Episode 124 – American Puppy Story

Episode 124 – American Puppy Story

WEEK IN GEEK: As promised, Andrew watches (and loves) The LEGO Batman Movie while Dan can’t stop playing Righteous Hammer Games.

EPISODIC SERIALIZATION: With Channel Zero: Candle Cove last week and both Dan and Andrew engrossed in The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, Andrew and Dan look at what seems to be a rising tide of season-long anthology television shows. Moving away from episodic anthology shows to a single story told across an entire season and changing stories and cast in the following season, shows like American Horror Story and True Detective brought this format to the forefront of popular culture.

AMERICAN CRIME STORY AND THE FICTIONALIZATION OF LIVING MEMORY: As mentioned above both Dan and Andrew are oddly obsessed with The People vs. OJ Simpson and, frankly, they take some time to wonder why.

FEATURED MUSIC:

-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“Far From Any Road (Main Title Theme from True Detective)” by The Handsome Family
-“Time” by Titiyo

Episode 123 – Underground Murder Barn

Episode 123 – Underground Murder Barn

WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew messes with controller schematics for X-Com 2 while Dan freaks himself out as he delves into Syfy’s Channel Zero and the HBO documentary, Beware the Slenderman.

THE DOCTOR NO MORE: As Peter Capaldi announces his departure from the role of The Doctor in Doctor Who, speculation begins as to who will take his place in Series 11 which brings with it a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall.

EVEN STRANGER: With the only time we’ll mention the Super Bowl on the podcast, Netflix’s Stranger Things debuted its second season teaser trailer during the big game and Andrew and Dan dive into their expectations.

For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.

WORKS CITED

FEATURED MUSIC:

-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“I Am the Doctor” by Jon Pertwee
-“Stranger Things” by Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein
-“Untitled Self Portrait” by Will Arnett (from The Lego Movie)

*audio clip sourced from Doctor Who, “The Day of the Doctor.”

Worth a Look

Worth a Look

Batman: The Animated Series has become a show whose perennial place in nerd culture is all but assumed and revered. Andrew and I discussed the show, albeit briefly, back in Episode 59 – BTAS, as a segue to talk about dreams and dreaming in fiction, but the show, obviously, has done a lot more than that throughout its 110 episodes across seven years of airing (I’m including The New Batman Adventures in the tally). When talking about the show, one conversation that must surface is its diversity of storytelling and the risks it took. What set the show apart from not only every other animated series on American television may also have set it apart from nearly any other television that aired at the time of its release. Namely, it’s willingness to have strange, experimental episodes that challenged the expectations of superhero fans and television viewers.

Sure, it will be remembered for its strong, more traditional, Batman stories like “Heart of Ice”, “The Demon’s Quest”, and “Robin’s Reckoning (Parts 1 and 2)”––the last of which won an Emmy––but it will also be remembered for its non-traditional, esoteric stories like “Perchance to Dream”, “Legends of the Dark Knight”, “Over the Edge”, and “Almost Got ‘Im.” It was a show that learned to take risks, and what’s fascinating is that, apparently, a lot of that ethos was there from the start.

Concept art from the BTAS Writer’s Bible. Art by Bruce Timm. Source: io9

One of my prized possessions, creatively, is a book written by Paul Dini and Chip Kidd called Batman: Animated which covers the history of the show and is filled with amazing photos of everything from concept art to marketing photos for Batman-branded soap. But a bit of space is devoted to the development of the idea of what Batman: The Animated Series would be, hinting at the thorough show bible that Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Mitch Brian put together. Basically, a show bible is a treatise on the characters, stories, tone, and plan for a tv show used to keep the studio on track as well as acting as a set of guidelines for artists and writers hired to work for the show. Somehow––and thankfully so––the show bible has gotten out there in pdf form and it is as glorious as I was hoping it would be.

The cover to Batman: Animated by Paul Dini & Chip Kidd, art by Bruce Timm.

