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Tag Archives: video games

Gabriel Knight reborn

There’s a place in Lexington, Kentucky, called Doodles, that serves really good brunch that can be ordered while you wait. The one time I went there, I got a bowl of shrimp and grits, but I was jealous of the plate of beignets that my sister ordered. Beignets have always been special for me, not only because they’re tasty but because I first learned about them in the Sierra On-Line game “Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers” (hereafter GK1)

Gabriel Knight: Then and now
Much like my travails with “Space Quest 6: The Spinal Frontier,” my experiences with GK1 were trying. I played it on an early 1990s IBM PC, running Windows 3.0 or 3.1. Many of the game’s puzzles stumped me, plus its macabre subject-matter was a little much to take in as a 9 year-old just getting acquainted with computer games.

There were three games in the original “Gabriel Knight” run. I didn’t play the third one, but enjoyed the radically different designs of the first and second installments. Whereas GK1 was one of the pinnacles of the point-and-click VGA formula that Sierra perfected between 1990 and 1994, the second one, called “The Beast Within,” encapsulated the era of Full Motion Video.

It took up a full 6 (!) CDs, at a time when having a game on a single CD-ROM was considered cutting-edge. Sierra’s games may not have been action-packed, but they were frequently on the technical frontier, whether it was FMV in GK2, voice acting in “King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow” (it came out in 1992 and had more lines of dialogue that most films made up to that point), or open worlds in the original “King Quest,” all the way from 1984. Even SQ6 was philosophically ahead of its time, with its look at the early structure of what we now call the Internet.

Maybe the best of Sierra’s adventure crop – GK, SQ, KQ, Quest for Glory, Police Quest – were so far ahead of their time that they were waiting all along for the emergence of phones, tablets, and the MacBook Air as their ideal platforms. They were never served well by the hulking gaming PCs of the late 1990s, the rise of which neatly coincided with the decline of the adventure genre, which had no real need for graphical flair or processing power. Now that PCs as a whole are in decline and gaming PCs confined to a niche audience – with gaming itself having become radically democratized across many user demographics – it’s a perfect time for adventure games to reemerge, and so they have.

GK1 recently got a stunning makeover for its 20th anniversary. Here’s a comparison of the original PC version with the new 2014 version:

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The new coat of paint is nice on the eyes, although I still love fuzzy pixelated graphics sometimes. The biggest upgrade is probably to the UI, which is not simplified into just a few primary buttons rather than a crowded task bar.

The GK1 revamp is more ambitious than some other adventure game revivals in recent years. The “Broken Sword” games, for example, were mostly faithful in their iOS/Android ports from their 1990s PC originals. But even with the extra content and graphical upgrade, it still runs without a hitch even on a minimum specs MacBook Air that, for context, can’t reliably handle the online trading card game Hearthstone.

So about those beignets
The titular character encounters a beignet vendor in Jackson Square. The sweet foodstuff itself is an important item in the game, an example of how Sierra game designers often made silly, seemingly insignificant items pivotal (the rotten fish in SQ6, which is used to defeat the final boss, is probably the best example) to the plot.

My family visited New Orleans in 1998 and that trip remains the only time I’ve been to the city. We didn’t have time to get a beignet while there, so in ensuing years i’ve settled for versions at Taste of Chicago and various restaurants.

My fascination with these fried donuts continues on though, due to a 20+ year-old gaming puzzle that I now get to experience. Replaying the GK1 remake, the game has aged well thanks to this quirky touches of humor, strong writing, and a tuneful and moody soundtrack. Replaying it on my laptop, like replaying Broken Sword II on my Nexus 5 last year, seems natural, since processing power and graphics aren’t what matter or what ever mattered. Gabriel Knight is reborn, beignets in tow.

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“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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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.

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.

Mario Kart 8 techniques

It feels like I have played nothing except Shovel Knight and Mario Kart 8 the last few weeks. After finally getting three stars on each Grand Prix cup, here are a few tips I discovered that were helpful:

  • The horn power-up is one of the best items in the game, if only because it can neutralize the blue shell. If you get one early on and you’re not far from the lead, it’s worth trying to get into 1st and just holding onto it to fend off anything that comes your way – “the speed horse” strategy.
  • If you’re in 1st, getting new items doesn’t matter unless your current item is a coin, in which case you should use it right away. If you have a banana or a green shell (the typical fare for someone in 1st place), hold onto it! Countless races have been lost because someone thought that it was clever to shoot a green shell backward or lay a banana on the final turn before the finish line. When you’re in first, all items are defensive items – you will need that banana or shell to block a red shell or snipe someone who tries to overtake you at the death.
  • Still, always go through the item squares if you’re in 1st place, even if you don’t need one. You never know if there’s someone on your tail that would lose the race if denied a critical item.
  • Know where you can chase the lead – not all courses are created equal. The following courses are extremely difficult to come back on if you fall too far back: 1) Donut Plains 3  2) Rainbow Road (N64 version) 3) Dolphin Shoals and 4) Water Park. On the other hand, it’s not hard to make a huge comeback on Piranha Plant Side, Toad Harbor, and Bowser’s Castle.
  • Be wary of 2nd and 3rd place CPUs that are directly ahead of you with red shells. They will often fire them backward (which make no sense, but it happens). It’s useful to have a green shell on hand to fire forward and block the red one.
  • Banana sniping it a thing. If you’re in 2nd or 3rd, it’s worth it to throw a banana forward since CPUs or even human players won’t always be able to move in time to get out of the way. Throwing bananas backward or using them defensively makes no sense unless you’re in 1st, anyway.
  • Mushrooms are often misused. It’s usually not a good idea to just burn them while on a straight stretch of track. They’re most useful for: 1) boosting through a patch of slow territory (grass, stone, etc.) to get to a shortcut, such as on the first turn at Thwomp Ruins or near the end of Piranha Plant Slide 2) recovering right away after hitting a banana or getting hit with a shell 3) making a big turn, when many other players will brake or drift for too long.
  • If you see a blue shell heading for the 1st place racer while you’re in 2nd or a near 3rd, use the brakes (slight tap on B). The explosion radius is wide and getting caught in it is as bad as getting hit directly.
  • Sometimes there’s nothing you can do in the face of a blue shell. If it is about to hit you, use up any items you have on you since you’ll lose them afterward. Also, if possible, try steering yourself near to a booster strip. That way, once you start up again, you can get up to speed as quickly as possible.
  • Drift wherever possible. Beginners often struggle with turns and making comebacks; drifting is the best way to address both of these issues.
  • Use the jump button to get a boost when going over a ramp or precipice. It also doesn’t hurt to jump or quickly drift to change course when you see that a red shell is coming up from behind. Red shells can miss for all sorts of reasons, so it’s a good idea to make life as hard as possible on them.
  • If you’re in the lead near the end and fear that someone is tailing you, vary your direction a bit so that you don’t create a slipstream from everyone behind you.
  • Remember that you if you brush up against someone holding a mushroom(s), you get a free boost.
  • The fireball power-up is unwieldy, but it’s devastating if you’re in the middle of the (closely packed) pack coming around a turn. Unleash it and watch the entire field go spinning.

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.