Heroki, Or The Traditional Phone Game From 1998

Craig Lupienski

My first review on YouTube to ever include footage of the game in question (instead of just my talking head) was Gamevil’s action-RPG Zenonia on the iPhone. Without a decent handheld camera, I accomplished this by wrapping my arms around my MacBook, pointing my first gen iPhone at the iSight and praying it was in frame. It was uncomfortable and I could barely see what I was doing as I played. I did it though because I was entranced by Zenonia.

Zenonia was the first game I played on my iPhone that delivered on the promise of a “traditional” game for a few bucks on the slab of glass in my pocket, and I was amazed. Over time though, the novelty wore off and I soon grew tired of these “traditional” style games with fake d-pads and fake buttons overlayed on the touch screen. My thumbs obscured the display and I stopped believing saving a little money was worth playing a platformer or an action game without tactile buttons. After a few years, I was no longer interested in a “traditional” experience on my phone. I wanted a phone experience on my phone. For the record, my favorite iPhone game is Super Hexagon.

In the years following Zenonia, a lot of studios and publishers big and small have chased the traditional style phone game. Some have worked to refine fake buttons and adapt interaction with some handicap in mind, while others have opted to simplify their games, relegating control to a few taps or swipes that approximate standard controls. In my experience, both methods have met varying levels of success, though I’ve thought for some time that it’s silly to try to mimic most console games at all.

And then I played Heroki from Sega. It’s not quite right, but I think it’s on to something.


Heroki is the first game developed by Dutch studio Picomy, running on the proprietary Picon engine. The company’s website states the engine took five years to create, and visually, it looks quite nice. Heroki is lively and colorful with playful animations and a pleasing attention to detail. By this point in the iPhone’s life, though, Heroki looks great but not necessarily exemplary. What really makes Heroki and the Picon engine stand out is how Heroki plays.

The title character is of a race of propeller-headed sprites, which is not just a cute character design decision, but a smart gameplay design decision as well. Heroki zips around levels with the drag of a finger, faithfully following with a slight, predictable drift. There are few obstacles that require a twitchy finger, and no bottomless pits to plummet down. Heroki can pick up objects with a tap, and dangles them obviously from his arms. Pulling back on the object will allow Heroki to toss it Angry Birds style. Finally, Heroki can drop like a rock and bounce on objects if the player touches the empty air below him.

In practice, it’s a series of smart controls that account for playing on a phone, but never feel like the player has to concede any agency. The level design, while sometimes a little too sprawling or confusing, accounts for the slower pace these controls require and the result is a game that plays a lot like a console platformer. But on a phone. And remarkably well. Unfortunately, the rest of Heroki’s design borrows a little too heavily from platformers in 1998. The serpentine levels are littered with crates, powerups, hundreds of tiny orbs, the letters of Heroki’s name and a handful of triangular doodads. Maybe more, I don’t know. I didn’t play the whole game, largely due to disappointment.


At first, the set up seems natural and I don’t entirely blame Picomy or Sega or whoever the responsible party is. At the heart of most platformers over the last 30 years has been collecting junk. Jumping and running, sure sure, but picking up sparkly things strewn about too. Even on a 21st century platform with an inventive control scheme, it doesn’t feel out of place for Heroki, but it does feel a lot less clever than the rest of the game.

Picomy has done something praise-worthy. The controls and mechanics the studio have crafted are terrific, but using them to do the same old bauble scavenger hunt feels antiquated, more so than if Heroki were a game on a console. Maybe this is my problem, maybe I have unfair expectations. But it’s still an awful waste to use such imaginative mechanics to drive an adherence to tradition.

Gears of War and Unearned Emotional Impact

Craig Lupienski

In 2006, Microsoft marketed Gears of War with a CG commercial backed by Gary Jules’ melancholy Mad World cover. The ad, and its use of Mad World, was so successful that the song shot up on iTunes charts and was eventually on the Gears of War 3 soundtrack. Initially praised for conveying a more somber side of war, the spot soon was criticized because the same level of sobriety wasn’t in the game itself.

