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Entries in Games (49)


My 2014 Game of the Year: Shovel Knight

2014 has been a relatively good year in terms of gaming for me. I did pick up a few releases that came out this year — I typically pick things up later on, as they tend to be a lot cheaper  and one of those was Yacht Club Games' wondrous Shovel Knight.

If my euphoric adjective wasn't indication enough, I loved this game, and I'd like to take some time to share why.

Shovel Knight does three things beautifully: the game looks, sounds and plays like the classic NES games of yore, but subtly is a vast improvement on many of those titles; the game's plot subverts the trope of a damsel in distress in a rather remarkable way; and the gameplay treads the perfect degree of challenge that rarely frustrates. Let's break that down.

Shovel Knight, as evidenced by the screenshot above, mimics the style of the glory days of the NES. Pixels rule the day visually, with amazing animation and charming designs pouring over the eyes. Jake "virt" Kaufman (frequent Wayforward musician) and Manami Matsumae (composer of the original Mega Man) combine their talents to create one of the most amazing tributes to the sounds of the 80s video game. And Yacht Club borrowed elements from several games of that era, namely Ducktales' nifty pogo mechanic, to power the gameplay to glorious effect. This is a labor of love, and every minute detail drips with that love.

Secondly, Shovel Knight twists the oft-used damsel motif into something novel. USGamer's Kat Bailey noticed this herself in her article on the game's plot (massive spoilers at the link!), and in her discussion with Yacht Club Games' David D'Angelo, the developer confirmed that the company decided to avoid lumping the female lead, Shield Knight, into the same kind of trope as "Roll, Peach, Zelda, and other Damsel in Distress models from the NES era."

Moving away from that notion, the team

"started discussing how we could modernize and improve the model for today. We saw the idea of seeking out a loved one a worthwhile theme, but we felt in doing so, we needed to make Shield Knight just as strong a hero as Shovel Knight. In that way, we felt the connection between the player and Shield Knight would be even more powerful, as Shield Knight wouldn't be just an object—Shield Knight would be as meaningful as a loved one."

The beautiful thing about this statement is that they succeeded in that mission. Shield Knight is a central narrative tool — the means for Shovel Knight's motivation to quest — but there's an actual relationship between the two that the game expertly builds as you progress through the game, culminating in the game's final moments. I won't reveal that to you here, as I think experiencing it yourself is more worthwhile. But the careful, thoughtful crafting of the game's narrative focus turned the game away from "yet another princess to rescue" story into one that shows the genuine force of a strong, equal relationship.

The last reason I adored Shovel Knight was that it was perfectly paced. The game starts you off with a solid tutorial level, and provides plenty of incentives to make the game easier or harder for the player. Checkpoints litter the landscape, but they can be destroyed to earn more treasure. Once broken, they won't be checkpoints anymore, making the risk vs. reward model a very real, crucial gameplay element. Life and magic powerups can be optionally gained. Potions to refill your life meter can be quaffed. If the player fails, a Demon's/Dark Souls "lose some of your experience" concept is put into play in the form of losing treasure which can be regained if the player can return to that spot. There are no extra lives to fret about. The game's levels are rife with hidden secrets, passages and treasure nooks. The bosses are all unique, challenging and engaging to battle. And the game increases its difficulty in a moderate fashion, steadily raising the enemy and environmental threats with each map reveal. There's ample opportunity to gain treasure to beef up Shovel Knight through optional levels and replaying old ones, too.

Hopefully I have explained why Shovel Knight is the ideal game for me, and why I feel it's the finest of 2014.

Its retro decadence, the compelling narrative that gives a woman equal status to its male lead, and a difficulty that straddles the sweet spot all the way through combine for one of the greatest games I've had the pleasure of playing in any year.

If you haven't given Shovel Knight a shot yet, you really ought to consider it!


episode 138 - Holiday Playlist

In anticipation of the quickly approaching Holidaze, Rhonda and I invite fearless intern, Isabela, to join us for our holiday playlist episode. Starting an annual tradition, we make suggestions to help pass the time traveling to visit family and friends this year using your favorite electronic device or your favorite old fashioned device like a paperback book. Let us know your recommendations to pass the time this traveling season in the comments!

