Like my colleagues at GamesBeat, I spent every hour of this year’s Game Developers Conference frantically running from one meeting to another. Unlike them, I didn’t focus on the talks and personalities of the industry but on the games themselves.
The good part about this is that I got to see a lot of cool stuff. The bad part is that I am only one man and there are hundreds of games out there. I can only write so many full blown articles before my fingers fall off and my brain stops finding witty ways of saying word stuff.
So to preserve what’s left of my hands and save you a couple hundred thousand words of text to read through, I’ve broken down a good chunk of the games I saw at this year’s Game Developers Conference into this convenient, albeit late, list.
A young, plump, farm boy who is infatuated with the circus finds himself kidnapped by a sinister ringmaster. Our unfortunate hero finds that his curiosity could wind up killing him when he is thrust into the center stage of a death defying main attraction. Night after night, he must survive the circus’ many inventive killing machines in front of a growing crowd of snuff thrill seekers.
Think of Penarium’s gameplay as a deadly version of the original Mario Bros. Instead of knocking turtles onto their backs by head butting a ceiling, you’re dodging saw blades and ducking bullets in order to collect precious barrels.
The designer, Teun Westenenk, has a solid grasp on what makes for a great 2D action game: keep the controls simple and understandable, then design complexity around the levels. Like Fenix Rage, this philosophy keeps the difficulty hard, but never unfair. Expect more from me on this title in the coming weeks.
Blood Bowl II
Blood Bowl II is based off of Games Workshop’s (WarHammer) brutal fantasy football pen and paper game of the same name. Teams consisting of Orcs, Dwarves, Humans, Elves, and the Undead — battle each other, literally, on the grid iron using modified versions of American football rules.
The interesting part is that Blood Bowl II doesn’t play in real-time like, say, Mutant League Football (speaking of missing games) but instead sticks to its board-game roots. Every play is handled through several strategy game style turns, where dice rolls determine the outcome of an action, and every detail of every player’s movement on the field is scrutinized.
To Madden players, this gameplay may sound incredibly boring, but the violent cartoony theme coupled with a different approach to the sport placed this one on my radar.
Armed and Gelatinous
Three Flip Studios’ passion for the couch multiplayer experience resonates in this quick and fun competitive shoot-em up. Up to four players take control of a small glob of goo roaming a 2D open arena. The gelatinous creatures start off unarmed and completely harmless. Weapon upgrades, however, eventually spawn onto the screen, creating a mad race amongst players to get to the upgrades first in order to arm up.
Depending on which direction the creature makes contact with the upgrade will determine what angle a gun will stick to their body. So if a blob collects a shotgun by running over it with the left side of its body, the fire arm will aim to the left.
Every weapon a creature collects also expands their body. Collect enough weapons and the slime will become a giant wad of death, firing projectiles in multiple directions. The good thing about this situation is that you have a ton of firepower to attack the other players with and your size can be used to physically bully other players away from upgrades. The con is that you’re a gigantic target that is easy to shoot down. Once someone kills a creature, all those guns that were attached wind up flying into the arena for everyone else to pick up, while the dead creature respawns as the default little puddle.
Armed and Gelatinous is a small, simple, and quick game where the balance of power is in constant swing. It begs to be played during one of those nights where a bunch of intoxicated friends are looking for something fun to do without having to remove their asses from your couch.
Super Slamdunk Touchdown
You know that person in your social media sphere that constantly reminds everyone that they don’t understand the appeal of the Super Bowl or World Cup? Or the friend that claims to like games, but won’t touch a sports video game? Super Slamdunk Touchdown is the 8-bit embodiment of what I suspect is going on in the minds of athletiphobes when they are forced to watch football (both kinds…yes, there are two types).
The build at GDC was a two vs. two game, where each player chooses a sport character class to play as. So a football player is big and tough, a basketball player has more shot accuracy, a soccer player is quicker, etc.
A random sports ball is put onto the court and players must score a point by putting the ball into one of three goals: a basketball hoop, a field goal, or a hockey/soccer net (which is protected by a computer goalie). The type of ball doesn’t regulate which goal you’re trying to score. Just shoot for any of them.