Microsoft didn’t invent appeal to emotion, and Gears certainly wasn’t the first game to market itself that way, but the Mad World ad seemed to kick off the modern use of unearned emotional impact. Marketing that exploits feelings the games themselves never, or clumsily, follow through with in order to foster a bond with the consumer before they even get the game in their hands. E3 2014 seemed to be wall-to-wall down tempo trailers filled with dudes killing other dudes.


Hey, it’s advertising. I get it. Fib a little and make your audience feel something. I’m not against any of that necessarily, but as games have become more complicated and more profitable, one would think the stories driving them would be more sophisticated to match and they haven’t.

I’m often very critical of video game stories. I think parts of game stories sometimes work, but usually, I think video games are just awkward strings of bad dialog. After nearly 30 years of playing games, I’ve come to accept this just as I have come to accept advertising is often deceptive, but video game advertising, at least as it applies here, doesn’t have to be deceptive. Video games have the capability to at least try to earn that poignancy they so readily believe they have already attained because their 30 second TV commercial told you they have. Instead, you spend 12 hours murdering swaths of people and upgrading your boots.

To market the re-release of Gears of War for Xbox One, Microsoft produced a new trailer featuring Mad World. This one doesn’t even seem to bother to aim for the heartstrings, but rather, squarely at cheap nostalgia. “Remember this ad from nine years ago?” it seems to ask, lazily conjuring up feelings it already provoked. What seemed novel (if dishonest) then only feels cloying and obvious now. It doesn’t kindle fond memories. It only reminds me that, even though I actually enjoyed Gears quite a lot, it never made me feel anything close to that ad.

Video game ads used to be taken to task for featuring CG footage, or no footage at all. Stuff that wasn’t in the game. Now they’re being marketed with emotion that isn’t in the game. Fewer people seem upset by this than the dishonest game footage, but it’s no less disingenuous. Game ads with dishonest footage have partially fallen by the wayside as video game graphics have grown more sophisticated. In fact, a trailer using all in-game footage has become a common badge of honor. Maybe the writing will soon follow, a small bit of text at the bottom of screen proudly proclaiming “In-Game Feelings.” Slow motion violence set to Lorde can’t make up for the lack of genuine human emotion in games themselves forever.

Destiny’s Solar System of Hamster Wheels

Craig Lupienski

The most overwhelming aspect of Destiny for me, as someone who jumped in just before House of Wolves released, was the multitude of currencies, resources, and progress bars. Experience and Glimmer, that’s easy to understand. And then there’s Light, ok, I get that. But Strange Coins, Ascendant Shards, Motes of Light, Relic Iron –what is all this shit? And how the hell did they get so tangled?

Bungie once described Destiny as an ominvore’s game. This is true not only in terms of the sort of person one would need to be to want to sample all the game has to offer, but it’s also true because the different currencies and resources that you may want for one mode have to be farmed from another mode. In short, to progress in pretty much any one thing in Destiny, one will have to at least dabble in other modes. You HAVE to be an omnivore.


This is was probably born of necessity at first. The expansions, thankfully, have ironed out some kinks and filled in the gaps, but vanilla Destiny was a sparse game. It was a wasteland that offered little incentive to keep running on the hamster wheel –until you realize you can’t get much further until you run on another wheel. And then another. And then another.

It’s easy to disparage Bungie for interconnecting its thin modes to stretch player interest, but really, it was kind of smart. I played the beta and passed on the retail game for quite a while because I couldn’t see myself investing the kind of time necessary to run on all these different wheels for all these different pieces of cheese. But after finally buying the game, I am doing just that. I’m running on all the wheels. I’m buying all the expansions. And I’m liking it.

A friend recently bought the game so we could play together and I’ve only just got a grasp on these concepts myself, but teaching him all this stuff makes it seem ridiculous. “Run a few repetitive Strikes or Prison of Elders to get Strange Coins (not Glimmer) so you can buy an Exotic weapon from Xur on the weekend so you have a better chance in the Iron Banner, a monthly Crucible event. Be sure to take some Bounties before you play. Oh, and don’t get too attached to any of this because Bungie might just change how every meaningful thing works next expansion!”

I wonder what the psychology behind this is; why juggling a few different things for interconnected rewards somehow feels more enjoyable than just pursuing one reward? It’s not as if the modes are all THAT different from one and other. Maybe because it’s cathartic to construct a sequential list of playable chores for the chance to get some new boots. I don’t know. I’m well aware Destiny has its hooks in me, but I’m not really sure how or why.