Until next time, game on!
Regina, Rhonda, and Isabela  


"A Christmas Carol" read by Jim Dale
"A Vision of Fire" read by author, Gillian Anderson
"Born Standing Up" read by author, Steve Martin
"Partials" by Dan Wells, read by Julia Whelan, first book in Partials series


"A Christmas Carol", Charles Dickens, free digital download
"The Secret History of Wonder Woman" by Jill Lepore
"Vixens, Vampls, & Vipers" by Mike Madrid
"Divas, Dames, & Daredevils" by Mike Madrid
"The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines" by Mike Madrid
"The Stepsister Scheme" by Jim C. Hines, first in the Princess Series


"Supreme Blue Rose", Image Comics, Warren Ellis (writer), Tula Lotay (artist)
"Outcast", Image Comics, Robert Kirkman (writer/creator), Paul Azaceta (artist)


"The Simpsons: Tapped Out", EA, Amazon, Apple, Google Play
"Dungeon Keeper", EA, Amazon, Android, Apple
"Daddy Long Legs", Set Snail, Amazon/Android
"Can You Escape", MobiGrow, Amazon/Android
"Puzzix", Oz Machine, Apple, Android, Google Play


"Anomia", party edition, card game
"The Resistance", Indie Boards and Cards
Cards Against Humanity


"Chef", 2014, rated R, Aldamisa Entertainment, Amazon, Google Play
"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy


"Letter to Laredo", Joe Ely, CD
"That's Christmas to Me", Pentatonix
The Black Keys


CockTales, Don Diego, Podbean, iTunes
"Welcome to Night Vale"


"The Gilmore Girls", Netflix
"The Bletchley Circle", PBS, Netflix, Amazon, Google Play
"Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries"


"Wonder Woman" with Linda Carter



Percy: Where are we?
Inez: This is Little Havana.
Like in Grand Theft Auto?

"Chef", 2014, rated R, Aldamisa Entertainment 

Episode 138


Misogyny Missive: Red Dead Sexism

rdrA couple of weeks ago saw the release of Anita Sarkeesian's latest Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, which tackled the complicated issue of women serving the role as "background decoration" in modern AAA games. I haven't played the majority of the titles Anita covered in the episode, but I have played a few: Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption.

I happen to like both of these games quite a bit, but seeing the depraved acts male NPCs delivered to nondescript women hit me really, really hard. Having played through all of Bioshock and most of Red Dead Redemption, I can now see a major issue that somehow blurred by me before. And that bothers me a great deal. I'm going to focus on the latter for this piece, and may return to Bioshock later on.

In many ways, Red Dead Redemption fixed the issues I preciously held with Grand Theft Auto. The controls were better, the open world was more believable, and the protagonist was likeable. As I wandered through New Austin, I encountered situations like Anita describes in her video below:

Returning to Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, in most settlement areas players are treated to randomly triggered events in which female prostitutes are assaulted and murdered by johns amid a torrent of misogynistic slurs. Players are presented with the choice to either intervene and save the woman for a small cash reward or simply watch the attack play out in front of them as part of the entertainment.
CLIP: Red Dead Redemption “Help! Someone.”
“Stickin’ whore! I’m gonna cut you a new hole! You think I’m a joke? Go on then, laugh, bitch, LAUGH!”

At the time, I didn't think about the ramifications of this heinous crime; I merely acted. I saved the woman, feeling that the character John Marston would do that given how I was playing him. I tend to role play as the character when I play, trying to make decisions that fit both my ideals and the parts of the character I bond to in unison. I knew that this was a scripted event that would repeat itself, but I performed the good deed and moved on, thinking little of the overall effect this random event conveyed. But, as Anita notes:

The audience is meant to briefly gasp at these acts of brutality before their attention is directed elsewhere, towards the next event or set of enemies to be dispatched. Regardless of the player’s actions in these types of situations, the result always paints women in a regressive light, as they will end up as either “helpless damsels” or “dead victims.”

This is the kicker right here. These moments of violence against women are distractions from the main game — a minor roadblock meant to add a sense of "realism" to the world. However, women are never truly empowered in Red Dead Redemption. My experience with the game was positive when I first went through most of it (although I will admit that I didn't critically analyze these topics when I was playing it back in 2011), but I lost my save file due to an accidental save-over. I had accomplished 98% of the game by that point (including the side missions), so I just haven't had the gumption to commit to redoing all of that all over again. I put it on my Favorite list regardless, and figured I'd be game for another run sometime in the future.

Recently, before Anita's latest video, I was wondering if there was perhaps another reason I didn't feel like replaying the game. I then remembered that the women who were major players in the plot suffered terrible brutalities as well.

