A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Revenge of the Gator

May 21, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten

Revenge of the ‘Gator

(JP October 18, 1989; NA March, 1990)

Before HAL Labs filed for bankruptcy and had to sell themselves over to Nintendo, they actually had a surprisingly diverse output of games with a wide variety of themes. Known almost entirely for the Kirby and Smash Bros. series, today, titles like Revenge of the ‘Gator lie with games like Trax among some of their best output before becoming so narrowly focused and playing it much safer with their wildly successful mascot.

Released relatively shortly after launch, Revenge of the ‘Gator was both the first pinball game on the Game Boy and among the first fifteen games ever released for it. It was HAL Labs’ second pinball game, their first being Rollerball (one of the earliest games the late Satoru Iwata was credited on), and could arguably be seen as somewhat of a spiritual sequel to that title.

Like Rollerball before it, Revenge of the ‘Gator divied its table up among four distinct screens for the player to enjoy, each with their own flippers, and allowed a transition to occur only when the ball would scroll off one and onto the other. Unlike Rollerball, however, Revenge of the ‘Gator had three different bonus games with their own unique screens and objectives that made it a less faithful representation of what it was like to play an actual game of pinball and more into a context specific to video games.

Video pinball has been something that various developers have attempted on nearly every device capable of gaming known to man even into modern day, and it can be really hard to stand out among some of the better interpretations and simulations of pinball when there’s such a wide variety to choose from. So, what makes Revenge of the ‘Gator particularly interesting? Well, for one, its unique syling, visuals and music make it both remarkable as a pinball game and as a one-off property by a well known developer. Secondly, it’s because I played the hell out of it as a kid with my family.

Many modern philosophies on classic games consider them too inaccessible because of a high difficulty level, but I think pinball is one of the best examples of that being a false flag to attack. The universal appeal and accessibility of pinball is something that is rarely argued against, and yet most tables – Revenge of the ‘Gator being no exception – are incredibly difficult to master and require an intimate familiarity for your play to reach a level where you can actually complete many of the objectives.

Getting into Revenge of the Gator allowed me to become closer to my parents, because I was able to compete with them on a pinball table that we could take anywhere. My fondest memories of the game are sitting in a camping chair out in the woods with my dad fishing as nearby in one direction as my mother was cooking in the other, preparing some grits or spam for an early, hearty breakfast.

My mother constantly insisted that she used to be a “pinball wizard” back in the day and that no one could beat her hi-scores, but the truth of that is far less important than how it allowed playful back and forths between us as we’d try to trounce each other’s best game and argue whether the lack of inclusion of a tilt function mattered. Admittedly, it was funny to see her instinctively jerking the Game Boy while playing, her reflexes believing it would move the ball.

Dad even joined in on the competition, having enjoyed pinball himself back in the day, though he curiously stayed out of confirming or denying Mom’s alleged status as a champion. Moments like these are what planted the seed of lifelong appreciation to bloom. Unlike most video pinball games, Revenge of the ‘Gator put a great amount of effort into its presentation with delightful visual work that wasn’t afraid to divorce itself from actual pinball table accuracy.

Rather than reach for what it couldn’t and attempt to emulate an actual pinball table as best it could and quickly date itself as the years passed, HAL realized the best way to form this game was to embrace its trappings and establish itself as its own thing. One could argue that HAL’s second pinball game on the Game Boy, Kirby’s Pinball Land, is the better game, but its variety of tables and objectives and inclusion of boss fights perhaps took things too far. Though Revenge of the ‘Gator did allow its design to divorce itself from a stagnant attempt at accuracy, it also knew how to exercise the restraint to not alienate those unfamiliar with video games.

I would argue the game knew how to perfectly blend both classic pinball design and (then) modern video game ethos into something that acted as a middle ground that was both accessible and familiar to both types of enthusiasts, rather than moving too far in one direction and either making itself sterile to children or too different for adults. It’s games like these that spoke to both kids growing up with a rapidly developing form of entertainment and adults who confusedly looked at games as a mess of complications too far for them to reach. It’s a genuine shame that these types of games couldn’t continue to exist in a capacity great enough to stop that divide from growing.

Overwatch Beta

May 13, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten

Featuring over twenty characters at launch with the promise of more to come, Blizzard’s Overwatch is a game that tries to not only butt in on the popularity of squad based first-person shooters, but also MOBA’s (e.g. League of Legends, DotA 2). Featuring 6v6 matches over a variety of maps and gametypes, it plays, at least on a superficial level, vaguely like what you might imagine TF2 would if it replaced its cast of characters with the diverse and thematically inconsistent hodgepodges you see in most MOBA’s.

Given the current, overwhelming popularity of both of these genres, the eventual marriage of the two types of games seemed like an inevitability (and we’re already seeing it elsewhere, with both Epic Games and Gearbox hopping in on the fad). However, Blizzard’s never before had experience making a serious FPS, and I feel like this level of inexperience shows in quite a few ways with the finished product. I enjoyed my time spent with it, but for a variety of reasons, I couldn’t help but consistently wish I was playing something else.

