Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Unplugged Dilintia: Houdini: Master of Escape Brainteaser

If you've spent any amount of time with puzzles, chances are you've come across one or two "escape puzzles".  You know, the kind with lots of rings and strings, and the objective is to get one of the pieces free from the rest of them.  They're fine in their way, but the problems are readily apparent.  They usually only require one trick to solve, and resetting them is usually just as much trouble as solving them in the first place.

And so, in much the same way that they improved the sliding block puzzle with Rush Hour, ThinkFun have reimagined the escape puzzle with Houdini.  It's a single-player puzzle game with forty challenges, ranging from Beginner to Expert, in which you must attempt to free a plastic Houdini figure from a tangle of ropes and rings.  Just like in the classic escape puzzles, the key often lies in recognizing which pieces can slip past each other in order to slip Houdini past his knots.

The kit you get is marvelous.  The strings have metal clasps on the ends that make it easy to assemble and disassemble the forty different puzzle configurations that they give you.  The strings are very clearly colored -- one a very bright yellow and one a very dark blue -- to make it absolutely clear to you which one is which, which is incredibly helpful as they start getting tangled together.  And the theming is perfectly charming.  Every piece in the set is unique in some way, and they all look like they belong in a magician's act -- two ropes (of different lengths), a metal ring, a plastic barrel, a plastic padlock, a plastic cage, and Houdini himself: a plastic ring for the body, and a flexible felt "ring" for his legs.

Setting up a puzzle is considerably more complicated than, say, slotting the cars into place in Rush Hour, but the illustrations are perfectly clear, and I never had any real difficulty with them.  Solutions are another matter.  They didn't even bother to include any kind of written solutions with the set; instead, they've set up a YouTube channel with video demonstrations of each solution.  It's probably the best they could have done, but even this might not be enough sometimes; the one time I broke down and looked up the solution to a puzzle, there was one crucial step in the puzzle where I couldn't quite see what they were doing, and so I still ended up having to figure it out on my own.  (What I did see in the video did, admittedly, put me on the right track.)

I've done a couple escape puzzles in the past, so I was able to breeze through the first thirty puzzles easily, but I found the last ten to be diabolical, some of them leaving me stumped for days at a time.

ThinkFun has really been attracting some ingenious puzzle designers lately.  Fussing around with rings and strings is a nice change of pace from their usual grid-based board games, and watching all of the ropes slide away as you pull Houdini's legs out of the cage really feels like a magic trick!  It's fun, it's challenging, it's satisfying -- it's another hit from ThinkFun.


Sunday, June 28, 2015


The Amiibo Problem

I feel like we're at the tail end of the Amiibo panic.  My evidence is mostly anecdotal, but as we all know, the plural of anecdote is data.  Nintendo has been making good on their vague rumblings of reissuing certain figures previously thought to be out of print, and with the subsequent scalper speculation, figures that used to go for $60 or so are starting to dip down into the $20 range.  Scalpers are going to continue to be the big winners in all of this in the near future, but as the Smash Brothers line nears completion and further Amiibo lines aren't going to have 50+ characters to collect, Nintendo is going to be in a better position to fulfill demand, and supplies will start to normalize.

In short, it won't be long before getting your hands on the particular Amiibo you want won't be a problem, or at least not AS MUCH of a problem.  The actual problem is this:

How many of these damned things does Nintendo expect us to buy?

Adding NFC figures to a video game is a strange sort of balancing act.  If the figures are too important to the game, then people who just want to play a fucking game feel like they're getting ripped off.  If they're not important enough, then people who buy the figures feel like they're getting ripped off.  Super Smash Brothers hit that sweet spot, where the regular retail game is a complete experience that you never need the figures to enjoy, while adding an interesting new dimension to the game for players who do bring their custom Pac-Man to the fight.

What made this idea work is that, at least initially, it didn't matter which Amiibo you owned.  You could take that Mario or Wii Fit Trainer off the shelf and say, "This is my Amiibo.  This is the character I care about.  This is the one I will use when I want to play Amiibos."  If you liked more characters, they were available, but you weren't missing out if you just stuck to one.  Okay, maybe some characters had more support than others, or maybe having Link got you a better bonus than having Kirby when you played Hyrule Warriors, but for the most part, you bought the character figure because you wanted that character figure.  And most games would give you something regardless of which character you actually used.

