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Category Archives: Gaming

The comprehensive guide to Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time

Updated 4/13/15 with Frostbite Caverns

Short intro
I wrote an entry about Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time earlier this year covering some basic strategies for making it through the game without spending anything. PVZ2 is the most carefully crafted free-to-play game I have played. It doesn’t even feel like a scam, since with a little planning and some fleet fingers you can make it through all stages with just the basic plants.

This guide is more in-depth. I will show you one overarching strategy that works in almost stage. I’ll also look at each plant and rate it on a scale of 1-10. I’ll also provide tips for each individual stage in case you are stuck on one of them and want to move on without shelling out a few bucks for an overpowered chili pepper or some such.

If you read nothing else, read this part
Many stages feature seemingly indefatigable hordes of zombies decked out in armor and hardened against all your weaponry. Luckily it’s not hard to keep them at bay if you know what you’re doing. Introducing the Dragon/Wall strategy. You can start taking this approach as early as Ancient Egypt:

  1. Plant a full column of Sunflowers in the backrow. Plant a column of Twin Sunflowers next to it. Eventually, you may want to swap out the Twin Sunflowers for Sun-shrooms.
  2. Begin planting Wall-Nuts or Infi-Nuts a few tiles back from the right edge. This way you have sometime before the zombies reach them, allowing you to build your defense and bombard them on the way. Use the Iceberg Lettuce to freeze zombies that you think are moving too quickly.
  3. Build some Snapdragons in a column behind the Wall-Nuts/Infi-Nuts. Each one makes a fire wave that covers three tiles. A full column can shell out incredible, cascading damage.
  4. In front of the Snapdragons, built some Spikeweeds. The zombies will take damage while they’re trying to chew away at the Wall-Nuts, on top of getting scorched by the Dragonfires and bombarded by…
  5. Kernel-Pults! Build a whole column as far back as you can. Considering cost and effect, the Kernel-Pult is the best plant in the game. It deals decent damage by shooting kernels, but it is truly valuable because of its butter pats. These freeze the zombies for a few seconds. Ideally, built two columns of Kernel-Pults to increase the chances of stymieing zombies. The Kernel-Pult’s Plant Food move is also incredible – try using it when zombies walk over a Spikeweed or get close to your Wall-Nuts/Infi-Nuts – they’ll continue taking damage even while stuck.
  6. Keep an Iceberg (or if you prefer a Cherry Bomb) on hand to disrupt problematic zombies.
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An example of the above strategy in action, this time with only Sun-shrooms, Winter Melons, Snapdragons, and Infi-Nuts. Puff-shrooms were previously out front.

As the levels get tougher, the possibilities become endless as you acquire more plants. I wrote the above framework because it can be executed with plants acquired early in the game. You can replace or supplement the Spike Traps with Red Beans. Also, if you can afford it, Winter Melons are even better than Kernel-Pults. You may want to throw in a kew Coconut Cannons or Citrons or even Magnifying Grasses (powerful with Twin Sunflowers) for added power. Also, once you have a huge amount of sun accumulated, dig up the sunflowers and plant either Potato Mines or Kernel-Pults in their places.

Analyzing the individual plants
I won’t cover the plants that require real money to purchase. You’re wasting your money if you buy them since they’re only there to help you win a little quicker – no stage is so hard that you’ll need to be bailed out by an exotic specimens. Here is a quick rundown of what each standard plant does.

Sunflower
Makes one unit of sun at time. A staple in the early going, and not bad even later on though it’s almost always better to use…

Twin Sunflower
You get this in Ancient Egypt and there’s no reason to turn back. You’ll have to wait for one unit of sun to fall from the sky before you plant one of them, but they’re worth it – after a while, the sun just piles up and you can use it to plant some tremendous defenses

Peashooter
It’s iconic, but not that good. It’s slow and outclasses by others.

Cabbage-pult
This plant is great in Ancient Egypt but average elsewhere, once you’ve gotten access to more powerful alternatives. Its Plant Food move is devastating, though, making it a solid option if you’re the type that saves up a lot of Plant Food to beat back big rushes. It’s best placed as far back as possible. It can also destroy graves in Ancient Egypt.

