Spiderduck's Best Underdogs of 2013

Sometimes, good games get critically panned, and it's a world where a Metacritic score below 70 means your game is bad. The Spiderduck writers have taken time to highlight the games they thought the gaming press at large didn't appreciate.

Mike Hewitt - Magrunner

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If there were one word I had to use to describe Magrunner, it would be Portal with magnets. Ok, that is three words, but I don’t care—Magrunner was the surprise of the year for me and a game that I can’t stop thinking about even months after last playing it.

Every year it feels like, literally, hundreds of first person games are released; and it feels like every one of those first person games is about ventilating random Nazis (er, wait, now we ventilate middle easterners—because that is what constitutes evolution). Magrunner, on the other hand, is about the cerebral gymnastics required to solve mind bending magnetic puzzles in a 3-D environment. Oh, and Cthulhu, did I forget to mention Cthulhu?

Describing Magrunner isn’t the easiest of things to do via text. Magrunner is clearly inspired by Portal—it’s a first person platformer that revolves around a gun like puzzle device and a science facility descending into madness. Instead of the portals used in… Portal, Magrunner is about the manipulation of magnetic fields, represented by blue and red sphere-like zones. Like magnetic fields attract and opposing magnetic fields repel—and if that sounds simple then you obviously have never played Magrunner.

Obviously, Magrunner isn’t a perfect game, since I’m talking about it as my favorite game with a Metacritic rating of 70 or below. Magrunner was often bogged down by mind-meltingly difficult puzzles that were often unintuitive. The biggest strike against Magrunner is that some puzzles were even harder to get past after you had figured out how to complete it—which is the antithesis of what a great puzzle game should be. Magrunner also had the strange idea of introducing aggressive enemies to some of the maps that forced you to solve puzzles while you simultaneously ran for your life, which, while sometimes providing for excellent game moments, often was nothing more than an exercise in frustration.

Even with all of those issues, the novel puzzle-solving mechanic and Lovecraftian atmosphere struck a chord with me. As with most puzzle games, there was nothing more satisfying than finally getting past a particularly challenging puzzle—I’d rank that feeling among one of the most satisfying in all of gaming.

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a good puzzle game. That’s probably why I consider Magrunner one of the hidden gems of 2013.

Marcus Lawrence - Remember Me

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Remember Me in itself had some very interesting concepts. Building your own combos led to creativity and uniqueness. The memory remixing segments were truly inspirational, resulting in an experience I've never had. While I understand the reasoning behind the 70 congregated score on Metacritic, I personally believe it could have been received better. Shortcomings withstanding, Remember Me gave me my most unique experience this year. Why, you ask? Ever since I read previews on Dontnod Entertainment's new IP, I was most curious about the combo lab mentioned in almost all previews. Finally getting my hands on a copy of the game, I could put my curiosity to rest. At first, use of the combo lab is befuddling, but over time (and some practice), I figured out how to create combos to do my bidding. Need to gain some health and do extra damage in one combo? Pressens (4 different types of combo building blocks) built properly could do just that and more. 50,000 different combos can be mixed in the combo lab...wow!

What really made Remember Me memorable are the memory remix segments. It heavily reminded me of the scenes from Minority Report with Tom Cruise, where his character would rewind and fast forward time to find the killers. Instead of playing with time, protagonist Nilin tampers with the mind, more specifically...memories. By doing this, I was able to alter memories completely in my favor. These moments are few, but that's just how I like it, because there was no chance for the segments to become mundane. I really would have liked to see a sequel, but I highly doubt one will come given the reception it received. In any case, Remember Me is my choice for most underappreciated game of 2013.

Elliot Zeichner - Game & Wario

Game & Wario debuted at a time when the Wii U’s library appealed to little of its user base. Offering a collection of mini-games at a budget price, it was a distinct departure from the more unique micro games of past WarioWare titles. Despite being more homogenized with the rest of other party-type games, Game & Wario’s attempt to rejuvenate the Wii U’s library may not have been successful, but it demonstrated how the GamePad’s additional screen could be used with the television with a success rate of at least 25%. With three distinct instances, great potential was shown, which is important for other developers on the Wii U.

