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With the rise of the Nintendo Wii and the smartphone, videogames have never been more popular, or more accessible. But they’re more than an idle distraction: the medium is home to some brilliantly innovative and memorable designs, both aesthetically and technically. Here is just a glimpse of what the medium has accomplished so far.
A release for the original PlayStation, Vib-Ribbon cast you in the role of Vibri, a cheerful little rabbit forever dancing down a ribbon of noise. Obstacles would appear in time to the music, and you would press buttons to jump over them. Too many mistakes would cause the ribbon to become increasingly unstable and Vibri to devolve into a frog, and then a worm, before failing the level. Its sparse, wireframe art direction helps make actually playing the game a relatively straightforward and uncluttered experience, and a stronger one as a result.
What makes Vib-Ribbon truly special, even now, is that you could eject the game disc and insert your own CDs, making levels out of the songs on it. The replayability is practically endless as a result. By modern standards, the synchronisation between the music and the obstacles isn’t quite accurate enough for Vib-Ribbon to be considered a perfect game. But its longevity and its imagination were enough to ensure its preservation in the Smithsonian’s “The Art of Video Games” exhibit.
By current graphical standards, PC and PlayStation 2 title Deus Ex is a blocky mess. But look beyond that, and you’ll see a game astonishing in its depth and storyline.
Set in a dystopian 2052, Deus Ex has you playing as JC Denton, a government agent augmented by nanotechnology and tasked with neutralising a terrorist threat. After learning the terrible truth about the Gray Death virus sweeping the planet, JC embarks on an epic journey, facing some tough choices and everyone from the Hong Kong Triads to the Illuminati.
The story of Deus Ex is best experienced for yourself: suffice it to say that Deus Ex was prized for its groundbreaking player choice. Players could choose how JC evolved, augmenting a wide variety of skills such as combat prowess, computer hacking and even swimming ability. This allowed players to approach each level in whichever way they liked: want to go in all guns blazing? Or do you prefer to hack the security systems and sneak in round the back? The game isn’t perhaps all that imaginative from a visual perspective: the influence of films like The Matrix is apparent. But its dark cities and gloomy atmosphere serve to anchor you in the bleak game world excellently.
Long before Inception had us hopping into peoples’ minds, the fertile minds of developer Double Fine gifted us this exceptional platformer. A PC, PlayStation 2 and Xbox release, Psychonauts was set in Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, a holiday destination for children with psychic abilities. When a mysterious thief starts stealing people’s brains, it’s up to camp newcomer Rasputin to track them down and save the day.
Psychonauts is special because the majority of its levels are set in peoples’ minds, with their neuroses and anxieties both obstacle and collectible. The grizzled old army sergeant’s mind is a war-torn battlefield. The schizophrenic with the Napoleon complex has an entire board game lodged in his cranium. The paranoid milkman’s mind is a twisting, distorted surburbia with suspicious men in trench coats populating every street. It’s endlessly fascinating, and it’s pretty solid from a gameplay standpoint as well.
We Love Katamari
Developed by Namco, creator of Pac-Man, We Love Katamari has you play as the Prince, the diminutive son of the King of All Cosmos who rules the universe (and occasionally destroys it, be it by drunken rampage or a particularly epic tennis serve.) After the success of the first game, Katamari Damacy, the King has become something of a celebrity, with people from around the world asking for help from the King…who passes these demands on to you.
We Love Katamari tasks you with rolling a magical ball, called a katamari, around various locales such as houses, lakes and cities. At first, only small items like paperclips and sweets will stick to the katamari. But as more items stick to it the ball gets bigger, allowing you to roll up larger and larger items until entire countries fall prey to your rolling.
Taken alone this idea- make as big a ball of stuff that you can- might have been enough to carry the game, but thankfully they mix it up with several different goals. One level tasks you with rolling up flowers in a forest: another with only rolling up animals. In our personal favourite, you must feed a sumo wrestler enough food to bulk him up for his next fight by literally pushing him around the level. It’s a delight, and its alternating between blocky graphics and quaint, hand-drawn cutscenes only serve to make it stand out all the more.
Super Mario Galaxy
Mario games are normally pretty inventive, but Super Mario Galaxy is one of the most inventive yet. When Princess Peach is kidnapped and swept away into outer space, Mario sets off across the universe to rescue her, collecting stars and eating copious quantities of mushrooms along the way.
