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12:56 PM on 01.28.2012

Location: Always the Urbanite

I love living in the city - while many resent the crowded streets, the tall buildings and the subtle background notes of consumerism and pollution, it's what I grew up around, and I couldn't live any differently.

What's more, no two cities are the same - From London to Leeds to Bridgetown to Paris, they're all diverse and contain an essence you won't get somewhere else. It's something that's hardly ever reflected in video games. When designing an 'expansive, immersible world' many games seem to think on a scale way too large to be detailed. Games are enamoured with the overworld, travel times between important locations and large rolling landscapes filled with not-very-much. I don't doubt that this form of escapism works perfectly for those who tire of the modern urban environment, but I just can't get into a setting like that. You can keep your Skyrims and Shadows of the Colossi, thanks.

No, what I love in a video game setting is a smaller scale and a focus on the details. A city rendered so even if there aren't a huge number of places to go, where you can go is lovingly crafted. You can almost feel what it's like to live there. GTA and Saints Row series get the location, but not the intimacy. Many have noted that the city of Steelport in Saints Row: The Third is expansive, but same-y and lacking a pulse.

Games like the Yakuza series do it better. You really get the sense of daily city life, interspersed among your regular duty of cracking skulls. You get to know the seedy back alleys and the frighteningly expensive manors, along with the kinds of people who inhabit them. What's more, the decision in the first Yakuza game to have the city explorable over different periods in time give you an impression of how things change - both architecturally and socially. Wonderful!

You can imagine the hustle and bustle easily. Who wants to hit the Pachinko parlour?

But my favourite urban setting has to be The World Ends With You's take on Shibuya. Classified as the trendiest district in Tokyo, TWEWY takes that concept and goes all-out. Every aspect of the game world is given a solid coat of subculture, from the shopping districts to the sewers.

Each of the locations are stylised from real spots in Shibuya, with the names changed to protect the innocent. Fashion and music are major aspects of the local culture, so how could they not have HMV, Tower Records and department store 109 take pride of place?

That's 104 (TWEWY's take on 109) in the distance. The weird perspectives in the battle scenes are great for making the city look imposing and twisted when it needs to be.

But what is a city without its people? The main characters in TWEWY all have the ability to read the minds of nearby people - a smart move both mechanically and aesthetically. You're playing as people who can quite literally see the pulse of the city, and know what's on everyone's mind. They're not just faceless obstructions, they're also people with senses of style and matters on their mind. Even the shopkeepers you visit have their own personalities and remember you as you return. Everyone who's played TWEWY will have their own favourite shop and shopkeeper.

It still impresses me how the game mechanics are so closely tied with the setting and themes. This is a city where the clothes you wear are your battle armour. The monsters that you face are brought about through negative emotions. Your sense of creativity and what you wear says so much about you and how you handle the problems you face. It doesn't matter if you're into elegant Gothic, punk rock, or the imported and exotic, you get by in this Shibuya by being yourself; aggressively and unrepentantly.

Look at that confident smile. She's dressed to kill the bad vibes for sure.

Urban living is a mixture of loving getting lost in the crowd and embracing a culture that lets you be yourself; something you're not going to find in an open expanse, or an insular rural community. On the surface everything may look busy and anonymous, but there is character and depth to be found if you take the time to take in the culture built up under the feet of a million people; and I've yet to find a game that reflects that sentiment better than The World End With You.   read

5:26 PM on 10.08.2011

Weighing in on Women Protagonists

Like all media telling a story, characters in video games require detail and definition - especially player characters. It's not just the gameplay mechanics that make up your digital avatar; exploration into interesting costume design, back story, dialogue/voice acting and even animations go towards making your avatar identifiable and worthy of emotional investment. It's what puts Nathan Drake miles apart from Duke Nukem when mechanically they're just means to an artillery.

However, the range of backgrounds in video game protagonists is still rather limited, when compared to books or film. While there are all different kinds of 'noble hero' characters (often falling into the majority demographic of straight, white and male) - differing in body type and personality; minority protagonists are a lot more uncommon. A black player character is rather anomalous - and have fun thinking of 5 or more protagonists who aren't straight.

