out a little, and it was something I ended up looking up online. But this was the NES! Random, hidden doors was a sign of the time, and I can accept that.
Warning: Sweet Home spoilers ahead
Which brings me to Sweet Home. If you haven’t heard of Sweet Home then you are not alone, as it was only ever officially released in Japan. The version I am playing is a translated reproduction cartridge, meaning it isn’t an original NES game, but you wouldn’t know that by the looks of it. Sweet Home, produced by Capcom, is a precursor to the Resident Evil (Biohazard) series. Similar to Resident Evil, it’s a survival horror themed game that takes place in a creepy mansion filled with creatures and zombies. The mechanics draw similarities as well, as you progress by collecting items, backtracking, and using those items to progress in the form of light puzzles. Notes left behind offer clues to both your advancement and the grander story. Even the ability to toggle between characters is later found in Resident Evil Zero.
Where Sweet Home differs from the Resident Evil lineage the most is two-fold: 1) it’s an RPG, and 2) what makes this game so unique is how you partner with the five playable characters. With regards to the latter, the dynamic of grouping (and ungrouping) with your fellow trapped survivors is what makes the game unique and special. You are restricted to no more than three characters in a party at a time, and each character can only hold two items, in addition to their special item. This forces the player to make strategic decisions. Do I have a good set of items for what I anticipate ahead? If I need items from the group of two I left behind will they be able to safely catch up to the party of three? You’re constantly making trade-offs, and while on occasion it feels somewhat tedious, it mostly feels engaging.
And at times, safety in numbers can backfire. I find myself often toggling between holding a stance that the clues are too literal, and thus, too easy, and wishing the game was more challenging. And then, just minutes later, my entire party of three will fall into a pit, hanging for their lives, and because I wasn’t careful enough my remaining party of two isn’t able to get to them in time to save them. It’s actually moments like these that really up my appreciation for this game as it’s these types of creative surprises that adds flavor.
While I save often in this game, in fear of permanently losing a character, there was a moment that occurred early in the game where I decided to not reset and, instead, decided to accept and carry on. I had crossed a pit to obtain an essential item, by placing a log to form a bridge. My party of three doubled back after gathering the item, and this is when the character in the center of the line broke the bridge and hung to the edge. I was able to pull the character back up, but this meant that one of my other characters, Asuka, was now stranded on the other side. I ended up leaving Asuka on that lonely island for a huge portion of the game, always knowing, or at least hoping, that I would come back. It was a promise I made both to myself as a player as well as between the characters in the context of the game world. Eventually I found more logs, returned, and saved my friend. It was a sense of relief to finally be reunited. That was also when I realized that Asuka, all along, had a log in her inventory that she could have used to cross that gap. I laughed to myself.
The survival horror theme is bolstered even further by the ways in which characters become separated. If you’re like me, you occasionally take unnecessary risks in games (especially if you just saved your progress) in an effort to push the boundaries of the game. For example, there are spirits that will pull a character away from their group, plopping them in a room many screens away. The wisest decision in this moment would be to take the remaining two characters that are still bound together, and to have them navigate to their lost friend. However, like foolish teenagers in countless horror movies, I will often take my solo character and journey on, acting as if I am confined to the perspective of that person. Ask yourself, if you were taken from your friends by ghosts, would you sit still in a strange room? Probably not. Now, a solo trek like this can be disastrous, as you might break a flimsy plank that stretched across a pit, with no one to pull you up. Or you will face enemies alone, and with a finite number of healing items available in the game, this isn’t wise (assuming you even have an item to heal yourself with). This is actually where another ingenious mechanic comes into play: the ability to call for help. In this mode, another character (or set of characters) has limited time to run towards their comrade and assist them. It’s a heart-pounding moment.
Further on the topic of encounters, as mentioned before, this is an RPG, albeit a rather atypical one. Battles are randomly triggered, with the exception of the fights that ensue when you come into direct contact with enemies that traverse across some of the screens. The battles are rather simple, made up primarily of attacks and prayer (think magic). Many of the traditional systems found in RPGs, such as collecting coins, purchasing weapons and items, and resting at inns to regain health, do not exist in Sweet Home (nor do they have a place here). Rather, there is no currency, weapons and items are discovered, and hit points and prayer points are replenished only with tonics.
The environments powerfully convey the mood. In this vast mansion you twist and turn down hallways, up and down stairs leading you to great heights and depths, and explore the outer areas surrounding the property. Each section is truly unique, ranging from underground labyrinths to a lakeside forest. The top-down view is contrasted by more detailed scenes of paintings and monuments, and the occasional open door animation.
