Stage One: Reviewing 1-1

November 19, 2011

I’ve divided the eighteen Stage One games into three sets of six games each, so the reviews won’t be in one long post. That works nicely with the Mario Bros. tradition of breaking stage one into 1-1, 1-2, and 1-3. I’m going to try to keep these reviews relatively short and to-the-point, providing additional feedback to games when/if they accept an invitation to be part of the (first?) Stage One anthology booklet or at the request of individual designers.

1. An Analog Tribute to Gauntlet (Gauntlet): Christopher Weeks

This game cleverly mimicks the random and arbitrary nature of arcade games. I tracked down some video footage of the older Gauntlet games, which was helpful as I’ve only played the newer 3-D remake. And, man, it totally nails the frantic axe-throwing, food-seeking, and running-like-a-headless-chicken aspects. It was also helpful because the current text leaves out some critical information, like what characters’ starting scores are (600 health, 0 stress, 0 score, I assume). Other concerns include: the confusing description of the only example of play (paragraph 3), the difficulty of easily spotting when the score reaches a multiple of 16384, and a larger concern of… is this actually fun to play, beyond reveling in the ruthless ribbing of Gauntlet? Players just randomly increment their stats until certain conditions are reached. It would certainly be hilariously thrilling the first time, as long as you had the right crowd. So, some smart ideas, but I think this one either needs some deep reworking to be a good fit for the anthology or — more likely — should just embrace what it is, be shared with the right audiences in a slightly revised and clarified form, and not worry too much about print. People will either get it or they won’t, right?

2. Resident Evil+ (Resident Evil): Mike / Gremlin Legions

First off, the layout here is top-notch, which definitely helps in organizing and effectively transmitting the rules and tone. The rules are more complex than many of the games here, but the presentation keeps them from being overwhelming. Overall, the rules suggest a semi-generic dungeony game, but they look fun and reasonably solid. The example locations are straight-up terrific, but unfortunately take up a lot of space for something that’ll mostly be useful in later stages. There’s some classic Resident Evil stuff I miss too. Could the game be for GM + 2 players (male and female PCs), who are sometimes together and sometimes split up? Where are the ominous trinkets and clues to collect? Shouldn’t you be able to investigate a thing more closely, so the GM can give you a creepy description of it? Rules-wise, with 5 effort dice and 1/3 chance of success, you’re averaging slightly less than 2 successes, which makes failure seem pretty unlikely, especially if you use resources. I was going to suggest letting players cooperate on certain things, but that might require reworking the dice to make the game significantly more difficult. Overall, though, this game seems ready for initial playtesting and revisions, just to make sure the play experience matches what the rules intend. After that, it’s definitely ready for an invitation to the more intense editing and play that lead up to publication. So… let’s call that playtest and resubmit, I guess? Looking forward to this one. I’ve been playing the Resident Evil remake for the Gamecube lately, and sometimes it’s so creepy that I have to stop for a while.

3. A Few More Heroes (No More Heroes): Stephen Bretall

This game reminds me of a cross between Scarlet Wake and Ammo: Revenant War, both of which are fun shooty/fighty games where you take out a bunch of random dudes. I really dig the Beatles-inspired bad guys too and, even more, the overall descriptive setup: assassinating people to make rent. Way rad. The concerns I have are mostly about the lack of clear instructions about how you use the “cool junk that’s more important than rent” (like rage-induced superpowers) and how sustainably fun the carnage is, even if you just play through the first stage. I mean, by the end of the game, you’ll have slaughtered 10d10 thugs per player, which is a lot of mindless killing without something else to keep players’ interest. Even Ammo has the cool tactile feel of popping dice out of your first with your thumb, which feels really great, as you’re mowing down random faceless dudes. I guess there’s that 3:16 thing, where you can compete with the other players for most kills, which probably helps some. I guess I want something else to help hook me into the carnage, but I’m not sure what. Maybe some way to engage with the environment, like the parking lot or the penthouse, in a way that makes them feel different? Overall, though, this seems pretty solid and it ready to be played and tweaked based on that experience. So, playtest, clarify, and resubmit.

