My year in ASL

I haven’t written an AAR for a while, because my opponent kept beating me to the punch. So here are my remaining games from this year in a condensed format, for the sake of completeness.

After “Gavin Take”, we played “The Guards Counterattack“. I believe I lost, and I don’t really like the scenario. It feels very static and inflexible to me, due to the way the OB is prearranged on the board. It is not really the masterpiece it’s made out to be by the veterans.

Next up was “Land Leviathans“, twice with reversed roles. I lost as the German player and won on the Russian side – even though this happened to me:

MA MALF

It is an interesting scenario, but somewhat weird from the German perspective. With dice rolls that are shitty enough, the Russian player can win the game in their second turn, and when I played the German side, Pyro came really close to that. The game requires the Russian player to get three of his ten or so tanks off-board, and he had one platoon of three tanks close to an exit hex in his first turn. I managed to blow up one of them, but couldn’t prevent him from bringing another tank off-board somewhere else a bit later.

The Russians have shitty mobility thanks to their platoon movement, but still I feel like the scenario is slightly pro-Russian. The Scenario Archive disagrees.

Next up was “Ranger Territory” from Paratrooper. It’s an interesting scenario about German infantry with two tanks overrunning an American stronghold on a hill, and even though I hate American Elite infantry with their friggin’ laser rifles, I won with a classic flanking attack I’m rather proud of.

game-end

After that, we continued with “Infantry Brigade Model” by Friendly Fire. Again, I’m the German player who gets a whole bunch of cavalry. The game is still in progress, and the only thing I can say so far is that I hate HATE HATE Cavalry. It can’t attack, it can’t stand enemy attacks and it can’t even move in woods with decent speed. I hate Cavalry. It’s useless.

Really.

Thanks to a forced break of several months and my inability to keep PBeM games going, this year was rather lackluster ASL-wise. But it’s been an interesting year, with my first Full ASL AFV game, my first cavalry game, my first Overrun, my first Human Wave… I guess that’s not so impressive for a grognard, but for me, it’s sort of an achievement.

Danmaku Unlimited 2

So this was my first step on the way down the rabbit hole called “Bullet Hell”: Danmaku Unlimited 2, easily available on Steam (current price: EUR 4.99). There are versions for Android and iOS as well, but because I don’t really have a gaming phone, I will focus on the PC version here.

What I like…

The first thing that catched my eye was the music. Wait, that sounds wrong. Anyway, the soundtrack by Japanese indie band Blankfield is what I like best about this game. I suck at categorizing music, but it’s some metal industrial thingy. Look, it has electric guitars in it. The entire soundtrack is on Spotify and probably other streaming platforms, so just judge for yourself. It is loud, it is fast, it is exciting.

Danmaku Unlimited - Trance Mode

And so is the game. You essentially have three attacks on your hand: The basic shot, which you will use all the time. The beam, which destroys enemy bullets and transform them into a higher score modifier. And lastly, Trance Mode, which gives you a huge boost to damage and score modifier for a while, but needs to be charged by “scraping” bullets – i. e. bullets hitting your ship but missing the hitbox (which is, as per Bullet Hell conventions, smaller than the actual ship and displayed as a big glowing dot). Using those special attacks at the right time is crucial to getting a good score and adds another layer of complexity over merely beating the game without dying over and over. The pacing is tight, enemies don’t take too much time to eliminate and bosses don’t stay at the same pattern for too long, either.

That being said, Danmaku Unlimited 2 is very forgiving when compared to other Bullet Hell games. Usually, you have three to five lives and if you get hit just once, you die. In Danmaku Unlimited, a single ship can take up to five hits before exploding on the sixth one, and you can have five lives – giving you the ability to eat thirty bullets in a single playthrough! You do have to give up a lot of firepower for that, but even in a balanced build, you still can take way more damage than in other games.

But that does not make the game easy: It makes up for that in the design of its bullet patterns. They are varied, creative, good-looking and hard – especially those of the later bosses (or “Valkyrias”). My personal favourites are a couple of patterns where a handful of bullets “eat” other bullets and clear your path through another, nigh-undodgeable pattern.  But of course, those vaccum cleaner bullets will still damage you if you hit them.

I played through the first three levels just now just for this one screenshot. Not sure if fail or win.

I played through the first three levels just now just for this one screenshot. Not sure if fail or win.

…and what I dislike

When I played this game first, I found it overwhelmingly good. Today, I am a bit more ambiguous on it. Yes, I still like it and yes, I still recommend it, but there are other Bullet Hell games I like better.

