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I'll post game related writing here.  Any writing related to my own work will be posted on the 'news' page first.

Here's shortcuts to each post, since this page is a huge word dump.

itchy tasty: Free Games on itch.io, no. 1 - 8.31.17

itchy tasty: Free Games on itch.io, no. 2 - 10.4.17

itchy tasty: Free Games on itch.io, no. 3 - 12.7.17

itchy tasty: Free Games on itch.io, no. 4 - 2.2.18

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itchy tasty: Free Games on itch.io - issue #1 - 8.31.17

Hi, my name is Kevin Beissel.  I make game projects under the name ‘builtinaday’ and lurk on Twitter @builtinadayKB.

The purpose of this post is to cover some of the free games on itch.io, from a developer and fan perspective.  I’d like to make it a recurring series, maybe a monthly breakdown but who knows.  Like Douglas Adams said, the best part of deadlines is the great WHOOSHING sound they make while flying by.

Before we get to the games, I just want to clarify why I’m doing this and what I hope it accomplishes.  So here’s the what, why and how:

The WHAT

Discuss free games available on itch.io

I’ve got a list of profiles to check out, but please send along any recommendations.

There are no restrictions on genres.  The whole point of this is to be curious and ask questions.  So no dumb rules like “No walking sims” or “No puzzle platformers”, which would prolly eliminate half of the available games anyways.

The WHY

I want to become a better developer and playing experimental/small/art/trash games could help.

Getting an audience is hard and getting constructive feedback is even harder.  I can’t help the devs covered in these posts with the former but maybe I can with the latter.

The HOW

There is no rating system.

There is no alter ego here, these are not ‘angry’ reviews.

These aren’t even really reviews.

The goal is to focus on the design choices that were made and discuss the reasoning behind them.

I don’t really care about being right, I don’t really care about sounding smart (“Yeah, no shit” the reader grumbles), I don’t really care about agreeing with you. I’m more interested in looking at the hierarchy of ideas (to borrow a phrase) that form game design.  By working at the ends and working in the middle we can find out more about it, right?

Enough with the formalities, let’s get started.

Profile: Steven Miller (@stevenjmiller37, steven-miller.itch.io, 30 projects available)

Game: Calor

Genre/Style: Strategy, base building and combat modes

Strategy games are tall orders, especially as jam submissions, but Calor has plenty of good things going on.  The visuals are charming, the two game modes are fun, and it has some of that 'one more turn’ gameplay you want in a good strategy game.

It sort of reminds me of FTL and X-Com, except it’s also nothing like those games.  I still caught echoes of them, like an eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield.  Except there’s no sound in space, or so I’ve heard.

Hey, what spins faster: the planet in Calor or Hunter Thompson in his grave after I just mangled his 'eerie trumpet’ line?

The base building mode revolves around placing resources (farms, solar panels, factories) on sections of a planet.  Every turn the planet rotates, and the direction can be changed with wind turbines.  Part of the planet has sunlight and resource tiles produce plus-1 per turn in sunlight.  Sun spots pop up every 7 or 8 turns and will destroy any resource on a tile or damage the player, but a warning message pops up when the sun spot is three turns away.

Enemies can’t damage tiles but can attack the player.  It’s better to move onto the enemy’s tile and initiate combat, especially if the tile contains a resource.  Letting the enemy move onto your tile has a combat penalty.

The combat mode has two parts to consider: a top section with three bars that contain the enemy’s attack and shield points and a bottom section laid out like a hex-style grid.  The grid has three starting nodes on the left and three ending nodes on the right with bonus nodes in the middle.  You can choose whether to use a shield node or an attack node during your turn, but not both.

If the top section has a shield in any bar, connecting to the corresponding ending node reduces your attack points.  So you have to plan paths that pick up as many bonus nodes as possible and avoid ending on a penalized node.

Both modes are good and it would be cool to see them expanded on.  There’s a few things I’m curious about though, like the attack only/shield only choice you have to make in combat.

If you start a fight with low health, the enemy will prolly wipe you out with one attack.  So I suppose the design incentivizes you to keep moving away from the enemy until your health is refilled during the base building mode, then turn around and engage.  I just wish there was away to use both a shield node and an attack node on the same turn.  I know upgrade systems can be tricky and usually avoid them in my projects, but this ability would be a great addition.

Forgive me if there is this ability, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t.

And I gotta ask: if you can’t combine the abilities, then what’s the point of including a shield option at all?  If you’re low on health to start, using the shield just creates an endless loop of defensive turns.  Does health regenerate between turns in combat or only outside of combat?  Could I block the enemy’s attack enough times until I’m healed and then switch to attack nodes?  What am I missing here?

I know that sounds negative, but I swear it’s just curiosity.  Calor is fun to play and also gave me some challenging design questions to consider.  There are plenty of games that fail to do either of those things.

Game: Capture Horizon

Genre/Style: Puzzle platformer, side-scroller

This is a puzzle platformer that requires you to manipulate the level by taking photos of it and arranging them to form a path to the exit.  I played Camera Obscura on Steam, which uses a simiilar idea, and it’s a cool concept.  I like that it relies on spatial design/reasoning skills, instead of using oblique hints to solve unfair challenges based on muddy logic/lazy rulesets.