While the first few mini-games are not impressive, ranging from not making any substantial use between the GamePad and the TV screen to merely making the GamePad a controller with the touchscreen, Kung Fu changes things up by requiring the player to use both screens equally to play well. Looking at the GamePad allows for precision jumping, but the TV screen tells the player what upcoming obstacles there are. This becomes more relevant on later difficulties, and makes for a very organized interface in a platforming game.

The next example may not inspire other developers due to how referential it is to the rest of the WarioWare series, but it gives perspective for what might have been if Game & Wario kept with the formula. 9-Volt’s Game has its own obstacles for each screen. With the GamePad, there’s actual gameplay in the form of micro-games, but on the television, the player has to mind when the mother is going to catch them playing the games in the first place. If Game & Wario was like its
predecessor, each set of micro-games would probably have their own gimmick such as this. Even though the potential is exclusive to the series, fans of WarioWare would be happy to get a glimpse into the series’s evolution.

One of the last game truly shines above the rest, which makes it an appropriate end-game reward. Pirate turns the GamePad into an implement of defense against the hostility from the television, creating a distinct and equal dichotomy between the two screens. Despite its simplistic Simon Says-type nature, the potential for using the GamePad as such is comparable to games that utilize firearm peripherals. Since the GamePad doesn’t look like any weapon in particular, the possibilities are various and new.

As a special note, the multiplayer games utilize only one GamePad, one of which has the players touch the screen at the same time, which has of yet been seen in the Wii U’s library. Originally, Game & Wario was going to be built in with the Wii U as a sort of tech demo, but its demoted status as a budget title makes it obscure. Some, if not more than half of these games have the potential to be fleshed out into fully fledged games.

Greg Livingston - The Starship Damrey

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I found the critical reception to The Starship Damrey weird. Critics often compared the game to point-and-click adventures, for better or worse. It does share some elements with the genre, since gameplay boils down to wandering, picking up items in one place, and applying those items in some other place. In practice, however, The Starship Damrey more closely resembles a digital comic (Snatcher) or visual novel (Hotel Dusk)--it's the same genre, it just goes by two different names.

Digital visual novel comics also rely on wandering around, talking to folks, and using items. Unlike your standard point-and-click affair, though, they severely limit your options for moving forward. The Starship Damrey achieved this by opening up rooms of the Damrey one by one; as each new room opened, you would find the way forward solely by exploring that room. As a result, progress comes easily and without much problem solving. This genre is much more about providing a noteworthy experience rather than a challenge.

This alone isn't enough to justify its place here, though. The Starship Damrey is also the strongest visual novel I've played.

It opens with the player as an amnesiac trapped in a sleep chamber aboard a derelict space ship. While there is a lengthy backstory to how you got there, it's left as optional post-game reading material; the story is instead about your journey in getting your bearings. Only the most crucial story elements are included in the normal course of the game, resulting in a story with no fat.

Damrey also employs a number of figurative elements which are shallow but still effective. The link between sleep and death is hit directly on the nose when you wake up in your sleeping chamber unaware of your previous life, and it remains the focus of the game as you find dead crew members.

My favorite figurative element, though, was how your helper robot stood in for the barrier of language. Unable to directly contact the outside world, you instead remotely guided a robot from inside your sleeping chamber. The robot's abilities are limited, meaning any task you undertake is handled awkwardly. Your only means of interacting with the outside world, this robot, is inaccurate in much the same way that language is; we use language to interact with others, but it is just an approximation of the ideas housed in our minds. This idea of miscommunication is drawn out by proceedings of the game, and it sheds light on your very identity.

The Starship Damrey is by no means deep, but its honed narrative scope and the ingenuity of its figurative aspects were both memorable.