The Simpsons: Tapped Out – A Nostalgic, Delightful Simulator


Back in November, R. downloaded a game onto to our iPad mini.  I hadn’t heard of The Simpsons: Tapped Out, and when he showed it to me after playing for a couple of days, I didn’t immediately get it.  Developed by EA, Tapped Out is a simulator featuring the Simpsons.   The game opens with a nuclear meltdown leveling Springfield.  The player’s task is to rebuild the town, unlocking characters by constructing their associated domiciles and buildings.  Delightfully, most of the characters are voiced, with new and true-to-character soundbites.


Starting with only Homer and Lisa (a nice pair, as their odd-couple dialogue recalls the back-and-forth on the tv show), the player assigns tasks to characters that take a set amount of real time to complete, ranging from a few seconds to a full day.  Completion of tasks earns money and experience, gradually unlocking more buildings, characters, and decorations (everything from trees and plants to dumpsters and stop signs).  Gameplay therefore tends to happen in short (2-5 minute) bursts, every few hours or once a day or whatever you like.  The game is a free download with real-money microtransactions available to speed up completion of tasks or to get bonus goodies.  As a rule, I don’t do microtransactions (though I’d have been happy to pay a reasonable price for the full game) so I have played strictly the free game.


It took only a few days of play for me to get hooked.  I’m told that Tapped Out has a very similar format to the once-ubiquitous Farmville, a game I haven’t played.  It’s clear to anyone that uses Facebook that Farmville was a highly addictive game, so it makes sense that Tapped Out is as well.  Plus, as a child/teen of the 90s, I am naturally a longtime Simpsons fan, so the chance to play a simulator featuring the beloved and familiar characters, town, animation style, and classic jokes is a real draw.  (For Valentine’s Day this year, one holiday-specific reward was a Choo-Choo-Choose You train.  I can’t pretend to be immune to such a delightful bit of nostalgia).


Lots of games are loot-driven, or based on the general promise of unlocking new “things” that tempt the player ever forward.  Tapped Out combines this time-tested reward system with nostalgic familiarity, and that intersection is exactly where massive addictive potential is born.  If I was playing a game with similar gameplay but not based on anything familiar, I might be kind of looking forward to obtaining new characters (or whatever), but that drive would be based only on the desire to achieve (applicable to virtually every game) and perhaps some vague curiosity.


Curiosity cannot compete with the feeling I get when I am assigned the task of building Springfield’s Buddhist Temple, which will unlock Lenny and Carl.  Lenny and Carl!  I love those guys, and their banter!  I can’t wait to see what their assignments, dialogue, and animations will be!  I gotta build that temple!  Or, I can build Burns Manor, and unlock Smithers.  He’s finally out of the closet!  He has some of the best animations!  (Some of his assignments: “Whip It” with his licorice whip, pictured below; “Become a Hideous Drunken Wreck”; “Exercise for Mr. Burns” by independently powering a two-person bike; etc.)  How delightful to hear Smithers finally exclaim “I’m experiencing a whole rainbow of gay feelings!” and more suggestively, “Mr. Burns has an enchanting musk…”  This is GOOD STUFF.


Additionally, Tapped Out is constantly churning out seasonal updates.  For Valentine’s Day, there are lots of new missions and mini-plotlines.  (Players were gifted with the classic one-off character Mindy, Homer’s alluring coworker and near-mistress.)  There is also a heart currency introduced for a two-week period, which can be accrued a few different ways and traded for love-themed prizes and decorations.  The multiplayer component of Tapped Out, while generally minimal (you can visit other players’ Springfields and produce small amounts of cash for yourself and them by doing so), is more prominent as the main way to obtain hearts is to send Valentine cards to other players’ characters.  Christmas offered a similar selection of holiday-themed content, and even minor occasions like the Superbowl or (American) Presidents’ Day warrant mention and small gifts within the game.


You never know what’s coming next in Tapped Out, but you can sure it’s going to be something you loved from the Simpsons, and that is what keeps you hooked.  For now, I’ll keep saving up money to build Rainier Wolfcastle’s mansion.  Up and at them!