Whitbrook points out in his article (which also has a link to the pdf) that the show bible takes firm stances in how the creators saw the show. Even if the show wiggled its way out of those chains a bit as it went on (you can’t not have a bat signal), its overall view of the character himself was carved from stone and rooted in change from the status quo:

One big emphasis throughout the bible is an ardent desire to tell darker Batman stories; after all, the last solo Batman TV series before this one was Batman ‘66. Like Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, The Animated Series sought to distance itself from that interpretation. Sometimes it did so subtly, with mentions like “no Bat Signal or hotline” to keep him separate from the Gotham police, or by making Robin an occasional partner rather than a full-time companion.

While the show worked its hardest to separate Batman from his previous televised iterations to make him into the brooding loner we all know and love, what Whitbrook’s article and its attached copy of the Batman: The Animated Series show bible illustrate (pardon the pun) is how something as important and groundbreaking as this show actually came together through an almost supernatural synchronicity of passionate, creative people who were willing to break the rules every now and then and try something new with, at the time, a forty year-old medium and a sixty year-old character.

Although I court a lot of pushback as soon as I say it, I feel pretty lucky to have grown up reading comic books when I did, in the early 1990s. For those with vehement dissenting positions to this opinion, I offer a truce by completely agreeing with you when you say the content of this point in comics history was rather lacking as creators felt the need to push good taste to its limits in many different ways. However, these comics were connecting with kids––with me––and while I can’t say their influence was all beneficial, they certainly stirred the imagination. With that in mind, a lot of choices made both narratively and, especially, artistically at the time are nigh inexcusable when held up against modern criteria.

In light of the speculator market and the inflated sense of worth the industry had of itself at the time, for a fan the early ’90s were quite exciting in spite of all of that. It was this excitement for not only the characters, stories (what there were of those, at least), and creators that drove us back to the shops every week, but it was also the industry as a whole during this time, especially during the flashpoint formation of Image Comics. I remember the creation of Image Comics happening. I remember thinking it was really weird. I remember being really excited for it, as well. (A good documentary about the formation of Image Comics exists, called Image Revolution, that is well worth the viewing.)

Cover from Youngblood #1 by Rob Liefeld, the first comic published by Image Comics. Source: Geek.com

As the ’90s faded away and the market crashed and Marvel went bankrupt and the industry and its fans actually had some time for critical self-reflection, Image Comics, as it had started out, became the pennant we could all point to and say, “That, right there, is what was wrong with comics in the ’90s.” In some ways, such assertions are very true. Fast-forward twenty years, though, and the “worst” in industry has become the outstanding front runner for thoughtful, challenging, and earnest comics above almost all other publishers. The about-face is astounding and couldn’t have been written better for fear of being too cliché and feel-good. But it all comes down to the principles that formed the bedrock (or badrock, harhar) of the company, as iterated by Jensen in his article:

Image had two rules: all comics were owned by their creators, and no Image creator would interfere with another’s business.

As it stands today, Image Comics is a beacon in the industry and is at the top of its game. I’m sure many people lament the 180-degree turn from its superheroic start––I experience light pangs as I think about it but shrug them off––but there’s no doubt that what Image is doing today aligns (at least in theory) with the concept that founded the company: complete independence. Because of that, Image books are bringing more attention to creators, more good to the industry, and better comics for readers, and I wouldn’t trade that for the gun-toting, veiny-muscled, blood-soaked comics of yore any day of the week.

Episode 122 – It’s a Fake

Episode 122 – It’s a Fake

WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew finds zen in the indie hit, Starbound, while D. Bethel finds zen watching the Syfy procedural, Haven.

DANCING WITH THE DEVIL: For a variety of reasons, Andrew had Dan watch an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine of some renown, from season 6, in which Benjamin Sisko struggle with making huge decisions throughout “In the Pale Moonlight.” In parts a war story and a character study, it is an episode that showcases not only the narrative depths DS9 hit but also how we can use television and movies and other narratives as talking points for what we’re dealing with in the world around us.

