Downloadables: Crazy Stairs and Stretching “Boys”

When I got my Xbox 360 in April of 2006, I hadn’t fully come to terms with downloadable content or games. I was almost going to buy some of it on Xbox, but then I figured I wouldn’t keep the console forever (it didn’t help that PGR 2 charged $6 for car packs).

After plowing through “GRAW” and tinkering around with “Burnout: Revenge” for some time, I figured I would finally browse through the Xbox Live Marketplace. I saw “Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved” and remembered how damn fun the little game was in “PGR 2.” $5 was unbeatable for me, so I downloaded it and had a blast.

Over the years, downloadable games have gotten much better in quality than Geometry Wars (which is saying a lot). When mainstream, retail games seem to be sticking to the same patterns, colors and game design, downloadable games are constantly giving gamers new ways to think about their gaming careers.

While I have no preference for XBLA, PSN or Wii Ware (though I only have 2 games on Wii Ware), today I’ll be talking about some PSN titles; namely, “Echochrome” and “Noby Noby Boy.” Both titles are wholly unique from each other and offer things I’ve never really ever played before.

“Echochrome” is one of the most original ideas for a puzzle game I’ve seen since Tetris. The game has a style similar to M.C. Escher and tasks the player with moving through a series of platform based puzzles to collect things called “echos”. The key trick to these puzzles is that the player can manipulate the game world to fill in holes, create jumps or make bridges.

If that description makes no sense, it’s because the game takes a long time to fully understand. The short tutorial that the player goes through does little to prepare you for the later challenges. Your little “echo” guy (who looks like a wooden artist mannequin) has to jump off of pads while the world rotates around him so that he can land on a ledge in the distance.

Some puzzles leave you stranded on a small piece of walkable terrain and require you to move the camera so the game thinks the level is one big bridge. It’s ingenious and mindbending, but when all the pieces come together, you feel like a damn god.

How the f*#@ do I get out of here?!

The music is also quite comforting. Fully orchestrated and using a lot of violins and cello’s, the aural experience is almost as engulfing as the logical one. The music swoons and thunders with smooth sound that hasn’t really been exploited in gaming (as far as I know). It’s wholly uncommon and I love it.

What makes the whole package better is that Sony incorporated an entire level editor into the package. Not only does the game ship with 54 levels, but there are endless amounts of user created challenges waiting at your fingertips.

While I can’t say that I delved much in making my own challenges, I’ve played through quite a few out there and some make the main challenges look tame. It’s awesome when players will come up with tasks more insidious than the developers could have ever dreamed of.

“Echochrome” really helped change my perception of downloadable games. Before this came out, I really only saw these services as ways to re-release old classics. After I finally opened up and let this title into my life, I started to notice how creative and fun such smaller titles could be.

I know that in Asia and Europe, “Echochrome” was released on UMD for PSP, but in North America, the only way to get the game is through the PSN store. The game exists on PSP and PS3 and goes for $6 and $10 respectively.

“Noby Noby Boy” is more of an experience than a game. Developed by the creator of “Katamari Damacy,” the whole goal of “Noby Noby Boy” is to experiment with this weird hotdog shaped creature called “Boy.”

You can bend and stretch him to different sizes and you can even devour the entire town around you (not unlike Katamari). The left control stick moves the front of your character and the right controls the back. It’s a bit awkward at first, but the lack of any overbearing goals means experimentation takes over and you never find yourself getting frustrated.

The scoring system is rather interesting for a downloadable title. Players submit their scores to a character called “SUN,” which is essentially a massive online leaderboard. The player totals were given to a database that unlocked extra levels in the game based on how high everyone’s cumulative total was getting.

As of now, the game is entirely finished, but the race to eat people and explore different worlds was something akin to an MMO, but without the grinding or isolation that often sets in during those titles.

And you thought you had it bad…

The graphics are a bit goofy, but they have a clever charm and are very bright. It’s not difficult to just stare at the game world around your “Boy”. The music was also very charming and the folk guitar track is easily one of my favorites from this generation.

To this day, I’ve wasted maybe 80 hours playing this game. I’ve never experienced anything with so little to do, yet so much to explore. It’s very therapeutic and relaxing. Booting this up just lets me forget about the day.

I suppose the major downside to this game is how little there really is to do. While I have no problem aimlessly roaming in games, some people may find that off putting or wasteful. I think it’s relaxing, especially when mixed with the character designs and music.