Most areas, in addition to having their own visual complexity, are accompanied by a variety of music compositions that fit snugly in the horror genre. A rolling low tone base line is accented by squealing highs. There is a deliberant tempo juxtaposition between the moderate beats-per-minute (BPM) of the exploration music and the upbeat, panic inducing songs that quickly loop and build anxiety when you battle enemies and suffer from poison.
Even with the limitations of the NES, Sweet Home managed to nail the theme of what survival horror should be. You’re scared. You’re often alone. Your resources are limited. Danger lurks behind every corner. The atmosphere is terrifying. A sinister backstory slowly reveals itself, making the world that much more frightening. Death is final.
Not only did Sweet Home bring me back to the joy of experiencing a new NES experience, it also reminded me of the pleasure of solving mysteries through the use of taking notes. Note taking, for many, in and outside the context of gaming, is considered a chore. Growing up in the days of the NES, however, it was not just helpful at times, but often essential. Drawing maps, scribbling down clues, recording passwords...these are all staples of the NES experience.
At this point, from what I can gather from the progression of the story, I’m close to the end. As for what comes next, I will dip into the backlog of titles I still have waiting for me, and keep playing, for as long as it still feels like home. And who knows, maybe in another 10 years I’ll dust off my NES games one more time for another go.
In the coming weeks and months (perhaps forever) I'm going to take a different approach to game reviews. Rapid Reviews, as the name suggests, is a set of quick, concise reviews of several video games.
Here, in part 1, I have games ranging from iOS to PS4 (oh, and Breath of the Wild for the Switch).
Hyperlight Drifter - PS4
Drenched in the warmth of 80s sci-fi synths I breath in the nostalgic, minimalistic visuals and paint in the details with my mind.
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier - iOS
"Now I am become" Telltale, destroyer of batteries. It lacks any real improvements from the previous iterations, and still suffers from performance and audio mixing, in addition to battery draining like a energy thirsty vampire. The gameplay remains overly simplistic for my taste. The writing shines, and only occasionally suffers from “catch all” responses and animations that don’t always match with your choice in words (e.g. I just made a choice that doomed a character from finding “her baby”, and seconds later she is smiling like a smitten teen).
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - Nintendo Switch
Yes, this game is as good as the hype. Yes, the horses are a little wonky, but if that’s the biggest critique I can think of then I’m really digging for negatives. The best parts: Exploration is always rewarded, whenever I think “maybe I can…” the answer is always yes, and it’s extremely well polished. Great DLP too.
Super Mario Run - iOS
I ran. I had fun. I beat the levels. I collected all of the colored coins. Then I uninstalled, feeling satisfied.
Mobius Final Fantasy - iOS
My 10 minute experience: “What the hell is going on here? Never mind, this is stupid. I quit”.
Sword of Xolan - iOS
2D retro side-scrolling goodness. Just, not greatness.
Goblin Sword - iOS
Refer to Sword of Xolan review.
Interview with Amir Rajan of A Dark Room, A Noble Circle, The Ensign, and Future Projects: Sasha, The Builder.
Amir Rajan is the creator of A Noble Circle, adapter of the #1 hit iOS game A Dark Room (originally created for the web by Michael Townsend), and creator of the prequel to A Dark Room: The Ensign. His games conjure deep, swaying, and often conflicting emotional responses in the players through the use of original storytelling techniques. The worlds he creates are visually simple, yet intensely profound and complex.
Today we chatted about his experiences as an indie developer, his thoughts on his projects, another prequel to A Dark Room, and his next game Sasha.
Brian: What I found to be so striking about my experience with A Dark Room was the way the progression of the experience made me feel compelled to push forward despite the slow but steady realization that the community in the game, the community I started and oversaw, was being crippled by my advancement (literally enslaved). As more people joined my village, my resources expanded, and more features were unlocked, the stronger the urge was for me to drive ahead. It reminds me of how, in real-life, when people gain status and wealth in the world, they start to lack sympathy for those around them, blinded by their own ambitions. In short, the feeling of guilt was present, but it was overshadowed by my desire for growth and exploration in an expanding universe. Was this part of your intent, to have users experience these types of emotions? Knowing that this made some people quit the game, does that feel like a success for having evoked such strong emotions?
