By Neil Merrett
Summer. That time where life and colours seem at their most vivid and resplendent – nature in its prime.
Hardly in keeping with such a season, July saw JJ Robinson took a look at the city simulator and survival game appropriately titled, Surviving Mars. He found a game that was surprisingly meditative and sentimental about the adaptability of the human race when thrown into the extremes of Mars, as well as the broader tenuousness of life, happiness and the overall human condition.
He wrote, “Surviving Mars explores vulnerability and human frailty. It does so not from the angle of overcoming despair and adversity, but from a sense of wonder, optimism, exploration and achievement. One of the final win objectives is placing 40 per cent of your population into workshops, creating art, robotics or VR landscapes: jobs that contribute nothing to the immediate survival of the colony, but rather explore the potential of the human condition.”
JJ noted that expansion packs later added to the base game have allowed for the possibility for ultimately terraforming Mars into a human paradise, or some facsimile of our own earth – for better or worse.
He added, “The real endgame achievements in Surviving Mars are the fruits of your environmental vandalism: the first shower of rain, trees sprouting in your greening colony, and the moment you open the domes to the atmosphere and need never worry about suffocation again.”
Bespoke Mario Time
On the theme of letting gamers play around with their own creativity, 2019 also saw the sequel to the Wii U game, Super Mario Maker launch on Nintendo Switch.
Super Mario Maker 2 builds on its predecessor to allow players to remake, reinvent or create their own classic 2D Mario levels. These can be realised in a variety of challenges raising from puzzle-like labyrinths, to grueling endurance courses where success involves getting timing right to the very last pixel.
The key limitation is that a level must be able to be completed by the creator in standard play, but from there, there creations can be posted and accessed online for anyone with their own copy of the game to play.
“The Mario Maker games reflect something deeply personal, subversive, exciting and sometimes problematic about our web-infused culture – not just in regards to gaming, but also our politics and interactions.
It is fair to say that Mario Maker owes as much to social media, as social media does to gaming, with regard to what it shows us about communication, sharing content and engaging with others.
For as long as Nintendo continues to host the huge numbers of levels currently being designed on a regular basis with Mario Maker 2, some of which may go entirely unnoticed except by their creator, players can have their very own unique Mario experience.
No longer do we have to concern ourselves with the sometimes sanitised, sometimes wonderful compromises required to ensure a game’s mainstream mass appeal.
Anyone can build something niche and revolutionary to play through and enjoy – sometimes they may have just enjoy it alone.”
While there is clear earnest comfort in the familiar, and not so familiar worlds of 30 years of Super Mario Bros games, there is also something comforting about battling through a bloody, chaotic zombie apocalypse with some good friends around.
Zombies and Friendship
We looked at the launch of the squad shooter based on the World War Z movie and books and how it compares to the hugely popular Left for Dead series that has clearly been a huge influence on it.
“It is perhaps the ultimate example of in-game cooperation under pressure. Hold your nerve, stay sharp and look out for your fellow human being and you might just get through it all.
A silly shooter game can show us that even with society past the brink of collapse, with things at their very worst, anything can usually be made better with a friendly face and even a small sense of sanctuary. Then some dickhead drops a molotov cocktail on the floor.
But even when your grand plan fails, games can always give us a second and third chances. A chance to maybe do things differently, or just shoot a lot more. There’s always another chance to survive catastrophe next time around, what else are friends for?”
Feeling the Grind
By October, Nintendo had launched Ring Fit Adventure, a robust fitness game that is built around motion controls and transforming the player’s own body into a wii-mote by strapping a controller to your thigh and another to a smart, durable rubber ring.
Fitness titles are nothing really new for Nintendo, especially considering the launch over a decade ago of its Wii Fit range of games that used a special balance board peripheral. However, this latest title for the Nintendo Switch seems to combine a range of exercise disciplines such as yoga, abdominal work, squats and planks and makes them into special moves. This control scheme is then blended into a seemingly traditional RPG purpose-built around the themes of health and wellness.
Potions now become health shakes and smoothies, while mystical armour is instead reimagined as enchanted trainers and mythril gym bras. Here, the player’s physical limits are there challenge.
“What if some incredible attack that was capable of felling several demons at once actually required you to test and challenge your ageing limbs in order to perform it.