The first of the problems I feel causes Overwatch to suffer is that its diverse cast ultimately greatly restricts the game. While it promises diversity in a squad based shooter meant to be on an unparalleled level, the extreme selection of characters (with more undoubtedly to come) rather has nearly the opposite effect, giving the game a lack of diversity in its mechanics and situations that its characters can ultimately get in. To explain exactly why, I’ll first have to explain the game’s basic mechanics.

Nearly every character is reduced to fit into a specific role, usually being able to be pigeonholed into one of four categories: assault, sniper, healing, or support. When selecting your characters at the beginning of a match, your teammate’s characters will also be shown, and the game will offer friendly reminders to let you know that your team is missing out on a key component (i.e. if you don’t have enough people to deal damage, or if you’re lacking someone with a support role).

Characters are also, with few notable exceptions, limited to their one weapon (with unlimited ammo), an alternate fire, two abilities, and an ultimate ability. Most competitive FPS balance themselves around the player’s weapon and their passive abilities, like Call of Duty’s selectable perks and attachments or TF2’s variety of distinct weapons and characters with variable health, movement speed, and so on. These things are determined before the game and are constantly accessible and being used by the player, but Overwatch attempts to balance characters a bit more as if they’re from a different game genre, altogether.

Given that the vast majority of characters are given a limiting cooldown on their useful abilities, this sets the pacing for how combat in the game will work. All of the four gametypes are objective-based and three of the four feature an attacking team and defending team. What this does is essentially create an imaginary skirmish line between the two teams where they’ll take potshots at each other, and occasionally push the line further up when their individual abilities will allow them to. This kind of design then leads to a startling degree of homogenization between the sheer number of characters.

Because of the game’s incredible focus on these abilities and the abilities nearly universally featuring cooldown timers, this puts less of a focus on individual player skill and more of a focus on pushing slightly forward when using an ability, then pulling back as they wait for it to become available again. Tracer, who is one of the game’s popular mascot characters, really helps to exemplify how this works.

Her first ability allows her to teleport and can store up to three charges at a single time, and her second ability is a “rewind” that sends her rapidly flying back to her position from a few seconds ago, recovering any health she may have lost across the way (of course, if she dies before activating it, she’s not given an opportunity to rectify that). This allows her to get into enemy territory, harass them with her very weak pair of machine pistols, and then get herself out of trouble to wait for abilities to recharge and repeat the process.

While doing that, she’s able to eventually charge up her ultimate ability, which lets her throw a grenade that can instantly kill most characters, should she manage to throw it well enough and actually hit one of them (it features a very limited blast radius, but can stick onto an enemy or surface). Her role is largely to harass the other team rather than do any serious damage, and she mostly plays the role of distraction. Given the cooldown on her abilities and her weak method of attack, it’s practically impossible to play her in a way that could significantly dominate the other team, no matter what the player’s skill level is.

Contrast this character with the Scout from TF2, who can move quickly at a passive rate, is able to perform a multidirectional double jump at any time, and who has a weapon that packs a very serious wallop if you’re able to handle it properly and get right in enemy faces. Playing the Scout is exciting, and a good Scout is able of seriously disrupting an opposing team and personally dominating inferior players of any class. The Scout is also capable of crossing well over and even distorting the imaginary skirmish line that these types of competitive FPS with 12+ players create without becoming a highly vulnerable target… Whereas Tracer’s survivability is handicapped by whether or not she has charges of her ability prepared.

In Overwatch, a pesky character like Tracer is ultimately just going to be consistently pesky and act like a decoy. Not to say that Tracer can’t be an important component of a team, but that she will never be the star and will almost exclusively fit within a very ordained role, never to organically grow out of it. In TF2, a good scout (or, mind you, a good -any character-) can change the very dynamic by which your team operates and be the catalyst who controls the pacing of the entire game. Overwatch forces its characters into distinct roles and places hard limits on what they can do, while a game like TF2 embraces its genre and is much more flexible, allowing for greater player skill and creativity to be exercised.

In a true MOBA like League of Legends, these types of character limits work to both interesting and satisfying conclusions because of a fundamentally different structure when compared to FPS. Whereas most FPS teams are defined by their strongest players, MOBA’s often define their team by their weakest link being the first to go and begin the cascade of defeat. By giving the playing field multiple lanes to protect and each team little henchmen to defend their territory, this initiates an exciting game of chicken between players, where you’re repeatedly attempting to bait your opponent into a vulnerable state to crush them and advance your way a little further to their defense objective.

If you’re baited into using your ability and failing to capitalize on it, you’re then left vulnerable for the opponent to get an upper hand on you while you recharge. Because of how the maps are designed and the game’s objectives are placed, many encounters end up being very personal, one-on-one affairs that allow for the dynamic put in place by cooldown abilities to become more interesting. This is less interesting in a game like Overwatch because of the encounters funneling multiple players into what is effectively only one, single lane (partially a fault of sterile map design, but also of just how these games need to be formatted) with an occasional second method of approach. This creates a more chaotic mess where encounters are almost never as personal, thus removing the dynamic that makes the vulnerability of ability cooldown so engaging.

