With Dig Bick on holiday, Neoheresy up to his eyeballs in work and the rest of the team ensconced in Tom Clancy’s Shenanigans, it’s been pretty quiet around here lately. I’ve been pootling about in Path of Exile’s new update, Ascendancy. But whilst PoE makes a refreshing change from my last few weeks of non-stop tomb raiding, I’m left with something of an action hangover from my time with Lara. And whilst I think that every good PC gamer should have a joystick, or a joypad of some sort, the X-Box pad on my desk doesn’t get too much use now – unless I have to pick it up specifically to do some ridiculously bastard-hard thing like the stupid sodding High Dive Challenge in Tomb Raider (2013). So with that in mind, I decided to lean back, trawl through my Steam library with Microsoft’s plastic croissant in hand, and remind myself why I’d bought it in the first place…
Doubtless the cause of many smashed joypads and keyboards itself, Spelunky is a modern classic that began life as a freeware, open source arcade platformer back in 2008, which was then re-made as an XBLA title in 2012, and then ported back to the PC (amongst others). The brainchild of Derek Yu (whom I first encountered via his awesome tile set for the original (now free) iteration of Desktop Dungeons), Spelunky’s main trick is that all the levels are procedurally generated. You hop about avoiding or killing enemies and collecting treasure, which you then use to purchase a huge variety of helpful, bonkers tools and gadgets to help you on your way. It skilfully blends old-skool limited-lives arcade action with a huge dollop of new-skool procedural generation level design, and adds a delicious emergent gameplay cherry on top with something called “shared fundamental traits”. Like all good games in its field, your goals are simple, but accomplishing them is an entirely different order of finger-blistering business.
As far as pad integration goes, it’s perfect. All the menus and sub-menus are adorned with the colourful X-Box pad buttons in all the right places. The controls are few and simple anyway, and prompts appear in-game using perfect little graphics of the pad’s various buttons too. In terms of kicking back from the screen and having a mini arcade break on your PC, it’s unbeatable — especially when you factor in the Daily Challenge map and online leaderboards.
A lot of the games on this list tend toward that pixelated graphics style so beloved of modern indie developers, which seems to make said games particularly well-suited to joypads – simple graphics for simple games that are easy to control, sort of thing. (But let not “simple” be here interpreted as any kind of slight, okay?). Hammerwatch utilises its pixels very well indeed to create a rich, detailed top-down Gauntlet-with-shades-of-The Chaos Engine-style world. The base game has you escaping from a massive castle, while the bundled Sun Temple expansion takes you to sunnier climes for a showdown in the desert. Hammerwatch includes a map editor and Steam Workshop integration for extra longevity and is, again, a simple concept beautifully executed, with layers of interesting systems to discover, secret areas to investigate and stuff to collect as you mass-murder your way through millions of monsters on your way to freedom.
Controller support is there from the word ‘go’. There are no on-screen pad button graphics, but that’s okay because the game’s few controls are intuitive enough anyway. Arguably, Hammerwatch is best played with a pad, as its easier to lock strafe or fire in place than with the keyboard and mouse – although it has to be said that they work well enough too, so don’t let that put you off some really superb lite ARPG action that’s incredibly easy to pick up and play, but incredibly hard to put down again too.
It goes without saying that joypads and Traveller’s Tales’ LEGO games go together like dwarves and beards, although I do seem to recall that the early titles were much more kb+m friendly. It’s 11 years this March since the series launched on X-Box, PS2 and PC with the original LEGO Star Wars, and having played so many of them now I might be mis-remembering. Still, I have to wonder what the plan is for the bricktastic LEGO Worlds, because at this stage of its Early Access development, controller integration is patchy at best. The main screen, from which you do everything prior to actually playing, is mouse-only (the cursor is really cool though – a small, 3-stud right-angle LEGO strip). But once clicked into, the sub menus can be navigated with the pad. In-game controls are business as usual with the pad, and the graphic controller prompts appear on screen in the usual manner, unless you’ve just used the keyboard for something, in which case the prompts flicker indecisively between keys and buttons.
Still, it’s a brilliant game and the closest thing we have to a digital LEGO Minecraft. In fact, in the open-world exploration and interaction stakes, the Swedish Creepers could certainly pick up a trick or two from the Danish blockheads. But that’s a flame war for another time, perhaps.
Even though Ubisoft has 17 pages of titles on Steam, I still find it strange to see their games anywhere outside UPray (sorry, UPlay). Equally disarming is the fact that instead of being their usual multi-billion-euro AAA heavyweight developed in 17 countries by weeping teams of shackled-together code monkeys, Grow Home began life as a fun, ‘just for a laugh’ internal project at UK-based Ubisoft Reflections. In a former life, Reflections birthed the Flatout-inspiring Destruction Derby series, as well as the original Driver games and the legendary Shadow of the Beast at Psygnosis! With deep heritage like that, it’s easier to understand how such a fresh, exciting game could leak out of the French giant (although if you haven’t played Rayman Origins, you really haven’t lived).
Grow Home is a completely charming creation with an ingenious control method that I, with my terrible, clumsy sausage fingers, cannot imagine controlling with anything other than a nice fat joypad. You control a friendly robot called B.U.D. as he clambers about a colourful, chunky highly-stylised alien planet trying to grow a massive beanstalk-like plant ever higher into the sky. Something about collecting oxygen for his own world, or something. It’s an amusing, relaxing and supremely pleasant game that earns its ‘Best Played With a Joypad’ sticker by having each of B.U.D.’s arms mapped to a separate thumbstick. Climbing this giant bloody plant (and falling off it, hopefully with a flower-clock parachute) is an exercise in coordination the likes of which you don’t really find outside of kebab shops at three in the morning. It’s a fascinating gimmick that simultaneously delights with the feeling of control it gives you, whilst also frustrating with your own perceived clumsiness. Like Hammerwatch above, it’s less than a tenner on Steam, but still feels like a totally polished, high-quality article – the kind of curious delight that Peter Molyneux might have once made, before hubris and Internet Nerd Rage destroyed him.
