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Tag Archives: Games

“Space Quest 6” and the Internet as space vs. medium

One of the distinctive things about the Internet is that no one used to call it “the Internet.” Throughout much of the 1990s, the act of accessing an IP network (likely over dial-up) was referred to as “going online,” entering “cyberspace,” or encountering “the Net,” “Web,” or just “AOL.” Then there was my favorite: the Information Super Highway.

Networks and history
Computer-driven networks had been evolving for decades by the time that Geocities et al made them directly accessible to consumers. There wasn’t a monolithic, unified network in development that whole time, though; “the Internet,” in all of its broad meaning, was a latecomer to the networking, software and hardware party that had been going on since microprocessors were invented in the 1940s.

Speaking of the 40s: I saw Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe speak at a conference in D.C. last year, and he half-joked that the Internet began in 1946 with the first microprocessor, making it exactly as old as he was. This quip is instructive, since, on the one hand, it demonstrates how the numerous technological inventions that makes today’s Internet possible go back many years, and, on the other, it shows how all of these developments have been retroactively wrapped up in the homogenous terminology of the “Internet” (so we have “the history of the Internet,” or “pre-Internet” instead of “the history of networking technologies and capitalistic decision making” or “pre-chip.”)

Card-processing networks and travel reservation networks, for instance, were among the disparate networks that emerged throughout the 1970s, as Evgeny Morozov noted in a recent interview. The discursive convergence on the term “Internet” didn’t happen until much later, and was never inevitable. Infrastructure control had to be handed off to the private sector and specific technologies and protocol stacks (like Ethernet and TCP/IP) had to win out over others.

Medium vs space
These days, the Internet is seen primarily as a medium. One might “use” the Internet in the same way she might use a phone line, magazine, or TV. It serves as a means of getting information, e.g., it has literally become “the media,” in a happy coincidence of terminology. But one doesn’t really occupy it; in the popular imagination, there is no longer a spatial quality to it, and talking about “cyberspace” feels anachronistic.

This wasn’t always the case. There was “cyberspace,” sure, but there were also “chat rooms” (another spatial reference) as well as weird artifacts like Apple eWorld that tried to represent connectivity as a traditional community – with buildings corresponding to different tasks – rather than one giant medium (“the Internet”). Even early browsers like Mosaic and Netscape Navigator had names that were spatial, representing a physical collection of objects and a guide through a cyber-landscape, respectively.

None of these modes of connectivity were strange in the 1990s. My favorite example in this mold was the Sierra On-Line adventure game “Space Quest 6: The Spinal Frontier” (hereafter “SQ6”), released, crucially, in 1995, which was the year that Netscape really began to pick up steam and Windows 95 was released. It was also, if I recall correctly, the first year I actually went online.

Space and “Space Quest 6”
SQ6, like its predecessors and most of Sierra On-Line’s games, was a point-and-click adventure, a genre that involves investigating a world, clicking on things, accumulating inventory, talking to people, and solving puzzles. Generally, the gameplay is slow-paced and intellectual. I grew up with these games in the early 90s, installing them from floppy disks, being stumped for hours on puzzles, and then having to order a hint book since GameFAQs didn’t exist yet.

Many of them also had manuals that contained crucial, proprietary hints to puzzles, as a means of copy protection. “Space Quest V: The Next Mutation,” for instance, had a tabloid that included important tips. With SQ6, there was a pack-in magazine called “Popular Janitronics” that you absolutely had to have to complete one of the game’s hardest tasks (creating a homing beacon).

Unlike, say, “King Quest’s VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow” (also from Sierra), SQ6 wasn’t on the technological cutting-edge, although I thought it was at the time since it was the first “Space Quest” game to be built for CD-ROM distribution (to get a sense of how big a deal this was: KQ6 was initially available on 12 floppies, and, after a year, on 1 CD). Its graphics were ok and its gameplay standard.

The game’s hero, Roger Wilco, goes to several exotic planets on his quest to save someone named Stellar Santiago. The most memorable sequence for me, though, is when he goes into cyberspace, which looks like this:

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superhighway

Software, networks, and hardware
These screenshots show how a lot of people in 1995 conceived of “the Internet” (which didn’t really have that label at this time; that noun with the definite article is found nowhere in the game’s dialogue or literature): vast spaces, dotted with highways that carried information and ran past virtual buildings that held online accounts and files. The file cabinet screen grab above is accessed through a menu that looks like a dead-ringer for Windows 3.1, which is itself housed inside a trailer. That’s about as cyberspace-in-early-1995 as you can get, and not far off from eWorld, albeit in a Windows-centric universe (I played the game on a Windows 95 machine).