Having recently observed the problematic train wreck (link is NSFW) that was Duke Nukem Forever, and the recent decision to have the female version of Commander Shepard as the main face of Mass Effect 3, I feel a lot more aware of women in protagonist roles. While they're not uncommon (an RPG without any kind of woman party member would be incredibly strange); whether they're handled well and varied is another matter.

Samus is one of the most-cited examples of a well-handled woman protagonist in games - the game design video series Extra Credits loves to cite her as an example; but I don't necessarily feel her portrayal is so cut-and-dry. In her original appearances, the hints to Samus being female are few and far between (I remember a lot of people surprised at finding out Samus was a woman - including myself).

She's cool, capable, and her battle armour doesn't fall into the stereotypical design flaws of having 'boob-plate', or an exposed midriff. On the other hand, she comes across as incredibly personality-deprived. While the very early games get an excuse in a lack of scope in animation or dialogue, with the suit on, Samus may as well be a robot - though once the suit comes off, she is suddenly svelte and sassy.

The rendition of Samus in Metroid: Other M is much worse, though the approach is different. Samus is much more notably female in her animations without sacrificing her armour style or fighting prowess. On the other hand, the attempt at giving her dialogue ended up veering wildly from what minimal original characterisation she had - suddenly losing some of her 'lone wolf' attitude, and a ham-fisted attempt at creating character relations with her commander instead came across as supplicant to a fault. My personal favourite rendition of Samus would be her appearance in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. The game's story mode is without dialogue; meaning Samus' personality is portrayed entirely through her actions, and it's handled quite well for something arguably throw-away.

Beyond Good and Evil was a very interesting game with disproportionately little advertising and press; it tried a lot of things to make itself unique - stealth segments, hovercraft racing, photography, a well-rounded female lead... wait, what's this?

Jade stands out as my personal favourite example of a great woman protagonist. It manages to straddle a thin line of a character having markedly (though socially assumed) feminine traits, but those traits not being the driving force behind everything she is. She has a motherly trait in her taking care of orphans, she wears make-up, and she is by no means unshapely; but her practical fashion reflects the action-oriented work she does, she's a charismatic leader without relying on her figure, and she's sure of herself and her goals. Her partner characters are both male (one of whom ticks all the buttons for 'brave masculine protagonist'), but they both treat her with respect (though could you imagine what the gameplay would be like if they didn't?). What stops Jade from being perfectly well-rounded is her lack of flaws. Hyper-competence is almost always going to be a factor of a playable character; but Jade's actions and interaction are unwaveringly 'the right thing to do'; somewhat ironic, considering the game title.

BG&E reminds us that the key to great characterisation is not avoiding all tropes that are part of a stereotype; but using those aspects in conjunction with other, maybe even contrasting elements to bring about someone well-rounded and likeable. Just don't be afraid to add character flaws.

Bayonetta has been incredibly divisive as a character among critics. Some find her openness about sexuality and her determination to do things only on her own terms progressive; others notice the extreme pandering to the male gaze, and find the lethality of her sexuality to ring hollow. An interview with the director, Hideki Kamiya, clears up most of my suspicions - many aspects of Bayonetta's design have been brought forth from the turn-ons of some of the design team, and Hideki's creepy stance on women (to which Bayonetta would not be the first victim...).

Design-wise, this has lead to Bayonetta being very specifically designed as fetish-bait. As her clothes are made from her enchanted hair, whenever a Wicked Weave attack is performed (which will be often, if you're playing well), her clothing gets a lot skimpier. Her proportions are entirely inhuman - accentuating legs and waist with a tiny head - why would you need to be looking at her expression when you could be looking at her ass? Everything is delicate and feminine, from the lipstick-shaped lock-on reticule to the way the damage Bayonetta takes results in explosions of rose petals and butterflies. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that direction, but its inclusion feels condescending, like nothing else would suit a woman in an action role. (It's something that also has me worried about Lollipop Chainsaw...)

