Thursday, July 16, 2015


Unplugged Dilintia: Daily Puzzle

The premise of Daily Puzzle is irresistible.  You have ten tiles that can be stacked and arranged to display a three-letter month abbreviation and a two-digit date.  (Single-digit dates have a leading zero.)  It's a desktop calendar that doubles as a game, with a different puzzle to solve every day.

It's not the most challenging game to come out of ThinkFun -- I've been playing for a couple days, and it hasn't taken me longer than a minute to finish yet.  And, contrary to the packaging, it's not really 365 puzzles in one -- there are 12 monthly configurations and 31 daily configurations, for a total of 43 challenges.

Still, if you love puzzles, it's a fun thing to have on your desk.  It's like an advent calendar that gives you a little mental treat day after day.  If you're going to pick up something from ThinkFun anyway, it's worth tossing on top.


Saturday, July 11, 2015


Earthbound Beginnings

Earthbound Beginnings is a very difficult game to get into.  It's very much an 80s NES RPG, with all of the inherent problems of a genre that was still trying to find its feet running on a system with severe technical limitations.

The visuals are bland, even for an NES game.  The character sprites are charming enough, but the backgrounds just give me an overwhelming impression of beige.  Most buildings are generic beige boxes with generic beige interiors.  The ground is beige.  The characters are beige.  Everything is beige.  Beige is a weird word.  Beige.

The interface is a nightmare.  There's no context-sensitive A button.  Every time you want to talk to an NPC or check a location, you need to pop open a menu and explicitly select the action.  For the most part, items must be explicitly used, whether you're unlocking a door with a key, withdrawing money with an ATM card, or handing a key item to an NPC.  Your characters have the same tedious inventory system that appeared in Earthbound with the added bonus that each kid can hold only 8 items at a time. And movement happens on a tile-based grid.  The designers were nice enough to allow full eight-directional movement, but the isometric 3D design of the world creates so many annoying spots where you get stuck.  And the control pad is strangely unresponsive.  You can't just tap a direction to move one square in the direction you want to go; you have to hold it for half a second or so, often overshooting the spot you were trying to get to.  And I can't count how many times I tried to strike up a conversation with an NPC, only to have them walk away from me as the action menu was opening.

And the difficulty.  Oh my dear God the difficulty.  Enemies at the beginning of the game can handily clean your clock, and they pop up with annoying frequency, to the point that many walkthroughs advise you to stay at home and fight rats in your basement until you reach level 5 or so.  That's four levels of slow, tedious grinding before you're even ready to walk out the door.  And even when you start to gain some power and you can mow down everything in your path, the annoying frequency of encounters really serves to break up the flow of any exploration you might be doing.

With everything working against it, I probably would have given up on this game in the first hour or so if I didn't have any particular reason to play it.  But of course I did have a reason to play it.  Earthbound Beginnings (aka Mother 1, aka Earthbound Zero) has been this sort of Holy Grail of video games for decades now.  It was fully translated and prototyped for production, but in the last stages, the whole project was abandoned, and so it never saw release outside of Japan.  But even if it wasn't, hey -- I loved Earthbound.  Just the idea of having a new Earthbound game to play was enough to get me to bite.  So I set my teeth, strapped myself in, and steeled myself for the long, long grind.

And you know what?  It won me over.  I don't just mean that I learned to tolerate it.  My initial opinion was that it was interesting as a historical piece, but nothing more.  But the more I got into it, the more it got under my skin.  Every victory made me look forward to what was ahead.  I started to think about the game between sessions -- what I'd accomplished, what I planned for my next adventure.  I genuinely enjoyed the game on its own terms.  And it's because the game does some important and interesting things right.

Unbounded Gameplay

There are only two major game events that serve as "gating" mechanics in this game: the roadblocks leading from Podunk to Merrysville, and the rock that blocks the way to Union Station.  There's nothing else to prevent you from exploring the world at your own pace.  The sense of freedom in this game is both refreshing and terrifying.  The game will let you set out in any direction that you like, rarely slapping you on the hand for taking things out of order or neglecting a side quest.  But on the other side of the coin, there's nothing to prevent you from wandering out into places far beyond your experience level until you happen across a pack of wolves that tears you to pieces.  And with so little hand-holding, the only way to figure out if you've plumbed a town of all its secrets is to do it the hard way -- go everywhere, inspect everything, talk to everyone.

