By Neil Merrett
In a year where the Mario Kart series turned 30 and the UK saw three separate prime ministers take office, Squareblind.co.uk chose to shelter from the chaos by trying to embrace motion control football and co-op platformers about the rigours of making a relationship work. The first half of this year’s round up contemplates what it means to call yourself a ‘musical’ game and how songs for a hero and Tetris Effect create radically different approaches to playing to the rhythm. The blog also looked at what plans to build an online fighting community in Street Fighter 6 might mean for the concept of ‘metaverse’ gaming.
Squareblind kicked off the year by looking at Electronic Arts’ ‘It Takes Two’. This was based on a few hours of couples gaming on a friend’s PS5.
This mixture of a puzzle-based platformer and cooperative adventure game used magical realism to tell an engaging tale about two parents on the verge of splitting up, being forced to work to use each other’s strengths to survive the ordeal of having to battle through their home in the form of two dolls.
In forcing two players to try and overcome gravity, disgruntled household appliances and dynamic camera angles together, it is not just the game’s story that ask players to think about what works and doesn’t work in a relationship.
No matter how experienced a player may be with 3D platformers, It Takes Two is a multiplayer game that can only be conquered by working together and helping each other through.
With Valentines Day out the way, February saw the blog focusing on the variety of ways games are making use of music not just as a means to build atmosphere, but also to compliment gameplay.
But how exactly can you make a videogame into a musical in a way that effectively combines sound, actions and emotion?
The game ‘Songs for a Hero’ playfully looks to combine its hack and slash platforming gameplay with a character that sings their way through the game based on specific actions being taken or parts of a level being uncovered. A different approach is taken with ‘Tetris Effect’. This is a game that seeks to use sound as part of an immersive experience married to visuals, gameplay and banging dance tracks.
Songs for a Hero serves as a 2D adventure game where the player can return to earlier levels with new skills to unlock previously unlockable secrets or to topple hidden bosses. At every stage of the game, the titular hero sings and react to specific actions and new enemy types with a nasally, shambolic rhyme.
As another take on the concept of a musical game, Tetris Effect takes the simplicity of the classic puzzle game series and tries to build a kind of sonic and visual experience that evokes the bombast of a fireworks display with the thoughtfulness of meditation.
This is done by creating a soundtrack that mixes modern dance and trance music, with ambient sounds drawn from the natural world around us.
In the single player ‘Journey’ mode, the player plays Tetris through a series of themed levels that range from minimalist pulsing grid to a serene and increasingly challenging ocean environment. The player is rewarded for uniformly stacking blocks with the visual spectacle of lines being cleared in an explosive light. This effect is built not only through visuals but by the game’s use of sound and the rumble of controllers to create a game that a player is able to feel on an almost sensory level.
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It is not so much a case of playing to the beat as is required with rhythm, games, but playing to create the beat – what can be more musical than that?
To Mark the 30th anniversary of the launch of Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo, Squareblind considered the series’ impact on popularising cartoonish kart racers as a revered gaming genre of their own.
Yes, there have certainly been plenty of copycats that have sought to mimic the appeal of the series – some have been more successful that others at justifying their existence alongside Mario Kart.
Yes, there are now Final Fantasy-inspired Kart-style racers where the series ridable bird creature the Chocobo can be customised into a roller-skate wearing racer. There are even fan-led proposals to build a kart game out of the darkly gothic adventure game bloodborne.
It is uncertain whether any of these titles can one day produce a fabled ‘Mario Kart beater’ that might drastically redefine the kart genre.
In most cases, the relative beauty or success of a particular kart game may rely on a particular love for the world’s and characters of a game’s source material. Some Capcom fans, 1997’s Mega Man Battle & Chase might be their preferred setting for a kart racer.
Ultimately, whatever your fave kart game is, the impact of Mario Kart on gaming at this point is arguably as significant as the original Super Mario Bros.
In April, the blog looked at the morality of first-person shooters over the last few decades. These range from 2020’s Doom Eternal, or 2013’s Bioshock infinite back to light gun blasters such as Hogan’s Alley. In all of these titles, the player sees each game world directly through the main protagonist’s eyes.
Both Bioshock and Doom effectively ask the player to battle and at times murder their way to doing the right thing. While the Doom Slayer is charged with ripping apart demons and zombies from a literal hell, Bioshock Infinite charges a much more fallible human to use brutal violence to try and undermine fascism and totalitarianism across multiple dimensions.
In both cases, anyone that shoots or tries to attack you must be treated as an out and out bad guy – making the politics of BioShock Infinite a lot more complex when some factions are ultimately fighting to escape white supremacism and the right to exist – but are still just another target to be taken apart.
It seems that the challenge of building satisfying open world digital politics can still be hugely challenging and fraught for developers.
May saw Squareblind.co.uk moving its focus from first person shooters and looking instead at football games and the different approaches taken to immerse the player into the role of a single athlete in a sprawling 3D pitch.
The games in question are 1998’s LiberoGrande on the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo Switch Sports.
The latter game attempts to build further immersion for the player by implementing motion controls into the game, requiring the player to deftly flip and swipe their controllers to affect the motion of a kick and steer the ball into a large, unmanned goal.
Here, success is not only about finding the right position on the pitch or hitting the right button to unleash a perfectly timed pass. It’s equally about swing your limbs in the right direction and at the right angle.
It’s a thrilling, if imperfect immersion about the thrill of running up and down a digital pitch.
A very different kind of immersion was among the focuses of the blog in June with developer Capcom seemingly looking to embrace the metaverse with the latest iteration of one of its most storied and lucrative game series, Street Fighter.
Street Fighter 6 has been promoted as a ‘major reinvention’ of one of the definitive one on one fighting games by directly incorporating the social aspects of online community into the game.
This includes the prospect of a new ‘open-world’ single player campaign where your avatar can seemingly train and explore cityscapes looking for new fights and challenges, at least according to trailers and promotional material. This is arguably the next iteration of the ongoing development of fighting games into more immersive narrative experiences – as opposed to 12 or so fights one after the other as was the case of early Street Fighter games.
The latest game appears to focus on offering much greater levels of customisation – not only in turns of the looks and design of a player character, but also their move sets.
Meanwhile, the apparent inclusion of a ‘Battle Hub’ mode that appears in trailers to be a one stop shop for online battles and spectating other players in battle. Is this a Street Fighter metaverse?
Time will tell how truly innovative this latest title will be for fighting games and the idea of player communities, but Street Fighter 6 should prove an interesting title to watch and play over the course of 2023.