And, although it’s not mentioned in the conversation, we’d be remiss to not at least nod to the best moment of this great DS9 episode:

UNPLUGGED BUT UNBOWED: The Penny Arcade webcomic/nerd moguls announced a new convention to add to their already impressive PAX roster: PAX Unplugged, a tabletop-focused exposition to be held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in November. Dan and Andrew discuss the implications of this announcement.

For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.

WORKS CITED

FEATURED MUSIC:

-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“Theme (From ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’)” by Dennis McCarthy (as performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra)
-“Layla” by Eric Clapton
-“Law & Order Theme” by Mike Post (as performed by The Hollywood Prime Time Orchestra)

Episode 121 – Almost an Andrew Sandwich

Episode 121 – Almost an Andrew Sandwich

WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew watches Netflix’s Travelers while Dan watches Warner Bros.’ Suicide Squad.

GAME OVER ALL OVER AGAIN: This week, Dan and Andrew discuss not only the built-in replayability of games but also examine why we replay games. Simply among the two hosts, the reasons for replaying games differs vastly, which caused us to ask the following:

Why do you replay games and what games (or kinds of games) those would be (tell us in the comments)?

SPOTLIGHT – RESIDENT EVIL: With the release this week of Resident Evil VII: Biohazard (or for those in Japan, Biohazard VII: Resident Evil), Andrew and Dan look back at the game that spurred a genre and kicked off a franchise that is now over twenty years old.

For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.

FEATURED MUSIC:

-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“A Fistful of Dollars” by Ennio Morricone
-“10 Minutes Until Explosion” by Makoto Tomozawa (from Resident Evil Original Soundtrack Remix

Shortcast 22 – #edgy

Shortcast 22 – #edgy

Despite suddenly getting sick this week, Andrew and Dan are bringing you quality audio content to help you usher in the weekend.

WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew branches out to watch the first season of Syfy’s The Magicians, based on the series of novels by Lev Grossman, while D. Bethel focuses up and gets emotional playing the latest game (and last game for Sony, at least) from Fumito Ueda, The Last Guardian.

For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.

FEATURED MUSIC:

-“Thunder Busters” by Wax Audio
-“Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne

Episode 120 – Where the Hands Touch

Episode 120 – Where the Hands Touch

WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew continues to reap the benefits of this winter’s Steam sale with the arrival of a Steam controller while Dan watches the new crowd-funded documentaries by video game journalist/personality, Danny O’Dwyer, called Noclip. Below is O’Dwyer’s “statement of purpose” regarding what he wants Noclip to be (as mentioned by Dan in the episode):

STAR WARS GAIDEN: [SPOILER ALERT] With enough time gone by since its release (and now that both have seen it), Dan and Andrew discuss Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and why it’s connecting with audiences, what it’s doing for the Star Wars universe and how it’s really doing what Marvel has been trying to do for almost a decade now. Again, we discuss SPOILERS in this discussion, so steer clear if you have not yet seen the movie (and come back and listen once you do).

For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.

FEATURED MUSIC:

-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“Rogue One” by Michael Giacchino (from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
-“The Gathering Storm” by Michael Allen (from Armello)
-“Boss Theme” by Curt Victor Bryant (from Slain: Back From Hell)

Week In Geek: Metal Gear Solid by Ashly & Anthony Burch

Week In Geek: Metal Gear Solid by Ashly & Anthony Burch

The book in question: Metal Gear Solid by Ashly & Anthony Burch. Source: Boss Fight Books

Part of my goal as an academic-slash-nerdy-stuff enthusiast is to be a person that helps build the bridge between those two tentpoles that, as time moves forward, seem to be pushed further apart. In truth, criticism evolved as a genre from the world of popular culture. Without going too deep into the history of literary criticism, what academics view as critical writing––examining texts through specific lenses and discussing the positive and negative results of such investigations––was birthed by popular thinkers arguing back and forth in newspapers, mostly people like Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold yelling at other people. What criticism brings to its readers––and why it should be much more present in popular culture––is new ways to look at familiar things. You can agree with them or disagree, that’s fine; in critical discourse, if you disagree, you respond with your own critical analysis.