You're aided in your exploration by a map.  It's as vague as any radar in an NES game ever is, and yet it's also surprisingly handy -- the entire world is shown, along with your exact location, the exact boundaries of every town, and small dots that denote points of interest that lie outside of towns.  Perhaps it's not perfect information -- there's no telling if a dot means an entrance to a cave, a safe healing house, or an important dungeon until you go there -- but it gives you a pretty good idea of whether you've hit all of the high points.

The game is also refreshingly unstructured.  There is an intended sequence to the events in the game, but you can take them out of order and even skip some altogether.  You might never even meet Ana or Teddy if you want to try and just power through to the end.  And where most RPGs try to string you along with an equipment progression that has you collecting better and better weapons at every town you visit, the second-best weapons in the game for every character are available to you before you've even recruited your second party member.  And the best part?  The game doesn't fall into the same old tired "explore dungeon, beat boss, collect macguffin" formula that so many RPGS get lost in.  There are dungeons and bosses and macguffins, but they very often have very little to do with each other, to the point that it's easy to reach the "end" of the game with none of the melodies you were supposed to be gathering.

It makes the game a pleasure to play in much the same way that the original Legend of Zelda is.  It doesn't challenge you to follow the adventure that the designers wrote; it lets you get out and try to find your own.


In Earthbound, Magicant was a world born of Ness's dreams, a sort of endgame personal quest that he undertakes to earn the strength that he needs to face Giygas.  Its role in Beginnings is much different and much more interesting.

You actually reach Magicant fairly early in the game, and you can (and should!) return to it as many times as you like.  It's still the sort of whimsical, magical, fairytale nonsense land that it was in Earthbound, with lots of free healing, excellent equipment for sale, and people who shower you with unconditional kindness and love.  And you can find an item that lets you return to it instantly, any time you like, as many times as you like, wherever you are, no questions asked.  Magicant became my sanctuary.  My safe place.  Whenever I was physically and emotionally beaten down by this game's many challenges, poof!  Off I'd whisk to the land of swimming cats and Flying Men for comfort and refreshment.

And yet, there's something unmistakably unsettling about the place too, and I'm sure at least some of it is intentional.  The Flying Men are a famous example.  These fearless warriors will join your party and fight fearlessly and selflessly by your side without a moment's hesitation.  But the game treats them like a sort of "status buff" rather than full playable characters, and so as they take damage in battle, you find that you can't heal them like your normal party members.  And the moment you leave Magicant, they vanish forever.  Every time you recruit a Flying Man, you doom him to eventually die by your side.  And just in case you tried to treat them like a refillable inventory item, they drive the point home by having only five Flying Men in the entire game.  Each one is an individual sprite that appears in their home base, and every time one dies, a tombstone is erected in his memory, and there is no going back.  There's something awesome in a childlike kind of way about having a superhero escort on your adventure, but the game takes you right back to Earth, grounding you in the morbid reality of mortality.

And then there's the moment.  It's your first visit to Magicant.  You've enjoyed its wealth and been cheered by its whimsy.  But maybe you don't realize the truth until you meet the character who tells you -- Magicant isn't a place you can just leave.  If Magicant is a magical world borne of the human psyche, then there are some disturbing psychological implications.  First you must leave the cheerful and comforting core of Magicant and venture into an island filled with deep dark holes and search for the one hole that will return you to your world.  Then you need to navigate a baffling maze where all of the passages look exactly the same.  And finally, you have to face the guardian of Magicant's exit: the Forgotten Man.  It's not a boss battle -- it's a conversation.  He talks to you about being alone and forgotten and how he wants to give up on people.  The only way to get past him is to tell him that you'll forget him and leave him.  It's some heady stuff.

And like I said, you take a piece of Magicant with you wherever you go.  You can retreat there whenever you like, and it doesn't cost you anything -- at least, not in the typical stats that the game measures.  No, the cost of returning to Magicant is more subtle.  It's easy to return to Magicant whenever you wish for all of the free healing you could wish, but the only way to return to the real world is to take the road through the maze again, and you always return to the outskirts of Merrysville.  And the further you progress in your quest, the greater this setback proves to be.  Sure, you can avoid the pain of defeat and the cost of healing in the real world, but the more you rely on the comfort of your cotton candy dream world, the more time you lose in your quest.  It becomes a pretty effective metaphor for the problem of retreating to a personal fantasy world -- it can make you feel better for a while, but it can also hold you back from making progress in the real world.