Bonnie MacFarlane, a quite capable woman from first impressions, is reduced to a victimized damsel to move the game's plot forward towards the end of the first third of the game. She is beaten, likely raped, and in the process of being hanged as the player works their way through the map to rescue her. Lucia Fortuna, a rebel fighting the Mexican government, is a strong-willed and significant factor in the rebellion, but is quickly tossed into the endgame of the Mexico segment of the game as a mere pawn. Wielding a knife to a gunfight, she is quickly shot down as she tries to free Abraham Reyes, leader of the uprising, leading the player towards a redemptive strike against the perpetrators for her martyrdom.

And John's wife, Abigail, is literally a damsel in distress for most of the game, serving as John's central motivation for doing all of this to the very end, where a stable life with his family is promised and then yanked away by the vindictive Edgar Ross (and the game's writers). John is gunned down by Ross' men, and Abigail is forced to watch. When Jack Marston, John's son, takes over the post-game narrative, Abigail has died from a long illness, making every single prominent woman in the game the equivalent of damaged goods...which is fitting, given how all of the women are essentially objects in the overall scheme of the game... one way or another.

So, Anita's video reminded me of all this misogyny lurking within RDR, and now makes me wonder if I really should replay it. Thus the difficulty of criticism. I liked the game, but I am repulsed by its use of women as narrative objects instead of being, you know, human beings. As Anita states in her video:

These women and their bodies are sacrificed in the name of infusing “mature themes” into gaming stories. But there is nothing mature about flippantly evoking shades of female trauma. It ends up sensationalizing an issue which is painfully familiar to a large percentage of women on this planet while also normalizing and trivializing their experiences.

It's not edgy just to throw women under the proverbial bus. It would truly be mature to not swipe from Hollywood's "adult-oriented" bag of tricks, and instead question or critique our society's standards of gender in less "shocking" ways.

I'm still trying to untangle the implications of Anita's video towards my enjoyment of video games, but I am feeling fairly confident that Red Dead Redemption, for everything it does right, made some very poor narrative decisions that will haunt my desire to ever replay it to completion again. I will still likely enjoy its excellent gameplay and exploring its open-world spin on the American West, but I will definitely not relish its disappointing, cliched portrayal of women that plagues our industry.


Some Thoughts on Super Smash Bros. and Samus Aran

I've been pondering the Smash Bros. picture of the day for August 19th...

Pic of the day. Looking at the number of days we have left for development, it would be an impossible task to create this… That's what I told my staff. But thanks to the determination of her female designer, these Zero Suit outfits got completed in time. From the ending of Metroid: Zero Mission, here's Samus in shorts!

I have a huge essay series on Samus I've wanted to write up for some time (in the meantime, Jake Shapiro does a fine job with his editorial on the matter of Samus' sexualization over at NintendoLife), but for now I'll just try to keep my thoughts on this particular image and its implications.

Super Smash Bros. Wii U and 3DS have done truly wondrous things with inclusiveness. We have female options for many new characters (the Villager, Wii Fit Trainer, Robin from Fire Emblem Awakening, and of course the Mii Fighters), and Masuhiro Sakurai has selected many newcomers that are women (Rosalina, Lucina, Patulena). Samus and Zelda have also split their alter-egos into their own characters, which adds two more women onto the roster. Truly this is one of the larger casts of playable women in a Nintendo title, and it rivals most fighting game lineups as well.

042404[1]However, we must come back to Zero Suit Samus (ZZS), the most pandering of the women appearing in this latest Smash game. Unlike Brawl, ZSS is her own character, and for people like me who like Samus in her armor  not her Zero Suit  this is a big blessing. I can fire off Zero Beams with impunity and not lose the Samus I treasure as my favorite character for the Samus I wish stopped at Metroid: Zero Mission. Ever since Zero Mission, the Zero Suit has replaced the stripteases Nintendo used to implement as a reward for speedy and/or thorough players. I didn't mind it in Zero Mission because A) I liked that stealth sequence and B) it wasn't glorified so much as a sexy alternative to armored Samus... save for a few of the endings (as seen to the left).

ssb-zero-suit-samusEver since then, however, the Zero Suit has been Nintendo's way of giving Samus an "erotic" side she never needed. Her strength and courage are demoted for attractiveness and curves. And Metroid: Other M pushed the ludicrousness of the suit to new heights with its insensible high heeled boots. For Smash, Sakurai has modified the Suit's boots to be a bit more in line with her Zero Mission look, but even these are significantly heeled and would be a burden for Samus to properly fight in, jet-equipped or not.