The PS3 version does have trophy support, but even those can be banged out in about an hour. The price, though, makes the title worth a shot. $5 is something you can’t beat for any type of experimental gameplay.

I know there are plenty of other downloadable games I’ve partaken of, but these two are just some of the examples of games that have really stuck with me. It’s a shame that we don’t get such originality in our $60 titles, but maybe those have a place in helping the indie devs get some great content out to us gamers?

If nothing else, I know that I can finally say I’ve pooped out a sheep while two mail men road on my character and I floated through the air. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that in another game.

Digital Distribution: I Sure Love Steam!

Digital Distribution is a relatively new idea that is beginning to take the video game industry by storm. While Valve launched the idea back in 2003 with Steam and access to “Counter-Strike 1.6,” most developers didn’t even bother considering the idea as viable until Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 in late 2005.

Since then, we’ve seen a huge influx of downloadable titles (of varying quality) and re-releases of classic titles. Is this good? To me, I think it’s fucking fantastic, but there is always a potential downside (just look at the PSN crash).

Let me start by saying that I didn’t get fully into Steam until after “Half-Life 2.” That was the first retail released game that required a Steam account, something I had already tinkered around with just to try “Counter-Strike 1.6.” I was pretty pissed off at the lack of quality control on the service and how it made me wait to play a game that I had a physical copy of.

Over the years, Steam grew. Boy did it grow. I didn’t buy anything else until “Half-Life 2: Episode One,” and even then I noticed changes. The server download speeds were upped; the amount of download servers was dramatically increased; the Valve Anti-Cheat measures were phenomenal. From that day forward, I vowed to always buy Valve games from the Steam client.

How the hell can you offer this for $7.50?!

“Orange Box” and “Left 4 Dead” came along and I was just sold on how seamless the experience was. I could wake up, buy a title, go to work and come home to game. It was awesome as hell. I never needed to deal with stupid customer service reps or wait in lines for highly anticipated titles. You never need to worry about running out of copies, either, as it’s impossible to do so.

Then Valve hit upon a gold mine; Why not broaden the service to other game developers. Soon EA, Ubisoft and Activision were jumping aboard and bringing their flagship titles to the service. “Call of Duty 4” launched on Steam and sold more copies than the boxed retail version.

What really got me hooked, though, were the sales. Valve, in another stroke of genius, decided to allow developers to sell their games for half-off during specifically timed events. This would get people buying and playing faster, quicker and with less of a dent to their wallet.

Not only was that a benefit to the player, but a lot of indie developers saw huge turnarounds. Introversion Software nearly went out of business, but the Steam sale of “DEFCON” and “Darwinia” saved them from closing down. That’s just brilliant.

That’s right, I have 139 games on Steam.

In the last few years, I’ve nearly repurchased my entire PC game collection (which was upwards of 200 titles). I love the fact that I can click a game’s name, wait for a 30 minute download and then start playing. I also love when I can talk to Jim about an old title and then gift him the game from the Steam client. It’s absolutely outstanding.

Better yet, Valve is starting to incorporate cloud based storage for a lot of their titles. They even let developers include Steam cloud support for their own titles. This lets you play on one PC and resume your progress on another (you can even do it between PC and Mac; genius!). The PS3 version of “Portal 2” lets you do it between consoles! That’s leaps and bounds ahead of Sony’s own solution to cloud based information (stupid PSN Plus).

The only downside I can think of with Steam is how easy the internet can be hacked. I know Valve keeps improving the measures they have to safe guard your account, but the recent PSN hacking has shown that no one is safe. If I ever lost my Steam account, I’d be out a few thousand dollars of purchased content. That would not make me happy.

I suppose the other problem I have is that my old games can’t just be registered without me paying more. I know developers love money, but it would be a strong showing of faith to allow me to just digitize my previous collection. I guess that’s asking a bit much, though.

Xbox Live Arcade and PSN have a lot of learning to do from Valve and Steam. Instead of trying to rip gamers off by barely discounting your titles, you should hold random sales on a consistent basis to garner up interest in your service. When Valve can offer their entire catalog for $50 (the price of Portal 2, currently!), there is no reason why I should have to pay $15 for premium games on XBLA.

Nintendo also has a bunch to learn, but even copying XBLA for them would be a huge step up. Valve just knows business and customer loyalty unlike anyone else. If they keep their current trend going, I will never feel sorry for having turned my PC to digital distribution only.

I think the best part is that I can finally dump all of my boxes (I unloaded 8 bags one weekend at the dump. That’s fucking nuts!).