Tag Archives: 2011

Dmytry and Alexey Lavrov – The Polynomial: Space of the Music

Remember that old iTunes visualizer that blew us all out of the water, all those years ago? How you could fire up your own music, hit command-T and watch those undulating shapes bend and pulse in time to your music? It ruled. Didn’t you ever imagine flying a ship through those exploding waves, spinning and diving through fractals as you hunt down ‘Nazi Robot’ Pacman-looking things? Okay, now imagine how long you could play a game like that for, and how much herbal supplement might play into the enjoyment of that experience. There: you’ve gone and written your own mental review to The Polynomial.

Yes, they really are called “Nazi robots” in-game (neon Pacmen, for all intents and purposes), and along with friendly speed-boosting Ghosts (jellyfish you can shoot or eat) and aliens, they comprise the entire cast of The Polynomial. There are powerups to augment your ship’s performance temporarily, as well as various landscape features to hide within or fly into to switch levels. There are 39 slightly-different space-scapes to pilot your first-person craft through, each of which is just as psychedelic and vast and empty as the last. There are numerous difficulty levels, ramping up to the game’s recommended ‘Insane’ mode, in which you’ll face near-instant death at the hands of your pulsating companions and their laser guns… And that’s it. That’s the entirety of whatever might pass for a campaign in The Polynomial: the pursuit of two different types of enemies, over 39 functionally-identical maps, set to an electronic soundtrack, with a minimal amount of interactive elements, and absolutely zero context. Sound like that visualizer-game we were talking about?

If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, you’re right: at heart, The Polynomial isn’t about the action or the exploration. It’s very loosely concerned even about the scores it constantly tracks, and at its core it has very little to do with interaction at all. The Polynomial is about the music – yours, specifically, piped into any level and in any playlist order you please. Set to your favourite jams, it takes on a whole new life: the fractal galaxies blossom and pulse in time to the rhythm of tracks, the absolutely gorgeous 3D visuals explode with psychedelic colours and shapes, all of them available to meticulously calibrate in the extensive visual-options menu. You’ll begin to wish the enemies, unaffected by your musical choice, would just go away so that you can float and spin in peace – thankfully, there’s an option for that. When it clicks, The Polynomial takes on an ethereal, dreamlike quality. On my first play – set to “The Music Scene” by Blockhead – I was completely drawn in and disoriented and amazed; at it’s best, The Polynomial is an experience like few others, profiting from its general sense of plotlessness and spatial ambiguity to hypnotize and immerse the player.

There isn’t a whole lot of game here, it’s true. The Polynomial is at best an interactive musical toy and at worst an empty tech-demo. Your mileage with this novelty is going to vary wildly: there’s no incentive for high scores, no multiplayer and no sense of progression at all. Perhaps, like me, you’ll play this game for about half an hour, think “well that was neat”, and move on, returning to it whenever you find a particularly immersive electronic track you want to try out on the visualizer. Perhaps it’ll become a nightly ritual, a trance-inducing mind-hack for when you need to come down after a hard day of work, or for when your intoxicated friends need something to gaze into for a little while. The Polynomial sets out to do one very specific thing, and does it well, relegating everything else (like gameplay) to afterthought status. Essentially, it’s a very neat screen-saver, and whether or not it’s going to appeal to you is going to be determined largely by whether or not you’re big into majorly-psychedelic and ambient visual toys. Approached from the right angle, The Polynomial can be a very beautiful experience – just don’t expect any depth. ‘Try before you buy’ is the maxim of the day – thankfully, there’s a Steam demo available.

5.5

Full disclosure: I grabbed it on today’s Steam promotion for $2.50, and it’s compatible with a Gift-Pile achievement. That’s about the right price (normally an optimistic $10). I don’t often play The Polynomial, but when I do, I prefer The Unseen

Originally published right here, December 2011. 


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Studio Pixel & Nicalis – Cave Story+

Where do I even start with Cave Story? First and foremost, it’s an indie, freeware classic: available completely for free on the net since 2004 (be sure to grab the English language patch!), it’s an acknowledged masterpiece, the cult freeware adventure game to end all cult freeware adventure games. It’s almost ludicrous to imagine Pixel AKA Daisuke Amaya programming it over the course of five years, making the music, writing the story, and then choosing to release it for free. To any artist or aspiring game-designer, it’s an absurdly humbling work, deftly weaving its 8-bit blip-and-bleep soundtrack and minimalist pixellated artwork into one of the finest Metroidvania-style (gamer lingo for side-scrolling adventure/shooter) games you’ll ever play. Of course, that’s the freeware version, still available online, still very retro-charming and very non-HD in its soundtrack and visuals. That is, until indie-game developer Nicalis stepped up back in November (September for Macs!), re-releasing Cave Story to the PC crowd as Cave Story+, and giving it the comprehensive-overhaul collectors’ edition it always deserved.

