Saturday, October 16, 2010

PUZZLE: Forecast: Chilly

Find the hidden message. (This one's easy. Try it on the kids.)

Time befriends
For brief space--
Warm days sends;
Clothes in grace

Man and maid.
This I wot:
Looks must fade,
Like or not.

One is not here
Long, my chums;
Cold from hot, here
Winter comes.

by Willard R. Espy

Friday, October 15, 2010

PUZZLE: Words & Music

Using just the notes of the musical scale (A, B, C, D, E, F, G), what is the longest word you can make?

App O' The Mornin': Bejeweled 2 Review

In honor of the 10th anniversary of Bejeweled, the game is selling for $1 until October 20th, which is a 66% discount. Chuzzle, Bookworm, and Peggle are also on sale.

A review of Bejeweled hardly seems necessary. After all, if you’re reading this, you’ve already played it. Everyone has played it. Tribesmen in the remote jungles of Papua-New Guinea have played it. It’s been converted into every conceivable platform known to man, and probably some that are unknown. I suspect that PopCap is, at this very moment, trying to figure out how to get it on the next Mars Rover, so bored aliens can play it and stand in awe of our mighty ability to line up three jewels in a row.

The point is, the game has become so ubiquitous that it doesn’t need any explanation. So I’ll give you one anyway.

In fact, there is a reason to visit Bejeweled this week, other than it being Poptober here at State of Play. Bejeweled actually turned 10 years old on the rather unlikely date of 10/10/10. That means that 10 years ago, the casual gaming revolution was born. It’s not that Bejeweled was the first “casual game” (I’d give that honor to Tetris), but it became so popular and migrated through so many versions and platforms that its success rippled through the entire gaming industry.

The gameplay has been endlessly copied, but never bettered. Just swap two jewels to make rows of 3, 4, 5, or more similar gems in a row. They disappear. More drop down. It continues, forever and ever.

The Bejeweled 2 with Blitz app offers a few variants of this core game, but largely sticks to the plan. There’s Classic (as described), Action (which requires you to swap jewels quickly before a timer bar runs out), and Endless (which is a more “relaxing” version that allows you to just keep making moves forever).

Bejeweled Blitz adds a social networking element to the gameplay. The goal is to make high score in a minute, comparing your score against other friends playing via Facebook. This version adds “boosts” to provide different powers, such as scrambling the gems, increasing time, detonating all special gems, and adding point multipliers.

Bejeweled is just one of those games you need to have on every device. It’s the most successful and influential casual games of all time. And after 10 years, it can still be incredibly addictive.

Exit Trivia Question: What was the original title of Bejeweled? (No Googling, please.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

REVIEW: Medal of Honor (2010)

PC/360/PS3: $60
Grade: B

This should have been so much better.

I was hoping that the reboot of the Medal of Honor series would knock Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 from its perch. The entire drift of the Call of Duty series into nihilistic, over-the-top violence and mindless run-n-gun action has been unpleasant to watch. With the DICE team involved in Medal of Honor, there was hope that some of the qualities of their Battlefield series would find their way to the MoH.

Alas, DICE was only responsible for the multiplayer portion of the game, while Danger Close (a rebranding of the EA Los Angeles studio) did the single player. EA LA has a decent pedigree. They were formed from pieces of Westwood Studios (one of the great development house of all time) and Dreamworks Interactive, and include people who worked on the original Medal of Honor series, as well as the Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth and Command & Conquer games.

They almost do a great job with the Medal of Honor single player game, but the final product feels rushed, and too many flaws whittle away at the quality of the experience.

The Other Modern Warfare 
Medal of Honor (2010) was designed to be a Call of Duty killer, and as such, it comes close before falling short of the mark. Where MW2 displays nothing but contempt for the American fighting man, Medal of Honor takes the opposite path. Working in close collaboration with military advisors, the developers wanted to create a realistic approximation of combat operations if present-day Afghanistan.

EA’s Greg Goodrich told Incgamers that the US military advisors “have absolutely 100% editorial control, meaning that if we go anywhere or we do anything that cuts too close to home or reveals something that they don't want out there, we'll take it out. Furthermore, we've had things that we've wanted to do that we just naturally assumed we shouldn't do, and they're like, 'No, go ahead.”