Ultimate abilities in Overwatch are often so powerful that they can change the state of the playing field in very radical and superficially interesting ways, and could conceivably help to shift Overwatch in a more interesting direction. But, like with primary abilities and their genre-contrary mechanics, Overwatch lacks the proper context to make these as exciting as they could be when stacked up against other games with comparable ideas.

Many modern games feature killstreaks, a mechanic similar to Overwatch’s ultimate abilities made popular by Call of Duty 4. These reward a player with a single use, often highly powerful ability after the player is able to string together a certain number of consecutive kills without dying. Smaller killstreaks bestow weaker abilities, while larger ones can completely turn the tide of a game. These kinds of abilities reward player skill and ability and allow players to create a palpable momentum for the rest of the team to rally behind.

TF2 also has features not entirely different from ultimate abilities like the Medic’s ubercharge. By healing enough teammate health in a single life, the Medic is able to make themselves and another teammate temporarily invulnerable, allowing them to push up the field and wipe out enemies in their wake (yet even then, there are still ways for players to cleverly counter this if they’re able to predict it). Games are often won or lost with a successful push from an ubercharge, and Medics are prioritized targets because of this.

In both of the afforementioned scenarios, the player is required (or at the very least heavily encouraged) not only to stay alive, but to play well or in a way conducive to assisting your team. In Overwatch, your ultimate slowly charges no matter what you’re doing and persists across death. This guarantees that even the poorest of players will eventually get their ultimate multiple times over the course of any reasonably lenghtened game, and because of the power of some abilities, this can greatly upset the flow of the game. In addition to that, it removes a great deal of the necessity for targeting specific players to consistently weaken the opposing team and thus makes the game’s dynamic less complex and interesting.

First-person shooters are built around the idea of creating a skillful competition between players or player teams, but this changes that on a fundamental level by allowing players to cause upsets through unfairly powerful abilities awarded to them simply through participation. While players are ultimately rewarded with more Ultimates for playing well, someone poorly playing a character can still become the deciding factor in a match by simply pressing a button at a key moment. Zenyatta’s ultimate, for example, regenerates your entire team’s health so quickly that it effectively makes them invincible for a brief period of time. It doesn’t take much to see how this could win a team the game.

If this were a mechanic in a party game, I’d be willing to give it more of a pass (I like to play Smash with all items on as goofball characters and love Bomberman games, for the record), but it’s in a highly competitive genre that is trying to pass itself off as though it is the next big thing in competitive gaming. Much like it has overreached in attempting to appeal to both those interested in FPS and MOBA’s, it has also overextended in trying to appeal to both casual players of the genre and those who have played daily for years.

Overwatch also seeks to reward mere participation through its cosmetic unlock system (that gives you stuff for the game for playing it more and more) and even through the scoreboard at the end of the game. Upon completing a game, rather than tallying players’ kills and assists, it homogenizes them into a single “eliminations” number. In doing this and other subtle things (voting for players to receive additional rewards, showcasing what the game capriciously decides to be the deciding moment) in post-game, Overwatch somewhat transparently tries to manipulate you into thinking you’re always winning on some front, even when you’re not, and a frustrating loss is often easily forgotten when they drop one of their shockingly manipulative loot boxes into your lap.

However, in a move bafflingly contrary to their push to draw player ability more toward a median to make the game accessible to all, Overwatch rewards headshot damage with nearly every single weapon. Games like TF2 (which I maintain to be both highly accessible to new players and maintain an immense skill ceiling for experienced players) only do this with very specific weapons for specific classes that would benefit from the difference in mechanics (most of the Sniper’s primary weapons as well as one of the Spy’s). This allows players to focus on other methods of play for most classes that don’t require intensely precise aiming – something that has long been considered a skill barrier for new players to break into the genre.

This kind of design decision begins to expose Overwatch’s biggest problem, which is that it as hard as it tries to be accessible to people intimidated by competitive FPS, it cannot exorcise the nature of it from the game. For as far as it tries to go to make the game a rewarding experience for newer, less experienced, or poorer players, it’s still going to happen to be a very competitive game that will ultimately reward those who play the best the most. You’re not playing against AI, you’re playing against people, and you can’t remove the human elements of intense competition for people who want to play at their own pace.

Like with any competitive FPS, within a month or two, Overwatch’s community is going to be dominated by groups of dedicated players whose skill levels will make the game an unpleasant mess for anyone casually engaging with it. Enjoyable and fair matches to evenly matched opponents will slowly give way to increasing losses to more organized teams, and all the pressures of forming a reliable, competitive group will inevitably rise. The carefree and casual environment will very quickly become filled with the same pressures that competing on any other FPS’ matchmaking service provides. Should the game have had dedicated servers you could leave and join to your heart’s content, you could eventually find one that facilitates your needs, but there is no such luck, here, as the game pushes its matchmaking service as hard as playing Call of Duty on a console.