My quarrel with the game is that it looks a bit bland. The backgrounds are completely forgettable and the enemies somehow all look the same. The game does have a high level of visual clarity, which is certainly a good thing, but it does have some disadvantages. Also, the sound effects don’t really give you the feeling of sitting in a space ship and shooting other spaceships, but rather sound like shooting a Nerf blaster at a concrete wall. Believe me, I am an expert on shooting Nerf blasters at concrete walls. Especially in contrast to the great music, those sound effects just are a bit… meh.

Still, it is a really good game. Just not the best one I ever played.

A word on smartphones

Danmaku Unlimited 2 is actually a port of an earlier mobile game version – and it doesn’t feel like that for a bit. It looks great on the big screen (with the issues I mentioned before) and works great with both keyboard and gamepad controls. That history does, however, take a bit of an edge off my earlier criticism, because clearly a high degree of visual strategy is far more important on a smartphone.

And yes, the game actually works on Smartphones! I gave the demo a whirl and even though my phone lacks the power needed for a decent gameplay, the controls actually feel far more smooth than I expected. I still think touch controls are not really the way to go for games like this, but if you are a mobile gamer, you might still want to check it out. Otherwise – I recommend getting the Steam version. For five bucks, you really get a good game with a lot of long-term fun included.

Next game to be reviewed: Crimzon Clover WORLD IGNITION.

Welcome to Bullet Hell!

For some months now, I’ve been playing a bunch of Bullet Hell Games. For those unfamiliar with the genre: It’s a subgenre of 2D shoot’em ups, characterized by a whole bunch of bullets being on screen all the time. These games require pattern recognition, concentration, dodging skills and some memorization. Also, they are totally awesome and you should play them, which is why I will review every single game of the genre I played so far in the coming days. But first of all, I’d like to tell you why I, personally, like the genre so much.

They are hard, but not frustrating.

I have heard of Bullet Hell (or Danmaku – Japanese for “Bullet Curtain”) before, but quickly got the impression that it was for really good video game geniuses, and I do not consider myself one of these. But it turned out it actually is possible to play them without a diploma of gaming handed out by Dark Souls U. Yes, all of these games are really, really hard and even on the easier difficulty settings, beating a game on the first try is not something that’s going to happen. The elusive 1CC Run (beat the game without using Continue) and the even more elusive No Miss run (which is a non-indicative term for not being hit even once) are completely out of reach for hacks like me.

But even when getting smashed in the face, I found I still enjoyed every second of it, because usually there was a sense of progress. With every run, I get better and reach something I haven’t reached before. Got to chapter 4 for the first time, learned how to use my least favourite ship, no-missed level 2, and so on. And after twenty hours, I was actually able to 1CC Crimzon Clover on Novice difficulty. Yay me.

Also, the games are easier than they look – your ship has a tiny hitbox, and you usually don’t need to focus on single bullets – just on the lines, cones or circles in which they move. And once you’ve gotten the hang of a level, you can make it a lot easier by saving up your special attacks for those enemies that give you trouble, or evade their danger zones entirely.

A whole bunch of stuff happens in them.

With all those ever-changing bullet patterns on screen, “popcorn” enemies that explode after just one or two hits, your high rate of fire and at least one special attack in every game in the genre, those games never have a boring moment. Well – some of them have, but I will come to that later. Also, these games are all about presentation – there is, apparently, a law stating that they have to have awesome art and awesome soundtracks and lots of explosions with lots of noise. The soundtracks can be in any genre – orchestral arrangements, industrial metal, trance, anything really.

They are highly diverse.

Not just music-wise, Bullet Hell games are “anything goes”. They do have a certain formula, yes, but each has their own approach to level and boss design (multistage? multiple hit zones? focused on popcorn or on minibosses? timed bossfights?), to special attacks (beams, rockets, firepower boosts, shields) and to their visual style, and all this means that Danmaku Unlimited 2 and Crimzon Clover (two games I am going to review) are about as similar as Team Fortress 2 and Modern Warfare.

And they have a plan.

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist making that lame joke. Anyway, that’s about it. If you haven’t played Bullet Hell stuff before, I hope I could make you a bit more interested, and I certainly will try to get you to buy some stuff in the next days.

(Title Image: Danmaku Unlimited 2. Review incoming tomorrow.)

#GamerGate: Time to leave the bandwagon?