Criticism operates on the assumption that there is no one right way to read a text, so for people who have concrete definitions they’ve crafted or inherited about what a specific movie means or what a certain writer of a comic book is trying to say and they don’t want to budge because they know they’re right, then the critical investigation can’t move forward because a conversation can’t be had.

This is what is happening in the world of video game criticism right now, especially with the entire fracas that formed around Anita Sarkeesian’s videos and GamerGate’s reaction to them (among other sundry instances). Could Sarkeesian maybe have had more tact or been less forward in her presentation of her analysis? Sure. Because of that, did she deserve the response she got? Absolutely not. She was engaging in a critical discussion to not necessarily change the games we love but to bring these readings of the medium to the table for developers and players to use them as they will.

In their book for Boss Fight Books, Metal Gear Solid, the Burch siblings do an admirable job bringing critical investigation to a popular audience. As I mentioned in Episode 117 – Five Minutes to Funny, their approach was unorthodox for me who is more used to “classical” critical prose––i.e., very academic, argumentative, essayistic format––but it actually worked quite well. In more traditional co-written criticism (or most collaboratively written works, for that matter), no effort is made to distinguish between the contributions of each writer. In Metal Gear Solid (their book), the chapters are divided into sections with headings of either “Ashly” or “Anthony” to let the reader know who is speaking. This is ultimately effective for a few reasons. First, there is a slight difference in age between the two and the difference is enough to be notable; specifically, their initial comprehension of the game and what it was trying to do provides interesting juxtapositions. Second, and more importantly, the gender difference yielded very different reactions to the game and how it impacted their lives overall both in their youths and as adults, which would be lost or depersonalized if they had to neutralize the more dialectical (not a transcribed dialogue) format.

The Burch siblings. Source: TV Tropes

With that in mind, their book brings a lot of interesting aspects of the game to light that should be discussed, but usually aren’t. The standout for me is the excellent analysis of characters and their arcs––and the missed opportunities therein (their section on Otacon is outstanding)––which balances the “it’s complex stuff for the time” and “it’s really not as progressive as it appears to be” arguments fairly. This balance is a source of the schism in the greater video game culture; too many people don’t realize that you can criticize a game and still love it, which is exactly what the Burches do. They point out issues within Metal Gear Solid that, in a modern environment, can seem backwards and sometimes unforgivable. Snake, to a teenager or child (as Anthony and Ashly were, respectively, when they first played the game), is an uncompromising badass; however, upon reflection, it is clear he is a bully and sadist, especially to women. Meryl is presented as a tough woman who is every bit a soldier as the men on Shadow Moses Island, but with the way the camera, Snake, and the gameplay treat her, she is woefully underserved by the game that otherwise wants to present her as a progressive take on female characters in video games. A lot of this comes down to the apparent conflict within the series creator, Hideo Kojima, himself. I’ll quote here what I read aloud in the episode:

There are two Hideo Kojimas.

One Kojima injects every Metal Gear Solid game with earnest if overbearing discussions of nuclear disarmament, the morality of genetic experimentation, the nature of warfare, and the difference between patriotism and terrorism.

The other Kojima lets you call Rose in Metal Gear Solid 4 and shake your SIXAXIS controller to make her boobs jiggle (21-22).

Part of accepting Metal Gear Solid as an artistic entry is to accept that, yes, it is thematically earnest and powerful and its characters are remarkably well-rounded, but for every two steps forward it––as a game and as a series––takes at least one step back. But that is also the nature of art. If any thing was perfect, there would be nothing to talk about.

