Last year, I did a sort of year in review post which began with an explanation of the difficulty in creating such a post. I don’t tend to consume a lot of media as it comes out, and… 2019 was even worse in that regard. I think my escapism was fairly concentrated this year in two media: video games and comics. Hopefully I’ll do a second post on the latter after sorting out what all actually came out
this last year. But for now: VIDEO GAMES.
Slay the Spire
I feel like I’ve played several years worth of this game, I’m honestly… shocked that this came out in 2019. I don’t want to say that this is my favorite of the games on this list (I don’t want to rank them at all, frankly), but it is almost certainly the game I have put the most time into. I have already bought it twice, on Switch and Steam, and will snag a physical Switch copy as well at some point. It’s a deckbuilding
dungeon spire crawl with a huge set of cards that leads to a lot of depth in build strategy. It’s often referred to as having roguelike elements, which like… the spire is mostly randomized, and there’s permadeath, but… I don’t know, we’re really stretching the definition of roguelike these days.
Aside from the standard mode, the game itself comes with a bunch of modified modes that lead to some really wild builds. On top of that, on the computer, there’s a considerable mod scene coming up with new playable characters and the like (Sailor Moon, for instance. YES!). But even without any of that, the base game has wonderful replayability. Games are short enough to pick up and play casually or as a filler, and every advancement autosaves. All of this makes for a game that I have sunk countless hours into this past year. And with a new official character coming (which I’ve seen played in beta, it’s neat), I’m looking forward to countless hours more in 2020.
The World Next Door
By all accounts, this launched March 2019, though it feels like something I played through in 2018. I guess this year just felt that long. This game is kind of hard to pin down. It’s RPGish with visual novel narrative components. Battles are based on a realtime match puzzle system. It mashes a lot of stuff together in a way that is occasionally inelegant, but largely works very well. Also, it is extremely gay.
Back to that occasional inelegance, my only real gripe with the game is combat. The match puzzle thing is clever, but you play it by actually moving your character around on the puzzle board. In realtime. With the enemy doing same. And it often feels… cramped. This was never so bad that I didn’t want to hop back in and give it another go, nor did it in any way detract from how gay the game was. It just felt like something that could have been slightly better refined.
But, a great narrative with charming characters and an overall interesting system. The light VN elements were a cute touch. I look forward to playing this again, and would die for a sequel. Did I mention how wonderfully gay it was?
I played this one fairly early in the year, and don’t remember a great deal about it beyond its comical noodle leg physics. The narrative, if I recall, has a sort of anti-capitalist, destroy the robbers of the resources vibe to it; right up my alley of course. The characters are all quite charming, and (again, if memory serves) you have to kind of work with them at times to help overthrow The Man. I should… play this again so I remember it better. I know I loved it though.
This game reminded me a lot of Wandersong, which I wrote about in my 2018 media retrospective. It’s not just that they’re both rhythm platformers, but as in Wandersong, the rhythm aspects don’t matter. They add to the musicality of the game, but if you are terrible at rhythm games (points to self), you’ll be fine. Botching the rhythm sections seemingly does not affect the game one tiny bit.
Much like Wandersong as well, the protagonist is just this sort of misunderstood bird (close enough to bard, right?) trying to find answers and make friends. The basic premise is that you’re going around to all these different bird communities, trying to figure out what sort of bird you are. It’s a compelling and emotional narrative backed up with an excellent platforming experience. I found the rhythm bits far more complicated and difficult than in Wandersong, but again… it doesn’t matter! The music is really catchy as well, and furthers the narrative by keeping beat with a bouncing ball sing-along sort of display.
I wrote about Tetris 99 already. Since then, they’ve released two bits of DLC. There’s now a bunch of local stuff, which is welcome, including a standard marathon mode (which is deeply flawed, lacking an endless mode). There’s also an online team battle mode, which is neat but… kind of silly when you don’t know any of the people on your team? I guess if you had a large online community, you could do team mode in a private room, which would be fun. There’s also a mode that’s just regular Tetris 99 mode, except only players who have placed first at some point in a Tetris 99 game can join. This is theoretically very cool, playing against only more practiced and/or elite players. But in practice, only about 30 players ever show up, the other 69 slots filled with CPU players. This is far from ideal, and I’d honestly just prefer a battle royale with fewer players at that point.