I’ve tried for a long time to ignore this whole #GamerGate thing, but I can’t go on with it anymore. The movement has become a serious threat to variety in games, to independent game journalism, to freedom of speech on the internet, and to everybody who dares to stand up against them. At the same time, there is a lot of justified, well-researched criticism of the movement, the criminal network at its very core, the methods used by the more rabid GamerGators (a word I just made up. Neat, huh?) and the impact they have on the gaming community. This, however, is mostly limited to private blogs of devs or journalists, while the big gaming websites either completely ignore it or try to cover it from a “neutral” standpoint.

Unfortunately, the time for neutrality has passed. GamerGate is a mob and has been a mob pretty much from day one. The things they do – threatening murder and rape, telling people to kill themselves, harassing critics and attacking their revenue streams – are amoral and for the most part criminal, and they do real harm. By looking away, the big gaming press allows the GamerGators to continue with what they do while still being able to pretend having the moral high ground. That is shameful.

This post will be filled with a lot of rage, so I would like to address some things first: I do not believe everybody in the GamerGate movement is a criminal, amoral scumbag. But I do think that the movement is so rotten to the core that no good will come from it, ever. If you genuinely believe in a free, independent press and that’s the only reason why you are a Gator, get out. Now. Not only are you supporting the aforementioned criminals by standing with them – you are supporting a movement that harms the very ideals you are fighting for. That’s right – I think GamerGate does not do any good for an independent press, because they have a completely screwed up definition of “independent”. More on that later.

Again: If you are fighting for a good cause, you have no need to associate with criminals. Don’t do it. Go somewhere else. Create your own movement and hashtag. I bet many game designers and journalists alike would love to stand with you. But if you are with GamerGate, you are with a mob that operates via Nazi methods, and you should not support people like that, ever. They should stand isolated and alone, and they need to fail if freedom should win.

The Global SJW Conspiracy

Now, let’s move on to why I despise the GamerGate movement so much. Well, apart from them being a mob of criminal, amoral scumbags who threaten murder and rape, tell people to kill themselves, harass critics and attack their revenue stream while hiding behind a shield of good-willed but naive people with partially overlapping goals.

At its very core, GamerGate is a conspiracy theory.

(more…)

Game Jammin’ and so on: It’s alive!

…aaand the game is online. In fact, it has been since Monday (one day later than I wanted it to) and you can play it at Kongregate. Finding good names is always hard for me, so it’s called “Snipe’em up”. Enjoy!

What I’ve learnt: Integrating social APIs is far easier than I feared it was – or, at least, it is with the Kongregate API. Unity is awesome, but I knew that before. Getting visibility (and, thusly, feedback) on Kongregate is pretty hard, unless you actually make it to the very top of the rankings. This looks a lot simpler on other browser game platforms, like Newgrounds and Armorgames, and I might actually go elsewhere with coming games.

On the technical side, I’ve finally gotten some practice with Colliders, something that doesn’t come up too often in my main project, and got some new ideas on how to structure code, especially for very small projects that don’t need much reusability.

And finally, on the game design front, I had some time to ponder how the Danmaku genre works, which was interesting. I’m pretty new to this genre, which I only checked out a couple of weeks ago because slowbeef talked about it on Retsutalk and it sounded interesting and far less hard than it was, so I got Crimzon Clover WORLD IGNITION on Steam. It’s actually a fun journey for me and I feel like I’m getting better all the time.

But enough talk about good games, let’s go back to Snipe’em Up. What would I do different if I had more time? Some nice pixel art instead of the quick&dirty shapes I’m currently using. I suck at pixel art, but could probably manage something acceptable for those few sprites I need in a game of this scope. And the music isn’t really what I wanted to have, but I had to go with what I could got. So, have some epic orchestra music with your black&white GIMP brushes.

Anyway, since I don’t have a usable idea for my next project (with a slightly bigger scope, this time – maybe about one month), I might as well try my hand at a better looking, smoother, longer and more varied Snipe’em Up II. We’ll see. My other ideas are a Horror Metroidvania Thingy, or maybe a purely sprite-based 2.5d train driver arcade game in the style of Densha de Go!. But so far, neither of those two really seems like the right game for me, because both would require substantial amounts of artwork and my artwork sucks, like I said before.

ERROR_END_OF_STREAM_OF_CONSCIOUSNESS – blogpost aborted

Game Jammin’, the antisocial way (3)

It’s been a couple of days since the last update, and I’m making good progress so far!

shmup2

The game looks mostly like I want it to look (except for the player ship that’s going to get a reworking tomorrow). Collision detection works, garbage collection works, the basic game script is in place. I’m still missing the final boss, and also the miniboss I’ve got so far is probably the easiest opponent in the whole game.