I do know that I am genuinely looking forward to The Taken King next month. I can’t wait to run on all those wheels.

Life is Strange: Soap Opera Normalcy

Craig Lupienski

Fair warning: I find it hard to discuss games without also discussing spoilers and, as such, this post contains what some people might feel are plot spoilers.

When I first started playing Pokemon Red Version when I was 16, I would abuse reloading my save file if I did not get favorable outcomes so much that I would immediately consider reloading a previous save file in real life if I had just said or done something stupid. Reloading save files, as a concept, was lodged in my head much in the same way a catchy song would be. I actually felt it was kind of a problem for a little while.

Max Caulfield, so named in what is likely a heavy handed homage, is inexplicably given the ability to rewind time –just a bit– in the first episode of Life is Strange. Much like the power I coveted at about her age, Max can discover different outcomes for immediate actions as if she were reloading a previous save file. A photography student at a prestigious school, Max is framed as shy, but “normal” in a school full of stereotypes and strong personalities. It’s a lot like a modern day John Hughes flick, which I’m actually ok with and was looking forward to, but the melodrama in Life is Strange would make any 80s teen movie blush.

Life is Strange seemingly wants to portray an average girl but a few of the events in first episode alone, which takes place over the course of a day, are so outlandish as to be unbelievable. Because the episode takes place over the course of just a day, even the more mundane encounters feel too densely packed, as if developer Dontnod is running down a checklist of cliches to nail in the span of maybe two hours of gameplay. It’s all capped off with a premonition of a Rhode Island sized tornado destroying the town and teaser for the next episode that includes Max’s best friend, Chloe, trapped on railroad tracks in the path of an oncoming train. The timeline of the tornado premonition suggests each episode takes place over a day. Just how many shitty situations can a “normal” teenage girl with the power to rewind time find herself in in just five days? Is she Jack Bauer?


So, yes, life is strange when everyone and everything is openly hostile and antagonistic, but whose life does this actually reflect? Life is Strange is at its best when Max uses her power to rewind time and answer a question correctly in class, or when she has to hunt down a flash drive to return to a friend, or when she is riding shotgun in a pickup truck with Chloe as the sun streaks through the trees. And even during these mundane scenes, the game reinforces that even virtuous decisions may not have the best outcome in later episodes. There is no morality meter and no clear cut path. But these aspects are not woven very well with the surreal and supernatural elements. They almost feel like two different games.

And there are plenty of games about disasters and time travel and guns and friends in peril, but not very many about a teenage girl navigating the pitfalls of everyday life, even with a superpower. It may not be the most exciting subject, but a game about Max rewinding time in everyday situations, and the impact on her as a person, would be more interesting than the unrealistic amount of tension and conflict the game already presents in the first episode. Life is Strange lacks a lot of the subtlety of real life, and that’s not strange. That’s a video game.

Talking to Video Games

Craig Lupienski

“EAT MY SHORTS” the Game Boy hissed at me, as if through a tin can telephone. It was the first time I heard a video game talk to me. Bart Simpson was not happy that he was stung by bees, and he verbally made me aware of his displeasure. In the years following Bart’s cries, I heard a severely compressed “GHOSTBUSTERS!” shout on my NES and a melodic “SAAAAYYY-GAAAAHHH” sing out from my Genesis. I liked hearing my video games talk. Partly because of the sheer novelty in the 80s and early 90s, but also because speech felt like it fostered a deeper connection.

sinistarThe words and phrases were often exclamations. Communicative in both function and feeling, but rarely conversational. Gauntlet alerting frantic players that the warrior is near death is wonderfully useful and Sinistar’s proclamation “BEWARE, I LIVE!”  can still invoke a sense of anxiety. Early video game speech was novel, though not necessarily without purpose. The “Sega chant” may have consumed an eighth of Sonic the Hedgehog’s cartridge for no real apparent reason other than to impress, but I find it hard to argue that Gauntlet and Sinistar would be the same games without their little bits of speech. It’s not conversational or relevant to plot development, but it’s absolutely vital to their designs in different ways.