The problem is that Nintendo has been watching this craze play out, and now they reckon they have us by the balls.  They don't want us to be content with the one or two or ten or fifty Amiibos we already have -- they want us to buy a new one (or an entire set) for every new game that we buy.  Thinking of buying Splatoon?  Don't forget the Amiibo 3-pack for more game content!  Yoshi's Wooly World?  Better get a Yarn Yoshi if you want an AI companion.  Super Mario Maker?  You'll want the 8-bit Mario so you can unlock the cool new power-up.  Chibi Robo?  Make sure you get the physical version, packed with the new Chibi Robo Amiibo!

I guess it's fine that Nintendo wants to make new figures in all of the franchises that, inexplicably, haven't been absorbed into Super Smash Brothers yet, but they don't have very interesting ideas about how those figures interact with the games.  It's turning into a Disney Infinity situation, where content is being locked off, and consumers are being blackmailed into buying figures that they don't want or need in order to see the entire game.  And it's an even bigger "fuck you" to everyone involved when the figures you need are rare and out of print, like the Fire Emblem characters in Project S.T.E.A.M.

And the root of the problem is that NFC figures are fundamentally unfriendly to the consumer.  There is absolutely nothing that you can do with an NFC figure that you can't do with software alone.  As I've said in the past, I really love the idea of having a custom character that you can carry around as a physical totem, but there aren't that many kinds of games that you can really apply that idea to.  And Nintendo is showing us that they're running out of these kinds of ideas.

But at the same time... this isn't a 100% screw job.  Nintendo's doing two important things right.

First is continued support for all Amiibos.  Super Mario Maker and Yoshi's Wooly World contain "costume" features that seem to be compatible with a wide variety of Amiibos, even the ones that you wouldn't expect.  A mushroom that turns Mario into an 8-bit Wii Fit Trainer is an awesome idea.  This is the kind of thing that Nintendo needs to continue to do if they want to retain consumer confidence in their idea.  It's good for consumers because, if you love a character enough to want to buy a plastic statue of it, chances are pretty good that you want to see some sort of nod to that character in every video game that you play.  And it's good for Nintendo, because the more support they show for each and every Amiibo figure, consumers are more likely to think, "Wow, it's really fun seeing Link in all of these games.  I should get a Samus, I bet that would be just as much fun."

The other thing they're doing is giving the customer something free.  Either a game bundled with an Amiibo, as is the case with the new Chibi-Robo game, or a free software download if you own a compatible Amiibo.  We've already seen a taste of that with Amiibo Tap, a piece of software that rewards Amiibo owners with free software demos for every figure they own, regardless of which figure.  And the new Animal Crossing games work this way.  The Happy House Academy game is a free download for anyone who buys the new trading cards that come out, and the Amiibo Festival game comes packed with a figure that are necessary to play it.

(As an aside -- Being a huge fan of tabletop games, I'm quite fond of the idea of video board games with physical playing pieces.  But I'm kind of ambivalent about the way they're implemented in games like Amiibo Festival and Mario Party 10.  Maybe some ingenious developer will figure out a more attractive way of bridging the gap between the physical and the digital.  Maybe it's just too expensive to bother with.)

At the end of the day?  I'm still pretty happy with Amiibos.  The one or two that I wanted to get have turned into a regular collection.  I don't even care about their software features as much -- it's just pleasant to have Mario, Sonic, Mega Man, and Pac-Man lined up on my bookshelf.  It's nice to know that I can bring them to life even if I don't bother to do it much.

And in the end, I think that's the reason Amiibos have been a success.  The Smash Brothers Amiibos caught fire because people love these Nintendo characters.  All of the people who obsessed over collecting all of the trophies in Melee can finally bring them into the real world.  Characters who have never had official merchandise before like Little Mac or the Wii Fit Trainer can finally be totemized and displayed.  The toys that Nintendo continues to make -- the cute little Wooly Yoshis, the cool blocky 8-bit Mario, the life-sized Chibi-Robo -- are attractive things to own in their own right, regardless of what they do with software.

Nintendo just needs to make sure that they aren't doing harm to their software for the sake of goading players into buying physical toys that they don't want and that they can't keep on the store shelves anyway.  Amiibos may be a fleeting fad -- Nintendo needs to remember to make their software timeless.


Saturday, June 27, 2015


Petit Computer is Dead. Long Live SMILEBASIC.

On a whim, I decided to take a look through the Apps section of the 3DS eShop this morning, and to my sinking horror, I realized that something was missing.  I did a search, and my blood went cold.

Petit Computer is delisted.

