The Scratching That Itch series is where I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
It’s now been two years since I started the Scratching That Itch series, randomly picking things from the 1741 entries in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality and writing about them. I’d hoped this was a way that my humble blog about games could keep the conversation about racial justice going, but it feels like some of the momentum is being lost. Last year I was able to point to the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, and some associated steps towards police reform, as tangible achievements. Of course, there was also the insurrection in the U.S. capitol on January 6, 2021, when a mob of racists tried to overthrow the presidential election and reinstate Donald Trump, who is basically openly fascist. As I write this, the House of Representatives is holding hearings on the insurrection, and I wish I could say I was optimistic that real consequences will come of them. But I am not.
It’s been a steady stream of bad news in the last year. There have been more than 250 mass shootings in the United States just in 2022 so far, including racist incidents like the Buffalo shooting, not to mention the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas in which 19 students and teachers were killed. We’re not merely seeing a backlash against racial justice efforts, but a broad wave of hatred and intolerance sweeping across the country. The Supreme Court is set to overturn Roe v. Wade, allowing states to ban abortion, and Texas has already passed a law that effectively bans abortion by empowering private citizens to take legal action against any facility that offers abortion services. We’re on track to pass a record amount of anti-transgender legislation in 2022. We’re seeing a rash of voter suppression legislation passed in many states. The message is clear: any attempt to address systemic inequality is seen as a threat to the unjustly privileged position held by white men, so politicians and lawmakers are making aggressive moves to preserve it. And that’s just what’s happening in America. It’s clear we still have a lot of work to do.
On a brighter note, I randomly picked a wrote about 57 games (and other things) from the huge bundle, bringing the total over the first two years to 126, more than 7% of the entire thing. Like last year, I’ve highlighted some of my favorite picks below.
Best Anthropomorphized Rodents: Mausritter And Michtim: Fluffy Adventures
This year saw not one, but two tabletop role-playing games about tiny anthropomorphized rodents going on adventures. Mausritter, as its title suggests, casts players as mice, who might use discarded sewing needles as weapons or shirt buttons as shields. Its very much in the Dungeons & Dragons mold, in that players will form a small party of mice to explore dangerous locations and fight things, but its core rules come instead from Into the Odd (with other elements inspired by a wide range of other games), and it’s refreshingly designed to be welcoming to players (and especially GMs) who have never tried a tabletop role-playing game before. Michtim, by contrast, aims for more of a friendly Saturday morning cartoon vibe, with less of an emphasis on battle. Its world, including a full socieity of the titular rodent-like creatures, is wonderfully fleshed out, and it has an intriguing ruleset based on the emotions of the players’ characters. Use Joy to perform acrobatic feats, and Fear to move stealthily. If you want to play as a tiny rodent, it’s worth checking both of these out. Read my full posts about them here and here.
Best Stealth Game: Ripped Pants At Work
We’ve all been there: we’re at work, and we bend over to pick up a pencil off the floor, when BAM! Our pants tear, and then explode off of our bodies, leaving us standing in our underwear. Time to go in search of new pants, but we can’t let anyone see us in our underwear, lest we be fired for indecency. Ripped Pants at Work is a very silly stealth game in which players must sneak around the city streets near their workplace, in search of one (or more) of the 15 pairs of pants scattered throughout the neighborhood. Each constitutes its own miniature stealth challenge, but the city blocks are completely open, so if one is giving you trouble it’s easy to simply wander elsewhere. Getting spotted means starting over, which can be frustrating, but runs are quick and I quickly forgave the game for this. I only managed to find 11 of the 15 pairs of pants, how many can you find? Read my full post about Ripped Pants at Work here.
Best Musical Puzzles: Micron
Micron is kind of like a puzzle game that’s also a sequencer. Little colored balls are automatically launched into the puzzle area, timed to the beat. Plop down some mirrors and they’ll bounce off with a pleasing sound. Once a few mirrors are placed, the puzzles start to build their own music, so play is as much about solving the puzzle as it is about constructing a beat. The early puzzles are pretty simple, just redirecting these projectiles to hit switches and open new paths, but later puzzles get surprisingly tricky. It all looks and sounds really slick, and is an easy recommendation. Read my full post about it here.
Highest Name Length To Game Length Ratio: Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, And The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist
With a 12-word title and a 15-minute running time, Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and the Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist comes very close to one minute per word in its title. A humorous game that is very pointedly not what it appears to be, it’s hard to talk about it without spoiling it, so just go play it. Even if you missed the bundle, this one is available for free, assuming you have 15 minutes to spare. If you have a little more time, you can also read my full post about it here.
Best Hand-Carved Wooden Pieces: A Day In The Woods
This is a puzzle game inspired by Little Red Riding Hood, where players must guide Red to her grandmother’s house by swapping positions of the hexagonal tiles on the board. But the real star is the board itself: it’s shown set up on an actual table, with a painted backdrop, every tile and figurine hand-carved and painted, with the paint starting to rub off along the rough edges. Some are even animated, like the lumberjack’s axe arm swinging in its socket, or the hinged trapdoors that hide trapdoor spiders. It’s just lovely to look at, and everything moves with satisfying clicks and clacks. The tile-swapping itself took me a while to get used to, and often felt like it took a huge number of moves just to do simple tasks, but it does allow for some surprisingly difficult puzzles given the small grids. Read my full post about it here.
Best Hacking: Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica
Life is never boring when you’re a celestial hacker girl who is also a marble. Roll around strange levels floating in space, hack computers, dodge lasers, and eat cake. This one has some rough edges, but it’s weird and cool enough to forgive them. If you’re in the mood for a surreal 3D platformer made largely out of pre-made assets from the Unity Asset Store, look no further than Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica. Read my full post about it here.