At heart, Cave Story+ is a deeply traditional game. With every step it’s an homage to great adventure games past: Metroid’s heart containers and missiles make their appearances, the bosses are thoroughly Castlevania in their difficulty and scope, the sense of humour is utterly Japanese Gaming (as are the lovingly detailed sprites), you’ll even detect a hint of Mega Man in its more intense platforming sections. Where it breaks away from tradition is in its style: Cave Story+ is a curiously adult game with a surprisingly mature story that begins innocuously enough (amnesia!), and by its end achieves a level of metaphorical integrity and thematic density that many art-house games are still struggling to match. Humour is pervasive and quirky, but characters die, and once dead they stay that way. Balrog is adorable (and modeled after a bar of soap), but morally ambiguous. King is technically on your side, but protective and vengeful to the point of distraction. Murder happens. What begins as a very conventional critter-blaster eventually blossoms into something thought-provoking and dark, especially if you happen across one of the bad endings (of four branching endings total).

Gameplay-wise, if you love side-scrolling shooters and adventure games, you’ll more or less be in platform-gunner heaven. Controls handle well, standard 4-directional jumping and shooting applies, with a glut of different weapons (upgrade-able with experience pickups) and tools (entirely secret, you’ll get no spoilers here). Platforming and gunning sections gradually ramp up in difficulty, and with effectively no on-screen instructions at all you’ll soon be plugging enemies and jumping spike-pits with ease.. at least until you hit one of the supremely challenging later bosses. There are secrets and bonus areas and difficulty sliders, and, in Cave Story+, even bonus modes of play. Taking all of these (and the various endings they funnel you towards) into account, it’s entirely likely you’ll find yourself replaying the lengthy campaign repeatedly, later surfing the wiki only to find you’ve overlooked like a quarter of the game.

In terms of the Nicalis rerelease, what changes have been made are mechanically minimal and aesthetically tasteful. Thanks to a graphical overhaul the game now looks much sharper, while retaining the original’s charm and general bizarreness (someone’s gone and filmed a great comparison). The soundtrack has been updated as well, and is available in its entirely through the Humble Bundle download I’ll be providing below; it’s absolutely fantastic stuff, evocative and minimalist when it needs to be, jumpy and exciting when appropriate, but all the while reinforcing Cave Story’s intentional air of mystery and stylistic oddity. It works really, really well, and I’m more than happy to have it loaded into my music player, though dedicated cult fans might find it a little too ‘softened’. However, in a nod to these traditionalists – and Pixel’s freeware intentions – the entirety of Cave Story’s original soundtrack and graphics skin is only an options-menu away. Like the new Halo: Combat Evolved rerelease, longtime fans and newcomers can flip between the two, appreciating the game however they choose and co-existing in peace (though the remix really is quite effective). Mechanically, the gameplay and level-design is identical to the original save for the unlockable post-game bonus levels, designed by Pixel/Amaya himself (which again negates complaint). In releasing Cave Story+, Nicalis has provided Cave Story the opportunity for mass-exposure it’s always deserved, while tweaking its aesthetic appeal – clearly in line with Pixel’s original intentions – to draw in an even wider cult audience. A benchmark for tasteful remakes, Nicalis leaves very, very little to complain about.

As a student of the arts, I love Cave Story+’s weirdness, its vague puzzle of a storyline, the metaphorical power of its characters and branching storylines, the painstaking effort that’s been put into its graphics and sound-production. At times lonely, at times unforgiving on its ‘Normal’ difficulty (another nod to Mega Man, no doubt), for many it may prove altogether too weird and bleak to complete – and of course, for me, these count among its greatest virtues. Two more very pure gaming experiences, Cave Story and Cave Story+ are indie classics, and deserve the attention of every platforming aficionado. Indie game of the year? Very likely.

Go shoot some bats, Quote.

9.5

Part three of my series on Humble Indie Bundle #4, available here until about the 27th of December, 2011. Now featuring 12 whole games (and their soundtracks!) if you beat the currently $5.16 average, 5 great games and OSTs if you pay anywhere over a buck. You can’t go wrong here. Money goes to charity, games go to your Mac, PC or Linux machine. 

Note: All screenshots taken by me, using the enhanced graphics exclusive to Cave Story+. 

… bonus Balrog.

Originally published right here, December 2011. 