On the other hand, someone on the design team realised that the character would be dead in the water if she remained nothing but a long-legged sex doll; and the gameplay and story make a good attempt to keep the pandering to a less-pervasive level. During combat, the camera is barely focused on Bayonetta herself - the game takes its battles very seriously, and is designed so attention is drawn to incoming attacks and vulnerability animations, not gyrating witch-butt. The attacks and taunts designed for showing off are actually incredibly unsafe, and the game has no qualms about sending a swift death your way if you mess about. The storyline has surprisingly little dialogue-focus on Bayonetta's assets and attitude (the camera angles do the dirty work instead), and gives Bayonetta as a character the room to grow a little. By the end of the game her attitude of selfishness and hedonism has opened up into something more caring, without losing her independence.

It feels as if the character of Bayonetta in the game and Bayonetta in cut-scenes were designed by two different people. The silent sexy dancing of the credits and against other female rivals lie in stark conflict with the flippant foul-mouthed stance she takes almost everywhere else. There have been hints at a sequel from Platinum Studios - hopefully they'll find something more to do with Bayonetta's character beyond her sexuality and love of violence.

Dead Island turned out not to be a game where children are thrown out of windows in slow motion. It did turn out to be Borderlands meets Left 4 Dead, which is enough for some people. But to go up against Left 4 Dead, consideration needs to be paid to the playable characters. The protagonists of Dead Island are not all equal in their skills, so coming up with something compelling will be required to make someone who relies on a single weapon type an attractive choice. Purna gets the longer straw by being the firearms expert; but to justify that ability, they make her a hardened ex-cop. The entirety of her character is summed up in a 2-minute biography; and the set-up is interesting. They bring up some very hefty ideas, the role of women in police, the arrangement between social classes, and an especially unusual reference to how modern Australia can treat aborigines; a topic rarely brought up in general media, let alone video games.

However, it feels like they take those raw concepts, and come out with something a lot angrier. With a past like the one Purna was given, bitterness is bound to be expected, but here it's resulted in the polar opposite of the 'extra-feminine, demure and pure' stereotype - a 'cold, rage-fuelled uberfeminist' stereotype which, in practice, ends up being just as tasteless. It still boils down to an easily dismissed character, not because she's weak, but because she's too aggressive, her power being focused not on her self and in her own abilities, but in hating others, and particularly in hating men. The biography does not outright call her man-hating, but the game mechanics bear more information.

One of Purna's abilities is called "Gender Wars", which allows her to deal bonus damage to male targets. A little off-kilter, but the punchline comes in when, in the initial release of Dead Island on Steam, one purchaser decided to look at the game code, and found that the code named the ability as "Feminist Whore". Whoops. Developers Techland since altered the code in later releases, and put out a press release saying that the coder who wrote that part of the program would be reprimanded; but it makes me wonder how deeply the attitude of 'Purna the Feminist Whore' was entrenched in the design process for the character. Like with Bayonetta, the intents and attitudes of the creator are hard to separate from the finished product, even if alternate interpretations are less problematic.

The scope of character design is massive - the potential for protagonists in games is just as large as in novels or in films, but it will take a concentrated effort from games designers to acknowledge the potential for minority player characters in their work; and well-rounded characters in general. It's not impossible to form an empathy with a character who isn't the same gender, race or sexuality as you, so tailoring character design to demographic majority would be outdated and unnecessary. However, creating an identifiable player character in the first place can be a very demanding task, so the popularity of games where the looks of the protagonist are chosen by the player makes sense. Women are getting a wider and more balanced representation as the heroes of video games; though the number of them that end up in DD Breastplate and bikini-mail need to be worked on.   read

5:32 PM on 09.28.2011

Obscurity: I've finally Gotcha Force - A Mad Pursuit for Miniature Robots

The majority of my games purchases in the last 5 years have been second-hand games. Industry suffering be damned - I have a collector's obsession, and the pre-owned racks in GAME and Computer Exchange have been more than good to me. Last generation I was a Gamecube guy, and I didn't get a PS2 until way, way later (If I remember correctly, around the time Psychonauts was released). I was aware there was much of the PS2 library - mostly JRPGs - that I needed to track down and experience. However, now that era is over and done with, its worked out that the Gamecube games I missed have ended up being much much harder to track down.