Kernel-pult
A staple. It is both cheap and powerful, capable of dishing out lots of damage on top of delaying zombie progress.

Iceberg Lettuce
It’s free and good. It’s never a bad idea to have one on hand in case you need to freeze a torch-wielding zombie or anything problematic.

Bloomerang
It deals a lot of damage because it shoots boomerangs that hurt not only zombies but also graves. A little pricey and not that much of an upgrade over the Cabbage-pult or Kernel-pult, though

Bonk Choy
A good close-range plant, best used in tandem with the Wall-Nut or Tall-Nut, but outclassed by the Dragonfire.

Snapdragon
Amazing – it can flame up to three columns at once, and when used in columns it’s almost unstoppable if protected by Wall-Nuts or Tall-Nuts.

Wall-Nut
Cheap and gets the job done. It’s more than just a defensive tool. Paired with Dragonfires and Spike Traps, it ensures that zombies go down en masse

Tall-Nut
Even better. This + the Dragon/Wall strategy is a tall order for any zombie horde to overcome.

Infi-Nut
Weaker than Wall-Nut, but regenerates its health. Usually not worth it unless you have incredible backup.

Spikeweed
Useful for breaking up rolling zombies and dishing out tons of damage while zombies try to chew through nearby Wall-Nuts or Tall-Nuts. Always place right in front of one of those two barrier plants.

Spikerock
Super powerful – can break up multiple rolling zombies and does more damage than the Spike Trap.

Blover
One-use plant that blows away all flying zombies. It’s worth getting this in the Far Future before making your way through the Pirate Seas – it’s the best way to deal with the macaws and seagulls.

Laser Bean
Shoots lasers. Economical (only 200 sun) for its power level.

Spring Bean
Useless. Knocks a zombie back but then has to recharge. Don’t bother.

Grave Buster
Also useless. You shouldn’t waste time or sun getting rid of graves. Just use Cabbage-pults, Kernel-pults and Bloomerangs to get rid of them while also damaging zombies.

Cherry Bomb
One-use but worth it. Instantly kills all zombies within adjacent tiles.

Coconut Cannon
Undoubetedly powerful, but impractical. You have to manually fire it. The Plasma is a better bet

Citron
Like the Coconut Cannon, but recharges/fires automatically, and is cheaper. A good investment.

Chili Bean
Instantly kills the zombie that eats it and then causes that zombie’s gas to temporarily paralyze the rest of the row. You can use these in place of Spike Traps within the Dragon/Wall strategy.

Repeater
Self-explanatory – a repeating Peashooter. A lot of power, but less versatile than the Kernel-Pult.

Threepeater
Shoots three peas in different directions. A feasible alternative to the Dragonfire if used in numbers

Split Pea
Shoots peas forward and backward. Useful for catching zombies that sneak behind your defenses (usually through the air)

Pea Pod
Upgradable and capable of a lot of damage, but limited in its abilities and a bit slow, too.

Melon-Pult
Tremendous. Does a lot of damage, justifying its high price tag.

Winter Melon
The creme de la creme. As powerful as a Coconut Cannon and as versatile as a Kernel-pult.

E.M Peach
Disables machines in the area. Worth it for sure in the Far Future to stave off big attacks.

Magnifying Grass
Uses up sun each time it attacks. But its attack is so powerful that the cost is worth it. Pairing it with a good store of Twin Sunflowers and/or Sun-shrooms is enough to hold even huge hordes at bay.

Tile Turnip
Creates power tiles for plants (i.e., if one plant on a tile uses its plant food move, all other on the tile follow suit). Starts off free but becomes more expensive with each deployment. Not critical to winning, but not useless, eitehr.

Sun-shroom
A scalable Sunflower – it produces more sun as it goes. A viable replacement for the Twin Sunflower.