The photo taking/placing mechanic is easy to understand.  You can’t take a new photo while on an existing one and you can have up to three at a time.  It seems simple but I quickly became stumped, especially on levels five and six.

The platforming is OK, but it leads to many cheap deaths.  Most levels have two sections you need to reach; the first is relatively easy and the second is much harder.  The harder section requires a lot of trial and error, due to both photo placement and jumping issues, which means you have to redo the easy section a lot of times which is tedious.

Traditional difficulty progression states that a level should have an ascending scale of difficulty, not a descending scale.  But for short, self-contained levels like this, inverting that formula might have worked well.

And since we are here to inquire within about everything and not here to disparage, let’s consider some alternative solutions to this problem:

New speed setting:  I hate when people suggest new settings for traversal speeds in my own work, because there is usually a bunch of connected factors to consider/change that they aren’t aware of.  What sounds like a small tweak is actually a much larger change.

So, even tho I hate being THAT GUY, I too often found myself running right off of a platform or, even worse, jumping way too early to compensate for the fast movement.  A walk/run control setup might have fit nicely.

Change the jump mechanic:  Something like the style of jumping used in Gunpoint would have made the platforming simpler, but much more satisfying.  For those who don’t know, the Gunpoint-style allows the player to activate a jumping stance, adjust the height/distance of the jump and then confirm or cancel the jump.

This style would eliminate most of the frustrating trial and error sections.  You could place a photo and test whether your jump could reach it, instead of placing a photo and jumping one pixel short and having to retry the whole level.

What helpful advice, huh?  "Ripoff a more popular game to make your own work seem better" is just about the most lazy advice you could give an artist.  And yet here I am, handing out shopworn cliches faster than Michiko Kakutani.  So where the hell is my goddamn Pulitzer?

Game: Entropy

Genre/Style: Roguelike, 8-bit isometric view

Lately I’ve been seeking out games that put a strong emphasis on combat, like “Superhot” or “Deadbolt”.  Roguelikes usually have a heavy emphasis on combat and Entropy certainly does.

You have a fast-moving, low-damage ranged shot that repeats quickly but you can charge up a power shot.  The charged shot literally turns you into a bullet, and can be used offesnsively or defensively.  You could knock out a powerful enemy or escape from a crowd by firing to a safe spot.  You can also use the charge shot for traversal, usually shooting across gaps filled with spikes.

If I could transform into anything, I’d transform into a machine that could make ANYTHING.  I would make anything then transform back into myself and enjoy whatever (or whoever) I just made.  That might seem like an awfully large loophole, a loophole so large you could drive a Pagani Zonda thru it.  A carbon-fiber supercar loaded with guns, cash, and women (or MEN) you made in your ANYTHING machine.

But what are you?  A lawyer?  I don’t remember making any of those in that ANYTHING machine.

Or you could turn into a bullet.  That is also a pretty cool thing to do.

The character movement speeds are nicely balanced.  Strafing a lone enemy is fun and juggling large crowds is intuitive.  Some enemies felt like bullet sponges, but I wasn’t using the charge shot enough.  Moving around till I had space and time to get it off made those enemies easier to deal with.  The enemy design is good too, with variations in size/speed/strength that feel balanced.  They have a nice spectral, eerie look to them.

The game also opens with a short cutscene.  My favorite part was the “standing” animations.  All the characters constantly bounce up and down, which is fun to watch.  I love this choice.  Animations more sophisticated than this aren’t really the point of LD jams and if they stood still that would be boring, so it’s a nicely off beat decision.

The one minor problem I had was the reticle color.  It’s green, which would be fine except some levels have patches of grass that make it hard to track the reticle.  Otherwise, the game has the color palette nicely split up between player, enemy and enviromental assets.

Remember:  Split up the colors, but don’t split up your pants!  Why do people breath in when trying to squeeze into jeans?  If you breath out you get thinner, or at least that’s what my bitchy mother-in-law keeps telling me.  I get it, Joan!  Also, get Entropy and shoot stuff.

Profile: Tooth and Claw (Dan McGrath, @daninfiction, toothandclaw.itch.io, 24 projects available)

Game: Valley of the Moon

Genre/Style: Walking sim, puzzle

You are supposed to collect four relics to reactivate your ship and leave the planet.  Despite the walking sim label, there’s a couple of nice platforming sections too.  But the real point of this type of game is to create a distinct atmosphere, a space worth getting lost in.

Of all the games in this post, this is the one that gave me the purest moment, or at least the type of moment you can really only get with a videogame.  The game starts up and I see a nearby building with a large door.  Since its a puzzle game and I’ve just started, I assumed the door was locked.  But I went over anyways, intent on asking one of the fundamental questions videogames can offer: “Can I do that?”

Turns out, I could do that.  The door popped open, and I got a little thrill out of it.  Seems silly maybe, that something so simple could feel that rewarding, but it did.

