Volgarr the Viking: My 16-bit Obsession


Volgarr the Viking for the PC is a special game. It’s also tough as nails. I’ve been playing it all week, and I can’t even get past the second world yet.

It’s the kind that you play, get utterly frustrated with, but start thinking about immediately after you turn it off. You’ll convince yourself that just one change in your approach will get you through a level unscathed, and then there you are, turning it back on to try again. When you close your eyes at night to go to sleep, all you can see is yourself playing through the game from beginning to end in exacting detail.

That’s precisely what’s happening to me at the moment. This was commonplace for me back in the 8-bit and 16-bit days. I would only get maybe one game per month, if that, so I would play and master every game I received, whether they were good or bad.

20140813_mm2Although I have played some difficult games in recent years, they bring with them modern conveniences, such as save slots or generous checkpoints that reduce the amount of times you have to replay levels. They keep you moving forward, and in many cases have bite-sized level design, which I think are good things, especially as gaming continues to broaden its appeal.

Bravely, though, Volgarr lacks any of that. The most you get is a mid-level checkpoint and the ability to skip stages you’ve already beaten. Respawning at a checkpoint, however, means you have to collect all your gear again and miss out on treasure. Skipping stages means you can’t get the game’s best ending. As such, the few bits of help the game offers come with trade-offs that give even these simple decisions consequence. For all intents and purposes, this game behaves like a cartridge with no passwords or battery back-up.

20140813_sgngAs I said, this approach reminds me of my youth, sitting in front of my Genesis and Super Nintendo getting absolutely destroyed by games like Super Ghouls’n Ghosts, Target Earth, and Contra III: The Alien Wars. And yet I beat them all and I was very, very good at them at the time. Why? Because I had no choice. I didn’t have any other new games to play, so I dedicated myself to what I had, and I loved every minute of it. I’m not someone who likes to show off, but I did enjoy showing my friends how to “easily” get through my games that they were struggling with.

Nowadays? In my Steam library, I have nearly 300 games. My console backlog is so deep that there’s no way there are enough years in a lifetime to play them all. For a system criticized for having “no games”, I have at least 5 on the Wii U that I haven’t even started yet. It’s no wonder then that I find myself moving away from the time-consuming genres I once loved, like 80-hour RPG epics, and prefer blasting through a 15-hour retro platformer, quickly moving on to the next one.

20140812_rosVolgarr, though, has shaken me to my core, and I’m thankful for that. It’s a reminder of why I can still remember the exact level layouts of The Revenge of Shinobi, but not be able to recall what the first level of Super Meat Boy looked like. That’s not a reflection on game quality, but I find that my memory of games is more generalized nowadays vs. how intimately specific they are from past gaming generations.

Feeling that way again this week has been awesome. I don’t know if I’d have this level of dedication with every game, but since it is an innate part of Volgarr‘s vision and design — in a day and age where ease and forgiveness are the norm — I’ll happily bite.


Shovel Knight: 8-bit Perfection


I’m only about an hour into Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight, but I already know this will be one of my favorites of 2014.

Successfully funded on Kickstarter in early 2013, the final product is nothing short of stunning. I actually feel bad that I wasn’t able to contribute to its campaign last year — I was in the middle of moving and changing jobs at the time — but something tells me I’ll be buying at least a couple different versions of it before all is said and done.


Available for the PC, 3DS, and Wii U, Shovel Knight is a prime example of balancing childhood nostalgia with streamlined, modern design. It looks good in screenshots, but it truly comes to life in motion, with multi-plane parallax scrolling that was more common in the 16-bit generation, although there were several 8-bit games that did make use of this technique. Whether it’s accurate or not doesn’t matter; it looks terrific.

Use of color, art direction, and character animation are all top-notch and pop off the screen. There aren’t any artificial graphic filters here, so the sprites are crisp with every last square pixel shining through beautifully, exactly how I like it.