While all of this may seem outdated now, it really isn’t. For starters, Roger goes online not by using a phone or even a PC, but by donning a VR headset that doesn’t look much different from Facebook’s Oculus Rift. Everything old is new again; recycling sci-fi and fictional ideas is both a fascinating aspect and a potential weakness of the tech industry, which has a strange reliance on the entertainment industry for ideas at times when its own poverty of imagination shows through. Plus, the idea of the Internet as a space was never “wrong,” it just lost out to the homogenization that eventually grouped disparate histories in hardware, software and networking infrastructure into one story, as Morozov pointed out:

“For most of the nineties, you still had a multiplicity of different visions, interpretations, anxieties and longings for this new world, and a lot of competing terms for it – virtual reality [note: weird how this one has survived and actually flourished in the discourse of wearable technology], hypertext, World Wide Web, Internet. At some point, the Internet as a medium overtook all of them and became the organizing metacategory, while the others dropped away. What would have changed if we had continued thinking about it as a space rather than as a medium? Questions like these are important. The Net isn’t a timeless, unproblematic category. I want to understand how it became an object of analysis that incorporates all these parallel histories: in hardware, software, state-supported infrastructures, privatization of infrastructures, and strips them of their political, economic and historical contexts to generate a typical origin story: there was an invention- Vint Cerf and DARPA – and it became this fascinating new force with a life of its own. Essentially, that’s our Internet discourse at present.”

He’s asking good questions, and I can’t wait for him to write more books on “the Internet” and its history. Since we’re talking about video games here, though, I might note, on the subject of “origin stories,” that this tendency toward a specific, linear history of “the Internet” – one that scrubs out various continuity errors or false starts – is a lot like something from a comic book or fictional universe, which makes sense. The tech industry at present has considerable overlap with geek culture, which has led it to elevate the Maker movement and the sort of artifact-obsessed outlook that loves clean origin stories rather than messy human dramas.

Wilco and conclusions
Roger Wilco never starred in another official SQ after 1995. Like the rest of Sierra’s adventure gaming franchises, which had thrived as PCs became mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s, it struggled to keep pace with new types of games that sported better graphics, more violence, and online gameplay. The solo, introverted experience of the point-and-click game was no match for attention spans with access to Unreal Tournament and, eventually, Facebook games.

With that transition in mind, it makes sense that SQ6 would see “the Internet” as a bunch of filing cabinets, or an “offline” version of Windows 3.1, for someone to dig through. The notion of the Internet as an actual medium for other people’s information, rather than a quiet library for each individual, implies a broad social connection that computers did not deliver in the mid 1990s and further back.

It’s too bad, in a way. If the Internet were conceived of a space today, think of the impact such a mindset might have on data collection and privacy – Wilco would have been overwhelmed had he stumbled across the “F” filing cabinet in that building, stuffed as it would be now with Facebook data. Or the “N” (NSA) or “U” (Uber) cabinets. Maybe it’s time to bring “cyberspace” back, if only as a semantic nod to there being real consequences for data collection and online screeds.

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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.

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-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.

The Best Uses of the Wii U GamePad

If exclusive original content is Nintendo’s bread, then proprietary hardware is its butter. Just as the stereoscopic 3D of the 3DS has enabled unique experiences such as the lush landscapes of Phoenix Wright Dual Destinies and the unique puzzles of Pushmo/Crashmo, the Wii U GamePad has opened up new possibilities for both Nintendo’s own games and third-party titles.

Broadly, the GamePad has reduced on-screen map and menu clutter. Even mass-market, cross-platform games such as Batman Arkham City and the Assassin’s Creed series have benefited from having a second screen onto which to offload boring but necessary design. The TV itself is then freed up for continuous gameplay, with no more pop-up spam or map micromanagement.

As the Wii U gains commercial traction through blockbuster titles such as Mario Kart 8, there has been renewed focus from Nintendo and other developers on doing more with the GamePad. The controller’s unconventional design has also been a point of contention with industry observers trying to explain the console’s tepid reception pre-Mario Kart 8 – it surely adds to the Wii U’s price while seemingly being unnecessary (top-notch games such as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze don’t even use it).

Still, the GamePad has been well-utilized so far. Perhaps it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves because of the Wii U’s slow uptake. Here are some of the games and apps that make hay with Nintendo’s tablet controller.

Shovel Knight
Shovel Knight is a Kickstarter project that became an immensely satisfying send-up of 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System gaming. From its limited palette to its soundtrack, Shovel Knight nails the 8-bit era’s distinctive aesthetics.