Inside the building is one of the relics and another nicely put together moment.  You climb the final step and see a platform with a relic on it, and a giant orange moon lined up right above it.  The symmetry of the relic and moon is really nice and its a striking visual moment.

The only question I would ask is about the ending:  Why not try something wild or unexpected, something totally abstract or bizarre?

I don’t mean this as a criticism, because it’s quite good and I’m glad I played it, it’s just a question.

If you’ve played other walking sims all the way through, like “Dear Esther” for example, then you know how a surprising and offbeat ending can really resonate with the right type of players.  I happen to really like the way that “Esther” ends, and can more strongly recall that odd, poetic moment better than I can recall some of the other supposedly famous moments in recent games.

A unique and challenging ending can make a lasting impression on the player and, whether they loved or hated it, that player will remember your work.

So, in the case of this game, why not do something more eccentric?  Like when you take off and leave this peaceful planet behind you end up crashing onto an uninhabitable, hostile planet?  Or you take off and safely land on a new planet, only to find out its exactly like the one you left?  Is that too 'Twilight Zone’ for you?

Or maybe you take off and turn into a freaking Star Child?  Then the Star Child grows up and becomes Galactus?

Anyways, that’s what happens when you leave the audience hanging.  They start out reasonable enough and end up arguing about Galactus and his big, dumb headgear.

The point being: not every game needs a meaningful or profound or abstract ending, but some do.

Game: Zealot

Genre/Style: FPS, looks like a 90s shareware game

Other Info: made in 3 days

This is a dope throwback to shareware-era FPS games.  Zealot is like a resurrected title from this era, with glorious visuals and punishing combat.

There was a wider range of titles than most people remember, mainly because the iconic titles of the time (DOOM, HEXEN) loom so large.  I was flipping thru an old PC game magazine (prolly circa 1995) and there was pages and pages of ads for obscure shareware titles, some looking totally generic and others beyond bizarre.  I prolly spent more time looking at those ads recently than I did when those games came out.  Sorry, marketing geniuses!

There was also an article about how advanced stats would become important in sports.  Something about how coaches, players, fans, journalists and gamblers would be interested in new ways to analyze performance and predict outcomes.  Who would have thought?  You know besides Paul Allen and his 300-foot yact and his investment stake in STATS LLC.  Also, fuck Paul Allen, fuck his yact, fuck his Dorsia reservations, and fuck me while we’re at it.

But don’t fuck Zealot!  Do play Zealot, it’s quite fun.  You run and jump around on a floating platform blowing up various types of demons.  You play until you die.  My best time was 74.67176 seconds.  It was much more fun once I realized I could hold down the attack button to autofire, which seems obvious but hey, if you’re so smart how about you come over and unclog this drain?  I’ve tried nothing man, and I’m all out of ideas.

Thankfully Dan McGrath isn’t out of ideas, tho!  And Zealot is a pretty good idea.  I’ve never had a bad idea.  I’ve had great ideas that turned out horribly wrong, but never any BAD ideas.  I’ve also stolen ideas/entire jokes from 30 Rock, but Dan McGrath hasn’t yet!

Profile: Trasevol Dog (@TRASEVOL_DOG, trasevol-dog.itch.io, 24 projects available)

Game: Blast Flock

Genre/Style: similar to Luftrausers, but more colorful

This is the profile to check out if you like games with bright color palettes and visuals that really pop off the screen.  It helps that the gameplay is excellent, too.

And hey, people who care soooo much about what engine a dev uses: this game wasn’t made with Unity, so try to find something else to complain about.

Blast Flock is a variation on Luftrausers, which is an OK game.  I really wanted to like Luftrausers, but whenever I play it I’m always left with the same two questions:  Where is the rest of the game and how come it isn’t more fun?

Luftrausers felt like it was all about keeping your multiplier at 20 which feels like a chore, like an uncreative grind.  I was more interested in finding fun and interesting ways to attack enemies, especially since it had such great body/weapon/engine variety.  It felt like they incentivized creative approaches, but instead only rewarded you for following a narrow path.

Well, Blast Flock doesn’t have more content, but it certainly is more fun.  The controls are intuitive and allow for a lot of experimentation.  Your group of ships always flies towards the reticle, with fire and boost mapped to lmb/rmb.  You can shoot down enemies and save them as they fall, expanding your group.

Building your squadron up and tearing thru a huge group of enemies at top speed with guns blazing feels so great.  Whipping the mouse around the screen and creating total chaos also feels great, like orchestrating your own bullet hell symphony.

Or you could conduct a symphony of the night.  But how the hell am I supposed to read music in the dark?  My conductor baton glows in the dark, but I don’t want people to know that.  It only does that in case I drop it during a performance and have to find it on the ground real quick.  Symphony of the night?  How about a 'symphony of the comfortable recliner’ instead?  Or ‘symphony of the better jokes’?

Thanks for reading!  If you liked this then maybe check out my itch profile, too.