One of the games on my list was Gotcha Force. A low-key release by Capcom, that mirrored elements of Custom Robo and Virtual On. The premise was the kind of thing you'd expect from a shounen animé - feisty preteen Kou encounters a action figure-sized robot from outer space called G-Red. G-Red is apparently a Gotcha Borg, who came to Earth to combat evil action figure aliens called the Death Force and --

Okay, so the story is incredibly stupid. But the review magazines at the time gave it solid praise, and I made a mental note to get myself a copy. Except, I never did. A mixture of being under 18 and overly-fretting about the Internet, I never considered the idea of purchasing a copy On-line; and Gotcha Force wasn't turning up in my local game stores. The only time it did, I had no money on me; a cruel joke that I'm sure I'm not the only person to experience.

Cut to maybe 4 years later. I have a Wii, the homebrew scene is booming, and I've been made aware of just how easy it is to pirate games on the Wii. It was tempting. An Internet friend had already got a Gamecube Backup Loader running, and I could hear him playing Gotcha Force in the background over Skype. The smug bastard. In the end, I ended up not following suit. Not because I couldn't get the Gamecube emulation to work, you understand, but because I have strict moral integrity and hate piracy. Yes.

Start making a lot of "pew pew pew" and "swoosh" noises out loud. That's Gotcha Force.

Then skip forward to... possibly last year. I was in a phase where I still thought media expos and conventions contained pleasant, conversational people with good hygiene and a shared hobby. Blissful ignorance. There was a stall selling old and rare video games. Gotcha Force was sitting there... for Ł30. Granted in this day and age, new games costing Ł30 would be a great deal; but compared to the overwhelming stacks of used PS2 games I had obtained over the years, precious few exceeding Ł15; my hand was hesitant to reach for my wallet. I passed it up, went home, and had the clarity of mind to check eBay. Turned out Ł30 was a steal. Upon patiently - and begrudgingly - waiting for the next MCM Media Expo, I found that they'd jacked up the price to Ł40. Goddamn.

At that point, I had largely resigned to the idea of buying a copy. I had enough unfinished titles in my backlog to keep me going into, like, my 30s. In time I was sure to forget about that silly robot-fighting game I so desperately wanted when I was 14.

Then, this summer arrived. As part of not dying of boredom between years of university, I went to visit a friend in Manchester. I'm a total urbanite, and Manchester sounded like a great city - a ton of dedicated nerd hangouts, and some great nightlife. He showed me Afflecks Arcade, this 5-floor building that was like Camden Market built vertically - a haphazard mash-up of vintage clothing store, gothic lolita and cosplay junk, record stores selling grunge and metal bands I'd never heard of. At the very top was The Retro Games Shop. Rows of glass cabinets of some very rare (and some very overpriced) games from NES to now. Glancing in one cabinet, I see Kingdom Hearts 2 being sold for Ł20, and I scoff. There's no way they can get away with selling old games for this much, even if they are rare! I move one case down and see it.

That's Afflecks on the left, Camden Market on the right.

Wedged in a stack along with other Gamecube games that time forgot (and sometimes with very good reason) - Gotcha Force. I blink and hesitate for a bit. I've found it again? It's sitting right there, but I resigned to never finding it ages ago. Do I still want it? Damn straight I do; but what's the price? I glance at the peeling yellow price tag. Ł30.

I have a momentary flashback to the expo, prepared to bail; but then I recall what the general going price is, and reach into my pocket for my wallet.

The game was in perfect condition with the manual; excellent. But after all of that searching, how does the game actually play?

Honestly, not half bad. The flow of the gameplay is incredibly basic - there's a battle every 3 minutes interspersed with some meaningless and poorly-written character babble, and the controls are simple enough for the 12 year olds it's aimed at to play without issues. However, there's some serious charm there; an essence that embodies all those shitty Saturday morning animé shows I watched as a kid - from Pokémon to Beyblade to Medabots (the latter of which I still unironically love, please don't judge me) - right down so some... very impressive voice acting.

This show is one of many reasons why I want an AI/Robot buddy. And why I'm sad I'll never have one.