Another fascinating aspect the book investigates is how Kojima openly and freely manipulates the relationship between the player and Solid Snake, arguing that Kojima willingly draws Snake and the player together at times and forcibly separates them at other times for a purposeful, emotional, and narrative purpose. It opened up a through-line for critical investigation into games as power fantasies, so that the conversation doesn’t just stop at “video games are power fantasies.” The Burches delve into how Kojima uses that fact to both make the player feel powerful (like most games do) and also use that trope to make the player feel detached, weak, and helpless. If anything, for both the criticism and the praise, the book showed me the art that goes into game design and how mindful Kojima is with his games despite his own severely problematic flaws as a creative.

Who is in control of this game? Of my tv? Screenshot from Metal Gear Solid. Source: Metal Gear Wiki

For all the good that this book does at managing the intersection between criticism and popular culture, it is clear they have the events of GamerGate on their minds, which is smart considering that a co-author is female and, by the virtue of that simple fact, she, her brother, and the book are automatically painted with targets. Their apology takes the form of the concluding chapter, titled “The End?”, in which Ashly takes the lead with a passioned defense that, I would argue, comes dangerously close to diminishing the very poignant and important arguments she and her brother make in the book to that point:

So, Anthony and I shit on Metal Gear Solid for about half of this book. If you’re a fan of MGS1, you might be kind of pissed. But despite the amount of acid we spit at the game and its various baffling choices, despite the inordinately long cutscenes, the convoluted plot, and the awkward dialogue, we do love this game (159).

This is problematic because 1. they surely don’t “shit on Metal Gear Solid” at all. They critically engage with it and because they are able to do that with detailed and thorough arguments it 2. proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they love the game. In that instant, this concluding chapter felt a bit reductive and unnecessary. What’s impressive is that despite being couched in a chapter-long ass-covering thesis, Ashly does an admirable job teaching not only what criticism is, but why it’s important for the industry as well as for fans:

[W]hen we hear a complaint…about a game we love, we have to stop that little seed of defensiveness from spilling over into anger. We have to recognize that a critic’s concern doesn’t say anything about us, and it doesn’t make us wrong for liking the game. We’re all on the same team, and we’re all just trying to make this medium the best it can be. For everyone (161-2).

This chapter was an eye-opening moment for me as a reader, gamer, and wannabe critic, perhaps because I audibly scoffed when I read this chapter, saying something akin to, “You didn’t have to do this, catering to those people.” The D. Bethel that said that was Professor Bethel, the academic, the person whose workplace and occupation don’t have to apologize––among colleagues at least––for challenging arguments. In fact, they are expected.

What is Snake hiding from: a clear and present threat or genuine, productive, and thoughtful criticism? Source: PlaystationLifestyle.net

However, in the pop culture nerd world that Podcast Co-Host, Comicker, and Website Curator (and straight white male) D. Bethel operates, you have to do this, especially if you’re a woman or minority. And while it’s atrocious and insulting that anybody would have to write this chapter, it shows why this book is successful at building that bridge I longingly want to help construct.

I want more good, challenging gaming criticism. I want to buy books of it. And though some exist and continue to get published, such a desire may be self-defeating in the end. If we’re looking to bridge that gap between pop and academic cultures, it won’t be through book stores. Instead, it is happening online in the form of podcasts and videos and, occasionally, articles. However, if we’re looking to make this a two-way connection, from the halls of academia to reddit and back again, in order to legitimize games as critical texts in the eyes of PhDs, books should be made as well as journals and panels at conferences. The Burches’ Metal Gear Solid definitely offers the academic handshake toward the people who love and care and talk about video games on the internet with confident airs and cries for legitimacy. I just hope pop culture is willing to accept and return it.

