Friday, July 31, 2015

Ittle Dew - Thoughts

Ittle Dew wears its inspiration on its sleeve—it's a block-pushing puzzler and it makes no qualms about it. What I didn't expect while playing was the amount of ways you can go about completing the game, and the absurdly adorable charm surrounding it. In this respect Ittle Dew has a lot more heart than you'd expect a Zelda knockoff to have, and it's worth playing as long as you don't mind perhaps the biggest adventure game taboo: missable secrets.

The game is pretty short—my total time was a little over two hours, and there's actually an achievement for finishing the game in under fifteen minutes. Despite its brevity, Ittle Dew explores its mechanics in interesting ways, ultimately giving you a thorough understanding of your inventory. The warp wand in particular feels like an ingenious item Nintendo would create, and combined with the ice wand the game can get real nasty with its puzzles. It's not an overly difficult game however—only one optional room stumped for a good ten minutes—and despite the plethora of ways to explore the castle, it's pretty simple to get to the ending. I'd best describe the game as having a comfortable level of challenge.

One of the strange things about Ittle Dew is that it prioritizes replayability over being able to 100% the game. As stated above, there's missable secrets in the form of optional paths and challenges that you'll be unable to repeat/return to once you find your way back inside the castle. But seeing as there's multiple ways to explore the stronghold and make it to the final boss, you'll be missing some way to go about the game on your first try, so it can't really be faulted for that. If anything, it's just a really unorthodox design decision that perhaps speedrunners are more inclined to enjoy.

Along with puzzles, Ittle Dew also knows how to handle humor (which is a massively uncommon occurrence in a lot of games). The drawings are lively and the writing knows its limitations, remaining kooky and offbeat without becoming annoying. The best example I have of this is during the ice wand dungeon boss's cutscene, where the titular main character has her tongue stuck onto the frozen instrument—no one brings attention to it, it only lasts a few seconds, and is never seen again. That simple gag about Dew's juvenile stupidity is quite refreshing in a community where memes and video game references are quite commonplace, especially among the indie scene. I also quite enjoyed the final boss's reasoning for building his labyrinthian lair.

While there's some combat in Ittle Dew, it's fairly rote outside of battling cacti, so it's not a game that offers much else than block pushing. But the puzzles are certainly creative, and the cartoony art style (and music!) deserves some kudos for being so pleasing to the senses. It's not necessarily a title I'm interested in a sequel for, but I'll definitely keep my eye on the developer Ludosity from now on.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

FRACT OSC - Thoughts

A certain strangeness pervades FRACT OSC. It's not bizarre in the way the desolate, grim landscapes of Kairo are, but it remains a bit of an acquired taste due to its design. Contained within is a robust sequencer that—to use said program to its fullest—requires you to complete the game hidden quite literally beneath it. I'm not entirely sure whether the main draw is the music, puzzles, or the sequencer, but the experience remains a short and entertaining journey that even the non-musically inclined can enjoy (and complete).

FRACT OSC is a very clean looking game. You won't find any ugly textures or questionable character models here as everything possesses a sterilized sheen, allowing you to focus on each object's shape and size. Solid, unembellished colors pulse and throb to the freeform beat of each section, bringing the setting to life after you solve each puzzle. It's a visually pleasing game as long as you dig the minimalist vibe it's going for; even while lost, I still felt intrigued and drawn into the world around me, curious as to what secrets remain hidden beneath its plastic surface.

The puzzles on the other hand are decent; what really makes them engaging is the sporadic music. Slowly piecing together the bass, lead, or synth as you work on the sequencer riddles was a lot of fun, though none of the tunes in the game were particularly captivating—the catharsis came from hearing all of the instruments fuse together as soon as you finished a puzzle. Sadly some of the sequencer bits can be a bit aggravating as you fiddle with each beat individually, unsure of what you're doing wrong, and to my disappointment the game doesn't really prepare you for using the main sequencer located before the game's hub. To be fair though, the game doesn't necessarily need to, but as someone that gets easily confounded by music programs, it was clear that the credits signaled the end of my time with FRACT OSC.