The robots you fight with are all goofily Japanese and touch all the archetypes you'd expect (There's a whole robot type/class consisting of ninjas. Christ.), but they all play differently - even with the simple control scheme. There's a 'bot entirely dedicated to setting up neon-pink snare traps that root some poor sucker to an anchor point. Or anchor points. Which can be suspended in the air. Setting up a team of Borgs that work the strategy you want, but can still vary wildly between them appeals to me in the same way that Pokémon and trading card games do. It's a tried-and-tested mechanic, but it works, and I definitely find it captivating.

Was Gotcha Force worth my Ł30? Possibly not. That said, it hits my nostalgia in a way that no other games I've played recently has done. I know my 14 year old self would have loved this game to no end; and making my past-self proud has no price.

Now to see if I can ever find a copy of Amplitude. And Aggressive Inline. And Klonoa 2...   read

9:12 AM on 09.20.2011

TGS: Marketing Hype Machines (Of Which I am a Cog)

While games expos like the Tokyo Game Show (TGS) are meant to be a great draw of enthusiast interest - where announcements for new titles and demos for elusive ones come to light - a bitter part of me is jealous that I don't get to be part of the experience first hand. This year's TGS had me skimming over the announcements, pretending to not be invested, seeing a title that makes me spring to attention, and then getting all flustered that I rose to the bait.

Another part of me also realises that the titles promised may very be a long way away until I get to experience them in the UK. Some titles, like Phantasy Star Online 2 (a sequel I will admit I'm entirely hyped for), may not actually be released over here at all; and something tells me that sending a wave of letters to Sega won't help much.

However, TGS did deal with an issue that is pretty relevant to my gaming interests - what on earth I'm going to do with my 3DS. I'm a little ashamed to say that I was caught up in the original hype machine, and now I have a more expensive way to play my copy of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. It was beginning to feel like the Kingdom Hearts and Paper Mario titles I was holding out for weren't actually going to manifest; but TGS has drip-fed me enough new information to keep me hopeful; along with a few new titles that I now suddenly need very, very badly.

The desire to be this fabulous is overwhelming.

Monster Hunter 3 Tri G (Not a confusing title at all) is definitely the first on that list. I ended up not putting in as many hours as I'd like into the Wii incarnation; the main reason for such being that I was fixed to only playing it in the living room when it's unoccupied. Portability solves that issue in one. As with every sequel revision Capcom does, the improvements to this 3DS incarnation seem to make it a much smoother experience - relegating item management and camera to the touchscreen is such an obvious yet effective decision. Most of all is the chance to actually go monster huntin' with friends. But the time I had obtained the Wii rendition, my friends who owned the title were long-since done with it. Provided the EU version doesn't arrive too late after everywhere else; I stand a good chance of taking down Lagiacrus with my buddies.

Rhythm Thief & The Emperor's Treasure wasn't a game I was expecting to get excited about, but the more I see of it, the more charming its presentation. I love the kinds of rhythm games where your input feels like part of the music, rather than just following the abstract (Guitar Hero), or a loose consequence (Bit.Trip). Rhythm Thief seems to be sandwiched gameplay-wise between Rhythm Tengoku and Ouendan, which definitely sounds tasty to me. But there's a caveat - is the music any good? Well, from the little glimpses of stages released, they seem to be going down the route of original music, rather than watered-down licensing (A problem that ruined both Ouendan and Elite Beat Agents for me - the track listings were abysmal). Not all of it has me grooving, but the stage where you pose behind statues has a funky espionage-bassline that I'm loving.

On the other hand, the PSVita is getting more things announced for it (and as such raising its 'ooh, I want it!' factor), but interestingly enough; a lot of the ones I'm excited for exist (or will exist, in some cases) elsewhere. Katamari Damacy is wonderful, but not new. It's still up in the air if Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a must-have when put up against Uncharted 3. Street Fighter X Tekken is making my thumbs do rapid quarter-circle movements in anticipation, and the addition of Cole McGrath from inFamous (I love inFamous, even if it does have a crappy morality system) is icing on the cake, but then, fighting games don't lend themselves incredibly well to a handheld format.

