VVVVVV

Introduction

Shortly after graduating from college, a man from Ireland named Terry Cavanagh began working in a bank. He considered it a fine job, but he wasn’t happy with his work. Citing the games he grew up, he constantly thought about creating one of his own. He had experimented with the medium while in school, creating small QBasic games, but now that he worked a job, he couldn’t find the time. Believing he wasn’t ever going to achieve anything if he did nothing, he carefully began saving up money to fund a new project. His tenure with his company ended in a rather abrupt, unexpected manner. He became intoxicated at a staff night out and told everyone present that he wanted to quit and spend all his time making games. Mr. Cavanagh’s boss quickly found out, and when he asked him about it, he impulsively gave him his notice – despite not having saved nearly enough money at the time.

Mr. Cavanagh’s first title was a platforming game made playable through Adobe Flash entitled Don’t Look Back. This simple game, originally launched in 2009, combined two concepts. He wanted to create a “silly shooter” where the events were shown from a different perspective and a narrative in which the gameplay acted as a metaphor for the player’s actions. Though few formal reviews were written due to it not being a commercial release, journalists praised it for eliciting different responses from its players. In particular, the staff of the online video game magazine The Escapist found the game addictive and “a perfect example of doing more with less”, making sure to highlight its “wonderfully haunting aesthetic”.

Around this time, Mr. Cavanagh decided to participate in a game jam held by the website Glorious Trainwrecks. Every month, the site would hold a jam called the Klik of the Month Klub. The event was named after Klik & Play, a script-free programming tool developed by Clickteam in 1994 that allows its users to create video games of their own. Mr. Cavanagh sought to enter the competition himself with his own entry: Sine Wave Ninja. It was, in his words, “a simple action game that didn’t really work out”. Nonetheless, he had developed something about the character’s basic movements that he wished to explore. Specifically, this got him thinking about a gravity flipping mechanic, how it’s usually handled in games, and what new directions to which he could take the idea.

From this line of thinking, his next project began: a platforming game in which players had to constantly reverse gravity and avoid hazards. Admitting he didn’t have a knack for naming things, he settled on VVVVVV as a title. This decidedly unconventional title is a twofold reference. It alludes to the spikes that serve as the primary hazard players have to avoid as well as the names of its six main characters – all of which begin with the letter “V”. There was one key difference between Don’t Look Back and VVVVVV; the latter would be Mr. Cavanagh’s first commercial release.

Understandably, going from using the Flash model wherein his woes ended when he found a sponsor to deciding how much he was willing to charge people to play his creation terrified the new indie developer. In interviews leading up the release of VVVVVV, he was taken aback after making a blog post asking for donations to help him submit his work to the Independent Games Festival. He never suspected that in the first few days, he would have dozens of donations, exceeding what he was asking for. He had over one-thousand dollars by the end of the week. As it turns out, these donations were well timed, as his finances had been dropping rapidly. He admitted that he was only a week or two away from having to beg his friends and family for money to get him through Christmas.

Despite these numerous setbacks, VVVVVV was released in January of 2010 for personal computers everywhere. Though it didn’t quite amass the universal acclaim Braid and Limbo enjoyed, VVVVVV is considered one of the premier indie titles that helped the scene blossom into a formidable force in the 2010s. Did a gem arise from the decidedly tumultuous development?

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Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3

Introduction

When Super Mario Land debuted as one of the Game Boy’s many launch titles in 1989, it became one of the handheld console’s first big hits. Notably, it would go on to sell over eighteen million copies, surpassing figures of its direct predecessor, Super Mario Bros. 3. Three years later in 1992, its sequel, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins was released. While Super Mario Land impressed many enthusiasts by giving them what amounted to a handheld version of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Land 2 managed to improve upon the original. Featuring graphics and level design that wouldn’t seem out of place in the highly regarded, 16-bit Super Mario World, Super Mario Land 2 is considered even to this day to be one of the Game Boy’s strongest offerings.

After the success of two Super Mario Land installments, fans eagerly waited for a sequel. Super Mario Bros. formed the basis for a solid trilogy on the NES. It therefore stood to reason that Nintendo would make a trilogy out of Super Mario Land as well. Such a development came to pass, but in a way nobody could’ve predicted. Part of why Super Mario Land 2 remains a popular game is its significant contribution to Mario canon. Specifically, it introduced Wario, a character who stood for everything Mario opposed. His name is derived from the Japanese world for bad, “warui”, but other cultures could identify his diametric opposition to Mario simply because of the letter emblazoned upon his cap resembling an upside-down “M”.  In other words, a nuance that could’ve been lost in translation found itself jumping between cultures seamlessly. He was the perfect rival for Mario. He was driven by greed and self-interest. He proved what an effective villain he could be in Super Mario Land 2. He was to be the protagonist of its sequel.