This is reflected in the lingo, the mission types, the combined forces approach, and in a hundred other little ways. The focus shifts among 4 different US teams working under Special Operations Command, which is the unified command for the worldwide use of Army, Navy, and Air Force Special Ops. The player alternates among the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, Army Rangers, an Apache helicopter crew, and a team led by the ZZ Top-looking guy on the box, which I think is supposed to be Delta Force. The focus is thus meant to alternate between the “Tier 1” operators (the special forces who work in small teams deep in enemy territory) and the conventional land and air forces.

All of this works well, with each team’s missions nicely dovetailed together so that one narrative ultimately converges with another. The emphasis is on the dangers these men face, the way they interact, and the nature of the ground war in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002. The overall design and tone are strong, with a diverse selection of weapons and mission types and a good sense of pacing.

Small problems, however, can easily overwhelm a strong design, and that’s the situation with Medal of Honor.

I’m not sure if there are serious scripting bugs, an environmental bug or quirk that prevents the triggering of certain actions, or what, but there are several places where the game is simply broken. During one sequence, you need to wait for some enemy forces to walk away from a truck, leaving one guy alone. Logically, you should kill that guy and move on, but no. This triggers a counter-response that you were trying to prevent. Perhaps your partner was supposed to give a go-code, but he never does. The mission simply gets stuck.

This happens twice more in the same level. You’re supposed to be able to sneak by the enemy to put some transmitters on a truck, but either you’re never given the go-code, or you’re given the code and the enemy sees you anyway. The only way out of the mission is to kill everyone, which was not the goal.

Enemy AI is either too heavily scripted or brain dead. After awhile, the game simply resembles a shooting gallery, as you pick off endless waves of Taliban. For all the fuss about including real-world enemies in the game, they might as well have included little duckies going around and around on a conveyor belt. Sometimes a shot can strike an enemy in the leg and he won’t even turn around: he just stands there looking at the pretty sunrise.

Visually, the game offers some beautiful and effective scenes and environements, but too often the graphics just don’t make the grade. The single-player game uses the Unreal 3 engine, which was a mistake. Textures are bland and the shadows are sometimes so jaggy they look like saws. Pop-in is prevalent, and any time more than one thing explodes onscreen, the frame-rate drops into the single digits. In 2010, there is simply no excuse for this.

Also: there are multiple quad-bike sequences. Seriously. I don’t care if Delta Force does tool around the Afghan hills on quads. I’m sure they also eat MREs, sleep, and go to the bathroom. That doesn’t mean I want to simulate it.

All of this seems to indicate a game that simply didn’t spend enough time in development. There’s a rushed feeling to it. And though Danger Close gets the big picture right, they suffer the death of a thousand cuts due to the small things they get wrong.

I can’t help thinking this whole project would have been better off left in the hands of DICE, but even there, things don’t quite add up. DICE used their own Frostbite engine to create the multiplayer portion of the game, which tries to find a middle ground between the fast pace of Modern Warfare 2 and the more complex, multi-aspect warfare modeled in their own Battlefield series.

The result is … okay. I’m just not quite sure who it’s meant for. No Battlefield player would abandon Bad Company 2 for this scaled back, far-simpler approach to multiplayer. But no Modern Warfare 2 fan is likely to choose the less intense experience of Medal of Honor multiplayer. In trying to find a middle ground between the two, it simply ends up lost.

Don’t get me wrong: the multiplayer is quite good, and proves that the Frostbite engine, rather than Unreal, should have been used for the single player game. Modern military shooters, however, have split into two camps: the fastfastfast action of MW2 and the multi-aspect, goal-driven action of BC2. There really isn’t any place for something in the middle, and that’s what Medal of Honor offers.

I know I’ve been harping on the negatives throughout this post, so let me just step back and restate my opinion: this is a good game with a lot of little flaws. Those flaws stand out all the more because they are set within a game with so much potential. There is a last-stand scenarios where the Rangers hold off wave after wave of Taliban that is as tense as anything I've seen. Even the Apache levels, which are just rail shooters, are a blast.