Amir: The game started as a web game and I (I'd like to say) "re-envisioned" it to a mobile medium. The web version didn't have any of the builder commentary or the slave transition. The builder was simply an NPC that was used to build stuff. Mentally I really connected with the builder, and wanted to answer my own questions: Who was she? Why was she helping me? So the emotions in the game were definitely deliberate and vocalized through the builder.
It's funny actually, someone reached out to me on twitter about the slaves transition and how "it wasn't his choice". He was pretty angry about it. His Twitter profile background was that of Fallout New Vegas, where you can literally [be] part of a slave driving army.
I think the emotions are exasperated by the fact that there aren't any pictures. In fact, these kind of emotional responses (specifically not having control) were what drove me to create the moral events in The Ensign, where you had a direct choice of whether you would "take food from the family" or not.
...the emotions... were...deliberate and vocalized through the builder.
Brian: In A Dark Room (and likewise in The Ensign), the player has minimal knowledge of what the game is before starting. You take it so far as to only have one screenshot in the App Store, and it is of the very start of the game. Doing so doesn't spoil, but rather, excites attention and curiosity. Do you think that this sense of curiosity is what drew people in? Likewise, do you think it may have scared others away?
Amir: Yes on both accounts. Michael and I did that deliberately so that the experience wouldn't be spoiled. After we hit the number one spot, and did an update to the game, [one] of the people on the Apple app approval process actually rejected our update because our description was "too short". I was really, really pissed about that, but we got it overridden and [were] allowed to update. It's tough balancing the "business" aspect of selling games, but we had faith that word of mouth recommendation would trump a long drawn out sales pitch on our app description page. We have a few accolades on there now. Still trying to find a good balance. [Having] good reviews certainly helps.
Brian: What did it feel like to see A Dark Room hit #1 in the App Store? Did you ever think it would gain such popularity?
Amir: When it hit the number one spot I was in complete utter shock. Definitely was not in a good state of mind, surprisingly.
This expert from my blog explains it well:
"This is the best way I can describe what I’m feeling right now: I’ve bought a lottery ticket, and the lottery commission has revealed 5 of the 6 numbers. And so far, I’ve gotten those 5 numbers right. I know I’ve got at least the winnings for those 5 numbers in the bag. But now I’m waiting for the 6th number… that jackpot number that changes your life forever. The lottery commission hasn’t revealed the 6th number yet, they haven’t even told me when they’ll show the 6th number. So I’m stuck in this weird limbo, where others see success and all I can do is temper expectations, be “responsible”, and move forward as if that 6th number will be wrong…. still number 1, just checked."
I didn't sleep well for almost a month. Every hour or so I'd wake up and see if I were still number one. Still never got used to it
When [A Dark Room] hit the number one spot I was in complete utter shock...I didn't sleep well for almost a month.
Brian: I can only imagine what that feels like.
Amir: Yea, we aren't prepared for that kind of success. When all was said and done Michael and I made about 700k that year we hit #1. 200k during that 18-day period at the number one spot. The rest was long tail trickles. Sadly, after taxes, Apple’s cut, and splits…both of us came away with about 270k. So that part was also not fun to realize. [I] was able to buy a house and pay it off though ^_^. Now I live mortgage free and don’t need to chase the mighty dollar so much anymore.
Brian: You spoke to some of the differences between the original web-based version of A Dark Room in the in-game commentary. Which difference did you find to be the most critical for the mobile experience?
Amir: Pacing and the builder's commentary/storyline. I felt that's what put the game over the top. The mobile version is about 3 times faster than the web version. The game is a bit more challenging too. The DPS for soldiers, snipers, and feral terrors was nearly doubled in the mobile version... rage inducing I'm sure. I didn't expect the builder's interactions would be so powerful. But I do feel that's what "made" the game…Your thoughts on this?
Brian: Pacing is so key in gameplay, and I find that in a mobile experience players would have struggled with a slower pace. As for the difficultly, I actually found it to be rather well balanced, but I tend to enjoy a bit of a challenge. For me, "dying" wasn't too frustrating, but more so, I blamed myself for venturing too far, too soon.
Amir: The Ensign was definitely an extension of that "your fault" mentality. I wanted to make sure it was 100% fair. And yea, the early moments of the game when the forest opens up was key. Didn't want people to play for 30 seconds and leave a bad review. That plus the ability to pick it up, play a little bit, then put it back down was extremely important too.
Brian: A Dark Room starts with darkness when you meet the girl, and comes full circle with darkness returning when the girl leaves. It’s a powerful, emotional moment in the experience, and for me, a point where everything felt like it was crashing down and at the point of no return. This isn’t a question.