I'd recommend this game to people that are interested in wandering around an alien world littered with strange tunes. It's not a game you play for the music, but rather a curious title where the music is infused into every bit of progress you make. It's likely my favorite first-person puzzle (FPP?) world due to its vibrant style and curious structure, and although the sequencer included isn't for me, it's an awesome addition nevertheless.

FRACT OSC is the kind of strange I wouldn't mind seeing more of.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

There is an inimitable charm to The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening that we're likely never to see again. It came at the right time and landed on the right platform, allowing it to be a smaller, sillier title with some themes many would consider "too strange" for a traditional Zelda game (though Majora's Mask would push that envelope further in a more bleaker, crushing direction). It remains my favorite Zelda entry—though I wouldn't argue for it being the best—and the quaint simplicity of it makes Link's Awakening possibly the best title on the Game Boy.

Having the game be on a handheld complements its themes extremely well. In a nutshell, Link's Awakening is about bliss found in ignorance as well as the bittersweet sadness of letting go. The goal of the journey is to venture off of Koholint Island, but to do so Link must wake the Wind Fish and end its dream (and thereby terminating the island and all of its denizens). Curiously however, none of the inhabitants outside of the Owl are cognizant of the dream, or the rise of the Nightmares intending to keep the island from vanishing. Everyone lives in a perpetual state of naivete, trapped within the dictation of their desires, and even the ever-curious Marin is bound by the dream in her human form.

These are important themes because nearly every other Zelda reverses this progression—Hyrule is in a state of disarray and it's up to Link to fix the problems of the people, climaxing with the defeat of the ultimate baddie. In Link's Awakening, the people have no overarching problem as the plot revolves around Link freeing himself from this ethereal prison, whereby he erases them. Sure, some island dwellers would like eclectic items (dog food or pen pal letter) and Madam MeowMeow gets her chain chomp stolen, but the issues of the islanders are relatively sedate compared to Agahnim's police state or Ganondorf's vile transformation of Hyrule. Link's adventure revolves solely around himself on Koholint Island, the island folk resulting in nothing more than passing memories by the time the curtains close.

Link's Awakening a lonely, ephemeral experience. It's the quintessential Game Boy entry because it embodies the transitory state of "mobile games" in the 90s, existing to tide you over until the next big (console) experience. The game is simple but astonishingly pithy with its story, prodding the player to grapple with the nature of reality without ever forcing it upon them (the Nightmares are the only creatures that explicitly criticize you for your actions). "Ballad of the Wind Fish" deserves a special mention here as well for perfectly capturing the mood in the game, conveying it in a way words are incapable of expressing. The slow wash of all the characters along with entire island while the ending theme plays is still one of the most striking things I've experienced on a handheld; parting is indeed such sweet sorrow, especially when you know you'll never see one another again.

With my melancholy reflections out of the way, I should take a couple sentences to at least talk about the gameplay. For the most part it works as intended, being a more bite-sized version of Link to the Past with a larger emphasis on puzzles. It's not too difficult of a game—there were a couple spots that gave me trouble as a kid that I could now breeze through—and it lasts a comfortable amount of time (not too long, not too short). The biggest con I can think of is that switching out items on the menu becomes a major drag on the game, but most Zelda games suffer from this dilemma so it's not a unique gripe. Oh, and there's a ton of text you have to mash through every time you pick up the compass (or bump against a rock or crystal). These are minor blemishes on an otherwise joyous experience. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the design is that—along with Ocarina of Time—it works perfectly as an introduction to the Zelda style of gameplay.

All things go through a process of change—some of which are irrevocable. Before venturing into the game's fifth dungeon, Catfish's Maw, you have to escort a gloomy ghost back to the house he used to live in. It's a brief but heartfelt moment as he looks upon the decrepit cottage, feeling intense nostalgia for the tiny box that had once been his home. In some ways I feel like the ghost when gazing upon this game, looking back upon the hours & hours I spent playing it as a kid and using the screen warp to clip my way into places I shouldn't have been. It didn't age nearly as much as the cottage had, but it still ekes a tear out of me when visiting familiar areas or watching Tarun get chased by bees.

Truly a poignant masterpiece for its time.

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