The whole thing can be played through in about two minutes – that’ll probably go up a bit with said final boss, maybe to three minutes. But I don’t think somebody who has never played a shmup before will beat it on the first try.

What’s still also missing is a scoring system that actually produces reasonable results and makes getting a high score actually challenging. So far, every run that makes it to the end will have exactly the same score – that’s not really interesting.

Kongregate statistics integration is mostly there and already debugged. Music is in place, as are some sound effects – though one or two of those are still missing.

In total, I have spent about 10 hours with this project, which is less than I hoped to do, but I’m still dealing with The Move™ and searching a job, which takes up some time as well and is the reason I gave me a whole week of time for this. Five hours or so are still missing until the whole thing is finished, I guess.

On a side note, the script that spawns enemies is probably the worst bit of code I ever wrote and I really, really have to share it with you.

(more…)

Game Jammin’, the antisocial way (2)

Only one devlog for the first two games of my challenge, because I haven’t gotten around to do much. It’s weekend, dammit. Also, I’m still recovering from The Move™.

Progress so far:

Shmup Stuff

Those stars spawn one bullet every .1 second from one of their tips, and rotate clockwise through all the five tips. Also, the whole star is rotating at variable rates. They’re the only enemy I have so far and were inspired mostly by the Star brush in Gimp. THIS IS ART DAMMIT!

The player can both shoot opponents (which then explode, unless they have hitpoints left), the opponents can shoot the player (who then dies). That’s not much, but it’s a nice framework.

Tomorrow: That parallax-scrolling I wanted to get done today, plus scoring, plus an “encounter script” that controls how which enemy gets spawned. Also, some variation in the enemies. Sounds like fun to me!

Game Jammin’, the antisocial way (1)

Great, just great. I missed another Ludum Dare because it coincides with moves, sicknesses or important tests every. single. time. So here’s what I’ll do: As an aspiring antisocial game dev, I’ll just do my own game jam. Until Sunday, September the 7th, I will develop a game and I will publish it whether I think it sucks or I don’t. With about eleventy RPGs, video games, board games et cetera I have started and never finished, it just seems like the thing to do.

So I’ll develop a minimalist Bullet Hell game. With maybe a couple of twists, which I will try out and see if they work. Not sure with what I will come up exactly, but I’m coding to find out and you’ll be able to read all about it on this very blog.

I’ve already begun working today, but couldn’t devote too much time to it and mostly did really boring stuff: set up Unity project, initialize Git and push it to BitBucket, do basic scene setup, create basic scripts for bullets and moving a character around. Routine stuff, simply put. At least, bullets can already hit the player and the player can fire bullets.

Planned for tomorrow: Actual enemies that spawn bullets in reasonable patterns, and maybe some graphics that don’t look like shit. Also, parallax scrolling because parallax scrolling is kinda awesome.

▶ Let’s Play: Dinoropa

My first videogame ever was this weird edutainment thing called “Dinoropa”. It was co-funded by the german ministry of foreign affairs, and it tried to make children learn stuff about Europe, in particular about the twelve members of the European Union. Did I mention this game is old? Also, there are dinosaurs, which have nothing to do with anything.

Unfortunately, this game doesn’t really seem to have a spot in gamers’ hearts nowadays. Probably because it is not really good even for 1994’s standards. But still, I think there should be at least something about it on the Internet. So I did a quick Let’s Play on it some time ago.

It’s only in German, because the game is too and I don’t feel confident enough about my English for translating everything on the fly. If you don’t speak German, you might still enjoy the weird minigames and the onboard speaker representation of the national anthems of all the twelve EU members.

Stars without Number and Other Dust: Re-Revisited

This is not the first time I review Stars without Number, the old-school SciFi sandboxing RPG by Kevin Crawford (Sine Nomine Publishing), but with my growing experience in role-play gaming I feel I missed some real important things the last two times. So, again, let’s have a look at what makes SWN special.

We’ll skip the boring parts, like the character creations (it’s D&D. Take 3d6 and roll them. Got it?), combat rules (Take a d20 and I’ll tell you if you hit!), gear (pistol goes bang, laser pistol goes pew, plasma rifle goes slurp and so on) and the setting (there are stars, and they don’t have numbers). Let’s instead look right at the part of SWN that receives the most praise, the star system generation.