But, everything else that I wrote last February holds true. There’s still a large player base, and I’m still having a ton of fun with it. I’m also still routinely placing in the top three, so there hasn’t been a runaway effect of the player base just becoming too good for folks who only play off and on or the like. I’ll likely buy the cartridge when my Switch Online membership is about to dry up. Apparently there’s a battle royale Tetris game coming to mobile as well, which is exciting.
My next post will be about Tetris, if you’re here for that good Tetris content.
Untitled Goose Game
I also have already written about Untitled Goose Game. I’m just going to pull a quote from that post:
[E]ven when I was trapped in a weird rotational loop with the farmer, annoyed that it felt like I was playing a hastily-coded shareware title from the late ‘90s, I didn’t want to stop. All was forgiven, I just wanted more goose. I beat the game, which prompts you with a handful of additional tasks. I thought, I’ll do these here and there amid other games. The next day, I wanted more goose, and promptly powered through these tasks. I watched some streamers do these additional tasks despite just having done them, because, more goose.
I still crave more goose. If there’s goose DLC, I will buy more goose. And I will frantically seek out fanart of that goose. And I will watch people play that goose. I love the goose.
Baba Is You
Crap, this came out in 2019? This list is getting long. A genius puzzle game that I briefly talked about when it was proven that Baba is You is Turing-complete. The core premise of the game is that you push around items on a grid-based field, Sokoban-like. But some of those items are… linguistic? And forming statements with them fundamentally changes the puzzle. If you change the statement ‘Baba is you’ to ‘Grass is you’, suddenly you’re in control of every piece of grass on the field. Manipulating what you are, what the goal is, what is dangerous, etc. is the meat of the puzzle, and it is some very deep meat. Ew. Anyway, highly recommend; I heard a level editor is coming soon?
And, to finish, Pokémon Shield is another game I already wrote about. Which, yeah I’ve been writing about video games a lot lately, and as I mentioned… I consumed a lot of video games in 2019, it just was a rough year and… they’ve been helpful. I think finally breaking into Pokémon proper was sort of the peak of that helpfulness. Shield was an adorable game that gave me something to bond with a friend over, and allowed me to absorb the warmth of players online through their fanart and struggles to catch ‘em all. I feel like I don’t really need to go into the game much, since I am the last human to experience this franchise, but… I’m glad this is a Thing I got into in 2019. It really meant a lot to me.
This is about the third piece I’ve written on (loosely) this subject; perhaps it will be the one I actually publish. I’d been thinking a lot about computers lately, and what my needs would be in my next machine. I’ve long considered myself a Mac user, despite currently owning one Mac and four PCs (two of which I use with regularity). Apple has been incredibly disappointing to me lately, on both hardware and software fronts. On the other hand, I still truly hate using a non-Unix OS, and there are plenty of other points of contention that make Windows my least favorite modern OS. My approach on my Lenovo X220 (a machine which I will be keeping and using for writing, I suspect) is to dual-boot with Ubuntu as my default. This is viable, though I need to pay closer attention to partitioning, and likely add an exFAT part or the like for a shared space. I’m currently uncertain whether I’ll continue with that approach on my new machine, or attempt KVM with GPU passthrough.
At any rate, I was looking for a two-in-one (which Apple refuses to make), yet something at least somewhat powerful. If I wasn’t going to go for a two-in-one, I wanted something very powerful, and something with a trackpoint. I think trackpads are the absolute worst pointing devices in existence, and I hate that they’re the norm. I had been looking for a while, and ended up semi-impulsively pulling the trigger when a very good sale landed on the HP Spectre x360 (13″). I’m still working on getting it set up (debating on a Linux distro, messing with the new version of WSL, making Windows tolerable, &c.), but I’m using it (under Windows gVim, egad) to write this post.
- Is backlit,
- which I don’t really care about at all, but it has two levels and they seem… functional, if that’s a thing that one needs for typing in the dark.
- Has decent travel and overall feel,
- which I was worried about, being a two-in-one and all. It’s about as slim as possible while still having a USB-A port, which meant that the keyboard could be a major compromise, but… it types pretty well. It’s a chiclet thing, of course, so it’s not as typable as, say, my X220. But it’s not bad at all. Keys have a satisfying sound to them as well. Not the clunk of my beloved ALPS mechanicals, certainly, but they sound like they’re doing something.