I've gone on at length about how wonderful Petit Computer is.  In fact, I've bought a copy of it for every DSi-compatible system I've owned, and I even used it to port one of my favorite PC games to my favorite portable.  So you can imagine my bottomless dismay.  I took to the Intergoogles to see if I could find out what happened, and I discovered two things.  First, the Petit Computer website -- along with the utility that allowed users to create QR codes for sharing their projects online with others -- was gone.

And second: a 3DS version of Petit Computer is releasing internationally as SMILEBASIC.

Let's start with the bad news.  The DSi version of Petit Computer is effectively dead, at least as a platform for creating software for wide distribution.  Ever since the beginning, I knew that it was only a matter of time before the website went down and users would be stuck without a means to make new QR codes.  It seems kind of pointless to continue using Petit Computer for anything but personal toys.  And this new version, with its online publication process, has the same potential to one day be rendered useless.

And the good news?  Well, just look at this thing.

A quick stroll around the website reveals all kinds of promises for new features.  Stereoscopic 3D sprites and backgrounds?  Check.  Circle pad, gyroscope, and microphone inputs?  You got it.  Integrated development tools that let you switch from programming to sprite editing?  DONE.  WHILE and REPEAT UNTIL loops?  You know it!  32-bit integers?  Double-precision decimal numbers?  Four-dimensional arrays?  They're all yours!

Okay, so some of these features don't sound that exciting to the average layman, but if you've spent as much time as I have fussing around with 20.12 bit fix-point variables, having the freedom to count to a million feels like Christmas.  They've even decided to let international users have the speech synthesis function that was removed from the international versions of Petit Computer.  It only works with Japanese phrases, but it's better than nothing, and I for one can't wait to give it a shot.

This already looks like a wonderful and sophisticated step up from Petit Computer, but there are hints of even more features that I'd like to know more about.  Projects are now structured in folders with text and binary files, which makes me wonder if the file structures are compatible with PCs.  Will we be able to write our programs on our PCs and transfer them to our 3DSs and vice versa?  A field-programmable 3DS is a wonderful thing, but a real keyboard could give it a powerful kick.  At any rate, it's exciting to think that we're going to get to play with save data that's bigger than the 256-byte memory files Petit Computer uses.

So I'm pumped.  I'm excited.  I'm watching SMILEBASIC on Twitter to keep track of developments.  And I'm keeping my fingers crossed that file sharing will remain relevant for a good long time.


Saturday, June 20, 2015


What Jurassic World Did Right

You know what made Jurassic World a much, much better movie than the previous two sequels?


Thursday, June 04, 2015


Mario Golf: World Tour

Is this the first time a proper console-style Mario Golf game has been available on a portable?  I mean, the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance versions were basically 2D games like NES Golf, with very little in the way of hilly terrain except on the greens, and even then it was represented by arrows of varying size.

So yeah, it's really cool to have 3D Mario Golf in your pocket.  You can play as Waluigi.  It ticks all the boxes.

And Now, A Word About DLC

Wasn't I a Grumpy Gus when I found out that Mario Golf had more than half its courses locked away as paid DLC.  Ooooo, that Nintendo, they're taking a game, cutting it up, and selling it piecemeal!  If you want the whole game, you'll pay $45 when most 3DS games are only $40!  Grump grump grump grump grump!

But then you do some maths.  The basic game is $30, putting it under the price of most 3DS games and in line with earlier portable Mario Golf games, right down to the number of courses it comes with: four.  Moreover, this is an experience that's more in line with the home console versions than it is with the portable versions, so you're arguably getting more for your money right out of the box.

Then you look at the season pass, which gives you six additional courses and four more playable characters for $15.  And you know, more characters are fine and all, but six courses for $15?  That's as many courses as you'd get in a home console version for half the price of the portable version.  Add it all together and you have ten courses for $45.  Compare that to six courses (seven if you count Donkey Kong's Par 3 mini-course) for $50 back on the Gamecube.  And this version's portable.  Just looking at the raw numbers, it seems like a deal.

And then you think to yourself, do I even want the DLC?  Isn't Mario Golf sort of my kick back and wind down for a minute game?  Don't I usually just go for the first course anyway?

The weird thing about this new world of DLC packs is trying to figure out when you're getting scammed and when you aren't.  And Mario Golf is... fine?  The amount of game that you get in the box is fair for the price you pay, and the extra stuff is actually cheaper -- as you hope it would be, since you've already bought the main game engine.

So yeah.  I think this extends Nintendo's record for good DLC practices.  Good on 'em.


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