UnEpic is a game that I got for no-pence in a bundle, once upon a time (Humble or Bundlestars, I forget which). It’s a curious mixture of slightly wonky home-made bits and super high-quality bits, which nevertheless all glue themselves together into a fantastic game. Developed and published by one-man powerhouse Francisco Tellez de Meneses, UnEpic uses a D&D PnP meta (think Knights of Pen and Paper) to frame a side-scrolling Metroidvania. It nails that genre’s sweet spot between action gratification and numerous pauses for deep thought, as you ponder a sprawling map, inventories bursting with stat-laden weapons and weird items, and a character screen full of numbers to fuss over. As you’re spending at least a third of your time looking at maps and menus and shuffling things around, it all seems blatantly well-suited to mouse and keyboard. But then there’s the core run-jump-stab gameplay to consider, which although highly responsive to kb+m, is even better with a joypad. This is because the pad integration into the game is absolutely brilliant. It’s so good, in fact, that menu navigation and inventory management are almost as fast, if not faster, with a controller.
The UI is divided into three, with a slim bar at the top showing your main stats and menu shortcuts (Options, Inventory, Skills, Crafting etc), a large middle part for the game world, and a fat bottom bar which shows your weapon and item shortcuts, as well as an ammo and spell counter. For a big bunch of squares, it’s a really elegant system. Touch the keyboard, and your weapons and items instantly appear in a numbered grid, corresponding to number keys 1-0 as well as Shift+1-0. Touch the joypad, and you get three cross-shaped grids with the coloured X-Box buttons representing your weapons, potions and items as assigned to L1+Buttons, L1+R1+Buttons, and R1+Buttons. Keyboard crunchers and joystick junkies alike are well-catered for by UnEpic, and the game even lets you choose between a swear-filled version and a clean version of its nicely illustrated and incredibly well voice-acted story. And if you’re really married to your sofa, it’s just been ported to PS4 and PS Vita as well.
Those were the games I mainly wanted to talk about. They’re fun, you may not have heard of some of them, and they’re nearly all less than a tenner on Steam. They’re my friends in that short, magical time between me finishing work on a busy day and the kids coming crashing through the door again after school. But there are still a few others worth mentioning, particularly HTR+ Slot Car Simulation, which is the latest in a long line of attempts to bring Scalextric to your computer screen. Despite being a really good game, and a really good game of electric toy car racing, it originally didn’t ship with controller support, which is insane considering that the triggers on an X-Box pad are basically the same thing as the triggers on a Scalextric controller. But oh well, it’s in there now and it’s all you need to have some excellent racing fun that also taps into that fascinating thing of elaborate table-top dioramas and train set fetishism.
Still in the racing mode is Road Redemption, the utterly superb spiritual successor to one of my most favourite games of all time, racing or otherwise – Road Rash. And just like the original, this loving homage to the original also features a 2-player split-screen mode. New elements include a variety of different reasons for racing, which translate to different objectives (combat, daring escape, nail-biting chases etc), as well as some persistent RPG stuff to do with skills and weapons. Controller integration is there from the start, and you’re never left in any doubt about what to press and when. Best of all, the weight and feel of the bikes is meaty and arcade-perfect, and ideally suited to thumbsticks.
Going back to the realms of fantasy for a moment, there’s Hero Siege. Plays something like Hammerwatch, but has an intricate, Zelda-like world map, through which you access your fast-paced Gauntlet-style dungeons and so on. Much more in-depth with its RPG elements, and with slightly bolder art design than Hammerwatch, it’s also boasts co-op, LAN and MP modes, which I gather are quite popular these days. Controller support is excellent, with button graphics appearing permanently in the UI and also right in the game world when needed (for example, a Blue ‘X’ button when you’re close enough to talk to someone).
Then there’s Cargo Commander, slightly older now but still a brilliant, mad, atmospheric and nail-biting game of looting randomly generated, fully-destructible and often alien-infested cargo containers – in spaaaaaace! To get this working with your controller, you need to first go into the control options and tell it to pad your bitch up. In-game, the control prompts are small and hard to read, but at least consistent with the overall style and design of the game. To be honest, when I booted it up this morning to reacquaint myself I totally forgot what the controls were once I’d got into a container, and I died like a moron shortly thereafter. But, it’s an excellent game and also has a random map generation system that lets you share your experiences with other players. Which is nice.
So, a final thought about pads and whatnot. Spelunky – developed on PC, ported to consoles and then back to PC, in the process becoming a much richer, more polished and interesting experience. Hammerwatch and Hero Siege, inspired by an arcade game and a console classic respectively. Road Redemption and UnEpic, again inspired by legendary console games. LEGO Worlds and HTR+, both inspired by toys. The point is, I think that it’s good to remind ourselves now and then that whether you’re sitting on the sofa with a TV and a joypad, at a desk with a PC and a mouse, or even with a PC and a joypad, the important thing is that you have fun, or otherwise get from the experience whatever it is you wanted from it in the first place. I like to think of it this way: One hobby, one gamer.
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