And the controversy, it turns out, was all much ado about very little. The game twists itself into knots to be respectful of the American military. There’s an amusing moment right at the beginning, where you’re riding in a truck with a driver dressed like mujahedeen. The radio blares that horrible cats-in-heat music common to the region. You assume that you’re beginning the game as the bad guy, and thoughts of Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” level come to mind. Then the “Taliban” driver says in an American accent, “Let’s turn that [crap] off,” and you realize that they’re Special Forces in disguise. It’s a good moment, and signals that this is not going to be a retread of MW2’s nasty, anti-American tone.

As for “playing as the Taliban” … big deal. EA has changed the enemy's name to OpFor (Opposing Forces), but they’re still armed and dressed as Taliban. I admit that spawning as a bad guy who’s fighting against US forces may be unappealing to some, but when you play cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers, someone has to be the bad guy. And at no point in the game are the Taliban anything other than the bad guy. There is no moral gray area here, as there was in the murky moral landscape of MW2. This is a game about good men doing hard work to protect people. I just wish they’d taken a little more time to get the small details right.

App O' The Mornin': Super Monkey Ball 2 Review


Holy smokes, has it really been 10 years since Super Monkey Ball debuted on the GameCube? I loved the gameplay of the original, but I haven’t revisited it in years. The idea that I can now carry it around in my pocket still blows my mind.

And Super Monkey Ball 2 does a great job of blowing the mind. This is the entire Monkey Ball experience crammed into an app and given the kind of control system it always demanded. It’s almost absurd that you can buy gameplay this good for a few bucks.

For those who haven’t played Super Monkey Ball before, here are the basics:

The gameboard is essentially a giant, elaborate tilt-maze with a beginning and an end. A monkey is inside a sphere, sort of like a hamster in an exercise ball.

(Why is the monkey inside the sphere? When questions like this arise, I usually just say, “Because it’s Japanese,” and move along. For gamers, that’s about all the explanation you need. It’s best not to question how the Japanese come up with this madness. It’s enough just to be grateful for it.)

Anyway, you don’t ever control the monkey. You control the level itself, which is suspended far above the world below. Tilting the device forward tilts the landscape and makes the monkey roll forward; backwards slows him down. Left and right take care of steering.

The object is to get the monkey from the start of the level to the end while trying to collect bananas along the way. Bananas equal extra lives.

And those extra lives are necessary, because this is not a monkey-friendly environment. It’s all too easy for the little monkey to slide right off the edge of the landscape and plummet to his monkey death. This is actually fairly unnerving, particularly if you have a fear of heights. The result is tense, challenging combination of maze and arcade game. Levels get progressively more complex and elaborate, with rails, hairpin turns, slamming doors, hammers, and other threats.

Super Monkey Ball 2 absolutely nails the control scheme. The first Super Monkey Ball was one of the early releases to the app store, and this improves upon it in every way. The sequel piles on the extra features by including 115 levels, a set of minigames (monkey bowling, monkey golf, and monkey target) and multiplayer support via WiFi. The 3D graphics are exceptional, and controls are more sensitive and responsive than those found in the first Super Monkey Ball. It still takes a good 5-10 minutes to get a grip on the control, but once you do it becomes second nature.

Some people may complain that the price is “high” at $6, but those are the kind of people I tend to ignore. DS games of this quality regularly sell for $30, and if you keep an eye on this one, you can sometimes find it discounted to $2.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

COLONIAL GAMING: I. Kirk Playing Cards

For the previous entry on Colonial playing cards, see this post on the I. Hardy Great Mogul deck.

In addition to the I. Hardy reproduction playing cards produced for Colonial Williamsburg, there is also a reproduction of the “Aesop’s Fables” deck made by I. Kirk in the 18th century. Or, as the label calls them, “SUPERFINE HARRY THE VIII CARDS.”

As with the I. Hardy deck, this one is wrapped in a reproduction of the royal tax stamp, complete with an embossed seal and threat of Dire Consequences for anyone who sells the deck without the stamp. In this case, the penalty is “X Pounds Duty pr. pack Penalty If Sold Unlabelled.” (Remember: that would have been about 1/3rd of the average middle-class annual salary.)