Amir: The fire going out when she left was deliberate. Not sure how many people caught that.
Brian: You mentioned how you have never actually met Michael Townsend, the original creator. Do you think you two will ever meet?
Amir: If Trump becomes president I may move to Canada.
Brian: Not a bad idea.
Amir: He said I'm welcome to his couch :-) Hopefully we'll meet soon, but definitely haven't met yet. It's on my bucket list ^_^ Do you find it weird that we haven't met? Maybe it's poetic that we never do :-P
Brian: Actually, not really, not in this day. I collaborated with an artist on a web-based project I created, and we haven't met yet. We follow each other on Instagram though.
Amir: Cool, cool. The composer I [worked] with for ANC is in Brazil. Haven't met him either. But yea, I agree with you. Don't find it too weird personally.
Brian: In playing A Noble Circle and The Ensign, there is a clear, anti pay-to-win, in-app purchase message. In my opinion, in-app purchases, for the most part, replace what was once the designed challenge of a game into something that is now constructed, often purposely, to be purchased for the sake of completion. Which, in turn, taints the experience, removing the fun and entertainment elements for something that feels like it is run by finance people instead of creative folks. What are your thoughts on the direction mobile games have long been heading and do you foresee a backlash?
Amir: I've struggled with this myself. I'm hoping there is a backlash... but it's unlikely. Premium games are a "lost cause". I quoted it because I don't think AAA will go that route. As for indie game devs, it may provide an opportunity to thrive (since we aren't competing with shops like EA). And we also don't need as much money either. I'm happy netting $170 a day. And can live comfortably off of that for the foreseeable future. But I do want to build a culture of "gifting" games and "free to start" games like POTUS and Kung Fury do that very tastefully. So my next game might be "free to start". And maybe ANC will become "free to start" too. You may have noticed that ANC - Prologue is a free offering. But I'm not ready to jump ship yet. We'll see how this year goes.
Sasha, my next game, will be about "unrequited love”.
Brian: From A Dark Room to A Noble Circle it appears that a strong motif of yours seems to be a world that is visually simple, yet with an underlining complexity of somber emotions. And these emotions and layers of details get richer as the player progresses further, learning more of the world around them. What attracts you to this style of gameplay and this form of story telling?
Amir: I think it works well given the current mobile landscape. Given that most games do exactly the opposite of what I'm doing. When I was a kid, I wanted to get into building video games, simply because it was a way to share an experience. Still remember the shock when Aries died in FF7 (spoiler alert). I feel I have a knack for distilling an experience down to its essence. Which works well for me since I don't have the resources to build a fully 3d or gorgeous 2d game. Only so much one person can do.
When I start working on a game, there is a central emotion theme in mind. For ADR it was "the feeling of loss" (specifically the builder). For The Ensign, it was "cognitive dissonance", that feeling when you go against your ideals. For ANC, it’s "a rush of awe". Sasha, my next game, will be about "unrequited love”.
Brian: I’ve released a lot of free custom maps and levels for first-person shooters, so I can relate to the notion of creating something primarily by yourself. What motivates you when you are devoting countless hours to your craft, knowing it may yield little to no money (what if it gets lost in the App Store abyss)?
Amir: [I] always worry about how long my philosophies will bare fruit. So far I'm keeping my head above water. My general ideals is that I only want to build things that I myself would play/buy. I've been lucky (very very lucky) in finding an audience that operates on the same wave length that I do. There are 80+ million iOS devices out there. If I can capture even 0.01% of that in perpetuity [then] I'm happy. Cause I get to do exactly what I want to do: create.
And yes, I've been called pretentious multiple times XD (I even make fun of it in ANC). So, in short. I'll keep doing it until the well dries up. Then I'll figure things out then. [I] just don't want to sacrifice my ideals too much.
I've been called pretentious multiple times.
Brian: While A Noble Circle has a similar visual and thematic style to that of A Dark Room and The Ensign, it differs greatly in terms of gameplay and the sounds that are the backbone of the experience. What inspired you to explore this style of gameplay?
Amir: Geometry Dash. Such a fun game! That and it was a spark of inspiration from creating a virtual Go board. When you placed a "stone" on the board. I wanted to capture a sound that would "do the move justice". You get a nice "click" on a real go board, but in a digital medium I wanted to do something different. So it would randomly play a note from a pentatonic scale. You could almost make music while playing the game. So that's when I decided to take the rhythm based idea, plus the random music generation, plus Flatland and Ayn Rand's Anthem and put them together.