I find it difficult to imagine exactly the type of person that Overwatch is meant to appeal to, on a mechanical level. On one hand, they make great strives to further reduce the skill ceiling and allow less skilled players to cause massive upsets with the push of a button. On the other hand, the game is still an FPS and still prioritizes rewarding players with the ability to aim precisely and cleverly predict their opponent’s actions. Its design contradicts itself and makes the experience relatively unsatisfying when compared to other popular shooters, whether you’re approaching it as a new player or someone with a long history of experience in the genre. Skilled players will be frequently killed or suffer the occasional loss to a team that got their ultimate just when they needed it, while new players will still ultimately suffer repeated losses to people who have been doing this for thousands of hours over the course of many years.

What commonly seems to be considered to be Overwatch’s greatest appeal is its lavish aesthetic. Characters are not only bright, colorful, and lovingly detailed, but there exists a great variety of them to match the game’s equally colorful and detailed maps. They all command a great deal of attention to their over-the-top personalities, and people find tremendous appeal in the idea of picking the hero that best suits them from not only a mechanical perspective, but personal one.

But, yet again, Overwatch’s reach stretches itself far enough that it reaches the point that one of its greatest appeals bites itself in the rear and becomes nearly as much of a detriment. Every character looks like they could be the protagonist of their own game, and while this may work well for a MOBA (because the perspective is overhead, the characters are smaller, and there’s an omnipresent radar to help you distinguish things immediately), it works awfully for an FPS.

In a team-based game with characters who serve a variety of purposes, it’s very important to be able to identify friend from foe, and more importantly, identify what your enemy is capable of with a mere glance. Readability is paramount to the design of a comparable game like TF2 or even something like Left 4 Dead’s competitive mode, where’s it’s necessary for you to know with as much immediacy as possible how to react to what you see before it kills you. Overwatch’s 20-something characters are so detailed and with such a variety of colorful skins to empower player choice that they become almost impossible distinguish immediately.

While the game tries to mitigate this by placing a blue outline and friendly filter over your own team while making the enemies have a red one, this begins to not only erode their individuality (which the game very overtly prides itself upon), but also their readability as unique entities. This solves the problem of being able to tell friend from enemy in most situations, but when enemies stand next to each other, their complicated silhouettes and identical-colored outlines can make it very difficult to tell which is which and where one ends and the other begins. In a game where your survival is often decided in split-seconds, this can completely throw a wrench into your ability to react with the immediacy required to excel.

The map design suffers a similar problem with excessive detailing. While they look good – even great – they are overtly detailed, as if they’re meant for a single-player game where you have time to wander and observe every little thing. This makes it difficult to immediately recognize where you are and coordinate your attacks with your team against the enemy. Again, Blizzard shows a disregard for what is established and works well in these types of games for its own unique flavor of bombast.

While I find most of the character designs to be personally unappealing and far too upsettingly similar to how pornographic artists draw similar characters (I would unabashedly go as far to say that this is deliberate in their attempts to make this as popular as they can on communities like Tumblr – it feels as if I am being baited, and I don’t like it), I understand their appeal, and I do appreciate the lengths Blizzard went to in an attempt to have a cast of stand-out individuals. Still, I can’t help but feel in trying to make them all stand out to such a degree they weakened each one individually, and tore apart any semblance of cohesion this game could have in trying to appeal to nearly literally everyone. Even Nintendo’s first outing with a competitive shooter (the sometimes delightful, sometimes infuriating Splatoon) had them showing a stronger grasp of these nailing these basic necessities to good shooter design.

Where the aesthetics most grab me are with the attention to detail within each characters point-of-view. Roadhog’s shotgun visibly vibrates and feels like a mess of parts as he stomps about. D.Va’s animation for re-entering her mech suit after having left it genuinely makes you feel like you’re pushing yourself into that cockpit. The lid to Junkrat’s grenade launcher pops open with each shot fired, and even begins to realistically lift as you jump or fall from a great height. All of these things and more are very rarely seen in such loving attention in other games, and are among the few things I think Overwatch does right that puts itself far above the competition without also harming it in some way.

Beyond that, I also find genuine appeal in the game having a positive atmosphere and avoiding the typical grim future you’d imagine something like this would take place in. It makes the fact that these characters are all repeatedly and indiscriminately murdering each other in a cartoonish potpourri of extravagant violence a bit hard to explain and thematically bizarre, but whatever, I’ll take it. It’s nice to play a game where even the darker characters seem to have a positive attitude in a bright and colorful world.

In closing, while Overwatch is fun and appealing at the moment, I can’t help but feel that like with every other FPS ever made (especially those without dedicated servers), it’s going to fall victim to a toxic community and boring meta within the period of a month or possibly less. Nearly everything that Overwatch does well is done better by something else, and in a way that allows for greater capacity of player skill and creativity. Something about Overwatch’s overall design, progression system, and super unique characters makes it feel like it wants to manufacture this amazing experience for you without YOU ever really being the interesting component of that end product.