Dr. Mario Wii: My Occasional Addiction


I recently started playing Dr. Mario again.  Every couple of years, I have a little stint of Dr. Mario and gorge myself, playing in half-hour increments, sometimes a few times a day.  Not on my NES; my cartridge is sadly unreliable.  On the Wii.  It’s an updated, downloadable game, and it’s amazing.  The gameplay is the same as in the original: drop bicoloured pills onto “viruses” to eliminate them, in a sort of amalgam of Tetris and Connect Four.  Perform combos to drop extraneous pieces onto your opponent’s game board.  The difference in the Wii version is that you now have the option of playing online against randomly-selected opponents.  The online arena is where shit gets real.

Well, sort of.  You certainly don’t get much information about your opponent.  Everyone is represented by their Mii (a custom, Wii-specific avatar), and their username.  I find it kind of fun to guess if people’s Miis are meant to be real likenesses (mine is) and to judge their username (“Lucy”; yeah I’m boring like that).  I’ve always been amused by the high frequencies of the names “Mom” and “Dad.”  Mostly Mom; if Miis are any indication, Dr. Mario seems to be played more by women than men.


The only available communication between players occurs before and between games, and is limited to ten canned statements: “Hah!” “Ouch…” “You got me!” and so on.  The most contentious, to me, is “Good game!”  There are some players who say “Good game!” after every single match.  I know that there is some kind of sportsmanship thing going on here, but seriously.  We did not just play a sweaty, grunting, hour-long game of soccer on opposing teams; we spent 45 seconds pushing buttons without even laying eyes on each other.  I always feel obligated to echo the sentiment, lest I be seen as a poor sport.  (Why I do even care, in such an anonymous environment?  Human nature is fascinating.)  I don’t mind a “Good game!” after a particularly close or drawn-out game, but generally, I prefer to be the strong silent type.  However, and it’s kind of embarrassing to admit, I feel a tinge of genuine delight on the occasions when I decide to randomly throw in my favourite of the available statements: “Neener neener!”

You might think you’ve played games that are fast-paced, but have you played online Dr. Mario?  High-level players drop pills so fast that it’s almost impossible to imagine that a human being is on the other end of the connection.  I consider one of my special skills in life to be the ability to maintain a solid game of Call of Duty Zombies while simultaneously playing indoor fetch with my dog.  When I play Dr. Mario, dog toys pile up on my lap as I am forced to ignore Bieber’s hopeful prodding.


The level of precision required to rotate, align, and drop a pill in fractions of a second, using muscle memory rather than conscious planning, is astronomical.  I used to think I had two perfectly functioning Wiimotes, but it only took one minute of Dr. Mario to realize that one of them is ever so slightly off, as it occasionally jumps my pills an extra space to the left.  I honestly believe that no other game would have revealed this minute misfunction.

I’m reasonably skilled (though this time around, after a few years away, pretty rusty), but some of these players are jaw-dropping.  I’m always intimidated when I see someone whose number of wins (one of two stats available, the other being a weirdly uninformative “rating”) has maxed out the four digits available at 9999.  (These players are often named Mom.)  I won’t reveal my win count, because I don’t even like to acknowledge to myself how many minute-long games of Dr. Mario I’ve played, but I will say it’s a four-digit number.

I’ve been playing for about a week, and I can already feel myself become sated.  It’s for the best.  Dr. Mario makes a good little snack between proper, full-length games, but the pace burns you out quickly.  I’m glad to say I won’t reach 9999 wins… at least not anytime soon.

What have been your experiences with Dr. Mario?

Everything Retro is New Again

I’ve been saying for years that Nintendo should rerelease the original Nintendo Entertainment System.  There are plenty of game cartridges floating around, but in my experience, fewer and fewer well-functioning consoles.  Well, it’s happened.  Sort of.