There’s a surprisingly personal story intermixed with the game’s humorous presentation, and the writing throughout is superb. You won’t find any badly translated text in Shovel Knight, although who knows? There might be some later for nostalgia’s sake.

Then there’s the soundtrack, which is also mind-bogglingly good. You can listen to and buy it for any price HERE, and they even offer the original NES .NSF file download for free. Talk about going above and beyond.


Even this early on, there’s so much good stuff happening. Talking to the quirky townsfolk uncovers all sorts of useful information and helpful hints, hidden areas, mini-games, a music player, and upgrades.

The actual stages are full of dangerous enemies, tiny platforms, and fun challenges that take some planning if you’re going to collect every gem strewn throughout each screen. With such intuitive, responsive controls, playing through Shovel Knight has been an absolute joy so far.


I’m going to go out on a limb (but not really) by predicting that I’ll be giving this game an A — if not an A+ — by the time I’m done with it. There are certain games where you can just tell within a short time playing it. This is one of those games.


I’m loving South Park: The Stick of Truth

It was 1997 when I first saw the original Spirit of Christmas video clip circulating around the office at Interplay. I, like so many of my coworkers, sat there laughing hysterically at these cute little foul-mouthed kids. South Park was gaining some considerable buzz as the TV show was getting ready to premiere later that same year. The rest, as they say, is history.

Throughout its ongoing 17-year run, it has remained popular, and still provides some great laughs and its trademark biting social commentary on world events, celebrities, movies, race, videogames, sports, disabilities, you name it. They are equal opportunity offenders — offending everyone equally — but I usually find myself agreeing with the underlying message of each episode. That’s been a key quality of the show: They know what we’re all thinking, but they’re bold enough to say it. Loudly.

My interest was through the roof in 1999 when Bigger, Longer & Uncut was released, which I just loved (it was a great year for movies in general). The episode Chinpokomon also first aired that year, which is still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been able to look at anything Pokemon-related in quite the same way ever since!

I started playing The Stick of Truth last week, and it’s been a fantastic game so far. Even though there are characters I’m unfamiliar with and surely references that are going over my head, the core components of what make South Park great are all here. The important qualities that make a successful RPG are also here, courtesy of Obsidian, a developer who knows a thing or two about the genre.

I’m very impressed by the look of the game, which is so convincing that you could swear you’re watching an episode of the show. Controls are crisp, objects you can interact with are clear, and there is a nice variety of activities and quests to complete. Combat requires attention and very good timing, which is similar to the excellent Paper Mario series.

Although I’ll be 40 in less than 4 weeks, this game’s reaffirming the fact that I still love lowbrow, childish humor, and probably always will. It also makes me want to go back and watch the show again, but for now, it’s time to continue my quest as Douchebag.


I turn 40 in May

Four decades. That’s a long time. That’s a lot of gaming, too.

When I was younger, I believed I’d lose interest in videogames eventually. I remember being told that they were just a fad, and that other hobbies and technologies would render them obsolete. What’s happened, however, is that my interest and love for them has grown, not waned.

What is it about them that makes them so appealing? Part of it is that they aren’t a passive form of entertainment, and require close attention and skill. The other part of it is the craft itself. As someone who is not by any stretch of the imagination a good artist, musician, programmer, or designer, playing the end result of a year or years worth of work is admirable, and when the game is great, what you get are lasting memories and a lifetime’s worth of discussion topics. Best Final Fantasy anyone?

Right now, I’m playing Batman: Arkham Origins on the PC. 15 hours in, 58% through Story, 24% overall.

It’s quite good so far, and I certainly think it’s better than a lot of reviews would have me believe. However, I do agree with most that it’s to WB Games Montreal’s detriment that they put this out in the wake of the previous two Arkham games from Rocksteady, which were both spectacular games. In any case, I was very happy to run into Barbara Gordon earlier in the game. Oracle is a fascinating character to me, and hope she returns in Arkham Knight.