The card wrapper is even more serious about where and when you use and sell these cards. Under a truly awful portrait of a truly awful man (King Henry VIII) is the warning “For exportation. Fifty pounds penalty is relanded [in an English port], and twenty pounds penalty if sold or used in Great Britain.” 

The cards themselves are excellent examples of the printer's art for the time. Although each card is crowded with text and imagery to the point of distraction, they are quite well made. The actual playing card element is limited to a postage-stamp-sized image crowded, almost as an afterthought, into the upper lefthand corner. The rest of the card is given over to an illustration of one of Aesop’s Fables, along with a little doggerel verse and a two-line moral. As with almost all cards of the period, the backs are blank.

Click to enlarge

App O' The Mornin': Crazy Parachute Review

Price: $1

As high-concepts go, "Bird Strike in reverse" is as simple as you can get. And that's exactly what Colorbox gives us in Crazy Parachute.

Instead of flying up and then plummeting down, Crazy Parachute just has the plummeting part. There are four cute cartoon characters who start at the door of an airplane. After a 3-second countdown, you tap the screen to jump from the plane. 

As your character falls, tilt right or left to avoid certain obstacles while passing over others. Birds, for instance, will slow your descent, while picking up a shield will allow you to smash right through the birds. Along the way, you want to pick up coins and be the first to land safely. This is done by opening your chute at the last safe moment. Open it too late, and you're a pancake.

As you successfully complete levels, you get to drop from higher altitudes, which means more opportunity to gather stuff. There are a few more powerups to be discovered along the way, such as balloons and birds, but the game is a little thin on content. 

This one is probably a good option for kids who find Bird Strike a little too tough. The production is a bit uneven. There are glitches: sometimes the countdown clock doesn't appear, sometimes it doesn't respond to taps. The music is an endless (and endlessly irritating) loop. There are only 4 characters to choose from, but they're fairly cute and add to the over-all kid-friendliness of the title. It's not a winner, but it's a nice little distraction.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Gaming on your … Kindle?

I’ve been wondering when Amazon would attempt to integrate gaming into its Kindle ebook devices. Although there were a couple of attempts to make Sudoku for Kindle, it didn't really work. It’s taken a couple of years and hardware upgrades, but we’re finally seeing the first generation of real Kindle games.

How do they look?

Well, no one’s going to mistake them for iPhone apps. Between the black-and-white graphics and the lack of touchscreen input, this is a fairly stripped down gaming experience. But that’s not really the point. 

First, a digression: The daily newspaper is going to die. This is a cold, hard fact of life. I’m not going to make predictions about when, but the death of newsprint is inevitable. (Okay, if pressed, my prediction would be “more than 5 years, less than 10”.) As someone who continues to contribute to newspapers, I’m conflicted about this. Certainly the internet, the 24-hour news cycle, rampant bias, and the death of quality journalism are driving them to extinction, but it’s still hard to see the morning paper simply vanish from the earth.

When the newspapers die, however, they will take a couple of key cultural items with them. No, I’m not talking about the news. In the age of the internet, that’s everywhere. I’m talking about meaningful cultural touchstones: the daily comic strip and the puzzle page. Although comic art is one of my passions, we’re not here to discuss that. 

Puzzles, however, are another matter. The morning crossword is a habit for millions, and the jumbles and Sudoku are solved by even more. Although large compilations of these puzzles are readily available (my publisher, Kappa, puts out about 80 a month), it’s just not the same as sitting down with a fresh paper and a puzzle every day.

This is where Kindle and other e-readers come in. If mainstream news has any hope of surviving, it has to adapt not merely to the internet, but to all forms of e-readers and mobile devices. Those devices will need to offer the complete package: news, editorial, local information, ads, printable coupons, comic strips, and interactive puzzles. 

Color isn’t necessary, but a touchscreen is, so Amazon is going to have to work that one at. Some of the competition, such as the nook, already does. This is not optional. A touchscreen, perhaps with a stylus input, would allow them to create e-ink versions of crosswords and Sudoku, allowing people to simply write right on the screen. This will happen: the only question is who will do it first?

