Best Games Played 2017: Grandest Adventure


These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2017 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2017, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.


Super Mario Odyssey brings about the first return of a superlative, and it’s an apt one. Odyssey returns Mario to the throes of adventure. After the Wii U’s more structurally confined Super Mario 3D World, Mario is allowed to breathe again.

In classic Mario format, the titular plumber must once again save Princess Peach from the clutches of Bowser. But instead of the purposelessness that Bowser’s usual kidnappings bring, the Koopa King’s latest attempt comes with a devilish new intent. Similar to Super Mario Sunshine, where Bowser Jr. kidnaps Peach believing she is his mother and wishing to make the family whole again, in Odyssey Bowser kidnaps Peach to force her to become his lawfully wedded wife.

Some may see this unseemly setup as only adding extra color to the same old Mario motifs, but it creates a framework for one of Mario’s greatest adventures. In Bowser’s quest to collect all the assortments needed for a perfect wedding – a dress, a ring, a cake, some soup for the reception, a bouquet of flowers for the bride – he drags Mario in a chase across the globe.

You visit exotic locales from sunny deserts to frozen tundras to landscapes made entirely out of food. While there, you’ll use your toolkit of running, jumping, and hat possession to bound across the map and collect as many power moons as you can before chasing Bowser to the next kingdom. Each world is a dense puzzle box that you poke and prod with your abilities until all the moons come spilling out. Even when you feel like you’ve seen everything a kingdom has to offer, you’ll find that there are still some moons that you’ve overlooked.

The vast kingdoms breathe new life into the Mario series while also remixing classic designs and characters from games past. There’s Pauline, who’s gone from Mario’s original damsel in distress to the prestigious mayor of the Metro Kingdom’s New Donk City. Fans of Super Mario 64 will be happy to hear that numerous references to that entry make their way into the game in heartwarming fashion. Even the water pack mechanics from Sunshine make a brief appearance in the Seaside Kingdom.

All of these set pieces pulled from the franchise’s legacy make this game feel like ur-Mario, the entry that all future Marios will be compared too. There’s a case to be made for that. Instead of making it feel like a bunch of mechanical levels strung together with a threadbare plot, Odyssey’s numerous worlds feel like they’re teeming with life, where Mario can soar through blue skies, swim through vast oceans, and meet new friends. It’s an amazingly charming, breathtaking, feel-good experience.

Best Games Played 2017: Best Reinvention


These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2017 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2017, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.


Before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the Zelda franchise had gotten rote. Too often had players tamed Epona, gotten their Hookshot, braved the Water Temple, acquired the Master Sword, and defeated Ganon.

Some of that historical Zelda DNA still exists in Breath of the Wild, but only in the best ways. Everything else, from z-targeting to auto-jumping, has either been removed or revamped. Where before your journey with Link was a straightforward affair, venturing from objective to objective, in Breath of the Wild, you’re now gazing beyond a grand landscape, where you’re free to explore the world as you please. Maybe you’ll choose to pursue the main quest with reckless abandon; maybe you’ll choose to find each and every shrine before you take on Ganon; or maybe you just want to explore every nook and cranny in the world and ignore your obligations as Zelda’s champion. What matters is that it’s your choice to make.

Breath of the Wild simply gets out of your way while you pursue your chosen goal. Instead of stage-gating key items throughout the course of the game, Breath of the Wild gives you all of the tools upfront to figure out how to make this Zelda experience yours. On top of that, Breath of the Wild completely removes any restriction of movement. Gone are the days of accidentally auto-jumping off a cliff. Instead, Link has the freedom to jump, swim, and climb. And the climbing is where Breath of the Wild really shines in its reinvention of the Zelda formula.

Link can climb any cliff, any wall, practically any surface. Instead of following predetermined paths, you ford your own way over mountains, through valleys, over canyons to reach new destinations. Combine that with the paraglider that you receive at the beginning of the game, and you can make short work of long distances by cutting a path through the sky. These actions are limited only by your stamina gauge, which, at the beginning of the game, can feel brutally insufficient. But as you acquire more stamina, the feeling of conquering the landscape with your own two, virtual hands is immensely freeing, and hopefully, other open world game designers are taking note.

But this open world design is only one half of this new reinvention of Zelda. The other half is the survivalism infused into the game’s bones. Despite people’s chagrin, the comparison to Dark Souls is apt. This game can be unforgiving. Combat encounters can punish you. Every weapon – outside the Master Sword – has limited durability, making you hunt for your next trusty blade. Environments can be brutal – from pouring rain to freezing cold to Death Mountain that literally sets you on fire. If you have a metal weapon equipped during a thunderstorm, you’ll be electrocuted. If you try using a bomb while on Death Mountain, it’ll immediately catch fire and explode.