Spotlight: 2016 Mobile Games Year in Review

Spotlight: 2016 Mobile Games Year in Review

Although Dan and I lamented, cursed, and even sang songs about the year that was 2016, it was sort of a big year in one important way. The mobile game market has become a hot bed of gaming activity. 2016 (including the end of 2015, to be fair) saw a few big names throw their intellectual properties into the ring. Somewhere in that maelstrom that is pay-for-play micro-gaming, I got caught up in the ride. Although we’re already several days into the new year, I thought it would be appropriate to look back on all the games that I looked at, played, talked about, and otherwise engaged with in 2016.

Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes by Electronic Arts

Technically, Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes was released near the end of 2015, but I did not get to it until much later. It was my Week in Geek in Episode 93 – The Clay Man Incident. Filled with many characters, locations, and ships from the Star Wars universe, this turn-based squad based battle game provides a vast amount of content. There are a lot of different characters from the movies and television shows that you can group together to battle.

Exciting squad-based combat featuring Star Wars characters!

Since I first started playing back in April, they’ve added a great deal of content. The game expanded beyond the simple five on five combat to include massive “raid bosses,” in which player-organized guilds fought to defeat a massive enemy in turns. More recently, they added a ship combat mode in which X-Wings and TIE Fighters shoot it out in an entirely new (yet surprisingly similar) game mode. Some of the more recent content has been viewed somewhat negatively; what started out as an effective “could be played for free but maybe I’ll spend a little” game has turned into a “if you can’t spend a huge amount, don’t even bother” game. Accusations of rampant cheating have also soured some paying players from participating (at least some of those that I have spoken to), an important consideration since so much of the game relies on playing against other players.

In the end, the biggest draws for Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes are still the ongoing stream of new character content and the powerful license. Even for folks that disliked The Phantom Menace (or the prequels in general) or don’t follow Rebels, the depth of Star Wars content in Galaxy of Heroes will keep nearly every fan interested for as long as they keep providing it.

Check out Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Shop.

DC Legends by Warner Bros.

Always interested in trying to do something as well as somebody else, Warner Bros. released their own squad-based battler in November. I discussed my initial thoughts back in Episode 114 – Su Gana. Very similar in feel to Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, this game features an array of heroes and villains from the DC Comics universe. Perhaps the biggest gameplay difference from the aforementioned Star Wars title is the presence of a loose story to tie the narrative together: “As the shadow of the Blackest Night prophecy falls on every world, sheer force of will alone cannot save the shattered DC Universe.”

All your favorite (or not?) DC comics characters come together to punch things!

Still in its first few months, most of the additions to DC Legends so far have come in the form of character and event additions. As with other freemium games, chasing the “hot new character” is an important part of the gameplay. The game has yet to do any major additions or changes, still relying on the basic gameplay elements to keep the game going.

With so many similarities to the slightly more mature Galaxy of Heroes, this title has a lot of catching up to do. The biggest driver for this game is the fact that you can have Black Canary, Sinestro, the Flash, and Zatana fighting together against… well, whoever gets thrown at you. At that point, it feels like it’s more a matter of what license do you want taking your money and time and less which game you think is better designed.

Check out DC Legends on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Shop.

Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius by SQUARE ENIX

Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius is the second Final Fantasy themed freemium mobile game that Dan and I both found ourselves playing (at least for a bit). We both discussed our initial impressions of this game in Episode 99 – Jaw-Jackin’. Since that initial release, they’ve added more content both in the way of the “story” mode and in semi-regular themed events. Compared to the previous mobile game, Final Fantasy Record Keeper, Brave Exvius brings a lot more to the “game” front. The “story mode” feels a lot more like something that might be a classic Final Fantasy game with a narrative, dungeon exploration, and the sorts of thing one expects. That being said, random battles have been replaced with a more “spend energy to explore” style freemium model.

Fighting battles with … Exdeath?