Shopping yesterday at a trendy store in downtown Toronto (Urban Outfitters), I came across a display of retro-inspired items: books on the history of video games, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pint glasses, and so on.  But what really caught my eye was a trio of gaming devices that are new products, but play old games.  I surreptitiously took a (blurry) photo of the display so that I could look up these items once I got home.

Retro stuff at UO

The first one I picked up to examine was almost the exact device I’ve been predicting.  It’s a console that looks like a hybrid of NES and Super NES, and plays both types of cartridges.  It comes bundled with one NES and one SNES controller, and is compatible with the decades-old controllers from the original consoles.  It’s not manufactured by Nintendo, but rather by some company called Hyperkin.  At around $70, the Retron Two-in-One Gaming System seemed like a great buy.  I already have reasonably-functional consoles of my own, so I didn’t get one, but I still felt a bit wowed by the fact that this things exists, and is being sold in a store aimed at people in their teen and early 20s.


Next to this retro hybrid beast was a daintier offering: a Sega-branded handheld gaming device, preloaded with 37 Sega Genesis and 3 Capcom games, including heavy hitters like the Sonic the Hedgehog and Street Fighter series.  (Also featuring an SD slot for further downloadable games). If the screen hadn’t seemed a bit small (I can’t recall the exact spec), I might have bought this delightful little jewel.  I didn’t play a lot of Sega Genesis (other than Sonic games) and would probably enjoy discovering some new old favorites.


The third and last console was the most surprising one: an honest-to-goodness branded Atari, with 75 preloaded games, two wireless old-timey-looking joysticks, and ports for genuinely old joysticks, in case you have some kicking around.  (Personally, I have a few that are a whisper away from nonfunctional.)  Seriously?  I feel like the Venn diagram of the target audience for this item is not very promising.


I mean, let’s be honest here.  I’m at the very top of the age range of people who might shop at UO, and I’m too young to have played Atari when it was having its moment in the sun.  Who are these potential customers?  Maybe young people buying gifts for their parents?  Furthermore, I like vintage games as much as the next person, but have you actually played an Atari game in the last decade? (Or two?)  It’s fun for about three minutes.   I’m all for nostalgia, but when it comes to gaming, I’m also all for fun.


It was certainly interesting to see these items for sale and to consider the implications.  I wrote a while back on my vague sadness about the fact that the generation of people exposed to early video games (NES specifically) are playing these games less and less.  Maybe the people manufacturing and selling these new-retro consoles know something I don’t… maybe younger people could get into these old games, and save them from disappearing out of collective gamer awareness.

Have you bought or played any of the these new-retro systems?

Duck Hunt & My Childhood Existential Crisis


I was a sensitive child.  As I’ve disclosed previously, I was scared of my first Nintendo Entertainment System.  Which is entirely reasonable when you consider that it was inhabited by a ghost that took control of Mario whenever I turned my attention away for a few moments.  However, that NES console provoked more than terror in me; it also precipitated what was likely my first existential crisis.  What exactly was it that deformed my previously compact and self-contained mind into a warping tunnel extending infinitely in all directions into time and space?  It was Duck Hunt.

I was five years old.  Prior to my discovery of the Mario-demo-ghost, I spent some time playing Duck Hunt.  Undoubtedly sitting a mere few feet from the screen, clutching the futuristic NES Zapper gun*, shooting green and purple pixelated ducks and relishing triumph with my co-conspirator, the hound.  Soon I had gotten good enough to zap easily through the first few levels.

As I reached whatever I considered at the time to be a high level (was it five? ten? I don’t know), it seemed to me that the game should, at some point, reach its conclusion.  That was how games worked.  They had endpoints.  In the other NES game I played, Mario Bros., every level had a clear endpoint and I confidently believed that were I skilled enough, I could reach the end of the game.  For whatever reason, I did not have this sense with Duck Hunt.  Maybe it was the repetitiveness of the levels.  So although I lacked the vocabulary and theoretical reasoning to properly articulate this thought, I began to fear that Duck Hunt was infinite.  In the clearly-delineated world of a five-year-old, the concept of infinity may exist in some vague form (the sky never ends!).  However, the idea that I could keep shooting ducks for ever and ever, and the game would keep playing that bit of jaunty music and loading a new level, brought the concept of endlessness crashing down onto me with a force that shook me to my very core.