In the meantime, we’re starting to get a sense of what these games will look as Amazon starts to get serious about games, starting with two freebies: Shuffled Row and Every Word

Both are word games that make the most of the Kindle keyboard and interface. Interestingly, both are also  reminiscent of Scrabble Flash.

Shuffled Row slowly adds letter tiles to a row. There are enough space for 9 tiles, and a new tile pops up about every 10 seconds, pushing one of the tiles off the row. The goal is to make the longest words you can out of the tiles available to you. Letters are worth various points, with words longer than 3 letters scoring progressive score multipliers. For instance, a 4 letter word scores x2, while 9 letter words scores x7.

Every Word has a similar setup. There are 6 letter tiles in a row, and a number of blank spaces beneath. The blank spaces indicate just how many words can be made from hese letters, and your goal is to find them all. Longer words score more points. There is both a “Relaxed” mode which allows you all the time you need to solve the puzzle, and a “Timed” mode, which doesn’t.

These are decent games that play to the Kindle’s strengths. They don’t require a lot of in-game navigation, which would be hard to do with the Kindle controls. Instead, they simply use the keyboard for word input. They’re not going to replace anyone’s existing word games, but they provide an easy diversion that people can carry along with their e-reader.

Later this week, I’ll take a look at Scrabble for Kindle after I spend some quality time with it. (I take my Scrabble seriously.)

App O' The Mornin': Red Remover Review

I planned to review Flubby Physics, but as I played it a strange sense of Déjà vu came over me. That’s when I realized I was playing a fairly straight steal of Red Remover, a flash game from Gaz Thomas that’s been floating around for a while. There’s another a rip-off that’s so brazen it called itself Red Block Remover. I’m not quite sure who did the first block remover game, but some of the apps have design and even visual element in common with Red Remover, which has certainly been around for a while. (If I’m wrong about that, feel free to correct me.)

So, rather than reviewing an imitation of a game, I decided to review the game itself, and found that Gaz Thomas had in fact ported Red Remover to the App Store, and done a darn good job of it.

Red Remover is your basic physics game. In this case, you’re removing some boxes from the screen while leaving other behind. Different kinds of boxes follow different rules. Red boxes must be removed by clicking; blue boxes can be removed by clicking, but can also be left behind; and green boxes must be left behind.

The other factor effecting the game are the 4 planes of gravity. Each box has a face, and the face determines which direction a box falls: left, right, up, down. (Obviously, those directions are relative to the way you’re holding the device.)

This creates some very challenging situations very quickly. The goal is to remove some objects while leaving others in place. Box removal games are a staple of the app store and flash gaming for a good reason: they make for entertaining, frequently challenging puzzle play. Some of the puzzles in Red Remover require timing, and some just a logical progression of moves.

The app store is full of games that follow similar patterns, such as Tiki Totems, Tumble Blocks, and Doodle Blocks, not to mention direct rip-offs like Flubby Physics and Red Block Remover. (These last two actually steal some levels straight from Red Remover.) Red Remover does the job very well, and it keeps the elements simple and the puzzles extremely complex. The is just good abstract physics puzzling.

Gaz Thomas tells me that he has a Halloween version of the Red Remover coming out in a week or so. This one will feature new levels and the addition of fireballs.

Monday, October 11, 2010

WIN!: Plants vs. Zombies Limited Edition (Game of the Year Edition PC/Mac)

Thanks to all who participated in the GelaSkin contest.  The winners were Will D., LeeAnn W., and Brett N. They've all been notified by mail.

But don't go away just yet! Next up is this brand-new copy of Plants Vs. Zombies: Game of the Year Edition, generously provided by PopCap.  It includes the Windows/Mac version of the game, along with this little guy:

To enter, all you have to do is:

1. Share a link (even this one) or follow State of Play via:
Please note: if you already follow us on Google, RSS, Twitter, or Facebook, just let me know that you'd like to enter, and please do a retweet or some other kind of link share.

