Game-related ramblings.

Year Four Of Scratching That Itch

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 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.

Has it already been four years since I started the Scratching That Itch series? How time flies. Last year, I was cautiously optimistic about the long struggle for racial justice, even though there wasn’t much solid evidence of progress I could point to. At the time, Donald Trump — a man who openly solicits support from racist hate groups — was facing prosecution for his role in the January 6, 2021 attempted insurrection in Washington, D.C., alongside many other criminal charges. A mere few weeks ago, the first of those verdicts finally arrived: Trump was found guilty of 34 felony counts for falsified business records to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election (specifically, by paying hush money to adult-film star Stormy Daniels so she would not go public about an affair with Trump). This verdict will not prevent Trump from running for president again later this year. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court (which includes three justices nominated by Trump) continues to erode hard-fought abortion rights and rights for LGBTQ people. Overall progress towards racial and social justice in America remains poor.

Of course, the biggest events this last year happened outside the United States. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is ongoing, even though it’s largely disappeared from headlines. What has been in the headlines is Israel’s invasion of Palestine, which appears to be nothing short of genocide. America is supporting and arming Israeli forces in this conflict, and Americans who protested this aid were met with violence from police, including a particularly vicious crackdown on college campuses around the country. Games have been less of a respite from such grim news lately, with the industry rocked with mass layoffs, and many wondering if it’s about to collapse. Meanwhile, journalism outlets are suffering a similar fate, as executives buy them and push for AI-generated content to maximize revenue that destroys the very thing they purchased. These may seem like small concerns in the face of genocide and racial injustice, but the cause is the same: the rich and powerful exploiting the rest — be they laborers, minorities, or entire ethnic groups — and enshrining that exploitation in a capitalist system that perpetuates itself, enforced with violence. The one consolation I’ve felt recently is that this truth is becoming more obvious to everyone, which is the first step towards dismantling these unjust systems. But those in power won’t go down without a fight.

I also randomly picked and wrote about 25 games or game-related things from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. That’s a slower pace than last year, which was already slower than the first two years, but that’s partly because I had a ton of travel and other things going on this year, and partly because many of the entries this year were surprisingly hefty. That brings our total over four years to 188, more than 10% of the whole bundle! I’ve highlighted some of my favorite picks from year four below.

Best Entry With “Best” In Its Title: Simply The Best

Simply the Best is a compilation of game-related interviews conducted by Mat Bradley-Tschirgi in 2004 and 2005 for the website eBoredom, and it’s a fascinating a wide-ranging read. These interviews are from a time before digital distribution really took off, before indie games became the widespread cultural force they are today, giving readers a window into what those in the industry were thinking and worrying about then. Some interviews look to the past and ask what’s been lost in then-modern games, conversations we’ve seen repeated about different eras in the twenty years since. Others wonder what the future will look like, their visions surprisingly intelligent and accurate. There are some big names in there that many readers will recognize, but the real treats are the lesser known individuals: those working in sound design or composing game music, and those fronting fan projects such as bands or films. In a time before YouTube and social media, it’s interesting to see how such projects came to be and how they strove to reach their audiences. Individual interviews are short, but there are a lot of them, and aside from a few disappointing ones the collection is captivating. Read my full post about Simply the Best here.

Best Revolver: Heavy Bullets

Heavy Bullets is aptly named. You only start with six bullets in your revolver, but each can be collected again after being fired, and reloaded one at a time. That means you have to keep your cool as you creep through the artificial indoor jungle full of strange, ravenous beasts and malfunctioning security turrets. Someone’s gotta get to level 8 and reset the mainframe, you see, and there’s a hefty cash reward for any employee who manages it; an understandable motivation when living in a capitalist hellscape (like I wrote about in my intro!). Play as a series of hopeful employees as they tackle freshly generated jungles in a roguelike structure, with some ability to bank cash or items to help out future runs. With striking art and excellent music from Doseone, this one is stylish and fun. Not even the difficulty spike of the mid-game boss can ruin the cool. Read my full post about Heavy Bullets here.

The Game That Wasn’t For Me But Might Be For You: Verdant Skies

A life sim that combines farming (à la Stardew Valley) with a dating sim, Verdant Skies is beautiful and relaxing. For me, it didn’t take long to see it as a glorified to do list of chores, crafting, and collecting in order to unlock the next bit of dialogue or the next story event, but I can imagine a certain type of player absolutely loving this. It’s got a diverse cast of characters to develop relationships with, a fledgling colony on an alien world to build up, different crops to grow, animals to domesticate, fish to catch… there’s a ton to do here for those looking for a peaceful game to help them unwind. You can even have a kid with one of the other colonists, who will grow up and eventually join the town. If you don’t relish a long list of tasks, you may bounce off it as I did, but genre fans should definitely take a look. Read my full post about Verdant Skies here.