Nintendo was known for its unambiguously heroic protagonists; the idea of playing as Wario seemed inconceivable. Any chance of the ensuing marketing campaign being an elaborate joke on Nintendo’s part was dashed when promotional materials made the game’s name known: Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. Despite, or perhaps as a direct result of, having gone completely off the rails, Wario Land was a commercial success upon its 1994 release, moving over five million copies worldwide. In some circles, this game is considered the strongest entry in the Super Mario Land trilogy. With its unlikely protagonist, did Wario Land truly surpass its highly regarded predecessors?

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June 2018 in Summary: Halfway Point

Well, we’ve all reached the year’s halfway point. I’m proud to say that I’ve already written twenty-eight reviews so far. With me having taken down my review of BioShock: Infinite earlier this year, the current count is 127. My goal by the end of the year is to reach 150, which I’m feeling good about because I’ve been able to write at least one review per week so far in 2018.

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BioShock 2

Introduction

Ken Levine’s BioShock was a critical success upon its 2007 release. In an era when console games weren’t expected to have plots more advanced than what one would find in a B-movie, a mainstream release that regularly touched upon erudite themes stood out in the best way possible. Contrary to what a wary person not in tune with the medium would believe, Mr. Levine’s willingness to take his audience seriously paid off from a commercial standpoint as well. Fans and critics alike instantly recognized BioShock as a significant step forward for video game storytelling. This was a far cry from the reception System Shock 2 received wherein it wallowed in obscurity until it received recognition in various retrospectives several years after the fact. With a hit on their hands, the 2K Marin staff did what any developer would do under the circumstances: set out to make a sequel.

Helming this project was Jordan Thomas while series creator Ken Levine occasionally provided creative input. Given that the potential endings of BioShock provided airtight conclusions, the first concern Mr. Thomas found himself facing was the question of where they could possibly go from there.

“How do you bring people back to an experience and terrify them and shock them in a way that they’re not expecting, but also fulfill the many expectations they’re projecting onto it?”

Nonetheless, he decided that his game couldn’t truly be considered a sequel to BioShock unless he set it in the city of Rapture. Luckily for him, Mr. Levine had created a setting teeming with many unseen locations and untold stories that making a sequel would be viable. 2K Marin thus set out with a team of eight to create a new game, adding seventy-eight additional personnel during the peak phases of development.

Like Ken Levine before him, Jordan Thomas took a decidedly unusual approach to level design. Teams consisting of an environmental artist and a level designer worked together to design each area of the game. This was a stark contrast to the standard approach wherein developers would design the level first and hand their work over to the art teams so they could add further details. Level designer Steve Gaynor recalled in interviews that with their approach, they could ensure the environments felt like places once inhabited by people.

The public’s first exposure to this project’s existence came in the form of a teaser trailer included with the PlayStation 3 version, which was originally made available in 2008. Initial media reports suggested the title of this game would bear the subtitle Sea of Dreams. It was eventually clarified that “Sea of Dreams” only referred to the trailer and not the game itself. As the team quickly revealed, the game was to be simply titled BioShock 2. The first substantial details were revealed in the April 2009 edition of Game Informer magazine. Around this time, the marketing department launched the site “There’s Something in the Sea” as a means to virally spread word of BioShock 2. Demo footage debuted on the Spike TV show GameTrailers TV with Geoff Keighley, showcasing many features such as the ability to walk underwater.

Though BioShock was well received, certain circles criticized it for its lack of multiplayer. The first-person shooter scene had built part of its identity on multiplayer deathmatches. Quake was the game that could be said to have popularized them while Halo brought them to the console market. As a response to this criticism, 2K Marin contracted designers from Digital Extremes to produce a multiplayer component complete with its own scenario.

After much speculation, BioShock 2 was at last released worldwide in February of 2010. Like its predecessor, BioShock 2 received largely positive reviews. Mainstream outlets praised the game for ironing out the unpolished aspects of the original. At the same time, they lauded the story for building upon the foundation of its predecessor. Despite receiving universal praise, a particularly vocal subset originating from the independent circuit was a bit more skeptical. One prominent critic accused the game of being a cheap cash-in while another expressed that the multiplayer component cheapened the series’ strong narrative. Regardless, the game was a commercial success, moving three million units across all platforms by March of 2010. Despite this, Take-Two Interactive’s Chief Financial Officer noted that the game’s sales were lower than expected and also took a relatively short amount of time to slow down. Prior to its release, a Take-Two chairman stated that he expected the game to sell five million units. From this, it could be inferred that the overall reception to BioShock 2 was more mixed than an analysis of the scores it received across numerous publications would lead one to believe. Is BioShock 2 a worthy sequel or is it a transparent attempt to capitalize on its predecessor’s success?

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