These are complaints that could also be levelled at the 3DS line-up just as much (Is anyone really that excited about Super Mario 3D Land? And Snake Eater 3D is looking less and less exciting); it's not about having a brand-loyalty, but making the most out of consoles I already own - I don't see myself affording a Vita any time soon.

Never has Jungian Theory been so violent.

Speaking of Street Fighter X Tekken, there was another Fighter that that's got me anticipating - Persona 4 The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena (Or just P4U). P4U is as niche-audience as games get. While the Fighting genre has seen a resurgence in popularity and general in the last few years, It's still not something that's sweeping the sales charts. As for Persona 4; although it's the best swansong the PS2 could get, it's still a reasonably obscure title for those who aren't already in the market for animé-soaked, pseudo-psychological romps.

And yet, I find myself fitting neatly within both of those groups. This title was made for me. The abilities of the Persona 4 cast fit incredibly well into a fighting game, and anyone who's played the Jojo's Bizarre Adventure fighting game for the Dreamcast/Arcade can see the potential of having a physical manifestation of your personality fight alongside you. The game's being produced by Arc System Works; who previously produced Blazblue: Contunuum Shift and Guilty Gear XX: Accent Core, my favourite fighting game. The way the cast of revealed fighters in this behave has some very noticable similarities to Arc's previous titles, but all this means is that I and others will adapt to the game that much quicker.

This year's Tokyo Game Show has done something to me that all gaming enthusiasts simultaneously long for and fear - provided a list of titles that I know I'm going to empty my wallet on. While providing nothing that will revolutionise the world of digital entertainment, Nintendo, Sony et al are definitely going to be shifting enough software to see them comfortably into the next year. Let's hope the titles actually arrive here before too long.   read

3:59 AM on 09.16.2011

Gaming Culture & Misogyny - One Man's Heartfelt Message

This blogpost is focused on the writing of others rather than my own; but it's a pretty important message that I feel is worth sharing.

In late August, Alyssa Bereznak wrote an article for Gizmodo, titled "My Brief OkCupid Affair With a World Champion Magic: The Gathering Player". The article decried a guy the writer had met on-line, saying that not mentioning his hobby in his profile was very misdirecting, that she wouldn't date him because of his hobby, and that she implores others to take the same stance. (Note that the article has since been edited slightly from the original to be less inflammatory)

This was linked to me by some fellow Magic the Gathering (MtG) players (both men and women), and we were all understandably displeased by it. The general consensus was that it was shallow of her to dismiss someone entirely because of their hobby (she mentions nothing else about the date aside from this); and airing out dirty laundry in this way was in poor taste.

I knew there would be reader backlash in regards to the article; but I didn't check it out. It was a non-story; and hopefully the article would just be rewritten or removed.

Turns out, that's not what happened at all. The retaliation from the nerd masses was severe and overwhelming - not just response articles, but e-mails, twitter harassment, and god damn image macros. The most telling part of the response was how it was handled - with reactionary, misogynistic, BS.

Look at this. I mean, c'mon.

Which leads me to an essay I read yesterday, the only piece I've seen concerning the incident that tries to deal with an even hand, and goes into detail as to why the responses resorted to gendered attacks; with a wake-up-call that this kind of behaviour isn't isolated to this one case, nor is it related to solely MtG - but an ongoing issue with the societal effects of the male-dominant hobby of gaming.

The essay is incredibly long-winded, and suffers from the style it's written in (it's an open letter to his hypothetical daughter. The author, Geordie Tait, refers to himself as 'daddy' multiple times. Oh dear.); but it's honest and speaks from the heart. There's a section where he reflects on his past involvement with nerdery, and how he too succumbed to assumptions and accusations at women who share his hobby. He's disgusted at how he behaved before, and strived to improve his outlook, which I find very much admirable.

It only takes a little effort to realise how we interact with our peers, and those of us who have seen ourselves treated differently because we belong to a minority can attest that just being mindful of language and knowing that anyone has the right to enjoy and discuss games, cards, comics, movies and anime just as much as the straight white males can make a community so much better, and have all parties feel welcome and involved.