I asked my mother when the game would end.  She said that if I turned off the Nintendo, the game would be over.  She did not understand.

I had to put my theory to the test, and find out if Duck Hunt was, in fact, infinite.  To accomplish this, I could not trust my still-developing hand-eye coordination and risk a few missed shots resulting in game over and an aborted experiment.  I moved in and put that orange muzzle right against the screen.  I zapped through level after level, struggling against a crescendo of anxiety.  I reached higher levels than ever before, and by the time the erratically-flying ducks got fast enough to end my close-up game, I felt queasy with incomprehension.  It was clearly true: the game was infinite.

I tried to understand.  I liked things that I could understand.  I knew that if I understood, I would feel more comfortable.  But I just couldn’t.  I felt tiny and insignificant in the face of this eternal game.  I closed my eyes and imagined the ducks flying, falling, held as trophies by the hound.  More ducks, more music, the hound sniffing the ground and leaping into the grass to begin a new level, ducks flying, ducks falling, over and over and over.  I tried to come to terms with the idea that this process could go on forever.  What would happen to a person who just kept playing?  Would they stop eating and starve?  Would they actually die?  I believed that they might.  Who would create such a sinister game?  What were their motives?  And I wondered most desperately… what did forever actually mean?

I did not resolve these questions.  I stopped playing Duck Hunt.  I turned my attention to Super Mario Bros… and we know how that turned out.  My video game career was off to a rocky start, but in retrospect, I think it was ultimately a positive thing for me to be so truly affected by my early gaming experiences.

By the way, a quick Wiki search has finally put my mind at ease… Duck hunt glitches out at level one hundred.  Phew.


(*It wasn’t until a brief resurgence of interest in Duck Hunt during my high school years that I ever considered the mechanics of the gun, and realized that it works by acting as an input – registering the area on the tv screen at which it is pointed in order to determine if a shot is a hit or miss.  This realization came in a flash of clarity, and once again, Duck Hunt had succeeded in making me question everything in the world I took for granted… for example, that a gun is fundamentally an output device.)

Diablo 3 Review

I completed Diablo 3 (PS3) on Normal – Master I, as the wizard, with the Templar.  After initially playing on Normal, which was mind-numbingly easy, I restarted on Master I.  This was a good difficulty level for me, a moderately experienced player of action RPGs, in terms of enemy health and offensive power, and the dungeon-crawling was fun.  However, many other elements of the game design conspired to provide a game experience with virtually no sense of risk or danger, and therefore devoid of real excitement.

First and foremost, there are virtually no consequences for dying outside of boss battles.  Oh, my equipment suffered a 10% durability loss?  I’ll just instantly teleport back to town and fix it for mere pennies.  Phew, crisis avoided.  Seriously though, it’s as if the game developers thought that making you occasionally have to spend 45 seconds going to get your stuff fixed would provide enough of a death-deterrent to give the game some tension.  Umm…. no.  At least you have to complete boss battles in one life, providing the game with a bare minimum of challenging moments.

(I actually liked the boss battles for the most part, which is rare for me; I generally have a bit of a hate on for bosses in games.  But maybe I just liked them because they were the only exciting parts.)

Similarly, the socketing aspect of gear customization felt hollow.  The fact that you can install and remove gems as many times as you like means that you can just throw any old gem into any old weapon or piece of armour, see how it goes, take it out, stick it in something else, and so on, and so forth.  There is no commitment.  I would have liked to see a system that involves permanent gem installation, meaning that you’d have to put some real thought into gear planning.

The teleport-back-to-town option is unlimited and can be used anytime, anywhere (except, I’m assuming, in boss battles… I don’t think I ever tried it).  I remember in Champions of Norath, having to hoard precious gate scrolls to use sparingly for trips back home to the merchants.  Once again, Diablo 3 makes it all too easy by letting you zip around the world at a moment’s notice and as often as you please.