Super Slamdunk Touchdown is both a throwback to the NES sports games of my youth and a self aware comedy about the disdain of athletics amongst our peers. Nothing symbolizes that idea more than seeing a football player take a soccer ball to the hoop in a Double Dribble inspired slamdunk cutscene.
Shadowrun Chronicles: Boston Lockdown
There are a couple of confusing tidbits about this project that were clarified for me during GDC. For one, Shadowrun Chronicles: Boston Lockdown is the new name of the early access game Shadowrun Online. Another thing to note, because everyone seems to make this mistake, this is not the online version of the Shadowrun Returns games, despite the fact that they share a website, a similar art style, and perspective (although I am told both developers are on friendly terms).
The gameplay has several similarities as well. You have to build a team of runners who need to take on a hacking mission of some kind. Everything is set to a psuedo-isometric grid, where all actions are turn based.
What’s different is that the experience revolves heavily around cooperative play. You create your own mercenary-for-hire and partner up with friends to go on various raids. The part that has me intrigued, however, is that you can create your own set of characters to go on missions when you’re playing solo. This will allow the experience to become much more personal than, say, forming the most optimal team everyone else is using from the same catalog of pre-made characters.
What’s even cooler is that you can share these personalized characters with your friends. So if you want to play by yourself, but could reall use some bad ass hacker that a friend created, you can hire that character and bring them along. Anything that happens to that character during a mission isn’t permanent. Characters won’t be permanently killed off, while at the same time they won’t earn bonuses or experience points just because they get used a lot.
Although I enjoyed Shadowrun Returns, there were times where the experience felt restricted by a tight narrative structure. Like it didn’t matter what character I created or what decisions I made, I was always going to wind up going from point A to point B in the same way thousands of other people have done so. Shadowrun On…I mean, Shadowrun Chronicles, may provide me with something a bit more open.
Guild of Dungeoneering
Platforms: PC (Steam) — Coming Soon
Scribbling out death traps and monster pits on graph paper, rather than doing math homework, is something every kid that grew up to be a game developer can relate to. Irish developer Gambrinous is creating a card game roguelike around this pastime, where you not only get to play as a dungeon master but also as the hero traversing the catacombs.
Guild of Dungeoneering starts off with two rooms on a grid, a boss monster at one far end, and the entrance to the dungeon on the other side. The player is given two hands to play, one is geared towards construction. These cards are related to monsters, gold coins, and rooms to build. During this phase you want to intelligently lay out rooms and fill them with monsters that the hero can take on in order to level up. Since you can’t control which direction the hero will go, you can entice them down a certain path by laying down loot.
The second set of cards is for when the hero engages in battle with a creature. Depending on the type of character you’re leveling up, these cards contain abilities tied to either melee or magic.
Gambrinous has hit this play psychology middle-ground, where you are given all the devious tools to create a sick maze of death, yet you want to craft the environment only deadly enough so the hero faces obstacles at a good pace. It’s clever as hell.
Tinertia is a side-scrolling platformer where you play as a robot who can’t jump by normal means. In order to move from ledge to ledge, the character has to rocket jump across obstacles.
Rocket jumping is a technique players developed in arena style first-person shooters, Quake specifically, where a player fires an explosive projectile towards the ground just after the first few frames of performing a jump. The explosion releases splash damage, which allows the player to ride a wave of inertia, adding height to the jump.
I love Tinertia’s concept of taking what was originally an unintentioned feature of one genre and make it the focus of another game’s design.
Currently, however, the idea isn’t perfect. Out of all the games on this list, at times Tinertia had me wanting to throw the controller through a wall. The hang up is in the controls. The left thumb stick manipulates which direction the robot will go in, where flicking the right thumb stick fires a rocket. This means in order to rocket jump in a specific direction, the left stick must be pointing in the direction you want to go, and the right stick must be flicked the opposite direction (since you want a rocket to explode behind you, to push you forward). At its worst it felt like my brain was being pulled in half.
My advice is to add an alternate control scheme where firing a rocket is bound to a trigger or bumper. Players like myself will still have to point the sticks in opposite directions, but it gives us a couple milliseconds of mental prep when aiming before firing.