The game wants you to learn its systems, and it will ply the pressure on you until you bend to its tutelage. It can be extremely frustrating and extremely rewarding. How you felt about these last few sentences tells you whether this game is for you, because this isn’t a traditional Zelda game. It’s a mea culpa of the complacency of the Zelda franchise.

On the heels of Skyward Sword, the last main home console Zelda game, Zelda ran the risk of succumbing further into mediocrity if Breath of the Wild was more of the same. Instead, Nintendo was able to pull out of a dive and deliver one of the most memorable Zelda experiences in years.

Best Games Played 2017: Purest Design


These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2017 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2017, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.


Imagine roaming around an arcade – a rare but reemerging experience – and something catches your eye. A black monolith of an arcade cabinet. Intrigued, you approach it.

Images and color flash across the screen. A lone rider on their motorcycle screech across a barren landscape. Your blood rushes. Excited, you play.

Expecting to find the familiar joystick, you’re instead met with an alien interface. Your hand touches the curved, rubbery surface of what looks like a large skateboard wheel protruding from the surface of the cabinet. You turn the puck with the flattened palm of your hand and feel the rider skate along the narrow road, barely within your control.

A lone arcade button sits beside the wheel. You press it, and it ignites the engine of the bike. propelling the rider forward, barely contained within the confines of the screen, beyond which ensures certain death.

You feel one with the rider as you thunder across the featureless desert, but any simple mistake – slowing down to catch your breath, riding too close to the rail, skirting off the road and into the sand – and your life disappears in a flash of fire and a plume of smoke.

Black Emperor is a game that perfectly encapsulates the sensation of speed, and everything – from the hypnotic parallaxed background to the instantaneous respawn upon death to the uniquely tailored control surface – is in service to help your virtual avatar barrel across the landscape.

It is one of the most codified, pristine experiences you’ll ever have.

Best Games Played 2017: Best Synthesization


These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2017 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2017, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.


​Every year the gaming world has one multiplayer sensation that sweeps across the landscape, capturing the hearts and minds (and wallets) of players. In 2015, that game was Rocket League. Last year, it was Overwatch. This year, that honor belongs to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.

PUBG is a refinement of the previous work by PlayerUnknown himself, Brendan Greene. Known for his battle royale mods for the popular zombie survival games DayZ and H1Z1, Greene and the developers at Bluehole have taken the survival aspects of the genre and boiled it down to a fast-paced yet methodical last man standing competition.

DayZ and H1Z1 trade in their drawn-out encounters between players over weapons, food, and basic medical supplies, where accumulating your strength takes multiple hours of play, and your character persists over time. However, the greatest moments of tension – as well as fun – occur between player encounters, since every person can decide to work with you or try to kill you.

PUBG, instead of waiting for these encounters to play out between hours of survival gameplay, has compressed the rooting, looting, and shooting down to a neat twenty to thirty minute fight for survival. The same adrenaline-fueled incursions that previously occurred between hour-long gaps of isolation now happen with hectic regularity. It’s fast; it’s rewarding; and it’s fun.

This synthesization of the survival sim mantra of run, loot, kill causes the best aspects of the genre to fuse with the more tried-and-true mechanics of traditional first person shooters. Accumulated FPS knowledge of player psychology and on-your-feet thinking graphs nicely to PUBG, but with an added layer of chaos and creativity on top. Now, players need to think about when to jump from the plane – basically picking your own spawn point – or how to engage with an enemy player in a multistory building – especially where either of you can jump out a window to try to disengage at the risk of killing yourself accidentally.

The player psychology runs deep too. You’ll find yourself in an apartment complex, worried about whether or not someone is lying and wait. You’ll run around and see that the place seems untouched: all the doors are closed and a highly-desired healing item lies on the floor. Everything looks clear, but who’s to say that that first aid kit hasn’t just been placed there as bait and someone is drawing a bead on you right now? That’s the risk you run in every room in every building in every city.

It’s immensely stressful, and if you’re not the best at first person shooters, or even if you’re just out of practice, that anxiety will press upon your heart for the first dozen hours or so. My early time with PUBG is the most realistic rendering of how I would actually perform in a Hunger Games-esque scenario: I would be running, terrified, from house to house, cowering in corners, jumping at the slightest sound, and I would die, early, because my aim would be terrible because I’ve never actually fired a live firearm. We’d all like to think that if the cards were on the table, our inner Rambo would emerge and help us prevail in a kill or be killed scenario, but PUBG proves that’s not the case.

Even my unpracticed real-world aim maps to my virtual avatar. Despite playing countless hours of the Halo and Call of Duty franchises, I had never played a mouse-and-keyboard shooter before, so I came into PUBG with practically no prior abilities, but despite all that – despite my outskilled aim, despite my countless unceremonious deaths, despite the oppressive death field and unforgiving loot tables – I still have played over one hundred hours of this game, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

It’s an amazing game, one that obviously could only be made with a huge amount of experience with battle royale game design, of which Brendan Greene has in spades. As PUBG continues to grow to almost 30 million players on the PC alone, I’m excited to see where it goes from here.