4. Roguish (Rogue): Evan Silberman

This game is either genius or incomplete and I’m going to lean towards “genius” — though I showed it to another indie game designer and they went with “incomplete.” Specifically, the really stand-out aspect of this game is its complete disregard for expectations in its dirt-simple, nearly resolution-free system for fighting monsters. You hit a monster, it hits you back, and this continues until one of you is dead (no dice). Monsters can take 1-2 hits, with bigger ones taking more, and PCs record damage by scribbling on their card (when it’s covered in scribbles, they’re dead). Legendary monsters kill you instantly unless you use fictional positioning to make it not so, likely with the help of some of the magical loot you’ve picked up. Dungeon- and monster-arranging is automated, as in Roguelikes or, more recently, Castle Ravenloft. Honestly, I am super in-love with this game partially because I know just the crowd of people to play it with: folks who will totally appreciate its minimalist, arbitrary nature. I definitely want to try this out in play, to make sure it has all the guidelines needed for it to work well, but, man, this game feels done to me. Invitation extended!

5. Shadow of Colossus (Shadow of the Colossus): Scott Slomiany

I love nearly everything about this game. Representing the giant golem as a flowchart is a fantastic decision and the rules are very clear and spot-on. A few thoughts: (1) It will eventually need a new name and a different name for the protagonist for copyright reasons, maybe “Giantkiller” for both? (2) It should really support both solo and 2-player play, drawing cards randomly for the colossus, like the dealer does in backjack. For bigger beasts in later levels, I can even imagine a few slayers working together on the same golem. (3) “Rest” is not quite the right term for that move, I don’t think. Really, it seems like the slayer is taking the time to assess his options, bid his time, and wait for the right moment. After all, if you “Rest” as turn 1, you climb up on the golem’s hand, presumably because he tried to smash you and you jumped on, or because you waited for him to come by. (4) The game needs a few more words about the special rules for later golems and how to set up their flowcharts. Other than that, yeah, it needs to be played, but it seems totally ready to go. Invitation extended!

6. Mushroom Kingdom Stories (Super Mario Bros.): Hans Chung-Otterson

The setup here is pretty brilliant, rolling some dice onto the map and having them generating situations. Also, the use of actual coins is super great and fitting for a Mario-inspired game. Some concerns I have: (1) If we file the serial numbers off here, will it still be compelling and will it feel like a Mario game? Like, if it’s a “portal to the Wacky Zone” instead of a “warp pipe to Minus World,” will it still excite us to play? I think that really depends on making the descriptions compelling and Mario-esque without drawing heavily on other IP. (2) Compared to other games in this batch, I feel like I have less of an idea how this game will feel in play from reading the text. There aren’t any examples and some of the language — especially “embodying” tags and roadblocks — are less than clear and might be wishy-washy in play without firmer guidelines. (3) Overall, the game seems inspired by the overall ethos and elements of Mario-related media, but it’s much less inspired by the gameplay of those games or any specific title, at least as far as I can tell. That’s why I linked to a video of Paper Mario, because I couldn’t really think of any Mario games that felt quite like this, where you resolve problems rather than just jumping on things and grabbing coins and powerups. Even in the newer games like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, you generally resolve problems for other characters by doing what Mario does: jumping on things and grabbing coins and powerups. Consequently, I feel like this game might be stronger if it picked a specific Mario game to be inspired by, even if it keeps a more exploratory and problem-solving approach, rather than being more a tribute to Mario games as a whole. In the end, I think this game needs some work if it’s going to be a part of the anthology, both to remove Nintendo IP and to focus it more on the type of experience it wants to help players’ create, which some playtesting and examples would contribute greatly to, I think.

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