Throw Trucks With Your Mind
Throw Trucks With Your Mind was one of the stranger entries in this year’s Indie Megabooth. The build at the show was a first-person sandbox experience where, using special powers, players can lift, pull, and push objects.
The crazy part is that the game is literally using the power of the mind to perform these in-game feats.
Throw Trucks With Your Mind requires a NeuroSky MindWave headset, which can detect whether the user’s mind is calm or focused. The more relaxed the player is, the calm meter fills up, allowing for a specific set of abilities. The more they concentrate on a specific object, the focus meter increases, allowing for another set of abilities.
At first glance this comes off as a cool novelty: a gimmicky prototype that is taking advantage of an otherwise obscure piece of tech. But consider the implications of detecting brain activity in the world of Virtual Reality? Being able to detect a user’s anxiousness during a game coule lead to some pretty powerful, and manipulative, experiences.
Compared to other indie developers at the show, Lat Ware may be way ahead of the curve with this one.
Worlds Adrift is a massive open world sandbox game by the creators of Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread. Players will take residence on small floating islands on a gigantic fantasy planet, where they will be able to mine for resources and eventually craft various vehicle parts. Such as a propeller engine, steering wheels, rutters, etc.
These items can then be formed together to build an airship. The ships, however, don’t have to follow a predetermined build. Hell, the parts themselves don’t have to be used for air ships at all (although getting around is easier that way).
The entire experience is being designed to be loose and arbitrary. Like other crafting games before it (Minecraft), the player is free to do whatever the hell they want within the world’s very open confines.
If someone wants to try and break the world by building a giant wall of air ship engines to see what happens, they can. If somebody wants to play air pirate and command a crew on a massive ship, go for it.
The thing I find most interesting about this project is simply that Bossa Studios is doing it. These guys have created two games that touch on the absurdity of the tech we use in this industry. Something like Surgeon Simulator takes those unintentionally comedic moments, where a game engine is making a human puppet do something impractical and bizarre from our perspective, yet totally logical from the machine’s point of view, and captured those moments for us to relive forever.
So it’s intriguing to see a group that has mastered containing these events into small experiences widening the barriers with an open-world sandbox concept like this.
What happens when you lock a cat inside of a box with a radioactive atom? Well, as the theory goes, the cat is in a state of being both dead and alive. At least, until we open the box and force nature’s hand.
According to Italic Pig, our poor cat is not dead at all, but in another dimension cleaning up a zoo in the Quantum Polyverse.
Now, technically, this game released last year on Steam. I’m bringing it up here because it’s getting an update and a console release later this year. And, well, look…it’s not often that I see an educational game that can teach me about quantum physics.
All of the platforming abilities that Schrodinger’s Cat can use to traverse the universe are tied to a quark system, based off of the behavior of real life quarks in physics (up, down, top, bottom). Mixing different types of quarks together will create helpful items, such as a platform or a device that will allow the cat to float for a few seconds. Intelligent mixing of quarks is required in order to pass every obstacle.
Any game that can get me to even remotely understand what a quark is without putting me to sleep is worth checking out.
Bonus: Games I wanted to play but couldn’t…
There is no war. There are no Gods. There is only the game.
Brandon Sheffield, formerly of Gamasutra and currently of Insert Credit, has been peppering Twitter about his latest project: Gunsport. It’s a 16-bit homage of late ’80s to early ’90s Japanese sci-fi, where athletes compete in a hybrid version of volleyball involving fire arms. Which makes it the most American idea on this entire list.
I was able to watch a couple of people play a match near the entrance of the show, but getting some hands-on just didn’t happen. Maybe I’ll get my chance soon?
No Pineapple Left Behind
Developer: Subaltern Games Publisher: N/A
Platforms: N/A — Coming soon
A public school principal simulator where children have been transformed into pineapples. Supposedly, pineapples are easier to deal with than little kids. They pass tests and don’t cause trouble. As a father, I agree. But can a pineapple hug you with its little leaves? I think not!
I love what I am seeing so far. If there is anything deserving of satirical venom, it’s the no child left behind program and the abysmal state of our public schools. I mean, look at me! I’m a product of our public school system, and I’m so dumb that I couldn’t locate this game on the show floor!