VIDEO GAMES: Toast Reviews “LIMBO” by Playdead Studios on XBox Live Arcade

Guest review time!  Faithful readers, please give a warm welcome to the latest WITWAR guest writer, Toast!  She very graciously decided to take time away from working  on her own site, A Girl and Her Blog, to review an XBox Live Arcade game for all of you.  So please, enjoy this glimpse into the mind of an enthusiastic and dedicated gamer, and be sure to check out her other posts at A Girl and Her Blog!   [click the jump-link to read on]

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Wigital Diga-Whatchamaha? (John discusses digital distribution of video games)

Not unlike the nefarious masters of GameStop, you’re probably wondering what Digital Distribution means for the video game world. Though the video game industry likes to pretend that it is bigger than the movie industry (is it really a surprise that GTA 4 pulled in more money than any movie it’s opening weekend when it was $60-80 per “ticket”?) what really has me excited these days is what could be described as gaming’s direct-to-video or OnDemand market. Digital Distribution (where publishers make their games available for download direct to the player’s system instead of selling a physical product) is growing more popular by the day, and now all three major consoles as well as PC and Mac support the ability to buy, download and play games without leaving your living room.

These games have their limitations, of course, the most obvious one being related to file size. They may not be so deep that they take 100+ hours to complete (Oblivion, Fallout 3), or have spectacularly realistic, gory visuals (Gears of War 2, Resistance 2), but I would say that they are a synthesis of the best parts of gaming’s past, present and future.

Whenever a certain friend of mine and I find ourselves getting frustrated at a current-generation game’s horrible camera placement or awkward controls, we find ourselves turning into old codgers, claiming this 3-D perspective in games is “a fad” and that it will “never catch on.” Obviously the 3-D perspective is a hard reality of 21st-century gaming, but digital distribution has offered gamers like my friend and I the chance to see what modern technology is capable of when applied to classic gaming models. It’s enough to make one wonder what games would be like if 3-D really had been a fad!

Here are a few shining examples of how digital distribution has encouraged developers to provide more gameplay value for fewer dollars:

1) Geometry Wars and Geometry Wars 2 (Xbox 360): If ever there was a game that was more fun to watch than to play (but not by much,) it might be Geometry Wars. Like the classic arcade games it pays homage to, Geometry Wars has no story or greater purpose. you are a spaceship, and your mission is to kill the vicious polygons that fly toward you in an attempt to blow you up. This game pioneered the “two-stick shooter” control scheme, where movement is controlled by the left analog stick and the direction and trigger of your cannon is controlled by the right analog stick. This makes the controls simple enough to allow nearly anyone to play the game, though it takes truly exceptional hand-eye coordination to progress beyond the early stages. The game’s presentation is perhaps its greatest feature, however, as your space battles play out like a futuristic fireworks show. For the full effect, play on an HDTV. You’ll be enthralled.

2) Defend Your Castle, Alien Hominid and N+ (Wii, Xbox 360 and PSN): Some of these may be familiar to those who frequently play time-waster games on the web. If you follow the links, you will notice that all three of these games have versions available for free on the internet. Defend Your Castle has you repelling a stick-figure invasion by tossing your foes high into the air (among other means of destruction), Alien Hominid is a very aesthetically pleasing side-scrolling shooter in the vein of such coin-op classics as Contra and Metal Slug, and N (N+ on consoles) is possibly the greatest platformer puzzle game ever made, with the simplest controls. It is a testament to the designers’ ingenuity that they were able to make such an amazing game using only two possible user commands: run and jump. I wonder what it would be like in real life?

Actually, N+ is the perfect example of how minimalism in gaming can be incredibly satisfying. The stick-figure characters, monochromatic backgrounds and simple (but far from easy) gameplay belie a fantastically smooth framerate and physics engine that never skip or slow down. It may not seem like much from a distance, but it is one of the most fun and rewarding video games I have ever played.

3) Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (PAAOTRSPOD) and Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People (SBCG4AP) (PC and Xbox 360 and PSN, PC and Wii): Who says internet celebrities can’t have their own video games? The creators of Penny Arcade (the world’s most popular webcomic) and Homestar Runner (one of the world’s most popular web cartoons) both released video games this year. Amusingly, these games were each updates of classic genres that had gone the way of the Commodore 64. Penny Arcade created a humorous, lovecraftian RPG in the tradition of games such as the original Final Fantasy series, while Homestar Runner’s is a revival of the long-abandoned “point-and-click” adventures such as King’s Quest and Monkey Island. While each demonstrates exactly why these genres no longer have a following in the mainstream game market, both of these games excel in a way that almost no other game does: They’re funny! My friends and I had a blast laughing at the clever dialogue and gags of both games. If you are a fan of either the genres or the intellectual properties, these are a slam dunk for you.

4) Audiosurf (PC) A cross between a music visualizer (the squiggly lines on your Windows Media Player) and a racing game, Audiosurf lets you race down the audio track of your favorite songs, moving to catch colored blocks while avoiding gray blocks, all synchronized with the music. A large song library can stretch the $10 spent on this game a very long way, and the fact that you can use it to play any song gives it a leg up on competition like Guitar Hero (but there’s no plastic baby guitar.)

5) Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (PC, Xbox 360, PSN, some cell phones) Have you ever played Bejeweled? Do you like The Lord of the Rings? Well, here’s two great tastes that taste great together! I’m not kidding. This is a classic role-playing game with elves, dwarves, monsters, heroes and castles. You fight your enemies by defeating them in a modified version of Bejeweled, augmented to include spells and attacks that can turn the tiles in your favor. I’m not usually one to play puzzle games for more than a few minutes, but Puzzle Quest had me tearing through the demo and left me hungry for more. It’s so popular that they released a disc version of it at retail stores for PS2, PSP, Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii!

6) Braid and Lostwinds (PC and Xbox 360 and PSN, Wii) both Braid and LostWinds are testaments to the fact that superior art direction and judicious use of resources can create a more breathtakingly beautiful game than a huge budget and the biggest, strongest graphics processors can chun out. Not only does Braid look like an artistically styled Super Mario Brothers played on top of beautiful watercolor paintings, but its music is a joy to listen to and never distracts from the gameplay. Add in the fact that Braid’s time-centered gameplay is completely unlike anything I’ve ever played (and extremely friendly to non-gamers. If you make a mistake, you literally rewind the game and do it over) and you have something incredibly special for only $15.

7) Bionic Commando: Rearmed (PC, Xbox 360, PSN) There has never been a better remake in the history of civilization. Not in movies, not in music, not in television, and heretofore not in video games. Bionic Commando: Rearmed took everything that wasn’t perfect about the original Bionic Commando (which wasn’t much) and made it better, without ruining any of the original charm. The trailer I’ve linked to should show you how smoothly Capcom and GRIN made the transition from the 1980s original to the 2008 masterpiece. This is truly my favorite game of the past several years, digitally distributed or otherwise.

and saving possibly the most popular for last…

8) Portal (PC, coming soon to Xbox 360) It would be a fair comparison to say that Portal is the video game world’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Created on a comparatively small budget as an extra game thrown into a multi-pack, Portal grew a massive following thanks to its innovative physics-based gameplay, dry wit, and short (but sweet) run time. It also features a song (by geek rock-star Jonathan Coulton) that has become quite the underground sensation. I can’t wait for this to hit the XBox Live Arcade later this year.

There are so many more titles that I would love to add, and I would like to go into greater depth talking about the games above. Perhaps in the future I will.