You might then have to rethink a certain strategy if your preferred attack pattern was dependent on performing planks or a complicated yoga maneuver where you must bend into the shape of a noodle-limbed warrior.
This is the essential concept of Ring Fit Adventure, Nintendo’s belated return to the thrills of fully motion-controlled games.”
In the past, motion control games and fitness-focused titles were often seen as a form of novelty, rather than a viable basis for a videogame in its own right. But perhaps Ring Fit, in offering players a legitimate work-out, is the next step in a different kind of VR.
“The idea of grinding in gaming – trying to create a satisfying form of progression and development performing similar tasks over and over – is often a vital part of a game’s appeal to a certain player.
Ring Fit Adventure put the impacts of that grind, as well as its benefits, directly on the player’s body.
The character’s limits are yours. Its special moves and abilities are tied directly to your propensity for being able to stretch a certain limb under pressure multiple times and then step up the pace as ‘the burn’ kicks in.”
That esoteric delivery game
Of all the games released during the course of 2019, Death Stranding was certainly one of the most esoteric titles when it was launched on PS4 in November.
“Videogames can often surprise when focusing on the everyday things that humanity is capable of taking for granted.
Imagine losing the solid ground below us; our ability to maintain balance and avoid collapsing into a fleshy mess; or how about no longer having the concept of sending and delivering goods and messages to people around the world regardless of the distance between us.
What if we found ourselves having to cope without them? This is about as basic a premise as it is possible to give about Death Stranding, the latest title to be produced by the esoteric developer Hideo Kojima.
After years of cryptic announcements and trailers hinting at some strange otherworldly tale of unknown cataclysmic horror and demons, it may feel strange to find the first hour of the game is spent trying to collect medicine parcels in a sedate highland setting and then deliver them to an isolated automatic delivery depo.
Even in the game’s early stages, there is a lot to contemplate in a sparse, but gorgeously realised digital world. Yet despite its combination of somewhat Lovecratian horror and sci-fi post apocalyptic adventure, there is a reassuring simplicity to the title. Trying to bring some small comfort to what is left of humanity in the role of a bad ass, energy drink suppin’ postman is strangely comforting for own own febrile times.
“Your mission in time expands to not only deliver parcels, but to re-establish communications and a form of online connectivity so the human race once again warn and share across what remains of the US.
A lasting legacy of the player’s actions is intended to be hope. That is not a terrible thing for a game to aspire to in 2019.”
Just as with how 2019 began. Squareblind finished off the year looking at Pokemon. This time it was the release of the latest games on the Nintendo Switch, Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield.
The new games, set in a kind of fictional steampunk take on Britain, uses the technical abilities of the Switch to create a visual arresting collection of twins and wildlands that evoke the UK’s seaside towns, industrial-age cities and highlands in a stylised picture postcard quality.
But perhaps the game’s biggest innovation is the creation of somewhat more expansive wildland areas that snake around rivers, through woods and under gigantic railway arches with a whole host of secrets and formidable Pokemon to be explored outside of the main game.
“As an RPG, the Pokemon series has always been built around a main quest where you are required to follow a set path around the world, albeit one with a few exploratory cul-de-sacs, in order to build up your squad of Pokemon. This is done in little wilderness sections between towns and cities where you travel to battle eight gym leaders before a final almighty confrontation.
In essence your weapons and skills are literally those creatures and characters you have met along the way. But Sword and Shield, to show it is a major new entry in the franchise, shows off its next gen credentials with big wilderness made of fields, woods and forests that can be explored, or avoided to the player’s wishes.
The core game’s logic is to ensure that some of the creatures and large Pokemon that exist in these expansive wildlands are too overpowered for you to take on so early in the game. Characters in the game-world warn you of the need to play a little more of the main game and come back later – for this is a world not meant for a character with only a little fire bunny and a resilient, seemingly useless sheep creature.
But in the classic-style of a Grimm’s Fairy tale-style the game can only warn you of the dangers of the wood ahead and the haunted tower on the hill. It is for the player to decide whether they wish to subject their Pokemon to the rigours ahead.”
The biggest innovations are sometimes the simplest additions.
Squareblind would like to wish everyone a very Happy 2020 and, for a shameless plug, remind you that the first part of our review of 2019 can be read here.