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itchy tasty: Free Games on itch.io - issue #2 - 10.4.17

Hi, I’m Kevin Beissel and I make games under the name Built In A Day. I also lurk on Twitter @builtinadayKB and have a space shooter on itch.  This is the second post, but I’m including this preamble from the first post since it lays out the ground rules:

The purpose of this post is to cover some of the free games on itch.io, from a developer and fan perspective.  I’d like to make it a recurring series, maybe a monthly breakdown but who knows.  Like Douglas Adams said, the best part of deadlines is the great WHOOSHING sound they make while flying by.

Before we get to the games, I just want to clarify why I’m doing this and what I hope it accomplishes.  So here’s the what, why and how:

The WHAT

Discuss free games available on itch.io

I’ve got a list of profiles to check out, but please send along any recommendations.

There are no restrictions on genres.  The whole point of this is to be curious and ask questions.  So no dumb rules like “No walking sims” or “No puzzle platformers”, which would prolly eliminate half of the available games anyways.

The WHY

I want to become a better developer and playing experimental/small/art/trash games could help.

Getting an audience is hard and getting constructive feedback is even harder.  I can’t help the devs covered in these posts with the former but maybe I can with the latter.

The HOW

There is no rating system.

There is no alter ego here, these are not ‘angry’ reviews.

These aren’t even really reviews.

The goal is to focus on the design choices that were made and discuss the reasoning behind them.

I don’t really care about being right, I don’t really care about sounding smart (“Yeah, no shit” the reader grumbles), I don’t really care about agreeing with you.  I’m more interested in looking at the hierarchy of ideas (to borrow a phrase) that form game design.  By working at the ends and working in the middle we can find out more about it, right?

Enough with the formalities, let’s get started.

Profile: Bedstuck (@bedstuck)

Game: White

Genre/Style: action, wave-based brawler, melee combat

I’ve been seeking out lots of action games lately and 'White’ has a lot of the things I’m looking for in this genre.  You play through waves of enemies, with a black-and-white art style and fast-paced melee combat.

The visuals are immediately appealing, with great character design choices and fluid animations.  The art style manages to be simple but expressive (it was made for a jam in less than 17 hrs).  Looks like a cool ink based style, like a comic book.  One of my all time favorite movie fight scenes is from 'Book of Eli’.  The opening fight scene is under a bridge and shown only in silhouette, much like the style here.

Spoilers for 'Book of Eli’ real quick, so skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen it:  I saw that movie opening night and took a lady friend to it.  It was our first date together (sadly it was also the last) and she had wanted to see 'the Lovely Bones’, that godawful looking Peter Jackson snoozefest, but I’m occasionally charming and persuasive so we saw 'Book of Eli’ instead.  After the movie we’re walking out to the car and I ask her: “Pretty crazy how his character was blind for the whole movie, huh?” and she goes “What do you mean?”  In her defense, she thought it was weird and boring, but it’s still made explicitly clear at the end that the main character is blind, yet she somehow missed that.  None of this pertains to the game 'White’, but that’s what happens, man.

The combat is intuitive but challenging.  It is melee-based, so you have to get good at timing your jumps and slashing in the correct direction to get the airborne enemies.  There’s a dash ability that is crucial for getting to wave spawners and taking them out quickly.  Using the jump and dash abilities in concert has so much potential, both offensively and defensively.

The enemy behavior is nicely varied between melee and ranged types.  There’s some square enemies that shoot smaller squares.  At first I thought they might be targeting the player, but after watching them for awhile my guess is that they are based on some randomized pattern.  If they all targeted the player with each shot then even a small amount on screen would be deadly.  Not sure I’m right about this, but my first instinct would have been to target the player; based on what I’m seeing here, the random pattern is a better choice.

I was able to beat the easiest difficulty setting (health regens), but only got to wave five on normal (no health regen) and wave four on original (one hit kills you).  Of course balancing difficulty is a notoriously hard task and, while I hate a challenge in real life, a challenge in a video game is actually appealing.  The tiers of difficulty make sense here and ramp up nicely.  But don’t get me started on the “tears” of difficulty, we’ve all been there.

===

Profile: Hempuli (@ESAdevlog, hempuli.com)

Game: Baba Is You

Genre/Style: Puzzle

If you grew up reading Roger Ebert movie reviews (you know, the ones that were scrawled across the cave walls), you’re prolly familiar with the kind of review where he refused to talk about any plot points after the first act, so as not to spoil the joy of seeing it unfold for yourself.  He would go on about the atmosphere, the performances, latent/manifest content and other such things, but would not spoil the mechanics of it.  I’ll have to use that format for 'Baba Is You’, because you’re better off finding out for yourself.

Each level has a set of obstacles and hazards that block the goal.  There are three-word phrases placed in the level as well, and the phrases can be rearranged to create new types of interaction.  For example, “wall is stop” could be changed to several things.  That’s all I’ll say, because the solutions and the mechanics of it all are so much fun that any more would spoil it.

If you enjoyed something like 'Stephen’s Sausage Roll’ or if you’re a fan of NES/pre-NES visual styles then you should find something to like here.  Just a great concept, superb puzzle design, fun aesthetics, wonderful “eureka!” moments, a must play for puzzle fans.  Hmmm, can I do some more 'pull quotes’ or is that enough?  It’s a white-knuckle thriller, like nothing you’ve ever seen, if you play one puzzle game this year make it this one, a non-stop thrill ride, edge of your seat entertainment, breathtaking, gripping, an ending you won’t see coming, Harrison Ford has never been better.