Best Grenades: Tallowmere
Tallowmere is one of those newfangled roguelikes that are mixed with other genres, in this case an action platformer. Don’t let the simple dungeon blocks and character art fool you, this one looks really slick in motion, with particle effects flying everywhere as spells go off and rockets are launched. Yes, the hero may start with a simple axe, but will soon find rocket launchers, or the excellent grenades, which can be lobbed in large numbers to cause absolute chaos. Strong core design and a solid cast of enemies kept me engaged for much longer than I expected. There’s now a sequel too, although that’s not in the bundle (and I have not played it). If you’re intrigued, read my full post about Tallowmere here.
Best Floating Landscapes: Fate Tectonics
Build a colorful pixel art landscape tile by tile, trying to make the edges match nicely. That makes for a stable landscape that won’t tumble into the void. Unless you upset the god-like Fates, that is, who may show up to demolish your carefully constructed world. This one looks and sounds great, and I like the way it treats catastrophes as a necessary part of the cycle of death and rebirth. A few technical issues mar it slightly, including a reliance on Adobe AIR, but I had enough fun to forgive them. Check this out if you’re a fan of building worlds. Read my full post about it here.
Best Vegetable People: Karambola
A short game about helping your vegetable friends with their emotional problems. It’s largely composed of abstract puzzles, clicking on things in a certain order to alter scenes and ultimately drive off the bad thought-birds that haunt Karambola and his friends. A weird and lovely thing. Read my full post about it here.
Best Platformer Shoot ‘Em Up: Bleed 2 And Xenogunner
If you like jumping and dashing around to avoid a hail of bullets while blasting away at gigantic enemies, then there are two great offerings for you from year two. Bleed 2 is, as you might suspect, the sequel to Bleed, which is also in the bundle, and it’s actually quite friendly to new players. That’s not always true of shoot ’em ups, which are traditionally part of a niche genre with hardcore fans. There’s extra challenge for those who want it, but infinite retries for players who just want to experience the ever-escalating bombast of its silly story. Moving around, shooting, and katana slashing all feel great, and I had a (literal) blast. If you’re looking for something that very specifically emulates the style of developer studio Treasure, however, Xenogunner has you covered. With a strong emphasis on boss battles and dodging through attacks with an ultra-fast dash, it’s tougher than Bleed 2 on its default setting, but rewarding once you get the hang of it. It’s also got excellent music and a striking red-purple color palette. If you want more details, read my full posts about these two games here and here.
Best Traditional Shoot ‘Em Up: RISK SYSTEM
If you prefer your shoot ’em ups to feature spaceships rather than platforms, then Risk System is what you’re after. Its central conceit is that your ship must intentionally fly near enemy projectiles to supercharge its own weapons and charge up the Barrier Breaker special move. Firing the Barrier Breaker also makes the ship temporarily invincible, so strategically charging it up and using it to dodge through giant laser beams is key to success. It all sounds frantic and difficult, but I actually found Risk System reasonably forgiving. Blasting enemies with supercharged fire leaves health pickups behind, so it’s possible to heal from damage and recover from earlier mistakes. Things do get hard in the later stages, but there are infinite continues so I could take as many attempts as I needed to emerge victorious. Reaching the extra stage and “true” ending requires expert performance on all earlier stages, which was beyond my ability, but the standard ending is certainly achievable. Risk System also looks really cool in motion, full of crazy particle effects and huge explosions. Read my full post about it here.
Best Construction: Monumental Failure
Monumental Failure doesn’t just have a great title, it’s also hilarious to play. Guide two separate groups of workers as they construct pieces of famous ancient monuments, using historically accurate techniques like gigantic slides or helicopter backpacks. In each brief stage, everything inevitably goes awry, a giant stone placed askew, upside down, or barely even in place at all. After finishing all the stages for one of the seven monuments, players are rewarded with a flyby view of their absolutely shoddy work. Eh, good enough. Read my full post about it here.
Best Retro Revival: The Adventures Of Elena Temple: Definitive Edition
The joy of The Adventures of Elena Temple is that it does not merely pay homage to the early days of platformer games, but to the hardware those games ran on. Swap between seven different display modes, from early black and white computer displays to the characteristic green-tinged screen of the Game Boy handheld, to more modern PCs running the game in emulation. Each mode actually shows the physical screen in use, with a room in the background. Amusingly, these computers and consoles are pitched as failed competitors to real major brands, like the Maple home computer which couldn’t compete with the Apple Macintosh, or the Some Toy, a cheap Game Boy knockoff from shady company Ninetengo. Through all this hardware, players learn the story of one very unlucky game developer who simply couldn’t get his game onto a system anyone actually owned. It’s a good game too, combining open exploration with puzzles and simple platforming challenges, and the Definitive Edition features two extra dungeons for Elena Temple to plunder. Read my full post about it here.
My Favorite Pick From Year Two: EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER
Extreme Meatpunks Forever isn’t some obscure game hidden within the bounty of the bundle, that I can then reveal to you with a flourish. It’s gotten a lot of coverage and praise elsewhere. But that didn’t stop it from being my favorite pick form year two, by far. An episodic game that’s part visual novel, part top-down battles between mechs made of meat, it tells the story of four queer mech pilots who find themselves thrown together as they fight off fascists and try to make it in a world similar to, yet very different from, our own. It covers some heavy topics, but it’s also laugh out loud funny, and sweet, and weird, and brash, and very punk. It’s also very, very good. Read my full post about it here, and my post about season 2 (which is not included in the bundle) here. Here’s hoping for the third and final season soon!
All right then, those are my picks from year two of Scratching That Itch. If I can maintain my average pace, I’ll only need about 26 more years to get through the whole bundle. Let’s do this.