Fume-shroom
A large attacker that damages multiple zombies in the area. Can stand in for Snapdragon in the strategy above

Puff-shroom
A temporary, short-range attacker. Much better than it lets on: it can be deployed in rows for quick, cost effective damage (each one is free)

Sun Bean
Causes zombies that have eaten it to drop sun when attacked. A bit win-moar, but useful if you’re leaning heavily on Magnifying Grasses.

Magnet-shroom
Takes away helmets and metal objects. Not usually necessary except perhaps in a few select Dark Ages levels.

Lily Pads
A building block in Big Wave Beach. They don’t do any damage, but you need them for expanding your presence over the water.

Bowling Bulb
Throws a ricocheting bowling ball at zombies. Doesn’t do much damage and is relatively expensive.

Tangle Kelp
Very good. Instantly takes out a zombie in water, for a low cost.

Guacodile
Versatile. Can launch avocado seeds at zombies from afar, or chomp through them across the entire row if its proximity trigger is triggered.

Banana Launcher
Incredible power and reach, but slow and expensive. Still, a backrow full of these can deal with just about anything.

Hot Potato
Essential for getting through Frostbite Caverns. Free and melts any frozen object (your own or an enemy).

Pepper-pult
Basically an upgraded Cabbage-pult. Doesn’t seem to do as much damage, but heats up nearby tiles to melt ice.

Chard Guard
Excellent defense for flinging back big rows of zombies, but you’ll rarely need its power if you just use Wall-nuts etc.

Stunion
A better Chili Bean. Great stall plant

Rotobaga
Not that great on its own, but in rows it’s good since it gives you great coverage and lots of cascading damage.

Ancient Egypt
-Tombstones are annoying, but don’t waste your time with the Grave Buster. It’s free, but planting it wastes time, and the graves respawn. Instead, try this: Plant a wall of Wall Nuts, then back them up with a row of Bonk Choys. Finally, behind the Choys, plant the Bloomerangs. The combination of Bloomerang/Bonk Choy gets rid of the graves, and, paired with the Wall Nut’s defense, mows down almost any zombies. This strategy works like a charm in the plan-your-defense levels in Ancient Egypt, in which you start out with a certain level of sun and can’t acquire any more.

-Early on, you may have a pressing need for mass removal but won’t have enough coins for the power ups. The Cabbage-pult (only 100 sun) is your best bet. Its plant food move (plant food is earned from glowing green zombies and temporarily boosts the power of the targeted plant) is devastating.

-It’s usually a smart move to include the Iceberg Lettuce in your arsenal. It’s free and it’s the best way to stop the flaming zombies.

-It is totally worth your time to use your first key and go into the future to get the Laser Bean (you only have to beat one level there). In the defensive levels, you can set up two Laser Beans in each column and then one column of Wall Nuts – that should be enough to hold back any advance.

-The Dr. Zombie battle is random; get used to this, and don’t expect to wear it down with strategy. Your best assets here are the Iceberg Lettuce and the Cabbage-pult.

Pirate Seas
-The double sunflower is your best friend – having a row of five is a sun-making machine, but you have to set it up right. A trick to use is to add both the basic sunflower AND the double one to your arsenal. Start off with a few basic sunflowers, then plant some doubles once you have enough sun. That way, you lay the foundation for strong infrastructure while also getting things off to a quick start. Once you get the shovel power ups, you can shovel up the basic sunflowers to recoup some of the cost and then replace them with doubles.

-The Kernel-pult makes the Cabbage-pult obsolete, and it is actually one of the best plants in the game despite costing just 100 sun. It can both damage enemies with kernels and slow them down with butter – its plant food move essentially freezes the entire zombie army for a few seconds. It’s usually a good idea to fill an entire back row with them.

-There are some tricky “protect the endangered plants/don’t let the zombies trample the flower” levels in this world. A good strategy is to build a row of Wall Nuts to protect the flowers, and back them up with lots of Snapdragons for cascading damage. In the levels in which the endangered plants are right near the water, you’ll need to act quickly and build up lots of sun so that you can pepper the back row with Coconut Cannons. These can instantly blow away the cannon zombies before they even launch.

