By Neil Merrett
In a year where the Mario Kart series turned 30 and the UK saw three separate prime ministers come into office, Squareblind.co.uk chose to shelter from the chaos in motion control football and co-op platformers about the rigours of making a relationship work. The second half of this year’s highlights included a deceptively cutesy and sometimes brutal cult simulation adventure game and a look at how you can make a virtual punch feel truly satisfying.
Motion controlled sports games were still on our minds at Squareblind Towers in July – but this time, it was bowling, or rather, Nintendo’s latest approximation of the sport.
On the Nintendo Switch, the concept of living room bowling has been brought further into the online age with ranked bowling league contests that can be played against friends or strangers all around the world.
After an impromptu Covid summer hiatus, the blog looked back into the heady era of 80s and 90s home computing with Shoot-‘Em-Up Construction Kit on the Amiga.
This early development tool allowed gamers to play around with some of the basics of sprite animation and programming all without having to know any code whatsoever.
Especially by modern standards, the games that could be made through the software were almost always shooters where the player most move in a limited number of directions with the ability to shoot at pre-programmed sprites. For users of the software with imaginations much larger than their programming capabilities, there was a thrill in trying to work around the limitations of the software with the view of trying to create a top-down racer or their own attempts at recreating esoteric blockbusters in a videogame format.
While these ambitious gaming ideas might not eve be completed in any workable form, Shoot-‘Em-Up Construction Kit was an early example of thinking beyond genre constraints in the name of innovation.
Sticking on the theme of gaming genres and flexibility. September saw the blog thinking about boxing games and what it means to let a player feel like they are throwing a spectacular, or at least passable punch.
The games in question are a fairly traditional boxing simulation based around the iconic Rocky movies, the other is a motion rhythm game where the player ducks and punches in time to a beat.
Although the 2002 Rocky videogame and Fitness Boxing 2 are completely different genres of game – both oddly understand the almost rhythmic appeal of putting together a perfect combo of punches and dodges.
Fitness boxing 2 is legitimately designed to give either one or two players an actual cardio workout of up to 40 minutes. Rocky meanwhile can be played entirely while sat down. However, a solid 30 minute bout stringing together combos against fictitious soviet super boxer Ivan Drago could feel as equally taxing test of timing and patience for the brain.
Punching may not be as simple as it seems.
Over the course of October and November – Sqaureblind.co.uk ramped up the pretentiousness with a look at several games touching on the themes of faith and worship. In the case of Cult of The Lamb, a disarmingly curtsey Rogue-like dungeon crawler and god sim, the player can decide how they might wish to earn or squeeze devotion, worship and experience points from their followers.
This form of ‘carrot or stick’ gameplay choices is a central dynamic to trying to keep followers in your cult. It is also vital to maintain a functioning community that can ensure the player’s lamb has the weapons, tools and abilities to exact violent revenge on a series of cruel god-like beings split across several themed dungeons/
Yes, all these in-game followers that you recruit, brainwash, feed and eventually bury, are pawns in a possibly endless cycle of vengeance and retribution; stuck between a squabbling and myopic group of all powerful sibling deities. But it is still possible to make sure they are fed and even have the occasional holiday where they are given an in-game day off from working and toiling on your farms or mines.
The players concept of being a ‘good’ ruler in the game is frequently challenged by the practicalities of manging your resources and delegating responsibility. But as their cuddly warrior god, the player must also come to terms with difficult choices, such as sacrificing a devoted and long serving following for a last-ditch resurrection against a difficult boss.
These is a game to be won after all. You don’t always have time to be liked. Now that’s what you call politics.
Faith and Devotion Season continued into November with a look at the semantic differences between openly evil ‘dark lords’, such as Castlevania’s monstrous Count Dracula, and a cruel regime that preaches the virtue of devotion as a form of suffering.
While the Castlevania series posits that Dracula – as an individual – is the pinnacle of evil that must be destroyed by the series’ heroes ad infinitum. The 2019 platformer Blasphemous, by comparison, takes a very different view of ‘evil’ and righteousness. This is despite sharing a number of gameplay traits with the Castle Vania series.
With visuals that hauntingly evoke the visual and some thematic trappings of Catholicism and orthodox churches, Blasphemous sets its stoic warrior on the path of opposing a tyrannical and monstrous powerful structure that seems to mutate devotion into an awful force.
There is an almost surreal quality to ransacking ornate towering churches and monasteries and battling against their denizens as a force for good. However, as far as the game is mostly concerned, many of these enemies – some simply defending their faith to the bitter end – are just as monstrous as the skeletons and demons that frequent Castlevania titles. How else could the player be able to continue in their quest?
The year ended with yet another rumination of the virtues of the Mario Kart series of games – this time with the addition of new updates that offer the player a chance to turn the game’s much-loved mechanics and weapons on their heads.
Alongside the addition of a further eight courses in the game – it is now possible to customise weapon preferences for races between friends to turn straight forward races into utter chaos.
One such example is the option to give all players blue shells that instinctively hunt down and the leader and stall their progress with explosive spite.
In a normal game, these ‘leader bombs’ are intended to be a great leveller and are limited in number and availability in order to bring down a player that might otherwise push through a course unchallenged.
However, when these powerful weapons are suddenly ubiquitous, taking the lead at almost any point in the race can be perilous.
To put your head above the parapet in a total blue shell race is to invite destruction and doom onto a player. At least, this is the case for a few seconds until the next reckless idiot blasts their way into first place and finds themselves in the crossfires of nearly a dozen players.
Some games writers have this week welcomed the custom item option alongside the release of eight remastered or new tracks provided as DLC.
Ed Nightingale at Eurogamer noted that Mario Kart had finally followed other competitive Nintendo series such as Super Smash Bros by letting players set out very specific rules and restrictions on what items are, or are not acceptable.
He said: “That means blue shells are out, if you want to remove their cheapness. Or maybe you want to embrace them and select only blue shells, turning races into pot luck. Further still, you could remove items altogether and turn Mario Kart into a pure racer for a completely different (if arguably less fun) experience. More than double racers or anti-gravity courses, the custom items option has the potential to drastically change the game – for better or for worse. It’s up to you.”
30 years on and the Mario Kart series is still slowly but surely innovating. Who knows what another three decades will mean for these games.
In the meantime, Squareblind.co.uk wishes any readers a happy 2023 – see you on the other side!