It builds an interesting world around you and gives you a selection of characters and skins for you to create your own look and feel, that goes without saying. But where your identity should most be able to express itself in a video game – the way that you actually play and perform at it – Overwatch is bizarrely sterile and lacking. In all that it does to empower you, it reduces your ability to be an active agent in its world, replacing the ability to create memorable moments with ready-made, manufactured ones. Why feel rewarded by creative play when you can eventually just receive an ultimate ability and have the game deliver to you a false sense of accomplishment and importance? In a game against other human beings that promises a new and exciting way to compete, it goes against its fundamental design, becoming a mess of ideas that are at odds with each other.

Overwatch wants you to imagine that it’s competitive and deep, but also wants you to imagine that you can enjoy yourself no matter your skill level. It makes itself out to be about empowerment, but offers you so few ways to exercise it outside of its restrictive boundaries. It espouses vibrant individuality, but reduces ways to employ it. It is a game that ostensibly breaks outside of the established boundaries into exciting new territory, but is even more a focus-tested, cynical product than its competition. It’s ultimately going to set new precadence with its popularity as it first releases, but as the dust settles and large chunks of its fanbase return to their long-proven standbies, I doubt it will really do anything to kill the established kings of the genre or be taken seriously on a competitive level in tournament play.

**Speaking of making an embarrassment of itself on a competitive level, professional players are already being caught cheating during major events (and, somehow, without the commentators picking up on it, of course).

The Galaxy is Yours: Mass Effect 2

May 8, 2016 // Published by Rei

 This game makes me feel like an interstellar war-leech. I run, I shoot, I do my stealing. I talk to characters who stand in-place like the things I’m stealing do. I try to like the writing but fail. It’s Star Trek Wars, and protagonist Kirk Skywalker does a lot of shooting from behind waist-high cover in between marathons of Star Control II and Babylon 5.

 Nearly every BioWare game’s format is essentially unchanged from their 2003 game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Since then their games have pretty much had the same conversation systems, the familiar game-stopping glitches, those jittery physics and that general flow of walk, talk, make obvious good or bad choices, and then kill. Characters remain the same types of charming murderers who can fit into whatever tropey pigeonholes you want to stuff them. The morality system still works in a contrived and too-comfortable binary.

 One thing BioWare tends to change with each new iteration of Knights of the Old Republic is the core element of many videogames: their combat systems. Since shooting from cover was largely the norm for third-person videogames in 2010, that’s what Mass Effect 2’s combat consists of.

 This in mind, I enter the mind-numbing videogame trance of accruing supplies and experience points. I run down narrow, monochromatic corridors that invariably widen into arenas with waist-high cover, indicating impending gunfights. I’m frequently surrounded by high bluffs funneling me down one-way paths, making the game’s jungles feel like industrial hallways with more work put into them. The fate of the galaxy is somehow at stake in these corridors and arenas where nothing changes as much as the wallpaper.

 The game has auto-targeted an explosive crate near some waist-high 
cover on this catwalk. Chance of an enemy ambush? One-hundred percent.

 If you play Mass Effect 2 on a desktop computer with one of those keyboards people like to use, you’ll probably press the spacebar a lot. You talk and steal with it. You get behind cover with it. You hold the spacebar down to run and use the mouse to orient yourself. While you look around, the game automatically locks on to things you can steal, talk to or open, even if they’re behind walls. Because of this, you’ll often be informed of what is around a corner before you see it. The lock-on is visualized with four corner brackets, and your character will sometimes continue looking at what the game has auto-locked on to, even if it’s offscreen, meaning your character will constantly look over their shoulder.

 If you release the spacebar while sprinting and then press it again while near the object the game has locked on to, you can slow down to a lazy jog just in time to steal or open something and keep moving, not really caring where the hiccup in the drudgery came from or what it means. To make sure you’ll have to at least pay attention sometimes, the developers included silly picture-matching mini-games.

 Eventually you run into a couple of humans that are looting the bodies of aliens who’ve died of a lab-made plague. You can tell them that stealing from the dead is wrong, which is hilariously hypocritical to have your character say, considering that’s a decent chunk of what you do in Mass Effect 2. You even get Good Person or Bad Person Points depending on what you pick. You can feign higher morals during dialogue sequences, yet almost every player’s action, should they find dead people piled in front of work desks, is to step over the corpses, hack their computers, and then steal their money. That might have helped their families, but fuck ’em. You’re more important.

 You straight-up steal from corpses for the rest of the game, which is the only way to attain certain permanent equipment upgrades. You don’t just steal from mercenaries or space terrors who were out to kill you and would do the same to you; you pillage homes under the pretense of saving people’s lives. You can walk in on a massacre in a shopping area and steal from the corpses of shoppers. You can help a friend find her father amidst yet another massacre while you root through the belongings of his dead colleagues. The developers never address this in any way.

