8th of October, 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. Okay, the bad news: sincere apologies but only Donlan had time to contribute this time. The good news is a lot of other people were too busy because they're putting together a huge feature for next week. Enjoy!
If you fancy catching up on some of the older editions of What We've Been Playing, here's our archive.
Mystic Pillars, Switch
I've spent hours with Mystic Pillars, and I've held off writing it up so far because I'm still struggling to put into words exactly what you do. This puzzle game is an ingenious spin on Mancala, a game that I absolutely adore, but it takes the risky approach of building its play around numbers, and I've always found numbers extremely daunting in puzzle games.
I shouldn't have, though. Mystic Pillars is all about bringing down a series of pillars by moving a specific number of beads onto them. The number of beads each pillar requires is clearly displayed, and the fun comes from understanding the way that the beads move over distances from one pillar to another, and then fitting all that understanding into the number of moves each puzzle gives you.
It's fun, but it's also completely fascinating, as the game's narrative takes you through a story set in ancient India, and the art brings a beautiful sense of character and dynamism to proceedings. I would have a hard time explaining to you how I have completed some of the challenges, but I love the fact that the game has exposed this terrifying gap in my mind, between what the wordless brain understands and what it can easily express.
Luigi's Mansion 3, Switch
The Luigi's Mansions games sit in an odd spot in Nintendo's line-up, I think. I have friends who believe they're strictly b-list affairs. I have friends who think they're misunderstood masterpieces. My own take is that they're just really, really interesting. I love the way they defy categorization, operating as a kind of side-long glance at the Mushroom Kingdom, that maybe reveals odd things.
One of the things I've noticed playing through the early stages of the third game on Switch this week, is just how different Luigi is to Mario. He's always been different of course, first the odd jump and then the fact that he's sort of a scaredy-cat, but the main difference I'm detecting now is a difference regarding the player's relationship.
When you play Mario, you become Mario: the fun of the game comes from perfectly understanding his particular weight and how the physics of his universe all come together to bring out the best in him. What you do and what Mario do become completely impossible to separate. It's one of the great harmonies in games.
When you play Luigi, in Luigi's Mansion at least, it's a bit more complicated. You control Luigi, and yet part of you is separated, because part of the fun comes from watching Luigi perform. You get to move Luigi around this world of moving parts and basically see what he does when he interacts with stuff. The delight comes from the surprise of what happens on screen as much as what you're aiming to do.
This is a deeper truth about the Mansion games, I guess: they're basically activity bears. Each room is filled with stuff to mess around with and experiment. Clothes on runners, curtains, dust sheets, chairs and tables and far more exotic items. And when it messes with you - using the fixed perspective, say, to weaponise the wall that you can never actually see for yourself directly - it messes with you in the same playful, tactile, gimmicky way. I don't mean gimmick as a criticism, incidentally: Luigi's Mansion games are filled with the very best kinds of gimmicks there are.
Thumper works beautifully on iOS. Tap, hold, swipe: it's the beastly rhythm action bully, entirely in love with its new platform, a blast of glossy, doomy joy.
What I had forgotten was the feeling of rage this game encourages. The slamming and the rushing and the last minute triggering of each move - it works its way straight to a dark part of the emotional spectrum. I finish a round and discover I have had my teeth clenched together tightly all the time I've been playing.
Thumper was a treat in VR, and now it's a treat here, the opposite of VR. Thumper on the bus, in between Zooms, when you can't drift off to sleep immediately. Another lovely addition to Apple Arcade, but one that's lovely in a deeply horrible way, of course.