I guess you could describe this writing style as “talking to yourself”, since this is clearly not written for an actual audience.  But it’s important to differentiate between “talking WITH yourself” and “talking TO yourself”.  There’s a pretty big difference.  Who else am I supposed to talk to?  I’m the only one here, right?  Maybe this writing style is better known as “non-sequitur internet bullshit”.  Hey, if Mark Prindle is retired, who else will keep the spirit alive other than yours truly?  Who else?  Maybe this giant peach over here, this giant peach that is wearing a top hat and a monocle, perhaps he can.

But yeah, please do check out 'Baba Is You’.  It communicates its ideas clearly, introduces new elements in a fair manner and controls easily (thank you for the 'undo’ button).  I’m usually pretty harsh on puzzle games, put this is great work.

===

Profile: Managore (@Managore, daniellinssen.net)

Game: Walkie Talkie

Genre/Style: side-scroller, level-builder, chat room

Every once and awhile you find something that really comes “off the top rope”, so to speak, and conceptually 'Walkie Talkie’ does just that.  It is side-scrolling level-building platformer presented as a chat room.  The levels are messages that users type in and most keyboard characters have preset behaviors.

So using the right set of symbols a user can create a solid platformer level, with ramps, moving platforms, turrets, bouncing boulders, disappearing platforms and other hazards.

The game’s creator has gone through and marked some levels with a heart, and those are worth checking out for sure. But it’s also fun to scroll through and look for random goodness, and some users are good at pointing out fun levels.

I’d recommended plugging in your X360 controller, since keyboard input was a bit tricky.  Even with a controller the movement gets a bit wonky, but two things: this was made for a jam and I’m unbelievably picky about platformer controls, so perhaps I’m overstating this.  And even if I’m not, this game is still worth playing for its conceptually audacity alone.

I was a day one fan of 'Mario Maker’ and still enjoy it to this day.  But some of those levels are prone to cutesy bullshit, especially levels using names that scream “Hey, play this because its Pokemon themed!” and pointless levels based on Rube Goldberg-meets-auto-runner non-gameplay.  While 'Walkie Talkie’ has plenty of useless entries, that’s the result of having user generated content and not the result of authorial missteps.

And like David Mamet once said: “Everyone makes their own fun.  If you don’t make it yourself, it isn’t fun.  It’s entertainment.”  Of course, David Mamet has said a lot of things, many of which suck.  'Walkie Talkie’ doesn’t suck tho, far from it.  Unless you mean it sucks in all the praise, which is true, just really poorly worded.  

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itchy tasty: Free Games on itch.io - 12.7.17

Hi, I'm Kevin Beissel and I make videogames under the name Built In A Day (@builtinadayKB).

This is the third post I've done about games on itch.io, you can read the others here or you can read them on my personal site, builtinadaygames.com

This post is slightly different than the others.  The devs covered in this post have released well-regarded indie games thru publishers like Devolver and Adult Swim (Terri Vellmann and Andrew Morrish) or self-published on platforms other than PC (Powerhoof).  The previous posts focused on devs with only self-released work (and no titles on Steam).

I had played games by all three of these devs on Steam and was pleased to find they had work posted on itch as well.  Since itch has all types of games, especially small and experimental work, it was fun to play something by these devs that could explore a bit more and see them try things that might not work in 'commercial products'.

Not to say that they're work on Steam is generic or traditional or (worst of all) 'safe'.  But there is value in watching an artist experiment, fail, take risks, embrace weirdness and just try stuff, whether they 'succeed' or not.

So, my motivation for this post is basically two-fold: to let other gamers know that itch has cool, experimental work by devs you already know and love, and to encourage devs of all types to keep making new stuff (especially the small or weird ideas they have).

Here are the ground rules:

The purpose of this series is to cover some of the free games on itch.io, from a developer and fan perspective.

Before we get to the games, I just want to clarify why I'm doing this and what I hope it accomplishes.  So here's the what, why and how:

The WHAT

Discuss free games available on itch.io

I've got a list of profiles to check out, but please send along any recommendations.

There are no restrictions on genres.  The whole point of this is to be curious and ask questions.  So no dumb rules like "No walking sims" or "No puzzle platformers", which would prolly eliminate half of the available games anyways.

The WHY

I want to become a better developer and playing experimental/small/art/trash games should help.

Getting an audience is hard and getting constructive feedback is even harder.  I can't help the devs covered in these posts with the former but maybe I can with the latter.

The HOW

There is no rating system.

There is no alter ego here, these are not 'angry' reviews.

These aren't even really reviews.

The goal is to focus on the design choices that were made and discuss the reasoning behind them.

I don't really care about being right, I don't really care about sounding smart ("Yeah, no shit" the reader grumbles), I don't really care about agreeing with you.  I'm more interested in looking at the hierarchy of ideas (to borrow a phrase) that form game design.  By working at the ends and working in the middle we can find out more about it, right?