Generating star systems by rolling some dice is not exactly a new idea, but SWN has a unique take on it because it does not focus on a planet’s astronomic and geographic properties. You do roll some stuff like temperatures on the planet, but it doesn’t go into the detail of g-levels, day length and exact composition of the atmosphere some other systems do. Instead, after rolling just five basic properties – atmosphere, temperature, biosphere, population and tech level – that might be resolved as simply “breathable, cold-to-temperate, engineered biosphere, failed colony, baseline postech”. Just enough to get your imagination going.

Then, you get to the really important part of system creation: Giving your planets tags. Tags are short descriptors like “Heavy Mining”, or “Tomb World”, or “Psyonics Academy”. Tags are, essentially, those tropes that are connected to this planet. They are not intended to make the game world realistic – they are intended to make the game world feel dynamic and full of awesome stuff and they are intended to get the game going.

And yes, there is a table for randomly rolling for tags. It’s OSR, what did you think?

After selecting and rolling tags, you go to the description of the tags. Each tag has a list of possible friends, enemies, places, things and complications associated with it, and each planet has to be populated with friends, enemies, places, things and complications (called FEPTCs from now on, because I can’t be bothered to list them all) that can be used to make your sandbox feel vast yet detailed and alive.

For example, let’s go with a planet that hosts Alien Ruins and where a Civil War is going on. One of the possible friends for Alien Ruins is the Curious Scholar, and one of the possible friends in the Civil War is the Offworlder seeking passage off the planet. In combining those two, we might get our first FEPTC: A naive adventure scientist who’s getting caught up in the crossfire while exploring some alien ruins, because both sides of the Civil War think there might be some useful XenoTech in there, and who might turn for help to the PCs when they turn up there for whatever reason.

When the DM has assigned tags and FEPTCs to all relevant planets or at least to those three or four in the corner of the system where the PCs happen to start their adventure, there should be plenty of ideas going around on how to get the game going. If not, don’t panic, ’cause Crawford got you covered. Turn your rulebook to page 132, roll a D100 and get a useful adventure suggestion like “A Friend has been lost in hostile wilderness, and the party must reach a Place to rescue them in the teeth of a dangerous Complication”. Now, just choose some FEPTCs from those you created before et voilà, you’re ready to go.

There are similar tools for creating factions, like the two sides in this Civil War we have going on, or corporations, or religious groups – anything from a local Tentacle Monster Cult to an interstellar church to make the world even more vibrant, dynamic and filled with awesome stuff. They’re pretty unspectacular, but rock-solid.

Oh, and did I mention you can get the PDF for free?

There are some other games running on the SWN engine – one of them is Other Dust, by exactly the same author. The main difference between both games is in genre. While SWN is SciFi, Other Dust is Post-Apocalypse. There are, of course, a lot of similarities in both games, starting with the rules: To anybody who has understood character creation and rules of play in SWN, OD won’t offer any big surprises. But there are some small modifications, like other classes and a system for weapon wear and repair. I think it’s a nice example on how to modify a system for a different genre without really changing any of the fundamentals.

But, like I said right in the second paragraph, the rules are not the interesting part of any Crawford game. Other Dust is, like SWN, a sandboxing game, and it shares the whole “setting generation” aspect. This time, you don’t generate a star system but a patch of the postapocalyptic wasteland and the enclaves set in this wasteland. Again, the generation is driven not by statistics but by tags. This time, the PCs might encounter a Functioning industry in a village, or they might find a Tyrant ruling over the inhabitants of an old power station. There are fewer tags than there are in SWN, but still, a nice variety is in store and all the usual post-apocalyptic tropes are available.

Unlike SWN, Other Dust does not offer a free PDF version, but it is definitely worth its money.

In my humble opinion, SWN and Other Dust are two of the best RPGs out there and I am not known for my fanboy attitudes about OSR games. What makes these games so great is how they incorporate the feeling of the genre into the very heart of the game. And, as the sandboxing tools are completely disconnected from the rules of play, they are very easy to put on any universal system like Savage Worlds. Also, if you would like to modify the rules, there is a chapter explaining the design choices and recommending possible optional rules and house rules for both games in the SWN rulebook.

These two games offer a whole bunch of possible fun for very little money and learning effort. They might not seem to be the most innovative games out there, but there is a lot of quality stuff in them.

And yes, both games have some parts one might criticize. For me, that would mostly be that I dislike the classic D&D rules and feel they are clunky, slow and boring. But, like I said, that’s easy to fix and the games offer so much good and fun stuff that I am more than willing to glance over these parts.

You can find the designer’s website at www.sinenomine-pub.com, and you can get the games at Drivethru RPG. Also, they are in the Bundle of Holding for 22 more hours from now.