And, y'know, if that doesn't do anything for you, the monsters are all disembodied eyeballs, that's pretty creepy.

Smiles and Tears

The more you compare Earthbound with Beginnings, the more clear it is that Earthbound was more a remake than a sequel.  Ness, Paula, and Jeff have much the same narrative and combat purpose as Ninten, Ana, and Lloyd, respectively.  The overall goal of both games is to collect eight melodies, and the final battle with Giegue (or Gyiyg, or Giygas) depends more on a connection of love than on simple combat stats.

But the thing that really joins the two games together is its tone.  Earthbound Beginnings has the same sort of minimalistic dialogue and storytelling that most NES games had, but it still manages to hit all of the notes that its sequel does.  The funny moments.  The weird and wacky moments.  The creepy and unsettling moments.  The sad moments.  The touching moments.  All along the way, your adventure is filled with dry wit, creepy children, missing parents, asthma attacks, lying monkeys -- the game pulls at your emotions in all the best ways.

I mean, it's subtle.  It's not like Earthbound, which sparkled with pages and pages of dialogue.  Sometimes all you get is one line to establish who a character is, and then another line to tell you how everything has changed.  One line to establish that Lloyd has no confidence in himself, and then another line that shows he's finally come into his own.  One line to explain Teddy's life as a street thug, and then another line to show that he realizes some challenges can't be met by brute force alone.  One line to show how Ana and Ninten's feelings for each other have grown.  Maybe it won't work for you, but it worked for me.

When I got to the end, all I could think was... it had all been worth it.  The hours of grinding, getting lost in mazes, avoiding ridiculous overpowered enemies -- none of it mattered.  I'd fallen in love with these characters, their story, and their world.  And I would do it all over again.  And then I started over.

It's been a long time coming, but better late than never.  I'm glad we finally got to see where Earthbound started, and that it was a good beginning.  I can hope to see it come to 3DS Virtual Console at some point, to join the other NES games made portable.  Like a favorite book, I want to bring it with me everywhere.


Tuesday, July 07, 2015


Unplugged Dilintia: Tilt

Tilt is a different kind of sliding block puzzle.  As the name implies, you actually tilt the gameboard around, and all of the pieces move together.  The objective is to sink one or two green target pieces into a hole in the center of the board without sinking any of the blue blocker pieces.

This is one of the more challenging sliding block games to come out of ThinkFun.  For one thing, it's a different sort of mental challenge to imagine all of the game pieces moving simultaneously, but primarily it's because some game states can't be undone.  In Rush Hour, for example, no matter how much you move the cars around, it's always possible to move them back to their original state; fiddle around with the puzzle long enough, and you're bound to find the answer sooner or later.  But in Tilt, it's very easy to get yourself stuck in an unwinnable state, often without knowing it and with no recourse but to reset the whole thing and start over from the beginning.  Most games of this sort don't pose a real problem to me until I start getting into the Advanced or even Expert problems, but Tilt left me baffled as early as the Intermediate stage.

The kit itself is pretty neat.  There's no wacky theming or anything; it's just discs sliding around.  The actual sliding mechanic is very satisfying, and it feels good when you drop a disc in the hole.  But a couple details make this game more mechanically awkward than most of ThinkFun's puzzles.  The game really needs a stable flat surface to sit on to make the sliding work properly, so playing in the car is right out.  The pieces are also kind of noisy as they slide about, so annoying people in your vicinity becomes an issue.  (Not that the clattering cars in Rush Hour are completely silent, but you get a little more volume control.)  And finally, the colors of the sliding pieces -- pastel green and blue -- are just a bit too close.  Depending on your lighting and your level of colorblindness, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish them.

This isn't exactly one of my favorite ThinkFun toys.  The danger of falling into an unwinnable trap makes it a little more stressful than most and requires a good bit of planning ahead.  Still, it's fun to play with, and there's something satisfying about solving an entire puzzle without ever touching the pieces.


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