Enough with the formalities, let's get started.

------

Profile: Powerhoof (@Powerhoof, powerhoof.com, powerhoof.itchi.io)

Games: Murdercide 2017 and Peridium

Style: point and click adventure games, cyberpunk/comedy and horror/suspense respectively

Powerhoof is the two-man team (Dave Lloyd and Barney Cumming) behind 'Crawl', the excellent local coop dungeon-crawler on Steam. They have a diverse selection of games on itch, but I'll be covering only three of them, tho each one is worth a look.

The point and click genre offers the chance to show off their narrative skills, with plenty of good dialog and superb voice acting.  Their games always have appealing visuals, so it was exciting to see that skillset paired with a good narrative.  It's also remarkable that both games are so different in tone, yet work so well.

Each game can be played in less than ten minutes, so describing the plot would spoil a huge chunk of your playthru.  So think of them like this: if you like Douglas Adams or 'Blade Runner' then check out Murdercide and if you like 'The Thing' or 'The Shining' then check out Peridium.  And if you like all those things and were also a fan of LucasArts adventure games, then for sure check out both.

Also, these games are much more about atmosphere than they are about the traditional elements of point and click games.  Yeah, you will have to use an inventory item to interact with some scenery, but none of it gets in the way of the setting and the story.

If I'm not mistaken Powerhoof has hinted at doing a full-length adventure game someday.  I've been mistaken before tho (turns out if you mix an acid with a base you get a reaction, you know like mixing drain cleaners?), so they'll prolly make something else that's dope.

Game: Riders of Rhea

Style: top-down, action, roguelike

Elevator pitch: It feels like an 8-bit version of 'Mad Max'.  I guess this is the perfuntory part where I point out that Powerhoof is based in Australia.  But this elevator ride is almost over, so fuck it.

You ride on a motorcyle thru a desert wasteland and track down groups of enemies using a mini-radar.  Another panel displays stats about your bike (armor/shield, heat, speed).  When you defeat enemies you get random drops, usually a small decrease from one skill (-1 usually) and a larger boost to another skill (+2 or higher).

The controls took awhile to get the hang of, but I eventually could take on small groups.  I can get overwhelmed easily (are we still talking about the game?) but that level of challenge makes each success feel more satisfying.

I've been searching for interesting action games lately and this one certainly fits.  Great minimalist art-style, nicely blends offensive and defensive tactics, and has a 'one more run' charm to it.

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Profile: morrish (@int_main, andrewmorrish.net, andrew-morrish.itch.io)

Game: Tough Love Machine

Style: puzzle, pretty colors

Andrew Morrish has two games available on Steam, 'Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe' and 'Kingsway'.  I haven't played the latter, but SPPD has a great concept, fantastic visuals, tight controls and a diverse group of playable characters.  I didn't know he had stuff on itch, but TLM was recommended by Steven Miller (@stevenjmiller37, who also has a bunch of cool games on itch too).  It's a great puzzle game: fun, intuitive and a joy to look at.

There are two hearts and two arms on the screen.  Using the arms (WASD for the left and arrow keys for the right) you reposition the hearts until they are either stacked or side-by-side.  This seemingly simple formula yields impressively deep results.

One thing I always look for in puzzle games is how clearly they visually communicate concepts and rules.  In games like 'Stephen's Sausage Roll' or 'Baba Is You', the concept and mechanics work seamlessly, because the visual cues and puzzle design are so well done.

Those games ('Roll' and 'Baba') force you to very carefully consider the space you're given and how the rules you know can be applied to them.  I know that sounds like something that ALL puzzle games should do, just like regular exercise is something that ALL people should do, but we know that's not the case.

So when I got stuck in 'Roll', it usually meant there was some part of the level I wasn't utilizing, despite the design/visual cues clearly pointing me towards it.  TLM does a similarly good job of keeping the puzzle design uncluttered and avoiding bullshit red herring solutions, another common puzzle game pitfall.

BTW, I haven't actually beat it yet.  I'm stuck on the level called "you might actually be getting worse".  My God, this game sounds like my ex-wife.

Just kidding, I don't have an ex-wife.  I'm not kidding about being stuck but don't spoil it for me.  You can spoil it for my ex-wife tho, she always hated surprises.  Or maybe she just hated me.

Whatever the imaginary case may be, just make sure you don't hate 'Tough Love Machine'!  You could say it's TOUGH not to LOVE it.  You could say that, especially if you wanted people to hate your writing style.

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Profile: terriv (@terrivellmann, terriv.itch.io)

Game: TANKITA

Style: roam-around tank-shooter

Terri Vellmann recently released 'High Hell' (which I'm very excited for) but I've been playing 'Heavy Bullets' for just about a year now and I love it.  I was a bit put off at first and it took awhile to develop effective strategies (I can get to level six out of eight so far), but a good run in 'HB' is super satisfying, even tho they all end in an abrupt death.