- Has some awful cluster decisions,
- like the cursor key garbage that Apple recently abandoned. The left and right cursor keys are full-height, while the up and down are half-height in between them. It is unusable. There’s enough space to bump the cluster down, or failing that, a cluster of all half-height with pg up/pg dn or home/end above ←/→. I’ve used all of these configurations extensively. They are usable, this is not.
- But also the right-side has a cluster of full-height home, pg up, pg dn, and end, and this… also kind of sucks. I’d prefer these as a function layer, to be honest. I over-reach and mash pg dn when I’m trying to hit enter, like… a lot.
- Has a couple of other things worth mentioning:
- No application key, which is absolutely vital as a keyboard-user in Windows. This is, unfortunately, not unique to this machine, and I’m used to simply remapping the right ctrl to this key.
- No function-layer numpad, which seems to be a dying trend. I don’t see why one wouldn’t just opt to include it, except for the visual clutter on the keycaps? Oh well; I would have appreciated it, but it isn’t a deal-breaker.
- It does have a visible indicator for mute on the mute key, which… I appreciate far more than I thought I would. Also, it’s amber, so it stands out (the backlight and indicator on caps lock are white)
- Is glossy,
- which I know is pretty common these days, but I think it’s the first glossy-screened laptop I’ve owned? Or, I guess my first MacBook probably had one, and I’ve just wiped it from my memory. But regardless, I don’t know why people put up with these. I mean, I’m going to, I’d be far more likely to return this thing based on the keyboard layout than the glossy screen, but damn it’s annoying.
- Has a very cool privacy feature,
- called SureView. This was an option (and meant I couldn’t get the 4K display, which I had no desire to get anyway), and it’s one of the things that really makes me happy about this machine. There’s some kind of filter, and some kind of directional backlight, and when it’s lit a certain way… it just looks like a normal screen. But when you press F1 suddenly the whole thing washes out a bit, and viewing it becomes very directional. It feels a little blurry almost, and like even directly in front of it you’re not getting a good view of the whole screen, but it also gets the job it sets out to do. It really washes out at angles that aren’t directly in line with it, and will be valuable when I use this on the train, etc.
- Is a touchscreen, of course, and also a digitizer,
- and that all works fine? It’s the sort of digitizer that requires an active pen (so, not Wacom, and not as good as Wacom, but still quite good). I don’t really know what complaints one could have about a modern touch panel, but I have none.
- Is 120Hz
- which I think is still fairly unusual for a two-in-one? Maybe not, but regardless, visually… the screen is quite good.
- As I mentioned, I wanted a relatively beefy machine,
- and this is an i7 with 16GB of RAM, and 1TB of SSD w/ Optane. For the physical size of the machine, it’s proving a bit of a beast. The fans are loud, but the vent they have to expel air from is tiny, and they have some heavy lifting to do. I haven’t really put it through its paces yet, but what I have seen leaves me confident it’ll accomplish what I want it to.
- It’s got ports!
- Not a lot of them, mind you, but what I was looking for: USB-C with power delivery and USB-A. Obviously, it’s a slim machine, so there are compromises: only two USB-C ports, a single USB-A, and no dedicated DisplayPort or Ethernet (ha!). It does have a 3.5mm combo audio in/out, which is nice, and a microSD slot. It charges off of USB-C, and this leads to my one minor gripe: both USB-C ports are on the right side of the machine, the USB-A is on the left. Since both are power delivery ports, it would be nice if the USB-C ports were on either side. I’m sure this would be an internal layout nightmare, difficult or impossible due to the size of the machine. An Asus I was looking at was slimmer and arguably nicer-looking, but I don’t like dongles and am not ready to ditch USB-A yet.
- is branded as being from Bang & Olufsen, a company whose industrial design I’ve lusted over for most of my conscious life. I don’t generally put much faith in these alleged collaborations, and I have no idea how involved B&O actually was. But, for laptop speakers, they do sound good.