Wild West
-Symmetry is the name of the game. Maybe it’s just because I’m OCD, but it pays to be consistent in how you construct your rows – adjacent Snapdragons do more damage, and Lightning Reeds have a better chance of zapping zombies if you group a few of them together. Wall Nuts and Spikerocks are also good plants to put together:

-The mine carts give you a lot of flexibility in moving powerful plants up and down. It’s tempting to put a Coconut Cannon in one of them, but a better bet is the Repeater or the Threepeater. The latter does widely distributed damage, but the Repeater is arguably a better deal – remember that its plant food power up can be exploited after you start it by moving the cart up and down so that you can pick off zombies across multiple rows.

-The Chili Bean is amazing – for only 50 sun, you can instantly kill a zombie and paralyze an entire row for a few seconds. Don’t upgrade to the Chili Pepper for $2.99, it’s a ripoff.

-The Melon-pult is ridiculously powerful, but its high cost and slow rate of fire make it hard to utilize, especially in the complex levels with tons of chickens. You’ll need Lightning Reeds to fend off those chickens, which can easily slip past your other defenses.

Far Future
-The Laser Bean is deceptively powerful – it makes huge rows of regular, unupgraded/non-hardened zombies easy to deal with. But it’s more useful in Ancient Egypt than here.

-The power-up squares are interesting, but the strategy is usually simple: put two Winter Melons on matching symbols and watch as you clear the board each time you get ANY Plant Food. However, it’s also worth putting Twin Sunflowers or just plain Sunflowers on the tiles for huge sun bonuses to power.

-Magnifying Grasses! These guys are amazing. Once you get them, you’ll need almost nothing else. They can kill most zombies with a hit, and their Plant Food Move is great. Try it with the power-up squares: it’s a complete board-clearer.

Dark Ages
-The Sun-shroom is a good replacement for the Twin Sunflower. It’s cheap to plant and it’ll reward you in short order

-Puff-shrooms are the backbone of good strategy throughout the Dark Ages. Plant them back to back to give you free short-term damage and deterrence. You won’t need much attack other than these and maybe a few Magnifying Grasses here.

-The strategy at the top of the page isn’t so great here due to the preponderance of gravestones and potion-enhanced zombies. Keeping tidy rows won’t be as easy. Lean on the temporary threat of Puff-shrooms as well as the raw power of Magnifying Grasses (backed by Sunflowers and Sun-shrooms!) to carry the day.

-Magnet-shrooms are overrated. They can weaken a group of bucket heads, but most of the the time you can beat them down anyway with Melon-pults and Snapdragons.

Big Wave Beach
-The Lily Pads are a necessary evil for expanding your reach in most levels here. They don’t do anything except give you a base to plant more plants on the water.

-Tangle Kelp should be utilized in just about every level. They’re useful for taking out the tough surfer zombies and other armored zombies.

-Bowling Bulbs are pricey for what they are. You can usually get a better setup by just waiting to build Banana Launchers that can take out just about anything.

-Guacodiles are really good and cheap. But be careful of using them in levels where you can’t lose more than [x] plants – each time one goes off chomping, it’ll count against your total.

Frostbite Caverns
-The Hot Potato is essential for just about every level here to stop the big rows of ice blocks that the zombies will push over your defenses.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 9.19.26 PM

-Use Snapdragons as part of the standard defense described here in intro; they’re even better here since the flames also help melt any frozen plants pretty quickly.

-Stay away from expensive plants like Banana Launcher in this stage, since the winds and the ice blocks make it hard to build up and sustain a major legion of plants. Stick to Pepper-pults, Snapdragons, Stunions and Rotobagas.

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Shovel Knight

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Shovel Knight nails the look and feel of the NES.

A love letter to 8-bit gaming
It has been nearly 30 years since the Nintendo Entertainment System debuted in North America and no other console since has so dominated the culture, aesthetics, and market share of video gaming in its respective era. The NES not only had scarce competition, but its distinctive capabilities – and modest specs – ensured that it would leave a mark. After all, what other console in history could exert such influence and be so recognizable as to appear in a Ghost Busters movie?