 “Loot” is as common a verb in videogames as the word “jump” is.

 Another common verb is “kill”. You kill a lot in Mass Effect 2, meaning you have to play an unfinished version of Gears of War where you use the Force powers from Star Wars. You run a three-person squad out of a pool of nearly a dozen crewmates, and you all murder hundreds of people who clown-car out of dead-end rooms. When you kill someone, your teammates sometimes say fucked-up things, as if they get off on killing and think it’s hilarious fun. You and your team of super-killers come off as a bunch of semi-immortal adolescents goofing around, ending life after life with one-liner after one-liner before your one big serious mission where you all might actually die forever.

 Cutscenes jump around or abruptly end sometimes, breaking the rhythm of story beats. After cutscenes end, the camera will return behind your back as your squad automatically draws their weapons. The cutscene might’ve shown you viewing a computer terminal, so when it ends you draw your guns and aim them point-blank at walls for no reason. Sometimes your team draws their weapons again after they’ve already had them drawn in a cutscene. Oops.

 Many of the missions in this forty-hour funeral procession become tediously rote, with gimmicks to distract you from the fact that you’re always shooting from cover, running to something the game auto-locked on to a hundred feet away, pressing the spacebar, and then watching a cutscene. This results in the developers making several hilarious attempts to change things up, like including a planet covered in a yellow-green fart haze that makes the foggy jungle level from Rare’s GoldenEye 007 seem technically superior.

 One area of the game that particularly bothers me is the planet Aeia, where a ship crashes and the crew is left to create a society by themselves before they’re discovered ten years later. It’s a tried-and-true science-fiction situation where a group of interstellar explorers crash-land on an alien planet. In more unimaginative science-fiction the explorers usually revert to more primal behavior. For reference as to how old this idea is: it’s the plot of several Twilight Zone episodes, and even that show was adapting old material. This homage to bygone science-fiction stories is acknowledged in the fact that the crashed ship is named after Hugo Gernsback, the man most responsible for the first science-fiction magazine.

 When the Gernsback crashes, the captain’s second-in-command takes over after the captain dies. The former second-in-command is the father of Jacob Taylor, a member of your crew. Unprepared for leadership, Jacob’s father becomes an asshole, forcing everyone to eat the alien plant life, which causes “neural degeneration”, and keeps all the ship’s rations for himself. Jacob is disgusted by his father’s actions, and the game makes a big deal out of the moral implications of the situation. This makes it all the more ridiculous if you manage to land a headshot on one of the mentally ill men that attack you, which causes Jacob to shout, “Right between the eyes!” with an intonation of glee.


 The “neural degeneration” the crewmembers suffer from causes the men to eventually become aggressive and rebel, while the women become docile and easily manipulated. Jacob’s father has most of his men exiled or killed. Women are assigned to high-ranking officers like property, creating a harem, which the game acknowledges is fucked-up.

 While Mass Effect 2’s developers definitely exerted effort to say that forcing women into sex slavery is wrong—I don’t want to think about the kinds of persons who would say otherwise—their ideas for the Planet Aeia section clearly hinged on supposed “biological truths” about gender.

 Once deprived of much of their brain functioning, Mass Effect 2 shows all of the human men on the crew becoming aggressive hunter-gatherers and attacking everything outside of their group. The crew’s women become childlike and scared and fragile, passively accepting whatever happens to them. This is depicted in Mass Effect 2 as something inherent to women and men, which, in a game where you explore the far reaches of the galaxy, you’d think BioWare would be a lot more open-minded about gender.

 Speaking of which, Mass Effect 2 has a whole species of blue women, the Asari, who bother the hell out of me. One Asari character in the first Mass Effect says they’re neither man nor woman, effectively making their gender identities nonbinary. The Asari only have a monogender on their planet. What bothers me is an Asari character claims they’re genderless in one or two sentences, but their entire species are unremittingly referred to as women throughout the rest of the game, even on the fourth-wall-breaking developer-written lore on the options screen. It reminds me of a problem many nonbinary people face, where their identity is not respected and others refer to them as whatever they please.  The developers themselves refer to the Asari with the pronouns “she” and “her”, as do characters within the game.  The Asari all have traditionally feminine characteristics, as well as the same slender body type that most players are undoubtedly socioculturally conditioned to find appealing. Supposedly, the Asari had no idea what women were before they met other species, but then, why do they have three stages of life that are named with feminine nouns—the Maiden stage, the Matron stage, and the Matriarch stage? It conflicts heavily with the game’s established writing: in theory, the Asari saw themselves as genderless but the rest of the galaxy did not; in execution, the Asari, apparently, have always referred to themselves as women. It makes no sense. Mass Effect 2’s writers didn’t consider things carefully enough, and the limits of their imagination disrupt my own.