Mind you, it’s not like you’re going to town to buy anything from merchants (except maybe the odd health potion); they never seem to carry gear that’s comparable, let alone superior to what’s getting dropped in the field.  I appreciate games that stock merchants with really badass and expensive gear, so that you end up saving your cash to buy that one amazing piece of equipment.  It gives you something to work toward. This is not the case in Diablo 3.

While the full-motion cutscenes between acts were fantastic, the in-game dialogue was pretty boring.  As I mentioned in a previous article, I need to see characters’ faces while they’re talking, at least part of the time, to really feel engaged.  An ellipsis appearing in a speech bubble over a character’s head to show who’s talking is not what I consider enthralling storytelling.  The only really excellent moment of voice acting was by a woman trapped in the web of a giant spider (huge spiders… a real trope of dungeon crawlers).  Her brief scene of absolute terror stood out amidst the game’s mostly ignorable dialogue.  I also liked the female monk’s pseudo-Russian accent.

I had originally planned to play this game on couch co-op with R., but we quickly discovered that Diablo 3 has a serious flaw in this game mode: only one player at a time can access their menu.  For a game so heavy on looting and inventory/skill management, this was a deal-breaker.  We opted to play individually rather than spend copious amounts of time either waiting for the other player to use their menu or feeling rushed when using our own.

Although I obviously have a lot of complaints, the game wasn’t all bad.  Having played both the monk and wizard and having watched R. play the witch doctor, I got a good sense of the variety of character classes.  I appreciated the differences between the classes and the wide range of skills: the wizard with her wide variety of offensive, defensive, and support spells allowing for a high level of player choice in fighting style; the monk fighting fast and hard up close, zipping around the screen to instantly close distances between monsters; the witch doctor rolling around with a huge posse of zombie dogs, spiders, gargantuans, fetishes (tiny creatures with absurdly large knives), bats, and other creatures to do his bidding.

While it was a strange decision on the part of the developers to omit any player input into the skill development path (each level unlocks a few skills/skill-modifying runes, but these are predetermined), the lack of a customizable skill tree didn’t actually bother me very much.  I think this is because there was such a wide range of skills, and there were a few unlocked at each level; by choosing which skills and runes to equip, the player is able to customize the character’s abilities.

Ultimately, my overall feeling was that the game was designed to hold your hand in every area except maybe in direct battle with monsters.  I understand that higher difficulties like Nightmare and Inferno would provide very challenging battles, but the peripheral issues would still be problematic.  While I certainly enjoy the thrill of seeing that orange item heading indicating a legendary find, I’m not loot-driven enough to feel satisfied by this game.  For me, Diablo 3 missed the mark.

Diablo 3, Take 2: Wizarding in Fart Pants


I decided to start over.  As noted in this previous post, I was finding Diablo 3 on “Normal” way too easy and therefore not fun, so after starting Act III, I decided to suck it up and restart the game on a higher difficulty.  After hearing from my sister that “Difficult” was still easy enough to button-mash your way through, I opted for “Master 1.”  And while I loved the Monk and would have liked to see her reach her full potential, I chose the Wizard for this playthrough, after reading that it’s one of the more challenging character classes.

I almost regretted my decision during my first few hours of play, as the game was way hard (and I knew how foolish I’d feel if I went from too easy to too hard by jumping two difficulty levels).  I actually had to grind out a couple of levels in order to beat the Skeleton King.  However, the game is definitely more interesting this way.  It actually matters which follower I choose (I’m sticking with the Templar for now), and I sometimes have to use the blacksmith in order to make stronger weapons and armor than what is getting dropped.

Speaking of dropped armor, toward the end of Act I a monster dropped a pair of legendary pants, the Pox Faulds.  In addition to a high armor rating, they provide boosts to intelligence and vitality, which makes them perfect for my wizard.  Intriguingly, the item description had an extra note that “These pants sometimes make you stink,” presumably because they are “made from the treated of skin of plague victims.”  I like when games include weird little humorous elements like this, so I was extra-pleased with the pants.