In my review, I praised Shovel Knight for being pitch-perfect while adding latter-day touches such as theatricality through animation and cutscenes. It also makes better use of Miiverse than any game I’ve played so far for Wii U.

As you move from room to room, the GamePad automatically updates with Miiverse posts (categorized as “Diary”) that include comments and tips about the current room. Some are just peanut gallery schtick about how hard/easy the boss is, but others provide info such as how many hits it takes to defeat the mini-boss and where the hidden passage is located.

The GamePad also provides inventory management. Overall, the GamePad provides nice 21st century differentiation for a game with its head in 1988.

ZombiU
The best of the Wii U launch titles, ZombiU is a fiendishly hard first-person shooter/survival horror hybrid. It took me months to finally clear the normal campaign, and I have yet to try survival mode (in which the game ends for good if you die once; I died 55 times in my first successful playthrough).

ZombiU uses the GamePad like a Swiss Army Knife. It can be held up to the TV as a scanner for clues and enemies. It serves as the scope for the sniper rifle. It is also the interface for entering passcodes and breaking locks.

Ubisoft made the GamePad an indelible part of ZombiU. Even in asynchronous multiplayer mode, it serves as one player’s map for dispatching zombies.

Lego City Undercover
Open world games stir up a certain anxiety in me. It’s probably why I never got into Minecraft and why I have always struggled to stay engaged with the Assassin’s Creed installments. It took Lego to win me over.

Lego City Undercover is an open world Wii U exclusive, sort of like Grand Theft Auto with Lego. You play as a police officer tasked with patrolling Lego City. The GamePad is your stand-in for your character’s communicator.

As such, the GamePad serves as the main screen for communications with headquarters. Plus, it doubles as an evidence scanner. I wouldn’t expect any less from one of the Wii U’s best exclusive titles.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
This game has been ported to a gazillion different platforms, and its stark futurism and realistic violence aren’t exactly Nintendo hallmarks. All the same, its Wii U incarnation is the best available due to the GamePad perks.

Deus Ex HR is filled with menus, lists, maps, logs, and to-do lists. The GamePad is the perfect medium for all of these features. It helps you manage the finer details while not losing sight of the gameplay.

The Wii U version also features enhanced boss battles so that you can scrape by even without a first-rate weapons arsenal. The extra content between Hong Kong and Singapore is also includd.

Netflix
Not a game obviously, but Netflix shows how the GamePad can be useful in other contexts. Netflix is one of my (and many others’) most used non-game Wii U app, and it takes advantage of the hardware.

The Netflix Wii U app is hardly a paragon of performance and reliability, but the GamePad options make up for these shortcomings. The GamePad screen shows you the title of the film, its Netflix community star rating, the cast, the blurb, and how much time is remaining.

If anything, the Netflix app could probably go further, much like how Shovel Knight turned Miiverse into something worthwhile and useful. Reviews, links to cast and other details in IMDb? All of that would be welcome.

Mario Kart 8

Good simplicity is complicated. The first iPhone, Tetris, the prose of Ernest Hemingway – each is easy to grasp, but built with exacting care and technical skill. Mario Kart 8 is a worthy heir to this tradition of ingenuity made to look effortless.

Even if you have never played a racing game, never flirted with the Mario franchise in the past 30 years – it doesn’t matter. Within minutes of booting Mario Kart 8 (made easier with the Wii U’s recent system update), you can be fully ramped into the game, racing alongside Yoshi, Wario, and death-stare Luigi.

The controls are seamless and fluid. They feel so natural that using any of the Wii U’s controllers feel like playing a musical instrument – you’re an instant virtuoso, knowledgeable of every nuance. Plus, that soundtrack! Nintendo unleashed its chops on the Super Mario 3D World score, but the tunes here are better. The melodies and arrangements (generous electric guitar) differentiate the mood from track and track.

The Wii U was hardly lacking for top-flight titles before Mario Kart 8. Super Mario 3D World is one of the most polished, re-playable games ever designed, while ZombiU and The Wonderful 101 are like little else. But Mario Kart 8 gives the Wii U the instant gratification lacking in its previous top-flight titles, all of which are exceptionally difficult (just try Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze).

It’s not just the gameplay that is rewarding right out of the box. The visuals are gorgeous, crafted with Disney-level attention to style. Looking at the scenery is as fun as trying to beat out Koopa Troopa to get on the podium. The Wii U needed a(nother) masterpiece, and it got one.

Mutant Mudds Deluxe

mudds

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.