 The Asari are Star Trek’s green alien women, who existed in Star Trek primarily to titillate protagonists, with a bit of Star Wars’ Twi’leks thrown in. They’re Mission Vao from BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic made into an entire species. In the first Mass Effect’s official artbook, there exists a developer note admitting the Asari were designed to fit Star Trek’s green alien women trope.

 Perhaps most damning is that characters throughout the game repeatedly stress that the Asari can mate with any alien species, as if that’s one of their primary functions. The Asari serve as an alien analogue for an entire gender, since Mass Effect 2 is a game where almost every alien species you meet consists of nothing but men. Or, at the very least, all the women stay at home. Making an entire species of sexy blue alien women when such discrepancies exist in the game’s gender representation only alienates and others women further. Out of seeming desperation to plant asterisks, the writers go out of their way to make aliens talk about the women of their species and where they are, but you never meet any women aliens besides the Quarians, who are conveniently sealed in hermetic suits, and a dead female Krogan obscured by a veil. It was apparently too much work to design alien women, and men come first.

 Ethnic differences among humans in Mass Effect 2 are almost entirely ignored in favor of fictional species serving as safe stand-ins. For instance, Mass Effect’s itinerant species, the Quarians, are obviously based on the Romani people. BioWare’s portrayal of the prejudice the Quarians face may make the game’s authors seem sympathetic, but it effectively erases the Romani people from Mass Effect’s universe. The Romani people are transplanted from real-life into a fictional alien species and we never see nor hear of them in the game.

 Addressing racism with aliens as stand-ins for certain ethnicities has long been some kind of ideal in science-fiction that is rarely actualized. Alien species coded as real-life ethnicities come off as a kids-gloves way of dealing with racism, as well as appropriating the struggles and cultures of real people and othering them in order to enrich fictional universes. When you introduce different anthropomorphic species into fiction, gender differences between people remain and are exploited by writers, but human society somehow magically becomes post-racial.

 Of the most prominent persons of color in Mass Effect 2, there are only three. Two Black men—Jacob Taylor and David Anderson—and a Hispanic woman, Ashley Williams. Of these three, two are shown harboring prejudices toward aliens if you dig deeply enough. The rest of humanity, according to Mass Effect, is mostly White people.

 No matter what you make your protagonist look like, Mass Effect’s story is told from a White perspective. Analogues for real-world people and cultures seen by White Westerners as foreign or exotic become the aliens of Mass Effect. Of course, the default protagonist for Mass Effect’s character-creation screens is a White man, just like in other popular games like Fallout and Dark Souls as well as countless others. And no matter what gender you pick, a White person is always the default.

 Before I go, I want to talk about Mass Effect 2’s “galaxy map”. It’s how you get around from planet to planet. Every nebula and solar system resembles a node-based checklist with percentages of completion next to them, making space exploration feel rote and like you’re filling quotas. You point and click a spot on the map, and your spaceship flies there, overshooting where you clicked, so you have to remember to compensate. If you’re flying between solar systems, overshooting your destination causes you to waste a few tons of fuel. I suppose the developers tried to give a sense of kinetic energy to the interface, which is so sterile and abstract it lets you fly through stars and planets without dying. By giving you limited fuel and chemical elements along with the possibility of wasting them, the developers at least try to emphasize that resources are precious, but the attempts seem token and peripheral to the much more frequent shooting and stealing and talking.

 You encounter a gunnery chief on the Citadel who tells his recruits how important it is to respect the precision of space technology and use it accordingly, and how doing things manually or “eyeballing it”, is often dangerous. It’s weird, then, that your protagonist does so many things manually without much consequence, like flying a spaceship with shitty brakes. The same rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to you.

The galaxy gets a bit overcrowded with name tags.

 You can select the option to orbit a planet on the galaxy map, which requires basic knowledge of how DVD menus work. Once you orbit a planet, it becomes apparent that you’re an explorer in the sense that Christopher Columbus was an explorer. Meaning you steal resources and murder everyone that gets in your way.

 When orbiting a planet, you can scan it by right-clicking the mouse and roving your gun-like crosshairs across the sphere, watching for jumps in waveform patterns on a nearby green graph that resembles Guitar Hero fretboards. When the waveform spikes drastically, left-click to launch a probe. The probe then beams whatever resources it discovers directly to your ship. It’s a violent sort of feeling when you launch a probe, like a gunshot or missile going off and hitting the planet, with an orange circle indicating the point of impact. A green holographic flag sprouts from where you shot the probe, commemorating your conquest.

 An indicator shows the planet’s remaining minerals just above the waveform graph; if a planet is plentiful, it starts at “Rich”, eventually goes down to “Poor”, and then finally becomes “Depleted”. Sometimes you can read an extended history of a planet and how its inhabitants have suffered before you rob it of its riches. When you read a planet’s history, there are occasional mentions of resource exploitation, but nothing is done with it. An underlying function of the planetary histories is to explain how much a planet has for the taking—the only way the words apply to you. It’s all flavor text anyway, since most of the game’s planets exist as places to be looted and as containers where you commit massacres.