As the children of the 1980s and early 1990s have come of age, 8-bit nostalgia has flourished. A while back, I looked at Mutant Mudds Deluxe for Wii U, a delightfully straightforward, unabashed throwback platformer. Nintendo’s current generation consoles have become ecosystems for genres and styles seemingly from other times, whether pixelated side scrollers like Mutant Mudds Deluxe, HD games such as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze that reprise the retro difficulty of the NES and SNES, and visual novels such as the peerless Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward.

And now we have Shovel Knight. The platformer brought to Wii U and 3DS via Kickstarter is a gorgeous, endlessly playable love letter to 8-bit gaming.

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The Shovel Knight world.

Shovel Knight digs the details
Shovel Knight has almost scholarly attention to the aesthetics of 8-bit gaming. The NES’s color palette is instantly recognizable in the game’s gorgeous underground caverns, crisp blue skies, lush forests, and lively towns. Players may find themselves thinking of classics such as Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Mega Man, and especially the Wizards and Warriors games.

Speaking of Mega Man, composer Manami Matsumae contributes music here, along with Jake Kaufman. The soundtrack is pitch perfect, both on its own merits and as a nod to the annals of 8-bit gaming. I found myself endlessly humming the theme from the first stage in my head.

The tunes are nice microcosm of Shovel Knight’s overall approach: Exceptional, encyclopedic 8-bit vocabulary, yet an experience that rises far above mere homage. Its modernity can be felt in the control scheme, especially the jumping, which is much crisper than in most NES platformers. The cutscenes, dialog, and exploratory sequences in the towns, while indebted to games such as Ninja Gaiden: The Dark Sword of Chaos, have a cohesiveness and theatricality that is of more recent vintage.

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Shovel Knight encounters Black Knight.

The cerulean knight
The basic gameplay is inspired. Shovel Knight is a knight who starts with a shovel rather than a sword. The shovel can unearth diamonds, swipe enemies, or be used a pseudo-pogo stick, a la Scrooge McDuck in Duck Tales for NES.

It takes a little while to get fully accustomed to the ins and outs of Shovel Knight. The pogo behavior was tricky at first, since it’s required to cross some chasms (a classic NES pitfall) but doesn’t quite work like it does in Duck Tales or Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the latter of which imitated the former’s trademark feature. However, the controls are tight and simple overall.

Difficulty is well calibrated. It masterfully emulates the platforming perils of its NES predecessors, but gives the player a break through Shovel Knight’s impressive jumping abilities and robust health meter (no one- or two-hit deaths a la Ghosts and Goblins). The boss battles are tough – I really enjoyed learning the ropes against the Death-like Specter Knight.

Finally, the game is deep, with plenty to collect and explore. Playing the Wii U version, I appreciated how it grouped items neatly on the Game Pad and used Miiverse to provide a community diary of each room. A must-have for any Wii U library.

Mutant Mudds Deluxe

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Mutant Mudds Deluxe for Wii U

What’s the appeal of pixelated 8-bit graphics and linear gameplay? Well, maybe they’re an escape from Internet-only dystopian shooters (seriously, how many of these can the average gaming bro play through). A respite from “free-to-play.”  A break from “Read Phone Status” permissions. They’re decisive proof that progress isn’t something that just moves forwards. It goes backward all the time (see also: the move away from albums and toward standalone singles and streaming music).

I mean, this says it all. And I would remiss to mention that I am so looking to Shovel Knight for Wii U/3DS at the end of this month.

Until then, I’ve been tiding myself over with Mutant Mudds Deluxe for Wii U. “8-bit” is a monomer here, though, as the game draws inspiration from the SNES’s color palette (plus the blonde haircut and glasses of protagonist Max is more than a little reminiscent of Jeff from Earthbound).