Arbeau and itch.io

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We’re pleased to announce that we finished work on our dystopian resource management game, Arbeau. Arbeau was originally envisioned as our game for Ludum Dare 33’s theme of “You Are the Monster.” After finding some time to work on it since the game jam, we’ve polished it up. We’d like to thank our friends Sean Harrington and Kirby Martin for their help with this game, which is available now on itch.io.

Speaking of, if you’ve been to the games section of the site, you’ve probably noticed that our game links now take you to their respective itch.io pages. We’re really happy with the platform itch.io has built for independent developers, and we’ll be using itch.io as our main platform to distribute our games. Instead of worrying about maintaining builds of our games on our site, we’ll send you over to a custom itch.io page so you can download your preferred Mac or Windows build.

We’ve been plugging away on some other stuff since we completed Arbeau, and we’ll keep you posted on what we have in store. In the meantime, enjoy our available games and our weekly podcast, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to hear about what’s coming next. We’ll see you around!

Global Game Jam 2016

Global Game Jam was this past weekend. Mason and I wanted to work on something a bit bigger, so we conscripted the help of a few of our friends: Alex Rice, Dan Cotting, and John Goldhamer. Together, we used the jam’s theme of “Ritual” to create Morning.

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Morning is a game about you completing your morning ritual, from brushing your teeth and taking a shower to making coffee and putting on your shoes. All of the components of your morning routine are portrayed through a timing-based minigame where you have to activate a moving indicator on a gauge correctly. If you do, then you successfully complete that part of your ritual, if not, well, then you get a different result.

Mason and I have done about four game jams now, all with various amounts of completion, so we had some goals going into this game jam:

  • First, we wanted to complete the game within the span of the game jam.
  • Second, we wanted to prevent scope creep at any cost, since it was the major cause of incomplete game jam games in the past.
  • Lastly, and this was mostly for the purposes of programming, we wanted all of the game mechanics fleshed out before starting on development. In game jams past, we’d frequently agree on the rough concept of the game, only to have to spend time nailing down the specifics of the mechanics later.

So how’d we do in accomplishing these goals? I’ll address them last to first.

On the front of planning ahead, I believe we did fairly well. Most of the first night of the jam was spent agree on an idea to run with and then fleshing it out. I was very stubborn about making sure everyone was on the same page about what the mechanics looked like, how the house was laid out, and how everything interacted with each other. Otherwise, not only may some things be a bit hazy when you have to convert ideas to code and JPEG, but everyone may also default to their own interpretation of the game if no consensus is reached. This is why I made sure to hijack a whiteboard or two for the evening.

GGJ2016 Whiteboard

You can see a lot of different things covered on this board, from the visual layout of the house to act as a schematic for everyone to my proposed Game Object hierarchy in Unity to help understand how gameplay agents would interact with one another to an outline to how the minigame gauge would work in terms of variables and components. When I say everything should be thought of beforehand, I mean everything. It may not have to be fully realized, but the developers should have to know what needs to be considered before splitting off into their individual tasks.

In terms of scope creep, I feel like we also hit our mark. Since everyone was experienced in some form of design, software development, or web development, we knew what could be accomplished within the span of a weekend. Very few suggestions for added features came in after the first night. When they did, we had to collectively weigh the cost of implementing it.

So, since we were so good at preventing scope creep and planning ahead, we obviously reached our goal of finishing within the time limit, right? Well, not so much. The game was ostensibly complete by the time show and tell came around Sunday night. There was enough to demo to the good people at the jam, but some parts just needed to be hooked together. We took care of this last piece of development the past week, so now the game is available to your playing pleasure. Enjoy!

It was a great jam with great people. We’d like to thank RVA Game Jams for always putting on a great event and for the VCUarts Departments of Communication Arts, Kinetic Imaging, and Art Education for hosting it at the Depot and letting so many great art and other VCU students participate. Most importantly, we’d like to again thank Alex, Dan, and John for charging through with us over one long weekend. We hope to see you guys again next game jam!

GGJ2016 Whiteboard

Peak

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Peak is up!

This is one of the first games we finished more than a year ago. With the release of Unity 5, we wanted to port our old games over to ensure some form of future proofing. Plus, it gives us the opportunity to redo a lot of the layout, since the original version was created using 3D objects as opposed to 2D, which created more hassle than necessary.

Here’s how the original version looked:

And here’s the new version:

The game is available to download here. The game contains just the level shown in the video for now, but we’ll be sure to let you know about any future updates. Enjoy!