 You’re never implicated or questioned for what you do; you’re above it all. No character is ever wise enough to comment on what’s happening; their concerns never extend beyond their stations. Your exploring of planets purely to profit from what they have goes unexplored. So much of what you do in Mass Effect to defend your part of the galaxy is completely unnecessary. This affected my views of the rest of the game, where other glaring questions are glossed over for the sake of turn-off-your-brain entertainment.

 So many videogames require the player to behave like a colonialist; to conquer, to pillage, to massacre. The one thing videogames seem to outright condemn is the slavery part, but only because, in real-life, most people know that’s the baseline for not being a piece of shit. I doubt the developers of Mass Effect 2 were aware of their game’s implications or what the actions available to the player could mean when scrutinized. The game mentions “colonizing”, but no one ever comments on colonialism or its casualties beyond dispassionate statistical readouts from optional lore dumps. It’s not explored as a theme. The game is quick to give you Renegade points for picking dialogue options the developers frown upon, but is tellingly silent when you participate in its other systems. You take part in facets of colonialism but are never implicated. It’s never adequately addressed. The ethics of what your protagonist does are buffered by grids and graphs and holograms, cushioned enough by the abstraction of pop-ups, menus and numbers so that actions seem sufficiently superficial, so that no sensibilities might be affected.

 Mass Effect 2 depicts a space-age colonialism where you don’t have to necessarily inhabit a space with the places you’re exploiting. You can fly overhead and just jam a straw in a planet, sucking it dry of all the things you want. The people living there are colonists anyway, right? It’s every asshole for themselves in this galaxy. You’re just getting to the point: resources. Never mind whatever life may develop or is developing there; they won’t need it.

 You use the resources you take from planets to make stuff in order to kill better. When you play Mass Effect 2 with a mouse, scanning the planets is oddly intimate. Each circular rub of the mouse across the mousepad rotates each planet accordingly on its axis, evoking distasteful but potentially insightful thoughts. It reminded me of an ultrasound, of rubbing the belly of each pregnant planet before plunging a probe into it and harvesting the baby-meats so I could make a better sniper rifle.

A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Tetris

April 28, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten


(JP June 14, 1989/NA August, 1989)

Another obvious choice for placing on nearly any list of Game Boy games is Tetris – one of the most universally loved and well known games of all time. Tetris took the world by storm back in the late eighties and the Game Boy owes much of its early success to this brilliantly accessible puzzle game being made portable. While not the first rendition of Tetris and by nearly any serious Tetris enthusiasts’ account not the best, this was definitely the most accessible for its time and the one that people tend to remember the most.

A simple game, Tetris’ mechanics are apparent to nearly anyone regardless of age or language within just a few minutes of experimentation. It’s as universally easy to understand a video game as Checkers is a board game. Stack the shapes, create horizontal lines of them to clear from the screen and gain points, combat that until the blocks drop too rapidly for you to keep up and they reach the top of the screen, ending your game. Easy to learn, difficult to master.

What makes the Game Boy port remarkable is that it skyrocketed interest in the device and boosted its sales dramatically from a very early point in its life. This created an environment where developers sought to replicate the success of Tetris by creating relatively simple puzzle games that can become very thoughtfully difficult as you engross yourself further in them. The impact across the Game Boy’s library is readily apparent, as it is full of titles with puzzle elements meant to have a similar attraction to people not ordinarily familiar with playing games.

One of the most interesting things about looking back at Tetris from today’s standpoint is that at the time of its release, it was almost universally lauded as being something as simple to get into as the most timeless of board games. Kids bragged that their parents were finally playing a video game and it felt like a gap was being bridged between older and younger generations.

I have fond memories of passing the game off to my mom and competing with her for higher scores, including a particular memory of her getting a B-Type game of 6 Tetrises and 1 single line clear. She said she was afraid the game would bug out if she got a seventh, and opted for the single… And I tried to argue it was totally impossible she could have engineered that situation to even possibly get 7, because I couldn’t believe she was that much better than me. Well, look at the screenshots. Nearly 25 years later, I sure showed YOU up, huh, Mom!?

I bring up the sheer joy of sharing this game with my family because it brings up an interesting contrast to how gamers treat parents and especially older women gaming, today. Tetris was so celebrated because even your mom would want to play it, and now games are brutally criticized for being exactly that. Casual and mobile games receive incredible derision and condescension from the gaming community in often disgusting and misogynistic ways.

We all still celebrate Tetris today, but why? Games like Bejeweled and Peggle are seen as filth by so many of us, and yet we all fondly remember the game that was proudly touted as being accessible to children and parents. It reveals a blatant hypocrisy in this divide ‘gamers’ try to put up to isolate themselves from those who don’t ‘truly’ appreciate games. It’s important to remember that we celebrate Tetris because it is accessible, because it is something anyone can get into, and because it brought us closer to gaming being something everyone can enjoy before the toxicity of modern gaming culture took over.