5th of March, 2021
Hello! Welcome back to our regular feature where we write a little bit about some of the games we've found ourselves playing over the last few days. This time: a strange map, a reminder of arcade brilliance, falling blocks, and a trip to the Hoenn region.
Carto, PC, PlayStation, Switch, Xbox
I've recently spent a lot of time in my local town for some reason and found there's something rather comforting about getting to know an area very well. The routes I can walk down with my eyes closed, the same faces at the same times, all walking the same dogs. A friend of mine and I recently started sending each other obscurely-angled phone snaps of somewhere in town for the other to guess. Usually we're able to. We make our own fun.
There's something of that to Carto, too, the brilliant top-down adventure game whose map you construct yourself. I started playing it on Xbox Game Pass this week, though it's available from other good platform stores also. About an hour in, finding myself hooked and unexpectedly engrossed in its story, I sat back and looked at the world map I'd created so far. The handful of tiles I'd been given made up a tiny space - I'd barely gone anywhere! - but I had swapped and rearranged and watched as new tiles appeared as if made out of hidden origami. And I knew each of those map tiles in detail.
Carto has plenty to love, as well as just being an excellent little adventure with an eye-catching art style. Its meta take on the building blocks of games is a wonderfully fresh lens through which to view the genre, as well your own small surroundings.
Capcom Arcade Stadium, Switch
The term arcade has kind of lost all meaning in recent years - blame Xbox Live Arcade, I guess, for making it a byword for smaller, tauter games - so it's a delight to rediscover the true meaning of the word in Capcom's recent compilation for Switch. Here there are dozens of cabinets lined up for you to peruse as you wonder which is worthy of your precious pocket change (it's a free-to-play joint, with a few free games bundled in with the others available in various packs).
It's an interesting list that's on offer, and if like me you've an addiction to hoovering up everything that turns up on the eShop you may well have many of these already on your Switch. The Capcom Beat 'Em-Up Bundle is pulled from with offbeat brawlers like Battle Circuit and Powered Gear, and of course there are a handful of Street Fighter 2 variants to choose from.
The real prize, though? It's Cave's Progear, here available on console for the first time proper, and thanks to some decent emulation pretty much an essential purchase for the Switch. It's arcade excellence without compare - and a reminder of the proper meaning of the term arcade.
Art Style: KuBos, DSi, 3DS
Years ago, there was a magical device called the DSi, which was an upgrade of sorts to the Nintendo DS. Along with the DSi - I think - Nintendo launched a bunch of small downloadable games called DSiWare games.
I had a bunch of these at the time, but the one I love the most is KuBos, from the Art Style series. It's so good it's one of the main reasons I still keep my 3DS charged today, so I can always get a round in when I want one.
KuBos is a game about climbing on cubes. You spawn on a five-by-five grid and as you walk around, the squares beneath you light up, Billy Jean-style, and you earn points. Then more cubes fall from above, indicated by looming shadows, and eventually old cubes drop away. Onwards, upwards, climb climb climb.
KuBos is very good, partly because its controls are a little creaky, so you always feel like you're just getting away with stuff - just avoiding a drop or being splattered by a falling cube. There are a few other cube types to add variety - one explodes if you don't get to it in time and another gives you more life when you're hurt. That's it. Or for thirteen odd years that's what I thought was it.
But when I decided to write about KuBos this week I did something I had never done before - I read the manual. And it turns out, right, that you can push cubes! All along you've been able to push them! And those bomb cubes, if they're disarmed, give you the power to shunt cubes about more forcefully. Honestly, I had no idea.
It's a bit spooky: this game I thought I knew so well is not actually the game I thought I knew. It's different. Layers of strategy that I now have to get my head around. Lucky, really, that my 3DS is already charged.
Pokémon Alpha Sapphire, 3DS
I do actually play video games that aren't in my author bio, but not this week! And probably not the next. Anyway, this time it's Pokémon Alpha Sapphire, which I dug out of the cupboard during one of those might-as-well-tidy-something afternoons at the weekend, and which I've completely fallen for.
I never played these remakes - I played the originals, and their gen 6 sisters, and so they felt a bit superfluous for me at the time - and I'm torn between kicking myself for not coming to them earlier and loving myself for leaving such a treat to enjoy so late. It's odd going back to tile-based movement, and it's a little clunky working your way through the menus now (I've renewed admiration for the little shortcuts of later gens - and renewed amazement at how long they took to arrive).
But! How good do these games look? How good do they feel?! This Hoenn generation was always about nature, obviously, but the remakes seem to be growing out the sides of the screen. The little wet patches of rain pooling on the grass are so sodden. The grass is so lush. The Sun is burning. Everything is so green, so flushed with colour and life. There's such attention to the extra things here, the stuff. I'm obsessed with the nautical museum, which is, like, an actual museum. I'm obsessed with watching my footprints fade out of the sand.
And there's such attention to the way it's all stitched together: a slightly fluid, elastic snap to moving party members in the menu. A bit of jazz to every trainer's pose when you start a battle. A little panoramic shot from above when you first interact with the signpost of a new town. And 3D! A bit of clownery from Nintendo that, hang on, looks really good? And all that classically Metroidvanian mystery to pull it together. Forgive the pun, but seriously, what a gem.