TANKITA (or 'Bounty Hunter Tankita') is a tank-shooter with nice 'roam-around' style maps.  Each map has bases to destroy or enemy waves to fight off.  All of it is done in a low-res style but with bright colors and appealing cartoon-style character/vehicle designs.

You control the tank's movement with the L-stick and weapon aim with the R-stick.  The left and right bumpers are your main and alt fire, and the A button is jump.

As much fun as the game is, the control style caused some mild frustration.  The only issue I have is with the jump.  Circle-strafing enemies is pretty effective, except you have to keep moving your right thumb to jump or risk taking heavy damage from missiles.

However this frustration led to a worthwhile thought experiment: If I were to remap the controls, what changes would I make and how much would they change other gameplay elements?

I'll preface this by saying (or writing, at least) this:

A lot of well-intentioned game design feedback suffers from a common problem: the proposed solution has far-reaching consequences and would alter so many facets of gameplay that the amount of work necessary would far exceed being just a 'small tweak'.

So, my first instinct is to eliminate the jump entirely and focus on the weapons.  The problem with that is the tank is now largely defenseless, so the enemy behavior and the map layouts have to change drastically to compensate.  For starters, the enemy's missile fire rate would need to be adjusted (even tho you can shoot them down with your own missiles) or the amount of damage they do has to be heavily nerfed.

My next idea was to eliminate the alt fire and just have the main weapon and the jump ability, and map them to LB/RB.  This allows a good balance between offense and defense, but still requires that many enemy/level elements be reworked.

I like the second solution better.  Either solution would take a lot of time, but the second has a higher 'ceiling'.  You could compensate for the lack of an alt fire several ways:

Create opportunities for 'massive' or 'chain' style damage - like lure a group of enemies near a fuel truck, pepper the truck with your main gun and watch the explosion cause a chain reaction among the enemies.  Incentivizes the player to group enemies together and utilize environmental elements, which would mean reworking each map's layout.

Have Contra-style weapon drops - sometimes you get just the right weapon and other times you pass it up.  It's asking a lot of the player to go thru a game (even a short one) with only one weapon type.  The control style is still simplified to jump/attack, but the player can still have some variety.

Still, 'TANKITA' is worth checking out, as is Vellmann's other work on itch.  I like his visual style and something like 'mundo lixo' is a good chance to admire the aesthetics without any pressing gameplay demands.  

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Well, folks, thanks for reading.  May other people indulge you to the extent that you've indulged me.

Love & Respect,

==KB==

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itchy tasty #4 - 2.1.18

Welcome to issue number four of itchy tasty.

I'm Kevin Beissel: I lurk on twitter (@builtinadayKB) and have a space-shooter, "Speaking In Guns", available on itch.

Before we get to the games, I just want to clarify why I'm doing this and what I hope it accomplishes.  So here's the what, why and how:

The WHAT

Discuss free games available on itch.io

I've got a list of profiles to check out, but please send along any recommendations.

There are no restrictions on genres.  The whole point of this is to be curious and ask questions.  So no dumb rules like "No walking sims" or "No puzzle platformers", which would prolly eliminate half of the available games anyways.

The WHY

I want to become a better developer and playing experimental/small/art/trash games could help.

Getting an audience is hard and getting constructive feedback is even harder.  I can't help the devs covered in these posts with the former but maybe I can with the latter.

The HOW

There is no rating system.

There is no alter ego here, these are not 'angry' reviews.

These aren't even really reviews.

The goal is to focus on the design choices that were made and discuss the reasoning behind them.

I don't really care about being right, I don't really care about sounding smart ("Yeah, no shit" the reader grumbles), I don't really care about agreeing with you.  I'm more interested in looking at the hierarchy of ideas (to borrow a phrase) that form game design.  By working at the ends and working in the middle we can find out more about it, right?

Enough with the formalities, let's get started.

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Profile: Robin Field (@robinorwhatever)

Game: Little Lands

Style: Resource management/City-sim, sorta like 'Populous' but way more intuitive, fantasy/medieval visuals

This is a LD38 entry with the theme "A Small World".

You have a small patch of land surrounded by water (or are you floating in space? do you realize?) and must build a boat to take your people to a new world.  You place a town hall and a dock initially and then can begin placing buildings on your own.

You collect food, wood and stone while also placing houses for population growth and towers for pirate defense.  The dock has a meter for the three resources and you fill it up as you go.  Once it's full you can leave the island.

My first playthru ended pretty quickly: pirates showed up and I was clueless about how to fight them.  I was still tinkering with the resource and population building types when they showed up, so I didn't have the resources available to build towers.  Let's just say my pirate defense was even less effective than Denuvo, har har.

My second playthru went pretty well.  I built the boat and escaped with 211 people, tho I turned the pirate speed down to slow.  I haven't seen pirates moving this slowly since that time I took acid and went on that one ride at Disney World.  It really is "A Small World", after all.

Ignore that previous joke, because it's nonsensical and also misrepresents the 'slow pirates.'  They don't move slowly, I think the timer that spawns them counts down at a slower rate.  Also, you don't have to bring psychedelics to a theme park, you can just drink the water from one of the rides, like Lisa did on the Simpsons.