While games like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine gave us a real sense of scale, Super Mario Galaxy expands on this by shifting the setting to the stars themselves. Levels play out as a series of planetoids which Mario can walk all over, pinging from one to the next like a pinball. More importantly, the game brings a great variety of settings and game mechanics to the table: garden galaxies, toy galaxies and frozen galaxies, to name a few. As well as this, there are bizarre abstract levels where, for instance, shaking the Wii Remote flips every platform in the world.
Despite the sequel arguably bringing more creative and innovative worlds to the table, it’s the original’s more consistent outer-space aesthetic and initial thrill of the new that, to us, elevates it above its successor as an example of great game design.
Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts
Back in 1998, Banjo-Kazooie was a colourful, open world platformer released on the Nintendo 64. Despite going up against the legendary Super Mario 64, it was critically and commercially successful, and ranks amongst the best games on the platform.
The developer, Rare, was later bought by Microsoft and developed several games for the Xbox and Xbox 360. While they didn’t quite reach the acclaim of their earlier console efforts, their 360 sequel Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts is a brilliantly imaginative addition to the series that in our opinion ranks up there with their predecessors.
Unlike its simple, exploratory platforming predecessors, Nuts and Bolts tasks you with building a wide variety of vehicles to complete missions, ranging from simple races to escort missions to aerial dogfights. Since the only requirement is that the vehicle has a seat, the sky really is the limit as you unlock more and more bizarre vehicle parts. Want to have a vehicle that hops around like a grasshopper? Go right ahead. Want a car that’s entirely sail-powered? Fine by us. It wasn’t the platforming sequel most people wanted, but when the substitute is this unique and well-executed, it hardly matters. It doesn’t hurt that it looks fantastic as well.
Portal was something of an oddity, a decidedly minimalistic puzzle game bundled with Valve’s legendary game compilation The Orange Box. But it turned out to be a surprise hit, spawning a brilliant sequel and an endless supply of cake memes. The descendant of free PC game Narbacular Drop, which Valve appropriated, Portal places you in the mysterious Aperture Science Enrichment Centre, with only a curious device called a portal gun and an unsettling AI to accompany you.
The core idea of Portal is simple but brilliantly versatile: your ‘portal gun’ fires a set of interconnected doors which you can enter and exit at will. This game mechanic aids you in a series of fiendish puzzles guaranteed to get your head scratching. Portal is also acclaimed for its setting and storyline: the sparse, slightly grimy rooms of Aperture Science and its assessment of the tutorial in videogames makes Portal a must-play, not just for puzzle fans but for fans of games in general. The sequel is better, but as the game that started it all Portal 1 is the best place to start.
The Unfinished Swan
A comparatively recent release compared to the other entries, The Unfinished Swan was released by developer Giant Sparrow on PlayStation 3 late last year. The Unfinished Swan combines a distinctive art style with imaginative gameplay, and manages to be touching, charming and a little bit profound into the bargain. When Munroe is orphaned at a young age, he is allowed to keep one of his mother’s paintings and chooses her favourite: the picture of a swan with no neck. Waking up one night, he discovers the swan has vanished, and in its place is a door where no door previously existed…
The game world of The Unfinished Swan, initially at least, is conspicuous by its absence. Players must throw paint at the walls, floors and scenery to find their way around, the world revealing itself as if by magic. It looks great, and the game brings in growing vines and navigating dark forests as it saunters towards its conclusion. The Unfinished Swan isn’t exactly challenging on the gameplay front: as an interactive experience, it’s more akin to a warm fire and a cup of hot chocolate. It’s warm, comforting, and in this case, something we’ve never really seen before. We can’t wait to see what Giant Sparrow come up with next.
The PlayStation 3 has been home to some extremely odd titles. Game developer thatgamecompany’s efforts have all been warmly received, but their second release for the platform, Flower, has got to be the most original.
Making use of the console’s oft-maligned Sixaxis motion control, the game takes place in a flower’s dream. By tilting the controller, players can guide a lone flower petal around a field towards other flowers, collecting more petals and causing more flowers to grow. This soon results in a swirling stream of colour that can, in most cases, be guided across the sweeping landscapes with complete freedom.
Flower is a great example of game design for several reasons. It’s innovative, taking a hitherto unheard-of perspective and capturing it well. It controls perfectly: we can’t imagine playing Flower with anything other than Sixaxis. Finally, like Banjo-Kazooie it looks lovely, each blade of grass bending in the wind as you blow past. The underlying eco-narrative, and the abstract imagery that accompanies it, help cement the game as one of the console’s finest indie titles.
Which other games do you think deserve a place in the design spotlight? Let us know in the comments!