In the mid to late 90s, I didn’t have the luxury of dividing my time and discretionary income across too many systems, so I threw my hat in with Nintendo, the Nintendo 64 providing me with the multiplayer games that were more important to me at that time. As such, I didn’t experience many of the cinematic games touting fully voiced dialog during that time period. I remember, though, playing Metal Gear Solid in 1998 for the first time and finding myself nothing less than engrossed. I loved every minute of the soap opera. I loved every line of dialog delivered by bobbling heads. I loved Metal Gear Solid, and I still do, if for nothing else than that feeling it first gave me.

Now, I suppose I feel fully voiced soap operas are the novelty. I usually find myself bored and reaching for my phone to check Twitter. Of course, this is contrary to popular thought and the current market. Soap operas are not a novelty. Cinematic games are less a subset than they are a driving force. Every AAA game talks now, and at great length, but I usually struggle to remember what anyone says. It’s not as interesting as Sinistar taunting me from afar or as useful as Gauntlet warning me of impending death. It’s just babbling. We let video games talk, and they haven’t shut up since.


My time spent with underdog systems in the 90s did, however, expose me to experiences built on the inverse: games that invited me to them. Hey You, Pikachu! on the Nintendo 64 and Seaman on the Dreamcast both came bundled with microphones and recognized specific words and phrases. Sometimes, anyway. The technology was nascent and I’m not convinced it worked a good chunk of the time, but the idea that you could wish Pikachu a good morning was there. It’s a good idea. A valuable idea.

Sega’s Binary Domain included an optional voice recognition component in 2012. I’ve read widespread reports that the feature didn’t work very well for many people, and I had some difficulty myself, but it seemed to work for the most part in my experience. I could verbally tell my teammates to wait, to provide cover fire and I could even engage in very basic and very short yes-or-no conversations. In one instance, I accidentally fired at a teammate who quickly chastised me. Reflexively, I said “sorry” into my microphone. The teammate forgave me. I was stunned. This wasn’t exactly an emergent situation; after all, the AI was designed to recognize the word “sorry,” but I didn’t actually intend on apologizing. It just happened. And the game reacted.

fable3Video games don’t often give us much room for interaction. Death is usually how we communicate with the world. Games like Ico and Fable III incorporated a handholding mechanic (one to great acclaim, the other to some derision), and it’s still an aspect I point to when I talk about letting players interact with their world in ways other than killing. Fable III was still built on a foundation of murdering bad guys, but holding hands with my wife or child served as a welcome foil.

As much as I would like to see more of that sort of thing, it’s still an abstract representation of a real physical act. Pressing a button or pinning a shoulder trigger to hold hands isn’t quite the same as talking to a game to hold a conversation. The latter is not abstract at all. Talking is something most people do naturally, and given games can talk back, it only makes sense that verbal communication with a game could serve to further draw the player in. If only used as an ancillary component like handholding in Fable III, communicating with games can be extraordinarily valuable.

There are hurdles, of course. Voice recognition technology is still far off from feeling natural, and games can only recognize so many words or phrases and offer only so many reactions. This is not different than how a game interprets button presses, but button presses are not analogous to real life. We understand the limitations. We expect more from speech because of how it relates to the real world, and video games just aren’t up to snuff yet. Technology in general is not up to snuff. Siri on the iPhone not only doesn’t understand me from time to time, she will correctly display the words I said on the screen but “autocorrect” my speech and decide I actually meant something else. Still, when Siri accurately sets a timer I requested, I have to stop myself from thanking her. That’s the power of verbal communication done well.

I am a big fan of games toying with how we interact and how we experience attachment. Games, in general, are still not very good at experimenting with these things. You will be tasked with indiscriminately mowing down waves of bad guys for 20 minutes only to be rewarded with five minutes of incongruent dialog designed to engineer unearned emotion. You will be killing again in no time. I don’t believe we have universally bad writers in the industry, nor do I feel we have reached the limits of what video games can say to us. But we’re doing something wrong. Video games have veered too far off course from the interesting, valuable speech of Gauntlet and Sinistar into mealy-mouthed, lengthy exposition for no real apparent reason other than to impress. It’s minutes, hours, of the “Sega chant” over and over again.

Let’s scale it back and let’s open the lines of communication.