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Akira The Don – Saturnalia Superman: Akira The Don Salutes the Majesty of Christmas

Hey, Adam Narkiewicz came out with another LP today (okay, yesterday), less than three months after his last one! And he’s dropped it right in the middle of Saturnalia itself, how thematically appropriate! I don’t have to go through the walkthrough this time: if you love Akira’s stuff, and you have to be a special kind of person to do this, you will have a big silly grin on your face for much of Saturnalia Superman. It’s as simply as that: fans can’t not cackle at the Nutcracker Suite sample on “Jimmy Savile Swag”, they can’t not smile at the album’s opener “A Very Merry Ho Ho Ho” when he wishes his  mother and father “and their new respective partners” a very merry Christmas. He’s infectious and ineffably positive, and the cult of personality is in full effect – even when Saturnalia Superman takes some surprisingly thoughtful and unconventional twists towards the end.

Musically, Akira’s in control on this one: he covers a good 90% of the verses this time around, flipping between the feel-good hollering of “A Very Merry Ho Ho Ho” and his trademark political flows on “Ha Satan” with ease (on what might be his most politically-charged track since “Thanks for All the AIDS“). “Jimmy Savile Swag” (Westerners, go wiki who that is) rides that hard-leaning two-step beat everyone loves these days, and Akira’s infatuation with autotune continues make an appearance. Its presence is most obviously  felt on the eyebrow-raising Envy feature “Sexmas”, which is entertaining and meandering and ends with Envy reminding us she’s “going to heat it up like a Mincemeat pie” amongst other bizarre Christmas-related sex-threats (“wrap you up with Fairy Lights, it’s gonna be good”). As on ATD 26, while autotune rears its blocky head every couple of tracks, it’s very clearly a stylistic decision: Akira’s (and Envy’s) voice flutters, it bounces around, and unlike so much autotuning it’s no attempt to fake anyone’s way into opera-level virtuosity. It’s a level of honesty and earnestness that Akira brings to all his work these days, and as on his other albums it goes hard at work, grounding Saturnalia Superman and providing a great deal of his appeal.

Clanging bells and other Christmas jolliness pervade this album (“A Christmas Movie”), but it isn’t without its surprises: most of Akira’s version of “Bleak Midwinter” is a surprisingly heartfelt vocal duet by Akira’s Cornish Welsh in-laws, proceeding a cappella before the piano, flute and strings kick in and set off what eventually builds into the album’s most beautiful track. “Bleak Midwinter” falls mid-album, and precedes another nine-and-a-half minute surprise: “17 Year Old Blonde Girl And A Bottle of Acid”, featuring a man named Issue, who really cannot sing (thankfully, he seems to know this). Like its title might suggest, it’s a trip: what begins as an odd bit of hood-meandering by Issue quickly breaks down into a heartbreaking ode to a forgotten female trip-mate, delivered by Akira himself. The album’s greatest and most sobering moment, it’s a strange and thought-provoking piece, sprawling its narrative across several harrowing minutes and telling a story that isn’t always easy to hear. When Akira tells us that he’s opening Christmas presents with his mum and little brother and the “wrapping paper seem[s] to crawl up [his] arm like tentacles” the psychedelic imagery combines with our notions of Christmas’s assumed innocence to shock and disorient the listener. It’s extremely effective stuff, and lends heavy dosage of reality to the typical Christmas Album format.  In a sense, all of Saturnalia Superman follows this model: simultaneously celebrating the holiday season (and life!) while offering thoughtful reminders of its reality – murder, drugs, rampant commercialism and Akira’s trademark resolution to carry on (closer “In The Morning”) all make appearances here.

Of course, Saturnalia Superman wouldn’t manage to be an ATD LP if it didn’t somehow pull off being a party, even in its bleakest moments. It isn’t his most consistent album – much of his merry band of thieves is missing (can we imagine Christmas Big Narstie? Let’s.) – but Saturnalia Superman can’t help being an enjoyable time, even in its more experimental and meandering moments. Another solid entry in the ATD catalogue (though not strictly ATD 27), Saturnalia Superman is supremely topical during the season, and offers several tracks destined to prove their staying power in the Akira catalogue. It goes by quickly, a widely various series of Christmas-themed sketches in the life of one more dude trying to get by. It’s an Xmas album for people that live in the real world, who’ve had experiences, that aren’t much for major commercialism and don’t know what to think about God but know they like hip-hop and spending time with their folks. How much more can we ask for for Christmas than that?

7.5

Bonus Level:

Saturnalia Superman As a Christmas Album is a grand triumph, intelligent, heartfelt and earnest. As a simultaneous lover and critic of the Christmas season, this sort of thing really does it for me. I do love it, but in the above review I had to acknowledge its faults. As a big Akira fan and a big Christmas fan, though, I have to say this is definitely going to be spinning all holiday season. Much more interesting, dense and listenable than any Christmas album I’ve heard in years. Highly recommended. 

Based solely as a Yuletide experience, Saturnalia Superman gets a  coveted 4.5/5 baubles. Do with that as you will.  

Akira the Don provides many of his services over the internet: his website is here, and he would love it very much if you’d cop a free listen off the stream, and then buy yourself some copies. 

Originally published right here, December 2011. 

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