All that being said, it combines enough of “new experience” with “recognizable intellectual property” that seems to be essential to the constantly churning market that is freemium mobile games. The story introduces a new world with new characters, but connects it with the recognizable characters of classic Final Fantasy through the power of “Visions.” You build a party of characters from both the main characters and these collectible “Visions” and use them collectively in battles to explore new areas, discover treasures, and unlock additional content. Since its initial release, they’ve added some significant content updates that provides access to more things to do, additional things to unlock, and more items to craft.

Similar to Final Fantasy: Record Keeper, this game leans heavily on overall Final Fantasy nostalgia and probably has little appeal to people that don’t know much about the expansive worlds. Although essential in battle, these characters do not involve themselves in the story or have any contribution to anything; they simply serve as warriors to kill off the never-ending legion of monsters. However, as Dan pointed out, the characters are drawn and animated very well, giving a new appearance to many of the classic characters. If nothing else, they look good.

Check out Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Shop.

The Trail by Peter Molyneux and Kongregate

I first talked about the new Molyneux title, The Trail, in Episode 114 – Su Gana and followed up in Shortcast 19 – What Was Town? Although it didn’t stay too long on my play rotation, it did stand out from most of the mobile games on the current market. Whether due to the Molyneux involvement or, in the alternative, development by Kongregate, The Trail feels more like a collecting and crafting themed video game and less like a pay-to-play freemium title. Yes, the game still occasionally throws a “buy this special pack” splash page at you, but with nowhere near the intensity of most of the market.

Walking along a trail picking up garbage is an important party of any balanced game, right?

But, let’s be honest. Though it may feel like a collecting and crafting video game, it’s not a particularly great one. Specifically with the need (whether literal or perceived) to play for extended periods at a time, it makes it tough for this game to survive in a market that specializes in repeated, yet relatively brief, engagements. When you put these two together, it feels like the better option would be to try a different mobile game or get a more in-depth crafting game for the console or PC instead of mobile.

Check out The Trail on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Shop.

Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes by PopCap Games

In the ongoing quest to play as many of the hot new mobile games as possible, this is one that pretty much came and went before I even had time to mention it. First released in October 2016, Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes is a fusion of the recognizable franchise that is Plants vs. Zombies with the mechanics of something like Hearthstone. In a sense, it’s tower defense meets digital trading card game. Players play as either a plant or a zombie, with a deck of cards built from a pool corresponding to your side and whatever sub-faction your “hero” is affiliated with. For example, the zombie hero Super Brainz can choose his cards from the Sneaky and Brainy categories of zombie cards. The game is played one-on-one, with a slight difference in how the game plays for zombies and plants.

A screenshot of gameplay (on the left) coupled with a screenshot of deck building (on the right).

There are a lot of different cards out their with which to customize decks, leading to a lot of variation in play. Of course, like any trading card game, it requires a certain dedication to the meta. Players can’t just be good at playing cards; they have to be good at figuring out which cards work well in which decks. Like Hearthstone, the deck-building portion is just as important as the actual play portion of the game. This puts it in a strange place with respect to the competition. It is not as deep or developed as a card game as something like Hearthstone and its likely too involved and complicated when compared to the original Plants vs. Zombies. Although I don’t personally know that many PvZ players, I suspect most of them were quickly turned off by the complexity of PvZ:H. We will have to wait and see how it turns out going forward.

Check out Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Store.

Fallout Shelter by Bethesda

This is another one of those “it actually came out in 2015” games, but it found its way back into my play rotation when I started playing Fallout 4. This is one of the few mobile games that Dan and I did NOT spend a great deal of time discussing on the show, mostly because it sort of “came and went” for both of us relatively quickly after its release (although Dan played it obsessively for a week or so). However, you can hear our friends at the Nerdhole talk about it here, in Episode 33 – Fallout Shelter.

Who is indisputably the most important person in Vault 101: He who shelters us from the harshness of the atomic wasteland, and to whom we owe everything we have, including our lives?