Anyways, it looks like the developer is working on an expanded version of the game.  I'll be interested to see how it goes because there's a solid foundation, both visually and mechanically, and plenty of room to grow.

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Profile: Yukon W (Yukon Wainczak, @YWainczak)

Game: iii

Style: Metroidvania on a smaller scale, sorta gloomy Limbo-type visuals

I'm not a huge fan of the "Metroidvania" genre but I can't preach curiosity and then practice laziness, so I tried it out.  I'm glad I did, because it has a great visual style and a bittersweet narrative.  You play as a cat who goes around helping people, basically bringing them an item in exchange for a new ability.

I swear I'm not trying to be contrarian by saying this, but I remain neutral in regards to "Metroidvania"-style games.  Hear me out: despite the fact I'm saying something polarizing and potentially room-clearing, I'm not here to bury the genre.  Not at all.  I see its appeal and  have played a few I'd strongly recommended (Shadow Complex, Outland) and others I'd mildly endorse (Cave Story, Axiom Verge).

I guess what I mean is this: The level of adoration this genre generally gets from the gaming community seems, to me, to be excessive.  This is one part internal (I don't like the genre very much) and one part external (fans and journalists give the genre a pass on certain things while excoriating other genres for lesser sins).

In contrast, I have a very high level of affection for roguelikes and shmups, so the devoted followings that those genres have make sense.  The 'Vania genre feels rigid, one-note and, worst of all, dull.  There seems like a lack of variety in the settings and scenarios that frame most of them.

And look, I realize most of this is unfair, especially when applied to whimsical or offbeat entries (Ori and the Blind Forest).  I suppose those complaints are more directed at the titles held up as the 'best of the best' in the genre, which consistently leave me cold.

"iii" basically solves two major problems I normally have with these types of games: I despise backtracking and I'm totally bored with the standard scenario of "Space-person is stranded on isolated ship/facility and must escape."  This was also part of the LD38 theme "A Small World", so even tho there is backtracking it is only in a small area and avoids becoming tedious.

As for the narrative, it just feels like a breath of fresh air.  I try not to get hung up on narrative in games (that's a subject for its own column), but this genre in particular feels like a one-trick pony.  I'm way overstating this but I just feel like I've played that "you must escape facility" scenario a thousand times and even tho the goal is the same in "iii", the motivation feels much different.

And yeah, I realize that the structure here is basically backtracking to complete fetch quests.  Making it about a cat that helps people might seem like only a cosmetic change, but it's also an attitudinal one.

"iii" is worth checking out and Yukon's other work looks interesting, including some impressive concepts (a space-shooter for the blind!).

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Profile: XenosNS (Adam Hartling, @XenosNS)

Game: A Solitary Walk Down Windsor Street

Style: short narrative game, some 'squiggle-vision' animation mixed w/ a lo-fi album cover art aesthetic

I saw @moshboy tweet about this and had to check it out.

I guess it's a 2D walking sim?  I suppose that fits, if I had to categorize it.  The reason to play it is for the atmosphere, for the 'feel' of it.  It felt like being a teenager with nothing to do.  It felt like walking around neighborhoods I've lived in.

It might feel like nothing to you, which is cool too.  Personally, this is like the game equivalent of listening to "AM 180" by Granddaddy while watching the sun set.

I haven't really tackled any projects like this (experimental/minimalist) but I plan to this year, and it was inspiring that something executed with such simplicity could resonate so strongly.

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Profile: Tooth and Claw (Dan McGrath, @DanInFiction)

Game: Vaer

Style: chill, very chill

I covered a few games by McGrath in issue number 1.  They were pretty damn good, so I decided to go back and try some more.

"Vaer" is very much a 'chillax' style of game and sorta reminds me of "Orbient", which was part of the "Art Style" games that were released on WiiWare.

Excuse this quick digression: I'm not sure where you can play those games now, since I still have my Wii for stuff like that.  "Light Trax" was another great entry in that series.  With the popularity of the Switch, maybe it can make a comeback.  Either re-releases of them or a continuation of them.  That series makes even more sense in today's market than it did ten years ago.  Does anything make sense in today's market?  Am I right, folks?

Anyways, "Vaer" is set in space.  You play as an orb that collects other orbs of energy and returns them to the sun, which is slowly shrinking.  It was amusing to head for a cluster of stationary orbs and then see a set of orbs go sailing by, me being all like "ooh ooh, I can get that" and just missing them by an inch.  When I actually snagged the ones in orbit it felt super satisfying.

This was a LD39 game, so it doesn't have the kind of levels or progression you get in Orbient.  But that's fine, because it still provides a chillaxing experience.  You can always spice it up a bit: throw on some headphones and fire up "Kaneda's Theme" from Akira or maybe some Kooyaanisqatsi OST.

Check out McGrath's profile, it covers a really wide range of styles.  If life were fair, people that talented would be more widely known.  Sadly, life isn't "Vaer", but this game sure is!

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Thank you for making it this far, I hope you got something out of it.  May others indulge you to the extent that you've indulged me.

Love & Respect,

==KB==

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