Brian: At the end of A Noble Circle, I just bounced around for a while. At first, because I wanted to see if there was more, but then later, just to enjoy the sounds and music I was producing.
Amir: You wouldn't be the first :-) Have you seen this video?
Amir: I made a musical score, and created a small AI to play the musical score for me. Just a silly little Easter egg. I wonder if anyone will actually try to compose the "perfect" piece. Would be cool if someone did ^_^
Brian: I want to circle back to your next game, Sasha, and the theme of “unrequited love”. What can you tell me about it? Earlier you mentioned the composer for A Noble Circle that you collaborated with, Rafael Langoni Smith. Will this project involve others as well?
Amir: Not sure about collaborations yet. It's barely in pre-production. But I wanted to explore the idea of loving something that doesn't love you back. In this case Sasha is a Tamagotchi style character. Almost an OS that you take care of. Things don't go as planned toward the end of the game let's say :-D ...Sasha is inspirited by Notch's game, Drowning [in Problems]. He was able to convey a narrative without explicit "cut scenes" or story line elements. It's really amazing.
I wanted to explore the idea of loving something that doesn't love you back.
Brian: Are you envisioning a 2D, black-and-white world like the previous titles?
Amir: Yep, I'm envisioning a B&W canvas. Sasha will be fully animated though. I think I can swing that (given that it's just one character). She may end up "making" mini games for you too. Parts of the progression will definitely be inspired by Drowning though. So I'd expect a similar game mechanic to further the story.
Brian: One of the things I truly love about your games is the minimalist details in both the visuals and descriptions, because this forces me, as a player, to fill in those details, to wonder, to be curious, to be eager to learn more, and to decide for myself what the meaning is. Am I an alien? Is this my world? What does this deserted town look like? Should I feel bad for these people? Are the defectors crazed like zombies or just disgruntled? Is the dusty path a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Again: not a question.
Amir: I hope The Ensign helped fill in those details a bit more. The Builder (prequel to The Ensign) will explore the relationship between Builder and Admiral.
Brian: If you had unlimited resources, time, and budget, what would you build?
Amir: I'd do a MOBA. Where players are like those from Dark Souls. So emphasis on swordplay, parries, etc. So stick a level 1 DaS character in the game and "go". Then you can level up to 120 by the time the game is over. Of course level would be faster :-P No one has a specific role, and you grow into the role you want to play. I'm addicted to StarCraft and LoL by the way. I tell my wife to hide my mouse during the week so I don't play it all day.
The Builder (prequel to The Ensign) will explore the relationship between Builder and Admiral.
Brian: This next question may sound crazy, considering your games are so beautifully packaged, feeling so complete in their simplicity, structure, and story…But do you ever think about making The Ensign into a larger, longer, more expansive experience?
Amir: It was initially going to be an infinite world, you go until you die. I could see the ADR world being extremely rich. Following the history of the Wanderers. So the final installment of the main story line will eventually come. Specifically the history of the Builder... I guess that's what ADR, and TE have shaped up to be. So another game may come that explores other historical aspects of the race and their universe.
Brian: What advice do you have to aspiring indie developers out there?
Amir: Start small, get something out the door in 6 weeks. Then iterate. [I] did this Reddit post that goes into details about it. [Given] all the choices, you can get analysis paralysis. So start with that [post]... build something text based even :-D
Brian: Other than StarCraft and LoL, what are some of your favorite and most influential video games, books, and movies?
Brian: I was so happy when FF Tactics was released for iOS. The perfect excuse to play it again.
Amir: Yep! I really want a PvP based game around that concept. The storyline of the game was so great.
Brian: I want to finish the interview by just reading you a few, nice quotes from the App Store:
Amir: Those reviews are the strongest reason for me to keep building :-) It's the best thing in the world I tell ya. And I'm hoping with ANC people will be more receptive to "unfinished games for now but I'll keep working on it" kind of approach to development. Seems to work well for that game at least.
Brian: For me, it worked.
Amir: [I'm Releasing] an update to that today by the way :-) You finally get to slide "bounce" into the lab.
Brian: I'll check it out! Thank you again for joining me for this interview. I really appreciate you taking the time. And I'm looking forward to your future releases.
Amir: I love this stuff...thanks for reaching out Brian, and please gift my games to your friends and family ^_^ and tell them to pay it forward if they liked it.
Brian Riggsbee lives in San Francisco CA. He enjoys gaming, writing, creating art, practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, chasing adorable dogs, and spending time with his wife and boy.