And then! Then we get the costume update of Fusion and Zero Mission's ending reward costumes. Now, these aren't as bad as they could be -- we do have plenty of end-game lingerie shows in the first three Metroid titles that may have been chosen instead:


Thankfully, that line was not crossed. But I find most interesting in this revelation are Sakurai's comments about the alt costume. His exact words are "...but thanks to the determination of her female designer, these Zero Suit outfits got completed in time." Why include the gender of Samus' designer? Is that an attempt to stifle criticism? It's a bizarre detail that seems to be thrown in because Nintendo expected a negative reaction. If that's the case, then why include it in the first place?

In the end, Zero Suit Samus continues to be a Samus I don't care for. In the future, I will discuss these two sides of Samus in more detail. But for now, to conclude, I'm thankful ZSS is no longer tied to armored Samus in the latest Smash game, because I can now play her without any hesitations. The Varia Suit defines Samus to me — it's how I see her when I think of her, and now I can once again enjoy Smash without that image being shattered by ZSS.


Famicom Females: Princess Peach

peachPeach/Princess Toadstool (Super Mario Bros.)
Release Date: October 18, 1985
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Format: Cartridge
Role: NPC (Damsel)
Any Subsequent Appearances: Yes


Princess Toadstool, or Peach as she is known nowadays, is possibly Nintendo's most prominent female character in their line-up. She has been in the most games out of any Nintendo woman by far, and I'd have to imagine she's the one that leaps to mind for most people when they think of a female Nintendo character. In her very first appearance in the seminal Super Mario Bros., she is relegated to the very last moments of the game as the damsel in distress trapped by the villainous Koopa King Bowser.


Character Design and Personality

Princess Toadstool is curiously shorter than Mario in this game (that would change in the US Super Mario Bros. 2), and her sprite does not match the concept art for her at all; she has red hair, a white and red dress, and tanned skin. This color scheme is unique to this one appearance, as she adopted the pink dress and blond hair (and a fairer complexion) in Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) and would stick with that for the rest of her appearances. Even the Japanese boxart includes her more conventional look:


To be honest, Pauline had more personality in terms of debuts. Peach has no animation, and after this brief message, she vanishes from view. Not the most becoming of introductions for such an iconic character, I'd say.

Impact on Narrative

Here, Peach is the definition of the “damsel in distress” trope. The point for playing the game is rescuing her. So... she is the narrative force, which is not a great motive in theory.

Positive Aspects

She has become one of Nintendo's female stalwarts. She became playable in several Mario titles (mostly in outliers like the Mario Kart series, Mario Party, and the RPGs, although Super Mario 3D World is an excellent return to her being playable in the main Mario platforming line), and was the second woman added to Super Smash Bros. (behind Metroid's Samus Aran). She has, when given the opportunity (typically in the Paper Mario series), a fairly strong-willed personality that shows that she can be quite capable despite her imprisonment. She is often featured in Super Mario merchandise, making her the most marketed woman in Nintendo's stables.

Negative Aspects 

Peach (along with Pauline and Princess Zelda) helped establish the long-running, and frankly repugnant, industry standard for women as gaming characters. Peach continues to be featured as a damsel in most of the key Mario platformers, limiting the positive agency mentioned above. Outside of the Paper Mario series, Peach is very much a stereotypical princess in the Disney mold, with a high-pitched voice and a vapid demeanor towards the action going on around her. She embodies feminine tropes (liking pink, using hearts in her attacks in certain games, utilizing her emotions to solve puzzles in Super Princess Peach, etc.).

My Reactions

Peach has never been a favorite character of mine. She's so entrenched into the damsel/princess ideal that her characterization rubs me the wrong way most of the time. Super Mario Sunshine is probably the biggest offender in marking Peach as an insipid character to me. However, I do support her Paper Mario appearances, as Intelligent Systems added some awesome depth into her personality, and gave Peach some much needed agency. On the whole, though, I'm not her biggest fan. Her flaws stick out more to me than her strengths.

Future Appearances 

Listing Peach's future appearances would be a mammoth task, so I'll touch on the three that I think made the biggest improvements to her. Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA), where Peach became playable for the first time, is #1. Her abilities were among the best in the game, particularly her floating jump, and made her a viable (and at times vital) choice for progression. The second is Super Mario RPG, which gives Peach a chance to serve as a character in Mario's three character party. She fills the role of healer, an unfortunate trope of women in RPGs, but at the very least she served a key component of many of the possible teams in the game. It gave her some characterization outside of being a damsel as well, which Intelligent Systems would expand upon in their RPGs to come. Lastly, I would argue that her addition to Super Smash Bros. Melee was her grandest hour. Being able to fight on even ground with many of Nintendo's other iconic heroes and villains was a huge increase to her agency, and she has been considered one of the better fighters in the series.


Personal experience