What I’ve Been Playing

October is going to be a great month for gaming. Not only am I looking forward to the releases of Dishonored, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and Assassin’s Creed III, I’m also eagerly anticipating the 24-hour video game marathon I’m doing on Saturday, October 20th as part of the Extra Life 2012 charity event, to benefit Boston Children’s Hospital. (Here’s the link to my donation page! Give, for the children!)

Of course, even though October appears pretty stacked, September certainly was no slouch. Here’s a quick rundown of the games I managed to play last month during the calm before the storm.

Spelunky (Xbox LIVE Arcade)

“Roguelikes” seem to be the hot indie trend for 2012. Unfortunately, I tend to view the genre as the video-game equivalent of the band Wilco: I keep giving them a shot, but for some reason I just can’t see why people like them so damn much.

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, the term “roguelike” refers to the 1980 Unix game Rogue, which was characterized by certain gameplay elements like an aggressive level of difficulty, randomly generated levels, and permanent character death. Today, these gameplay elements seem to have found a wider audience of people who demand crushingly difficult and frustratingly unpredictable game experiences, because they seem to be popping up in every third indie game that comes out.

One such game is Spelunky, a roguelike action platformer released this summer for Xbox LIVE Arcade. Having never played the original version (which was released for PC in 2009), nor having played any similar games (such as La-Mulana), Spelunky was a new experience for me—an experience that involved dying a gruesome death and restarting the game from the beginning about every 2 to 3 minutes.

Spelunky would be like the movie Groundhog Day if instead of learning the piano, Bill Murray just got shot in the face with a poison arrow every morning.

After logging a few good hours of play, I did eventually develop some basic Spelunking skills like running, jumping, climbing ropes, dodging spiders, whipping bats, rescuing damsels, murdering shotgun-toting shopkeepers, and not getting impaled by spikes, to the point where I even finally made it to the second of the five major areas in the game. Unfortunately, by that point I’d decided that Spelunky was probably not the game for me, at least not if I wanted to make it to Thanksgiving without hurling my Xbox controller through my TV screen.

The Binding of Isaac (PC / Mac)

By contrast, a roguelike that does it right is The Binding of Isaac, a Steam title from 2011 that I only recently started playing. A deeply disturbed interpretation of the Bible story of the same name, The Binding of Isaac follows the child Isaac as he flees the murderous zealotry of his mother, descending in to a dungeon of unholy terrors armed only with his tears.

Be warned: this game is pretty disturbing.

Gameplay-wise, Isaac is sort of a dungeon-crawling shooter, like a comfortable mix of The Legend of Zelda and Smash TV. As a roguelike, it’s certainly difficult, and death is very much permanent; however, what it really captures about the spirit of roguelikes is the element of randomness. Every time I play, I encounter something I’ve never seen before (and often, something I hope I never see again). Moreover, the game is balanced such that randomness of the powerups and items firmly guides the gameplay, without undermining player skill to the point where you feel like you’re simply a sinner in the hands of an angry random-number-generating God.

Mark of the Ninja (Xbox LIVE Arcade)

Having had my fill of indie roguelike self-flagellation, I abandoned for a time playing as either an archeologist with a death wish or a crying child. Instead, I turned to the other extreme: becoming the baddest ninja warrior that has ever existed. Mark of the Ninja is hands-down my favorite XBLA game of the year so far, and may well be my favorite game for 2012 overall. Pretty much everything I wanted to say about the game I put in my recent review, so I think I’ll leave it at that. Mark of the Ninja: play it!

Borderlands 2 (Xbox 360)

In my recent Darksiders II review, I claimed that I prefer a game that is too ambitious to one that plays it safe. Well, that claim was put to the test last month by Borderlands 2, which is basically an expanded, more polished version of its predecessor.

Still, sometimes it’s the little things, and Borderlands 2 improves a lot of the little things. The difficulty is a little better balanced, the missions are a little less repetitive, the weapons are a little more diverse, and the enemy AI is a little less moronic. All of these little changes—along with some genuinely funny writing—add up to a total Borderlands experience that I’ve really been enjoying, so much so that perhaps I was full of crap with that whole “respecting games that take risks” nonsense. I’ll say more in the review I’ll be posting this week, but for now you should know that Borderlands 2 is a pretty solid pick, especially if you either never played or you absolutely loved the original.

So, that was my September. For my October, I’m really only searching for two things: (1) donations to help sick kids, and (2) suggestions for games I could probably win when playing against sick kids. I mean, I’m willing to donate money to help them fight cancer, but I’ll be damned if I let those punks beat me at Halo.

What Do You Think?