What I didn’t expect was that after wearing them for a few seconds, my character would emit a greenish cloud, and a buff labeled “Stinky” would appear over the HUD.  It disappeared after a few seconds, but returned with a puff of smoke/gas in regular intervals.  The best part?  The stinky cloud damages enemies who pass through it.  It’s pretty ridiculous, but I like it.  It’s nice when games don’t take themselves too seriously.

For now, I’ll keep working on my new playthrough with an additional skill of sorts… fart attack!

Diablo 3: Some Thoughts at the Midpoint


Now that I’ve completed Act II (of four) in Diablo 3, I have a few thoughts to share.

I can’t avoid this topic so I’ll start with it.  This game, played on Normal mode, is way too easy.  As in, bizarrely easy.  I seriously don’t mean this in a humblebrag way (“I’m just too damn skilled!”).  I mean in a “most enemies take one hit to kill and my health never drops below about 80%” kind of way.  Skill is not a factor; I can just button-mash my way to victory.

I’m not over-leveled; I have not grinded (unless you consider full and thorough map exploration grinding) and I avoid wearing +exp items.  It really seems like there is some serious dissonance between the offensive/defensive power of available weapons/armor and the toughness of the enemies dropping them.

The first hour or two of Act II was the only time in the game thus far where I ever died (and this was really only because I’d become careless and complacent after the ridiculously easy Act I).  It’s gotten to the point by the end of Act II that for a while I wasn’t even using my best gear, in an attempt to make the game more challenging/fun.  Yikes.

Some might say that I should have started my game on Difficult, rather than Normal.  In hindsight, yes, absolutely, I should have.  That was my mistake.  In my defense, I haven’t played a ton of action-RPGs, and after giving it a few seconds of thought I figured Normal would make sense (after all, I virtually always do first-playthroughs on Normal, in any game genre).  But… I should have considered that after getting addicted to Dark Souls/Demon’s Souls, a crowd-pleaser like Diablo would be tame in comparison.

Some other notes:

I am playing as the Monk and loving it.  The Monk’s abilities are largely based on melee attacks, using magic to manipulate the distance between oneself and enemies.  It’s super fun to use Cyclone Strike to suck a group of enemies toward you and follow up with Lashing Tail Kick to knock them all away again.  The two similar skills Dashing Strike and Fists of Thunder (with Thunderclap rune) allow you to close distance between you and the target virtually instantly and administer punishing blows at the same time.  Both are great finishers for the Cyclone-Lashing Kick combo above, as you can finish off any tougher enemies that survived the first two strikes.

The story is ok.  I generally find it hard to get into the story in top-view RPGs like Diablo… maybe the emotional connection to characters is lost because I don’t see their faces.  The cutscene to finish Act I got my attention though; it was good enough to feel like a movie scene and I was definitely more engaged with the story after that.  The Act II finisher is also excellent.

I don’t have a favorite follower, probably because the game isn’t difficult enough for their contributions to matter.  I do enjoy the chit-chat between the protagonist and the followers as you move around the maps (the Scoundrel’s sleazy come-ons got old quickly though).  There are some funny exchanges.  Ultimately I decided to go with the Enchantress, so that her distance/magic attacks would complement my melee/physical moves.

My favorite enemies thus far are the tiny fly-babies (can’t remember the name) that are birthed by the bigger flies in the dessert area.  I love that they are so small and aimless but so deadly.  The first time I encountered some and used Cyclone Strike to suck them all toward me, it didn’t end well for the Monk.

That’s about it for my thoughts on the game so far.  I am currently trying to decide whether or not to start over on a higher level of difficulty.  The main obstacle to a start-over is deciding whether to choose the Monk again (I like this class and want to see the full set of abilities unlocked) or choose a difference class (probably the Wizard, as I’ve read it’s arguably the most challenging to use).  What should I do?

How are you enjoying the game?