Oh, and if you turn down a date with someone because you don't share their hobby; that's perfectly okay. But probably don't tell people who share that hobby.   read

12:56 PM on 09.13.2011

Relaxation: Pokémon, Puzzles & a Pursuit of Inner Peace

As someone who's notoriously bad at a lot of video games, gaming is almost an inherently stressful experience. There's a persistent nagging sense to be performing at maximum competence in whatever game I'm playing - or at the very least, more competent than my peers. In a multiplayer game the aggressive-competitive angle is more than obvious, but have you ever tried playing an inherently single-player experience like, say, Pokémon, when one of your friends (you know; that friend. The one who's bragging to you about how good they are on Skype, and you'd totally block them but they play all the games you play so you can't) is giving you constant updates and making sure they experience everything just a little before you do.

It's always perfect timing as well - you've devoured the first hour or two of Pokémon Black, the first city's Gym thoroughly beaten, and you're feeling pretty good about yourself. The jaunty waltz of the town's theme is then interrupted by an IM message.

"yo dude how far are you"

Oh no, here we go again. You were just settling into your groove.

"I've just beaten Striaton City Gym."
"i'm already at the next city got a servine"

And there it is. This time the blow is two-fold, how on earth did he manage to get to the next area, and evolve his starter Pokémon so quickly? It's bad enough that you lost to him at Rock Paper Scissors and he got to choose the Grass type. Get yourself together, you can't let him catch on that he's getting to you. Act cool.

"I'm just taking my time, talking to everyone, y'know?"
"lol sure whatev"

Okay, screw this guy - it's time to play hardball. Your initial intent was to take this weekend as a relaxing catch-up session on your gaming backlog and some reading; but now it's war. Tapping your d-pad with increasing intensity, beating up the fantastic pets of toddlers and passers by; robbing them of their savings and moving on to the next mark, you rush into a fight you can't handle. As your character blacks out and reawakens at the nearest Pokémon Center, you get another message:

"just caught a shiny sawk"

At which point you wouldn't be blamed for hefting your DS across the room. The game itself my be relaxing, but some games lend well to having others ruin your chill demeanour.

As such, my relaxing respites are in games are instances where I can't really fail. Puzzle games are the best for this, and while I have never gotten into Tetris in any big way, I definitely identify with the idea of a 'Tetris Trance' - getting so into the rhythm of block swapping/dropping/exploding that the outside world starts to blur and fade as you reach your special Match-3 nirvana. My lowercase-typing friend doesn't like the genre, so I can make progress unmolested.

To be more specific, Tetris Attack/Puzzle League is my poison of choice, way back when I had a copy of Pokémon Puzzle Challenge for the GBC, and it was definitely a way to keep me quiet. Don't get me wrong, my younger self was god-awful at it, but the ease of play made it so compelling. I came for the brand loyalty to Pikachu and friends, but stayed so I could keep making the little coloured blocks vanish.

The only drawback Pokémon Puzzle Challenge had was actually a side-effect of the Pokémon moniker - hearing the harsh electronic cries of the characters every few seconds (or if you're playing on Hard, every half-second) was a major irritant and a barrier to that sought-after trance state.

Fortunately, the DS incarnation, Puzzle Planet League, still exists; and I swear to the deity of your choosing that the game was constructed with Valium implanted into the game card. Not only was the compulsive gameplay still there, unchanged from when I was a bratty little kid - but it came with hypnotically catchy beats and this... pulsing glow that everything had that would be more expected to show up in Rez (or Child of Eden if you want a less dated comparison).

Planet Puzzle League kept me hooked for an age - a few limited-move puzzles before I went to bed, daily Score Attacks every morning to wake me up, a shot at Endless Mode on any and every car or train journey.

I've since lost the cartridge, and have tried to replace it with a different Puzzle vice. Meteos and Gunpey have been valid competitors, but they've never quite met up to the same experience. Despite that, I cherish them as titles that I can bring anywhere - giving me the ability to find a little digital sanctuary when needed. Well, at least for as long as my competitive friends don't find out about them.   read

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