2. Let me know you want to enter. Do this in any of the following ways:
  • Leave a comment.
  • Tweet me @StateOfPlayBlog
  • Post a message on the State of Play Facebook Page
  • Send an email to "" (replace the =at= with @) to have your name entered.  
  • Please don't forget to do one of these things or I won't know you've entered!
Deadline is Monday, October 18!

I'll choose winners by the scientific process of writing names on little pieces of paper and pulling them out of my Mario hat.


App O' The Mornin': Puzzle Agent UPDATE

Update (10/11/10): This morning's app is a revisit of Puzzle Agent, which I review favorably below. The game had problem with fuzzy textures and weird texture drawing. I'm not seeing any more of the texture pop in in the few scenes I spot-checked, so the update does appear to have fixed this. It also broke the game in the process.

The Puzzle Agent update does the unforgivable: it wipes your saved games. It doesn't do this right away. It begins by making the game utterly unplayable. Attempting to load a game causes the app to hang. You have to delete the app from your device and then load a fresh copy back on. (By the way, the warning about these problems was not included in the original update. It was added later.)

If you've never tried Puzzle Agent, I do still recommend it, even though this is pretty damn irritating. If you have played it, don't update it if you care about your saves.

Original Review

His name is Nelson Tethers, and he’s a Puzzle Agent for the FBI. He solves the tricky puzzles no one else can solve in order to keep America safe.

His latest case? Why has the Scoggins eraser factory in Minnesota stopped producing erasers … the very erasers used by the president? In order to solve the mystery and get eraser production back on line, he needs to explore the snow-bound town of Scoggins, which is filled with the usual roster of Midwestern comic relief.

Puzzle Agent is a typically quirky adventure game from Telltales Games, the people behind the Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit, and Strongbad episode games. The visual style is based on the work of cartoonist Graham Annabale, best known for his Grickle books. Annabale has a style reminiscent of the cartoonists from the classic days of the New Yorker, particularly Peter Arno. He draws a simple but expressive line that derives its humor from deadpan stares and nervous expressions.

This look is the foundation for the entire game, which uses a simple comic mystery as the pretext for a series of logic puzzles. The adventure gameplay elements are less prominent here than in previous Telltale games, reduced to a minimal amount of scene searching and extensive dialog scenes.

Instead, Puzzle Agent focuses on single screen logic puzzles, placing it firmly in the casual camp. It’s being dismissed by people with short memories as little more than a Professor Layton clone, but in fact this kind of puzzle adventure goes back a couple of decades, to titles like Jewels of the Oracle, Dr. Brain, and 7th Guest.

Considered as a puzzle compilation with a narrative-adventure shell, it delivers the goods. A couple of puzzle formats repeat, but most of them are fresh, many of them are fairly challenging, and some are almost impenetrable. Unfortunately, some of that impenetrability comes from occasionally obscure descriptions, which make the objective of a puzzle hard to determine.

This isn’t a persistent problem, however, and a built in hint system (paid for using pre-chewed gum: don’t ask) means you’ll never be stuck too long. The puzzles range from simple verbal puzzles, such as figuring out a problem from a series of clues, to jigsaws, path-laying, sequencing, and more.

The original PC game was released earlier to this summer to tepid reviews, mostly from people complaining that it wasn’t Professor Layton. The price-point ($10) should have signaled that Telltale was positioning this as a casual game with a few hours of gameplay, a collection of puzzles, and a light, funny story and style.

The app conversion is generally effective, but it has a bug that appears to effect only smaller units (iPhones and Touches) and not iPads. On my Touch, there was a problem with textures and smoothing that caused some image pop-in and occasional fuzziness. Telltale is aware of the problem and is promising a fix. I revisit it when I get a chance to check it out.

As for the controls: they work pretty well on the Touch, but probably will fare better on an iPad. Some of the objects are simply too small to really “grab” with a finger. (They were clearly designed for use with a mouse.) It’s not a universal problem, but it crops up often enough to slow things down.Those reservations aside, I’d recommend this one for people who just like single-screen logic puzzles. For $5, you get an appealing visual style, clever puzzles, and a few laughs along the way.