- The webcam
- is Windows Hello ready, and is also something I don’t care about at all. I haven’t tested it. It does have a hardware cutoff switch, which is great. In concert with the SureView display, this is a machine that has at least tried to put emphasis on privacy. Encryption was enabled by default, as well, though… that may be standard with Windows 10 Pro, I’m not sure. I do wish there would’ve been a physical switch for WiFi, but… if I only get one switch, having it prevent me from accidentally camgirling is… fine.
- Et cetera
- The physical design of the machine is like… faux luxe. There’s this aggressively-chiseled metal border around attractive-but-cheap-feeling plastic, and it just… doesn’t mesh. The aggressive lines also look absurd when the thing is folded into tablet mode, and… more masculine than I’d like otherwise. Which is fine, I have stickers to girl it up.
- The trackpad sucks, but I can’t judge that fairly. I hate them all. Though I’m not getting the ‘precision trackpad’ options in Windows, which I think means it’s not quite up to modern standards? I just want to figure out how to assign middle-click, the internet is an inefficient mess without it. Also maybe find a mapping such that I can scroll with vim keys.
- Battery life seems… fine, not great, so far. About all I have to say on that.
- It’s very slippery in tent mode, rubberizing the top/bottom edges a bit would have been… bad for their weird aesthetic, I guess, but great for productivity. Might mod.
- It has a fingerprint reader. Not sure I care. PIN is fine for me, honestly.
Despite growing up firmly in the Pokémon era, I had only played Pokémon Snap, Pokémon: Magikarp Jump, Pokémon Go, and a handful of games on the Pokémon Mini console. That is to say, I have never played a main-series Pokémon game until now, with Shield. I know I’ve been writing about video games a lot lately, and I really should do some maths or something instead. But, I’m an exhausted person in an exhausting world, and video games are giving me a lot of joy. I also know that I’m not particularly qualified to write a review on a game which I have nearly no background with; this isn’t intended to be a review. It’s just been a very interesting experience breaking into a well-known, well-loved franchise 23 years and eight generations late.
To get the end of the story out of the way, I am really enjoying Pokémon Shield, and I intend to go back and play through previous generations of Pokémon games. I can tell that I am nearing the end of Shield, and my sole complain would really be the length of the game. Not in an ‘I paid $60 for this!!!’ sort of way, just… I’m having a good time, I want more. Part of why I’m having a good time is that there’s an obvious formula that works here; the franchise is successful for a reason. The narrative is present but not so deep that it demands undivided attention.The collection element is engaging, and even without the ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ mindset, it means there’s always something new to find. The RPG system itself is interesting to me as well, with every possible move having a cost, that cost system not replenishing over time, and no ability to skip a turn. On the surface it feels like it should be unforgiving, but it works and forces decision-making over just brute-forcing every battle with one well-designed monster.
My appreciation goes beyond the gameplay, however, since Pokémon is such a cultural powerhouse. Simply due to the sort of cultural world I inhabit, Pokémon fan art crosses my path a lot. And I’ve always enjoyed it! The little monsters are cute, and folks who want to reinterpret them generally gravitate toward the cutest of the cute. But now it feels personal: I can go out and find this creature, or if I already have, I know how it operates. I realize this is not a novel concept; obviously one will have a greater appreciation for art that they relate to beyond its surface level. But it’s interesting to me how much that appreciation has shifted for me, despite already having absorbed a fair amount of franchise knowledge simply by its cultural saturation.
Part of the reason, I suppose, that I never got into the franchise is because it has always been centered around Nintendo’s mobile consoles. I never owned mobile consoles until much later in life – my first was a DS Lite. What I didn’t realize was that this meant that from the beginning of the series, this focus on mobile meant there was a multiplayer aspect. If you truly wanted to ‘catch ‘em all’, you had to link up and trade with a friend who had the other version. A dear friend of mine (who has been very helpful in getting me up to speed on the basics) has Sword, and while we haven’t traded monsters, we have been sharing our finds with one another. It’s cute, and it’s clear that this culture of sharing has been baked in to the series from the beginning. I had no concept of this before; I deeply appreciate it now.
I guess that’s about all I have to say. I firmly believe that Pokémon Shield is a good game. It could be the worst game in the series, for all I know; that wouldn’t really matter. It has been a thing to share with friends, a thing to connect me to a community, and it has me convinced that I should go back and play the older games. To me, that’s good enough.