When released, Fallout Shelter was mostly a quick little “collect resources, build more buildings, grow more people, collect more resources” sort of game. Not much more than your typical aquarium “log in and tap” sort of game. Since its release, they’ve added some content meant to add more depth to the game. There is now a quest system, special outfits and equipment, and some new features added. It’s a nice improvement from the original title and worth the time for folks really engaged with the Fallout style. With Bethesda already moving to develop more smartphone and mobile titles in the future, it should be interesting to see where they take gaming to next.

Check out Fallout Shetler on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Shop.

Marvel Avengers Academy by TinyCo

One of the more recent mobile games to make its way onto my smartphone, Marvel Avengers Academy is one of the many “aquarium” style games present in the market. I first mentioned it in Episode 111 – #CyclopsWasRight. It’s nothing complicated or fancy. Some even argue it’s not much of a game; it’s more just a thing you turn on every few hours and tap with some regularity. But don’t let that fundamental lack of compelling gameplay fool you! It can actually be quite an entertaining product, especially for people with interest in the characters upon which the game is based.

Nobody really knows what’s going on here. Except Maria Hill.

From a gaming perspective, MAA is probably easiest to compare to a worker placement style board game. There are fixed locations (Stark Tower, the Avenger Dorms, the Shooting Range), a set of characters with fixed actions that take different amounts of time, and a series of tasks or missions that need to be accomplished for prizes. Part of the challenge is finding ways to best (rather, most efficiently) complete the missions assigned. Inefficient play is not prohibitive to advancement, but it does slow down unlocking new characters, buildings, and actions.

Black Widow, dressed for spying. Or dancing. Or both.

What keeps the game changing is a constant stream of new special events. When I began playing back in October, they had just started a special Halloween-themed event. The Academy was under attack by the forces of Mephisto and an array of strange characters joined my Academy team, including Ghost Rider, Misty Knight, and Moon Knight. Shortly after that four-week event concluded, the Academy fused with Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum as the forces of Kaecilius attacked. With each new event comes new characters with novel new actions and animations. All of it is tied together with a somewhat organized storyline in which the origin of the Academy, the fact that most of the characters are in their teens, and the “truth” about what’s going on are waiting to be uncovered.

As a Marvel fan, it’s a cute time-waster that never asks too much. The narrative that they are slowly revealing is enough to keep me tapping and the ongoing array of new and interesting characters are sufficient to keep me coming for more.

Check out Marvel Avengers Academy on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Shop.

Going Forward

2016 saw a lot of new content come to mobile and handheld devices. A lot of it came wrapped in massive licenses, whether they be comic books, video games, or movies. As we enter 2017, new games will be made, old ones will be upgraded, and some will just fall by the wayside. Continuing to find new ways to keep the gameplay interesting while not driving away too many players with paywalls will continue to be a challenge. Of course, there’s always the issue of micro-transactions and the lasting effect it has on player retention, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Episode 119 – Too Much Content

Episode 119 – Too Much Content

WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew plays Overcooked! with Taylor Katcher while Dan watches Crazyhead on Netflix.

PHOENIX FALLING?: The Phoenix Comicon has come under scrutiny recently as it became public that, essentially, people would have to pay to be volunteers at the show by paying dues to become members of the Blue Ribbon Army Social Club. Dan and Andrew discuss the issues surrounding this controversy, such as “Why is this a controversy at all?”

Sources:

UPDATE: Square Egg CEO and Phoenix Comicon director, Matthew Solberg, has resigned his position on the board of the Blue Ribbon Army.

MINDING THE NUMBERS: In Bleeding Cool article covering December’s comic book sales numbers, Andrew and Dan dive deep into 2016 sales by Marvel and DC and compare their respective performances and draw some interesting (if very not scientific) conclusions from the data.

D. Bethel’s Exhaustive Data Collection

For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.

FEATURED MUSIC:

-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“Nerd Law” by D. Bethel
-“Bleeding Me” by Metallica