Lost Constellation: Warm Storytelling

Craig Lupienski

Winter is the season to which I most strongly tie positive game memories. I grew up with a wood burning stove, snowy Decembers, and new games on Christmas. Plenty of time was spent indoors playing new treasures while the snow piled up outside. Lost Constellation offers no such respite from the frigid night. A lone house stands in the woods, but the little blue fox that lives there chastises me for letting in the cold. I borrow his wood burning stove, and then I’m on my way.

Lost Constellation is a compact game. There’s little game play to speak of, mostly just building snowmen and bringing the appropriate item to the right spot, but there’s just enough agency to compliment the dreamlike and ephemeral story. I don’t often enjoy games that strongly hinge on their stories, and even in games that don’t, I ignore the story anyway. It’s usually boring and badly written, and it gets in my way.

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 3.09.27 PM


I found myself completely engrossed in Lost Constellation though. None of the characters in the woods on the Longest Night speak like information kiosks. Their dialog is written for the character, and not you, the player. It’s a distinction that, while it shouldn’t, feels very out of place in games still and in an experience like Lost Constellation left me feeling a bit like I didn’t “get it,” but I think I prefer that than saving the world with wooden characters again.

Even the woods played into the linearity of storytelling, usually presenting the next relevant person or place as I walked to the right. If I had double-backed to the left, I would have been at the entrance to the woods again no matter what I had just passed. The little blue fox warned me the woods would confuse me. He was right. I was confused. I am used to linear storytelling clashing with the very nature of interactivity allowing me to rebel against that forward momentum, but Lost Constellation’s woods played with continuity to great effect. Interactivity only allowed for forward momentum. Anything else was forfeiting the story all together.

Little by little, I question my immobile negative outlook on storytelling in games. On occasion I find a story worth playing and I have to reassess how I feel. It’s hard to parse what it is I look for in an interactive story when I come by one I truly enjoy and appreciate so rarely. Maybe many roads lead there, but what Lost Constellation accomplishes with so little is exactly what I want to see more of. It’s a warm wood burning stove in an otherwise wintry wood.

I Was Never Cool

Craig Lupienski

Nestled in my bottom dresser drawer were five Game Boy games: Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins, Metroid II: Return of Samus, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back From the Sewers and Skate or Die: Tour de Thrash (perhaps putting an end to notion that sequelitis is a modern phenomenon). I was eight and it was 1992, and it would still be another six months before I could play any of the games in my dresser. While I saved up for a new Game Boy, I kept the boxes pristine and read every manual religiously. I lived vicariously through the tiny screenshots and control diagrams.

Despite sitting amongst more recognizable titles, it’s really Skate or Die: Tour de Thrash that has stuck with me through the years.

FullSizeRenderToday, it’s the economy of design that I appreciate. A handful of folks at Electronic Arts in the early 90s put together a tight, simply crafted skateboarding game. No frills, and I admire that. The arcade scoring and racing are perfectly complimented by the terrific music and uncomplicated graphics, and nearly a quarter decade later, it still holds up! A gimmick or two might have helped Tour de Thrash stand out in 1991, but it is its simplicity that makes it such a great little gem in 2015. It’s a perfect game of both restraint and exploitation. Tour de Thrash maximizes the hardware it is on without overstepping its bounds with superfluous nonsense.

I didn’t quite catch on to any of this as a kid though. No eight year old knows what “economy of design” even means, much less uses it in a sentence. I was attracted to Tour de Thrash because it felt countercultural. I wore acid washed Bugle Boy jeans my mom laid out for me and went to bed at 8 PM every night, even on the weekends. To a kid like that? Tour de Thrash, a game that invited you to skate until “ya shred yer feet off” was flat out scandalous. When a great uncle furrowed his brow and glanced at my mother when I told him I got a game called “Skate or Die” for Christmas, I knew I was in uncharted territory. I felt cool just knowing what “Santa Cruz Skateboards” was, even if the term “stale fish” soared completely over my head.

Of course, the game, fun as it may be, is completely tame. The dialog is a little colorful, but mostly just silly 90s California skateboarding gibberish. That’s about it. There’s really nothing countercultural to Tour de Thrash at all. There’s an irony in that a skateboarding video game made me feel cool when I was nine and now writing about it at 31 has probably made me feel a little less so.

Ah whatever. I was never cool.