Mutant Mudds Deluxe sets out to do just a few things and it does all them all as well as Scrooge McDuck bounces on a cane. Max has a jetpack and a water cannon. His jump never feels quite high enough, weirdly – maybe it’s the sheer necessity of having to jetpack-blast your way up through all the CGA-Lands (cute IBM reference) that makes the normal jump seem unimportant to the game. In this way, the game resembles 8-bit classic Bionic Commando, with its deemphasis (well, downright obviation) of jumping in favor of claw grappling.

There’s unlimited ammo, as you would expect from a golden/silver age Nintendo platformer.  Difficulty is sufficient – tricky moving/disappearing platforms, weirdly positioned enemies – but not back-breaking like Castlevania III or Defender (or as latter-day gamers call it, Flappy Bird).

You can tell that this game began on the 3DS (sans the “Deluxe” moniker). Its usage of depth-of-field effects is clever, but feels awkward on Wii U, where there’s tons of real estate that feels wasted by shrinking Max into the background. But the widescreen effect does bring some major improvements over the mobile version, which would often not show enough of the screen for you to avoid having to make a blind jump.

At only $10, Mutant Mudds Deluxe isn’t cheap compared to the F2P garbage out there. But like the astonishing Out There, it feels like a bargain for how much craftsmanship is crammed into it.

Out There

Out There

Out There

An honest Android game is hard to find. Most are “free,” except with in-app purchases. It’s like buying an apple “for free” at a supermarket and then paying $0.85 to eat it – what’s “free” about that? Free-to-play, free-to-eat, whatever – the mobile gaming world is full of cutthroat pirates obsessed with the word candy and unconcerned with your experience. Every now and then you get lucky with something like Plants vs. Zombies 2, only to see its makers experiment with pay-to-win lawn mowers.

What a weird feeling it is then when you find a game that doesn’t have any IAP – especially when it so easily could have implemented them to squeeze for you $50 here or there. The cross-platform Out There is at once a throwback to a different type of gaming business model and one hopes a foreshadowing of what’s possible for high-quality mobile games. It only costs $3.99, and despite its labeling in Google Play, there aren’t any IAP.

Out There

Out There is beautifully illustrated

Out There is exquisitely made. The graphics resemble a comic book, with lushly colored sci-fi landscapes. The soundtrack is creepy and beautiful, or basically what you would expect for a deep-space survival adventure. It’s the 22nd century and your character has awoken from cryogenic slumber (having fared better than Ted Williams, apparently) and has to make his way from one galaxy to the next.

Right from the start, Out There has that feeling of there being a long quest ahead, which I don’t always get from mobile games that seem not to look beyond what you’re going to do 5 minutes from now when you run out of rubies/coins/donuts. There’s a dot way across the galaxy and you’ve got to get there, overcoming all sorts of hazards and misfortune along the way.

Out There ship

The ship interface in Out There

Your ship has several main resources – hull strength, fuel, and oxygen. Each one of these depletes as you travel from star system to star system. See what I mean about there being a golden opportunity for IAP here? But Out Here splendidly doesn’t take it. Instead, you can only acquire each element (H/He for fuel; O for oxygen; and Fe for hull and equipment repair) by harvesting them from stars and planets. How novel.

There’s a lot of risk/reward calculus in Out There. For example, you can drill into a planet’s surface to get iron and other metals, but doing so uses some fuel and carries the risk of breaking your drill, in which case you’ll have to use iron (what you were likely trying to acquire in the first place) to repair it. Your cargo hold is limited, with only a few slots and a cap of 20 units on each of the essential elements. It’s possible to dismantle equipment to make room and harvest elements, but doing so could leave you missing a module you’ll wish you had later on.

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Traveling at the speed of light in Out There.

Traveling through the lonely cosmos of Out There is dangerous. In other words, prepare for a lot of game over’s. You might spin off course and take a bunch of hull damage, or your light speed warp between worlds may fail, leaving you short 20+ fuel and no further along in your quest. The game also has a choose-your-own-adventure element to it, in which you pick one branch on a path and never really know if a choice will net you a nice resource bonus or end your game prematurely.

Out There is exceedingly difficult and unpredictable, and you’ll need a lot of luck to get through it safely. But this isn’t Candy Crush luck – you won’t make it all the way to your destination without putting in some dedicated planning.