Best Zelda Homage: Warden: Melody of the Undergrowth

Warden: Melody of the Undergrowth is quite clear about its inspirations: the early 3D Zelda games for the Nintendo 64. It’s an impressive facsimile, offering a full-sized adventure that will take many hours to complete. Players can eventually switch between three of the titular wardens, each with their own special ability to aid in navigation or puzzle solving, pledged to serve the ancient forest spirit and defend her realm against those who would invade or exploit it. That means exploring an interconnected world, bright and colorful and evocative. The mighty forest is genuinely intimidating, towering over everything, with even the mightiest buildings of the Meretian Empire in danger of being consumed by the wilds again. The world is open for players to explore in whatever direction they choose, although some areas act as singular challenges that are harder to revisit when hunting down secrets. There are a few other annoyances that keep Warden from matching the high bar of its inspirations, but it’s still a great time. Read my full post about Warden: Melody of the Undergrowth here.

Best Monstrous Menagerie: Realm of the Ghost King

It’s always a good sign when a game gets Sin Vega’s seal of approval. Realm of the Ghost King is a condensed, puzzle-like turn-based roguelike that rewards careful planning as players tackle its miniature areas. Smart use of spirit bombs and special abilities is required to have any hope of taking down the titular Ghost King, but unlocking new characters will help. Each of the enemy monsters has a playable version with its own special power that can change one’s approach. I was particularly fond of the ice beast that can freeze nearby enemies with a blast of frost, and the slime creature that spawns friendly clones of itself. But there are ten others to mess around with, offering different advantages and challenges. Each attempt is quick too, making this a great option for a short and sweet gaming session. Read my full post about Realm of the Ghost King here.

Best Hacking: NOISE1

NOISE1 uses a concept that I’ve always thought would make a great game: there’s someone sneaking through a high-security facility, and you are the hacker helping them out by unlocking doors and moving security cameras. Everything is done by typing into command line prompts, with a rough facsimile of the local area mapped out in Unicode symbols as a only guide. Everything moves in real time, however, so players will have to do some quick typing if they want their infiltrator to survive. Open doors and trigger distractions at the right points in guards’ patrols, and you might just get through this. There’s a cool sci-fi story to uncover too. This one is by Chevy Ray Johnston, who is now more famous as the creator of Ikenfell, and is offered for any price (including free) for those who missed the bundle. Read my full post about NOISE1 here.

Most Fun To Write About: Love By The Quarter Mile

Look, I’m sure Love By The Quarter Mile makes for a fun tabletop role-playing game, albeit one with a simple ruleset that will require a lot of worldbuilding and acting from its players. But really, it’s here because it’s heavily inspired by the Fast & Furious Film Franchise (FFFF), giving me an excuse to write about that. The FFFF is absurd in the best way, presenting a world in which an illegal street racing crew are somehow also the world’s best secret agents, tackling all problems with sports cars, no matter how unsuited cars are for the task. It’s just joyously bombastic and ridiculous, making it fun to write about, and probably pretty fun to roleplay too. Read my full, fun-filled post about Love By The Quarter Mile here.

Best Arguments: Last Word

An unusual twist on traditional Japanese-style role-playing games, Last Word takes place entirely within a fancy dinner party hosted by the mysterious Chet Chatters, and its turn-based battles take the form of verbal debates. You see, in the island nation of St. Lauden, successful debating grants true power, letting the winner impress their will upon their hapless victim. Navigate a party full of St. Lauden’s elite, who use their argumentative skill to maintain their social dominance, and uncover the mystery of your elusive host and his plans. The system for discourse is interesting, tasking players with juggling resources like Power and Tact to erode an opponent’s composure and hit them with the perfect barb at the right time. It can get a little grindy, especially because the special skills that really bring out the tactics in the debates aren’t granted until characters level up a few times, but the great writing kept me engaged regardless. Exploring the house, finding key conversation topics that unlocked new dialogue and options, and rooting out everyone’s true motives was a joy. There’s a nice catharsis in besting some hauty aristocrats too. Read my full post about Last Word here.

My Favorite Pick From Year Four: Super Win The Game

There are a few reasons why Super Win the Game appeals to me, specifically. It’s a sequel (that I hadn’t heard about) to You Have To Win the Game, which I wrote about on this blog a whopping twelve years ago in 2012, and it’s heavily inspired by early games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, which I happen to be playing as part of my Console History series. Recently playing through Metroid and especially Zelda II certainly gave me a better appreciation for what Super Win the Game is doing, but it’s also a great game in its own right. A Metroidvania without combat, it’s all about exploring a strange world via an overhead map that connects different 2D platforming areas, and unearthing its secrets. Movement feels great, the exploration is compelling, and it’s all presented with a cool CRT filter that replicates the enhanced look that CRT televisions brought to pixel art. There’s an excellent original chiptune soundtrack too, which is included with the game as an extra. If you like exploration-focused platforming and don’t mind a few precision platforming challenges, then Super Win the Game comes highly recommended. Read my full post about Super Win the Game here.

That’s it for year four of Scratching That Itch. If I maintain the average pace of the first four years, I’ll only need 37 more years to get through the entire bundle. Let’s go!


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1 Comment

  1. LotBlind

    Thanks for remembering the original purpose of the bundle, and for singling out a few games as you have… I hope people find time to play them here and there.

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