Out There galaxy

The Out There galaxy is huge

It reminds me of all the hours I logged as a kid playing Space Quest V: The Next Mutation, another tough trek (heh) that owed a lot to classic sci-fi and burnished its loopy puzzles with gorgeous artwork. Out There isn’t an adventure game per se, but its long-form, challenging characteristics make it feel like an adventurer gamer’s take on Faster Than Light or Mass Effect.

Flappy Bird and video game controllers

Flappy Bird

When worlds clash – one free game advertising another. Also, platinum medal!

Many iconic games can be grasped in just a few seconds, yet can fascinate players for years, either because of their novelty (Super Mario Bros., Ocarina of Time), their difficulty (Ghosts n’ Goblins, Castlevania), or their seemingly endless skill curve (Tetris, Dr. Mario). Flappy Bird hits those last two categories hard. Some redditors have scoffed at Flappy Bird’s difficulties, referencing one of the very games I mentioned above as evidence of a truly hard, bygone era in gaming, but they’re wrong – this is a tough game for the ages, in large part because it’s imprecise. You never quite get a good feel for how high your bird is going to flap, and as such you bump into a pipe lip and it’s all over.

All games used to be hard – because of hardware
Before the advent of precise controllers – which relay took off with the analog stick of the N64 – games were super hard not just because of how they were designed, but because the hardware was working against you. Picking up an NES/SNES controller now is quaint – the buttons are stiff, and I’m all the more impressed that games such as FF3/6 could pull off things like Sabin’s Bum Rush requiring a 360 rotation (you HAD to hit those diagonal directions!).

But once controllers became great big dual joysticked bear claws for Xbox 360-playing bros, games went soft. Unless the game was just sadistic, the precision of having tons of trigger buttons (for hairpin reactions to enemies) and analog sticks would let you just grind through until you finally cleared the area/completed the task. Elaborate save systems gave each game its own de facto save state/cheat mechanism (a la an emulator), but in a way, all these software changes were a result of fundamental hardware changes.

It’s odd then, that it’s taken this long for a mobile game to reprise the truly rage-inducing difficulty of the early home console era. After all, nothing could be more seemingly primitive than having no buttons at all – just a touchscreen. But rather than force you to do tons of difficult tasks with just your free hand (something akin to Ryu Hayabusa’s wall jumps), mobile games have been content to let you fling birds or clear away saccharine sweets.

Flappy Bird is a revelation is in this respect. It makes you jump, so often in vain, to clear lots of pipe pairs. There’s nothing to the control scheme other than tapping anywhere to jump, and letting go to fall at a surprisingly rapid rate. And yet the control scheme, like the ones in those old NES/SNES games, is clearly struggling to keep up with what the game needs you to do.

The arcade effect
Flappy Bird is a lot like an arcade game, and not just because of its side-scrolling Gradius-like action and old school graphics. Arcade games were understandably hard as hell – how else could they get you to keep spending quarters? – and their legacy exacerbated the insane difficulty of early console titles such as Ninja Gaiden. Flappy Bird is like something from 1989.

The only thing that makes it seem like it came from 2014 instead is the presence of an ad network. It’s a free game, but has to make money somehow – mercifully from ads, then, and not increasingly annoying in-app purchases.

There’s been a bit of debate about the effect of IAP on games recently, with some saying it’s destroying the industry and others quipping that arcades were the original IAP and kids these days don’t appreciate that. I think the latter article misses the point by focusing too much on economics rather than quality of gameplay (plus it trots out the old falsehood that Nintendo requires brick-and-mortar offices for indie developers).

Moreover, many arcade titles gave great value for only a small upfront investment, and their successors such as Flappy Bird let you skate by with only handing over your details to an ad network. Today’s IAP games will barely let you breathe without nagging you to buy more donuts, gems, or gold.

Fortunately, gaming is still a young industry, and with more consoles likely on the way from Amazon and Apple, business models are sure to change. I just hope it’s more like Flappy Bird – both in gameplay and economics – than Clash of Clans.